I seem to be having this discussion repeatedly over the last couple of years. A discussion about the memorials placed on the side of the road for persons whom have died in their cars or have been hit by a car at that location. Are these ultimately just trash on the side of the road (therefore essentially littering) or are they really a valid release, an honoring of a loved one?
I’m not sure if this phenomena is occurring all over the country or just here in Southern California (I have not seen them in Northern California). As I drive down the street, out of the corner of my eye, I will see a memorial to someone whom has died in that location. At first, I thought that they belonged to people who have moved here from South America. I have read on several occasions that South Americans honor the dead through memorials and shrines. Later, after investigating further, I noticed that they are created for all races, religions, and classes.
So what do they mean to people? Having never created one myself, I’m unfamiliar with the need to do so, yet I find myself strangely drawn to them. I wonder what the person was like that died. Were they loved more than other people? Were they famous in their own, small town world? Of course, I’m accustomed to seeing these sorts of monuments created for stars like Michael Jackson, John Lennon, and Elvis. Over the years, we see persons on the news visiting the monuments for these famous people, lighting candles, and singing songs. Is this the same idea with the monuments for the people who lack stardom, those who just live in our small town?
I started taking photos of the memorials a few years ago. I started taking the pictures out of a need to stop and truly look at them. Investigate what types of things are placed at the memorials. To feel the emotions of the people who created them. To read what the creators write to their recently deceased loved ones. Call it a morbid fascination, but I don’t really think that’s the end of it. I know that initially I was drawn, like a magpie, to the bright colors of the flowers and the sparkly items placed ever so carefully at the sites. Yet, as I took more and more photos, I became drawn to the vibes and feelings I got standing there, looking down on them. Although all of the feelings I get are sad, I just can’t stop visiting them. Taking photos separates myself from the pain and sadness, but it lingers there anyway.
About a year into taking the photos, I came across the mother ship of these monuments. Driving down Sierra Highway between Acton and Santa Clarita, it beckoned to me from the side of the road. Bright red flowers filled the tree that the monument was set at the foot of. I was astounded by it’s size, it’s beauty, and it’s undeniable emotion. I began taking this route to school each day so that I could photograph it daily. It was altered every day. Sometimes it was just a subtle transformation; sometimes a grand gesture was made. I assumed that it was a memorial to someone whom had died on this highway. I took photos of the details and began reading the sentiments written on the tree branches, in the pages left under a rock (so as not to blow away), and on items left there from rocks to candle holders. There were mostly prayers written there, many of them written in Spanish. There were many writings that asked for protection for their families. There were rocks placed deliberately along the lower tree trunks in patterns and on the ground in front in a semi circle, placed to contain the items left at the base of the tree. There were flowers, candles, jugs of water, (although the brand and bottles changed frequently), sometimes there was food, there was a lap top computer, and there was a chair among hundreds of other items. I began to imagine whom this monument could be for. Who was this important in their life to warrant such a display? I visited, day after day, snapping photos, sitting with the monument, taking in whatever feelings I could experience. I was intrigued by the lack of sadness that I felt at this monument. I almost felt protected, safe, and happy there.
Finally after months of shooting there, I drove by on my way home with no intention of stopping as I had already obtained some photos that morning. Except there was a woman there, placing new flowers at the base of the tree and speaking towards it. I was compelled to stop and ask why this monument was there, whom it belonged to, and sadly, who had died there. I was pleasantly surprised by the answer. The woman spoke very little English and I speak very little Spanish but between our tiny bits of knowledge of what the other was saying, I got my question out and she gave me an answer. My assumption had been wrong. It was not a monument to a lost soul, but rather a shrine to the Virgin Mary! There had been a fire in the hills recently and this particular tree had only partially burned, leaving behind the shape of the Virgin Mary, holding baby Jesus.
If you know me, I have a cynic nature regarding these things. I’m not really sure I believe in the vision of Jesus in a piece of bread, or a potato chip. On the other hand, I have always believed that if people need to see these things, then how does it hurt me to let them believe? I have to say that as she told me, I looked up at the burnt area of the tree and could not see the image of the Virgin Mary, not even when I squinted. I asked her why there was water, food, flowers, a laptop… a chair. She explained that many people stop and seek blessings from the Virgin Mary at this spot since the fire and leave her items in hopes that their prayers will be answered. Each person might leave her anything from a beautiful rock they found nearby if they had seen her unexpectedly, all the way to their lap top computer, having most likely planned the trip to the site ahead of time. The water and food were left to aid her in her journeys, and the chair had been placed there for elderly people to be able to sit and pray to her as long as they felt the need. The last thing she told me was that you can only see her in your rear view mirror as you drive away from the site (heading North). I thanked her for her time and for talking with me. She stayed and finished her prayers and offerings.
As I drove home that day, I looked into my rear view mirror for one last chance to get a glimpse of Mary and to my surprise, there she was. Her image was as clear as the painting itself that I had been so familiar with. As I drove away, I felt that these monuments are a way for religious peoples to express themselves and carry hope in their hearts. I hear so often that these monuments on the sides of the road are just trash; I hear that the creators should be charged with littering. I remind anyone who thinks the same thoughts that this is closure for someone somewhere, that it might bring hope to them, and blessings for their family. What do you think? Is it just trash?