I am not sure why all these crosses were lined up along the street on the outskirts of Española.
I’ve stopped at a lot of roadside crosses, and almost all the time they indicate a place where someone lost their life along the roadway. But this seemed different, somehow. For one thing, there were so many of them. And the death dates were different. Maybe over time, this has developed into the most dangerous roadway in the state. Or maybe over time, this has developed into an ad hoc location to put up a cross for a deceased loved one, if you can’t afford a traditional gravesite.
Española, New Mexico
I got my photographic start by making images of roadside crosses; I spent the better part of a decade stopping at almost every one that I saw. And then, one day, I was done. Just like that. (This is the last one I photographed from that time; the poem with it is almost a word-for-word account of what a woman who lived by the cross told me.)
Perhaps from habit, perhaps because the project’s not really finished yet, or from a combination of those two things, I still notice crosses and other memorials along the road. And sometimes, I do still pull over and make a few images. This one called to me, for reasons that I don’t understand. But of course I stopped. I had to.
Maybe some of you know that I spent many years photographing roadside crosses, for a project called Where the Spirit Left. Here’s what I wrote then, by way of explanation:
I was ten, maybe, or eleven the summer my family took a long vacation to Mexico, driving from the Texas Panhandle all the way to Acapulco.
Our bible for the trip was the Sanborn’s guide, provided by the company that sold Mexican car insurance to Americans. The manual outlines, kilometer by kilometer, things to see, to avoid, to eat along the way. We read the guide religiously, never questioning its pronouncements, always following its recommendations.
So it must have been noted in the guide’s goldenrod yellow pages that atop a hill in the arid northern region was a roadside shrine. And it must have mentioned a small amount of parking, and it must have encouraged a stop.
The shrine was inside a cave, big enough to hold three or four people, tall enough so they could stand up. The show of such overt faith took my breath away: votive candles in little ruby-colored holders, smoky ceilings, velvet kneelers, some virgins, bloody Jesus on a cross. Forrest Heights Methodist Church had not given me the impression that either religion or loss could be so colorful.
But something took root in my brain…where it took decades to sprout.
I have no other answer. I stop at roadside crosses. I photograph them, and let the message in each one reveal itself to me through images and words.
But I stopped making those photographs a decade ago. It was time to move on.
And now, maybe some of you know that I have a 30+ mile commute to work every day. About 24.5 miles of that drive is along State Highway 114, a four-lane, divided highway that’s got only a couple of curves between Lubbock and Levelland. And, while I did give up photographing roadside crosses, I’ve not giving up noticing them, and I know there are six of them on that 24.5 mile stretch of 114, all on the south side of the road. I look at them every day, notice that if that one has new flowers, if the weeds are taller at another one, and so on. I’d had in my mind to photograph all of them, and had scheduled that for “one of these days.” It felt important that they all be photographed in order, from Levelland to Lubbock, and all on the same day.
A few Fridays ago, I saw indications that utility work was going to be starting up adjacent to one of the crosses, and I became concerned the cross would be destroyed during the work, so “one of these days” became April 25.
I started the mileage reckoning at 0.0, at the corner of Highway 114 and College Avenue in Levelland, so the location of each marker was measured from that corner.
(As always, click for larger views.)
24.5 miles of State Highway 114
Levelland to Lubbock
Dangerous driving, illustrated by this roadside memorial.
For many years, I photographed roadside memorials (like this one) as part of an ongoing project,* but it had been almost a decade since I’d stopped at one. I don’t know why this one captured my attention enough to make two u-turns to get to it, but it did. And so it was that there, in the heat and the prickly weeds and serenaded by locusts, I examined the relics of a life that ended where I stood.
Ward County, Texas
* I think “ongoing project” sounds a lot better than “unfinished project.”