Unfolding the Map
How many times, like William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) below, do you pass by little roadside memorials? Do they register on you or do you, like me many times, hardly notice them? I will do a little reflection in this post about roadside memorials, including the ghost bicycles that are now springing up to memorialize cyclists who have suffered tragedy on the road. To discover where Weekstown is located, see the map.
"I went on south, through Weekstown, past a wooden sign nailed clumsily to a tree: ALWAYS IN OUR MEMORIES - PETE."
Blue Highways: Part 9, Chapter 8
Weekstown, New Jersey
I see them when I'm driving, usually on rural roads. I might be swinging around a turn and then at the top of the curve, or perhaps somewhere in the middle of it, a floral arrangement out of character with the landscape. Flowers that just don't grow there and on second look appear to be plastic to withstand the elements. Often a white cross blazing through the flowers. Another roadside memorial. Another place where a person, usually young, met an untimely end. A place where someone looking forward to a full life - maybe a marriage or a baby, or celebrating a new job, or on a first drive with friends after getting a drivers license - breathed their last in a maelstrom of twisted metal and broken glass and to the sounds of the jaws of life frantically trying to pry an opening.
At one time, I thought such displays were stupid. Aren't there graveyards where we can remember our dead? Didn't the shrines themselves cause a distraction. The truth is that most people, including me, drive right past them with nary a thought. We have become used to seeing them and we don't know the people.
But occasionally I do think about it. I think about the lives lost and the impact on other lives all in the name of the freedom we have to drive factory-assembled packages of metal and fuel. I think about how that freedom sometimes comes at a cost. And I think back to my own brush with destiny - a night where I too could have ended up memorialized in a shrine of plastic flowers and a cross between two large cypress trees on the Northern California coast.
I was in college, home visiting my family. I had been in town doing something. Maybe I was at the bowling alley playing video games. I hopped into the family car, a small and sporty Capri, and headed north of town on a windy, rainy night to visit my friend John. I was traveling at the speed limit or maybe a little above but, on a wet rainy night, I was probably going too fast. I headed around a turn, hit a wet patch that was probably icy, and began to slide. I most likely overcorrected. All I remember was that feeling of not being in control, a crunch, a strange roller-coaster like feeling and then silence except for the radio which was blaring out Eddie Murphy's Party All the Time. It took me a moment to realize that I was hanging upside down in the seatbelt, draped over the steering wheel. I was able to push the door open and crawl out and look at what was left of the car. It had flipped over and was nestled between two giant cypress trunks, lights on, engine running, with Eddie Murphy serenading the surreal scene. I didn't know what to do, so I ran to the nearest house and called the police, my mom, and John, all in that order. The police came and later a tow truck. John arrived and took me home, where I had to face my mom and tell her that I wrecked her favorite car. It took the wearing off of the shock and adrenaline for me to understand how close I came to death. Later, when I got a ticket and a $50 fine for "Failure to maintain control of the vehicle" I was slightly insulted. That line didn't seem to add up to the enormity of what happened and how close I had been to departing this reality.
Lately, around New Mexico, I've seen a new type of memorial appearing. You see them in medians or along sides of roads, put where they can be seen and registered. Ghostly, white bicycles without riders, silently marking a place where a day's ride in the open air and sunshine turned into, usually thanks to an inattentive driver, a ride into the hereafter. In Albuquerque, the second trial of a young woman who killed a bicyclist just wrapped up with her conviction of careless driving. The bicyclist was out riding with his wife of over thirty years. He was just getting into cycling as a form of exercise, and was riding a path alongside of and separated from a busy route. Ordinarily he should have been safe but on this day, the young woman lost control of her car, swerved across two lanes of traffic and went off the road. The man's wife, who was riding ahead, heard the noise and turned around to see her husband's life disappear in a cloud of dust.
The ghost bikes resonate with me because my bicycle is now my primary source of transportation. I use it daily to ride to and from work. When I'm traveling on the street, I can keep pace with the cars between the lights, and I don't usually think about how I am simply weak flesh and bone on a slight metal frame with wheels. I don't usually think how I don't stand a chance if I make a mental miscalculation or am distracted, or a driver is distracted and doesn't signal or someone in a parked car opens a door just as I'm racing up alongside. But every time I see a ghost bike, I think of it. I also think of a friend, a reporter on National Public Radio, whose fiance was killed after being hit by a truck while cycling through Illinois, and how her life was unutterably altered in sadness.
Roadside shrines and ghost bicycles mark the places where the lives of people that I never knew were extinguished in tragic circumstances. So mostly, I just drive by. But occasionally, they make me think, reflect, and pull me back into reality. I'm not invulnerable, I'm not immortal. Each day carries a risk that such a memorial will be put up for me, even if I'm careful. If that's what they are supposed to do - make me stop a moment and take heed - they are doing their job.
I found this song, Roses by the Roadside by Steve McGinnis, about roadside memorials.
I also put Eddie Murphy's Party All the Time as the musical interlude this week not because I particularly like the song, but because it was the song playing when I had my own brush with roadside death. In a way, that's both sad and funny at once.
If you want to know more about Weekstown
Sorry, folks, but you'll have to look it up. There isn't much on the Internet about Weekstown.
Next up: Egg Harbor City, New Jersey