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.
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.