Roadside grave markers in New Mexico: bike or cross, they suggest a story. Which is sometimes better than telling one.

Six years ago, the idea of ghost bikes began to haunt my imagination (pun fully intended).  These homegrown commemorations intrigued me so much that they served as the feature within my first of many articles for Huffington Post.  While that news outlet no longer appears to have the financial solvency to support independent bloggers, the article itself survives, and if HuffPo becomes a mere spectre in the upcoming years, the article—exploring a ghost bike in Detroit—will linger through my blog.

At this point, most of us who have ever spent time in a city have probably seen them: an aging bike, painted completely white, permanently locked to some stationary object, intended to memorialize the life a person killed in a bicycling accident, presumably at or close to that specific bicycle’s location.  Sometimes a sign indicates the name of the person and his or her date of death.  Flowers are common. They operate much the same as the roadside grave markers we have all encountered—painted makeshift markers, often white crosses, indicating a person who died from a vehicular accident.  Unlike ghost bikes, the roadside grave markers tend to be most common in rural settings.  In both cases (ghost bikes and grave markers), the deceased individual was interred elsewhere, in a proper burial site; that’s what makes a cenotaph and not an actual burial plot or crypt.  But a recent visit to Albuquerque turned the whole urban/rural dichotomy on its head.  Take a look.

ghost bike in Albuquerque as roadside grave markers

This object nestled in the sagebrush has all the trappings of a ghost bike, but unlike most, it’s not a particularly urban setting.  In truth, no rule mandates the installation of ghost bikes in urban areas exclusively; that’s just more likely, because the main justification for them—a bicyclist getting fatally injured from collision with a car—occurs where bicyclists are more common.  And they are more common in settings where biking is a credible means of getting from A to B.  But, while this particular ghost bike doesn’t seem particularly urban, it’s not exactly the spartan roads of rural America; I did say it comes from Albuquerque.

Here’s another angle.

This particular ghost bike sits parked on the side of the Paseo del Bosque Trail, an extensive greenway network that spans much of the length of the Rio Grande throughout the Albuquerque city limits—a linear park.  But therein lies the problem: it is exclusively a trail for bicycles and pedestrians.  No cars are allowed anywhere nearby.  Yet here we have this two-wheeled cenotaph, functioning fundamentally as one of the roadside grave markers.

There can be no question that Walt Simmons died here, presumably on a bike—otherwise, why include a bicycle memorial?  But unless a renegade vehicle cut the curb on nearby Gabaldon Place NW, broke past the gates or bollards, then somehow managed to traverse a small ped bridge crossing the Albuquerque Riverside Drain…well, the laws of physics indicate to us how ridiculous this would be.  Did Simmons collide with another bike?  Bit by a rattlesnake?

It only requires a small amount of research to learn the predictable outcome: Walt Simmons suffered a catastrophic cardiac arrest while biking at this precise location, and his friends have celebrated his life accordingly.  The ensuing cenotaph is what prevails.  This approach represents a sort of expanding of the semantic boundary of ghost bikes—their intent is to alert people (mostly motorists) to exercise extreme precaution around bicyclists due to their vulnerability, not to mention that the bicyclists themselves should bike defensively.  The ghost bike here along the Paseo del Bosque doesn’t achieve that goal because there’s no evidence that Walt Simmons was threatened by a vehicle or that he was negligent of basic safety precautions.  But it absolutely serves its role as a cenotaph—a practice that is only likely to become more widespread as the roadside grave markers accumulate faster than they decompose. (And in many cases, people replace them if they get too worn out.)

Virtually all ghost bikes and any other cenotaphs survive out of basic courtesy between the family of the deceased and the landowner.  The City of Albuquerque could easily have said no to the installation of this ghost bike, but it’s such a simple non-intrusion that it would be callous for them to do so.  The same communitarian principle applies with roadside grave markers: they’re usually so close to the actual highway (within the right-of-way easement) that no landowner could put the single square foot of land to a more productive use, so it’s just not a big deal.  And it may have an unintended didactic function: elsewhere in rural New Mexico, on US Highway 84 north of Santa Fe (toward Española and eventually Taos), I encountered the highest concentration of roadside grave markers I’d ever seen in my life.  There’d be periods where I would hardly drive more than three to four minutes before seeing another one; in a few instances, I’d see two or there interspersed across a single mile of driving.  It could be cultural: the locals of the various pueblos nearby are more prone to using homegrown commemorations, or perhaps they’re more prone to perishing in car accidents.  It could also be a signal that this stretch of highway harbors hidden hazards.  Regardless of the intent or the social forces at work on that Road of the Dead, I think most of us can appreciate the extra little empathy conveyed by a simple cenotaph.  No doubt the soul of Walt Simmons smiles in gratitude.

