Descansos – Roadside Rest Stops

Roadside markers plea for us to drive safelyEvery day, I drive I-95 in Palm Beach & Broward Counties. Each day I am drawn to the “Drive Safely” signs along the side of the road. The signs are more & more dotting the edge of the highway & more frequently are being decorated with flowers, wreaths, even photographs. These signs – these ‘descansos’ (Spanish for ‘place of rest’) along the highway calls to me and draws my attention. Along many highways, modern day ‘descansos’ stand as symbols for life, death, remembrance and celebration. These nondescript “Drive Safely” signs are shrines to not only express the loss of a loved one who died in a vehicular accident, but to draw our attention to the tragedy that occurred.

In the early pioneer days, the American settlers used descansos to mark the sites where pioneers, killed in Indian ambushes, lost their lives in their journey. The descansos were created to remind people to pray for the deceased. In today’s secular society, there is still a strong need to mark the place where the loss occurred.

Mostly because these are tragic deaths, yank out of this earth and not a natural death, where closure can occur. I consider them the resting spots along the journey of life where the individual stopped and rested. In the state of Florida, the only allowed marker is the “Drive Safely” sign. The signs are only placed if the friends/families request & pays to have this sign erected by the state – AND – they are temporary. They are only kept for 1 year.

These markers are erected as a private need to commemorate the actual place of loss. But obviously, these signs are a public manifestation of life – a piece of folklore – commemorative art – to serve as a reminder to us not to forget that this person lived a life of significance. The family needs to let us know of whose life was lost. Only we did not get a chance to know their significance.

For this reason, I am embarking on a project of documenting the “descansos.” This project is a way to express my daily journey and the things that impact my daily experience. For years I drove by these marker only knowing that my life was safe & secure & that the state was reminding us to just- “Drive Safely.” I never wondered why they were there or why they were randomly scattered along the roadway. Till one day! I was stuck in traffic – an accident ahead had us crawling like turtles following the dashed lines towards my home. I never noticed that just under the “Drive Safely” logo was somebody’s name with a starting & ending dates. I’m saddened to say – I never took the time to notice that – somebody died here.

For months all I did was wonder – until one day. I was drawn to a memorial that had (4) markers on the same spot. Each had the names of each individual on the markers, but the most impacting thing was that they were also decorated with lots of flowers. I had to stop to see. Each had pictures and notes attached – I dare not read – but whose unspoken words touched my soul. I can no longer just drive by these markers, I need to know.

Little did I know that life is what was calling me thru those signs. Every fiber of these shrines talks of life. Life lost, lives left behind, life’s journey. I need to celebrate life! To commemorate their life and to honor the life of their families left with this memory.

This project is not intended to rehash the accident or how it happened, but to express to society what we have lost, what we have allowed to happen and the need to acknowledge who is left behind. The mothers and fathers; the wives and girlfriend; the sons and daughters; the aunts and uncles; the grandparents and grandchildren. I want to celebrate the legacy that they leave behind. For this reason this project is a two fold effort to celebrate life.

First, to actually document the markers. The markers only exist for a period of one year & then are removed. Also here in South Florida, I-95 construction is constantly changing the landscape & the markers are disappearing from the roadside. Second, to have the State of Florida acknowledge & create a unified memorial. A place where each individual is remembered and expressed in context with society. I want to have a place where each and every life will not be forgotten about. A place where each individual’s significance can be known to the public – but also a place where the loss will be seen in the larger context.

In this country there are over 50,000 travel-related deaths annually. This is the equivalent to the loss of a fully loaded 747 crashing every other day. Can you imagine that number! OK, how about this – it is almost equals the total number of America soldiers killed in the Vietnam War (58,177 per Official US DoD, 1964-73). These numbers are not acceptable!

The context of a society where the daily grind has made us too preoccupied with the logistics of life, rather than actually living life to the fullest. We have become careless; our carelessness & lack of awareness, while driving, allows these tragedies to occur. Driving while intoxicated is the largest. Now driving while on the cell phone is also obvious, but would you believe that something as mundane as putting on makeup can account for 14%; How about grooming your hair – that’s 16%; OK would you believe eating while driving is a WHOPPING 66%. The California DMV put it in third place. So driving drunk is not the only real killer. This statistic can no longer continue unnoticed.

My project is intended to educate myself and others – but – most importantly as a celebration of life. A celebration for what they were & who they left behind.
LIFE – Love it for what it is and live it to the fullest!

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