Rio Arriba County, NM – It wasn’t the first descano my eyes landed on that unsettled me. That came later, after I developed a sense of just how many descanos adorn the county’s highways, each one representing a life taken. Automobiles remain the most dangerous mode of transport so there’s nothing unusual about lives claimed on America’s roads. But unlike northern New Mexico, few places have descanos, which provide a visual tally for those numbers. If added up you’d have an approximate body count for a particular stretch of road.
There is no escaping them. Even in the most rural reaches of the county there is another around every bend, at every intersection. It struck me at first that loved ones would go to the trouble of driving many miles into barren hinterland to stake a cross, returning periodically to lay fresh flowers and trinkets. But it speaks to the pull of this centuries-old tradition, begun by the Spanish who staked crosses along the el Camino Real when fellow colonialists succumbed along the march northward from Mexico.
In the few months I’ve been here I’ve never seen anyone visiting a descano, but it must happen. To many, the descanos have a spiritual resonance that graves do not. To the area’s Catholics, they mark the spot where the soul left the body. Descano is Spanish for final resting place.
Descanos range from small crosses to shrine-like set ups like the one pictured above. Some are obviously handmade, while others exhibit the flourishes of a master craftsman. The names of the deceased are engraved in many of them, although plenty appear old, forgotten, and nameless. Were I inclined to supernatural beliefs or superstitious thinking I might’ve already left the area on account of the highways being haunted by the restless ghosts of these unfortunates.
Surprisingly, people here, from what I can tell, don’t think of death in the macabre and mournful ways of their Anglo counterparts elsewhere in the country. The traditional lives many still live here are hard, difficult lives fraught with various perils and terrors that residents appear mentally acclimated to. They’re not fatalistic, but accepting of the possibilities. Death isn’t seen as unfair, but inevitable, always at the ready. Rather than fixate on the loss, they celebrate life, as evidenced by the loud, bright colors that pour from the cemeteries, which makes them warm and inviting, almost happy, places.
In many places roadside memorials are tolerated for only so long before road crews take them down. They’re seen as distracting to drivers, not to mention being kind of a downer. Here, road crews honor tradition over process, taking care not to sully or disturb the sacred sites even though it’s technically illegal to place things in the right-of-way. Often you’ll see the crews have draped a tarp over a descano if roadwork is occurring nearby.
Some are old and decayed, but others are living monuments where you’ll find birthday cards and teddy bears that someone recently laid. The descano pictured above, found on the High Road to Taos, is in memory of one Levi Salazar. Judging from the items left by his loved ones, Levi liked to drink Bud Light and Mountain Dew. He liked to garden, as evidenced by the gardener’s glove resting on the end of a shovel handle. He was Catholic and had some attachment to a pencil box or the contents therein, which I can’t reveal.
It felt wrong to peek, so I didn’t.
Sometimes you’ll meet people who know the stories behind them, as with a pair of crosses I pass by several times daily. In the late 1990s, two young girls were stopped at the red light when the chains on the semi-trailer next them broke, releasing a load of logs that tumbled atop their vehicle, crushing them. Nearly 15 years after the girls perished, someone continues to lay flowers and other items at the base of the their crosses.
Others are eerie, like one just outside of Hernandez where a woman’s body was found several years ago. A note on her descano tells that her murder remains unsolved. I’ve often wondered what crosses the mind her murderer when he passes by his victim’s descano, assuming that he has.
The descanos speak to how change can overtake life in unpredictable, instant, and uncontrollable ways. None of the deceased, I imagine, had any inkling upon setting out that final time they had but minutes left on their lives. That’s what unsettled me, the thought the descanos provoked of my own life winding down, that at any moment I, too, might have only minutes left.
Although I’m not religious, I sometimes imagine my own descano – perhaps on a ridge overlooking the Rio Grande – my name engraved large enough for all to see, and my descent into obscurity delayed until the time came when no one cared enough to nurture my memory and I died a second death.