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on email

10 thoughts on “Roadside grave markers in New Mexico: bike or cross, they suggest a story. Which is sometimes better than telling one.

  1. Diana Leigh

    I so enjoyed your original posting on ghost bicycles and this article as well. It (ghost bike) is a silent, humane and eye-catching symbol of the loss of someone in an unexpected location.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Agreed! And as long as they continue to be viewed in the public eye as tastefully commemorative, I don’t think they’ll become controversial. Perception is critical. I have to admit, though, it was very alarming seeing SO MANY roadside grave markers on the highway north of Santa Fe. I saw more in that one morning of driving than I typically do in an entire year.

      Reply
  2. Alex Pline

    I have set up a ghost bike in Annapolis MD in 2013, an experience I hope never to have to repeat. While we have set up a bike rack in to memorialize a local cyclist (coincidentally cardiac arrest), I had never thought of doing an actual ghost bike. I think it is, as you mention, a very reasonable extension of the use of a ghost bike, but I would probably explicitly indicate on the memorial the rider was not killed in a collision with a vehicle. Maybe it’s just my age, but too many people I know are dying from cardiac arrest, most recently 3 weeks ago, literally right in front of me on a ride. No amount of CPR could save him.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Sorry to hear about this Alex, but, just so I’m clear: did you create a “ghost bike rack” but not a ghost bike? Painted white and all? Or just a commemorative label? I definitely think some details would help clarify the presence of the ghost bike in the example I used in Albuquerque, but obviously that’s up to the discretion of the people who install it. Cause of death is sometimes very personal. And, after speculating what could have been the reason for a bicycle death in an area without cars or other visible hazard, I was able to put two and two together.

      As for the roadside cenotaphs north of Santa Fe, that was more harrowing for me. I’ve genuinely never seen so many. I hate to think that it may suggest an extremely treacherous drive, or–the potential unfortunate truth–that high levels of substance abuse cause lots of roadside deaths while under the influence. I’m trying once more to put two and two together, but in that case it might equal five. Regardless, it doesn’t shake my resolve that cenotaphs (crosses, bikes, bike racks) are generally a worthy effort.

      Reply
  3. Chris B

    So with the idea of Ghost Bike firmly planted in my brain, I always do a double-take when I drive past this colorful curbside art installation (you would have to have a death wish to cycle that road…):

    https://www.google.com/maps/@39.6353131,-86.1445097,3a,48.5y,57.95h,80.24t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sEtKguHoyhztK6nDTW-h57w!2e0!7i16384!8i8192?hl=en

    I know it’s there, yet every time, I tense up thinking a family is about to swerve into traffic on a 4-lane stroad (posted 40 but rolls 48). And maybe that’s the point: no one’s died there yet? 😉

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Well that’s a likable installation. Maybe I’ll check it out the next time I’m in Indy. You’re right: that’s a terrible road for biking. And it’s interesting (and not altogether surprising) that only one side of the road has pedestrian provisions with a sidewalk. Though this is common practice throughout suburban Marion County, in this case, it’s the Johnson County/Greenwood side with sidewalks while the Marion County/Indianapolis side lacks anything. I hate biking on sidewalks, but that’s the only way I’d feel safe biking on that stretch of road.

      Reply
      1. Chris B

        I’m not sure I’d feel safe on the sidewalk, with all the street crossings and driveways. I’m surprised Greenwood hasn’t put a multi-use trail on their side of the road, as they have done on Frye Rd. at the south end of the mall agglomeration. Technically it’s an Indianapolis-Marion County road since by state law the south county line road belongs to the northern-bordering county.

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirt Post author

          Thanks for the clarification, Chris, regarding ownership. Splitting hairs, however, when you say “their side of the road” referring to Greenwood, I presume you mean a pedestrian easement on the property abutting the Marion-County owned County Line Road from the southern side? Is it reasonable to presume that the ROW for County Line Road is at its full breadth, so the sidewalk (and the pedestrian easement) directly abutting the south side of the road is in the City of Greenwood, with the actual political boundary taking place at or near the southern curb? Or does the ROW straddle the county line, so half the road is on the Greenwood side but the responsibility still falls to Marion County? With either legal interpretation, I would presume that the existing sidewalk and your hypothetical multi-use trail would both be the City of Greenwood’s responsibility.

          Reply
          1. Chris B

            Don’t know about the existing sidewalk. It was built in the standard Indy style (curb-adjacent and curb-integrated), but I don’t know if the State-dictated “ownership” of the road extends to the sidewalks. Johnson County property records show that Greenwood bought some of the land under the road when it was most recently widened (2001-02).

            Right where the Google Maps image is, Greenwood owns probably 10-15 feet south of the sidewalk so they could have room for a trail. But the ROW width varies considerably from Meridian to 31, so some land acquisition might be needed.

            Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. You are not required to sign in. Anonymous posting is just fine.