Lives Cut Short – Roadside Memorials

IMG_3530As we cycle along backroads and minor state highways, we often see a roadside memorial marking the scene of tragedy.  We’d seen these kinds of memorials plenty of times before, but in a car we were always passing by too fast to do anything other than notice the memorial’s existence. The memorial was out of sight and out of mind within moments.

When bicycling, however, my speed is slow enough that I can see one of these markers well in advance and can stop to visit them.

I decided early on that I would stop to photograph and write about these memorials. It is one of many ways to capture who we are as a country: how we remember loved ones. It is also a way to give a head nod to a life cut short and to acknowledge someone’s pain at losing a loved one. This is, after all, why we are doing this ride — to remember friends and family who left us too early.

Official D.O.T. Memorials

Most state DOTs (departments of transportation) don’t really like roadside memorials — they are a distraction to drivers, and someone stopping to tend to a memorial isn’t a great idea, either. This NY Times article about Wyoming’s efforts to ban and remove memorials is a good example of that. 

DOT Signs
Official roadside memorials. L-R: California, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado

I’ve created the above grouping of official state memorial signs. California really doesn’t seem to like memorials at all, and they’re pretty understated. I’ve seen a different kind of official California memorial but not on this trip so I don’t have a picture. Note that the Utah image, specific for a motorcyclist, is an official memorial augmented by tokens left by friends and family.

WyomingEven though Wyoming has decided to pull unofficial memorials several years back, we still saw plenty of unofficial memorials along the road. We only saw the official Wyoming memorial a few times. I don’t quite understand the imagery. I get the broken heart and the dove, but is the black outline a coffin? Not really sure. We were often on small back roads for most of our time in Wyoming, so we probably saw an under-representation of these kinds of signs.

South DakotaSouth Dakota seems to go all out on official  memorial signage. There are two versions, the “Think” version, which is much more prevalent, and the blunt “Why Die?” version. Being official signs, they hold up to weather and are much more visible than ones erected by individuals. One of the consequences is that it seems like there are a lot of memorials. During our 35 mile ride from Hill City in the Black Hills of South Dakota to Pierre, I counted 10 of these signs – and that was only looking at signs on our side of the road!


A Smattering of Unofficial Memorials

Once we left the Bay Area and reached rural roads we began to see these memorials. Initially I planned to photograph each one and then realized that I’d end up taking hundreds of photos. Most days we pass at least one, and some days, dozens. I decided that I will only photograph some of them and for my safety, usually only those on our side of the road. Even so, I’ve photographed more than 60 different sites and we’re only half way across the US. In this post I’ve included only those that are the most striking or beautiful or that speak to me in some particular way.

I tried to research the stories behind some of these markers, but it’s so rare that I can find out who the person was and what happened that I decided that rather than include the back stories, I’ll just let the memorials speak for themselves.

Why do they face away?

Regardless of why these roadside memorials were created (too much speed or alcohol or weather or distractions), they hold two things in common: someone died here – someone who was loved by the people they left behind; and family and friends were so torn up that they came to this stretch of road to create a remembrance of where a loved one met his or her fate.


Often people have left tokens that represent aspects of that person’s life – baseball hats, toys or other memorabilia that represent something the person cherished, stuffed animals, etc. Sometimes they can be very, very simple and sometimes they are works of art.The majority of them have artificial flowers and some of them even have solar lights. Sometimes they are beautiful and well tended. These latter memorials can be heart wrenching. Out there somewhere someone’s heart is still shattered and their grief is deep.

memorialsIn a large majority of cases I have seen empty liquor bottles left at the site. Were they representative of the person’s favorite alcohol or did friends drink to that person’s memory and then bring the bottle to site?

A rancher’s memorial

Often these memorials are out in the middle of nowhere. It’s surprising how many of them are on straight, empty stretches of road. We’ve seen so many cars do such as bad job of passing other cars that I suspect a lot of these are due to poor driving decisions and/or speed and not necessarily alcohol.  One of these “road straight as an arrow” memorials was this “rancher’s memorial” we saw in Wyoming.  It’s built just like a rancher would built an enclosure – designed to allow people in, but not cattle since you have to weave your way through.


Finding Meaning


I’ll continue to photograph these memorials as we cross the country. Even though they are always somber they are also a great reminder to enjoy and cherish the time we have. These memorials remind me that life takes unexpected turns and that this great cross country adventure that Joy and I are on is the right thing for us to be doing.

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