There is only one way to drive from El Rito to Abiquiu, in north-central New Mexico. You’ll take state road 554, a curlicued up-and-down route through wild and beautiful country that may as well be another planet for us “back East” folks. Gorgeous mountain views and scrubby desert vegetation join rugged canyons, dry river beds, and dramatic wind-scarred buttes.
What you won’t see much are signs of human existence. Sure, we’re on a two-lane blacktop that someone had to build, but there aren’t any other vehicles on it, nor will you find gas stations, billboards, graffiti, guard rails, or reflectors. You may come across the occasional stand-alone house, a stretch of elevated power line, or barbed wire fencing marking a property boundary, but often, that’s about it.
So the memorials that appear with alarming regularity–some dozen or more on the short, sixteen-mile stretch between El Rito and Abiquiu alone–pop from the roadside as the most tender of touches in a landscape otherwise devoid of human intervention. The shapes–vertical and angled in a world of broad horizontals, colored in eye-popping reds, pinks, yellows, and purples found nowhere else around these parts–make the tributes jump from the scraggly earth.
There are some simple wooden crosses, sure, but most of the memorials are unique elaborate displays that include custom ironwork, closely arranged stone formations, photographs, religious dioramas, plastic funeral flowers, garlands, flags, and treasured personal mementos of the departed.
A little Googling proves that, surprise surprise, Pittsburgh Orbit wasn’t the first to take notice of New Mexico’s descansos, the Spanish term for this tradition. New Mexico Explorer, a kind of NM Orbit, has a nice intro with some good photos and the Albuquerque Journal ran a 2015 piece about Pam and Doug Rietz’ documentation of descansos (but no links to see the pictures!) There are plenty of photo collections out there.
So why cover it here? Well, for one thing, we’ve written about roadside memorials back home a couple of times [see our Memorial Day 2018 and 2019 stories], so the subject is near and dear. Also, we’re jealous–with all due respect to the loving displays on Pennsylvania’s rural routes, New Mexico’s descansos are just so much more–excuse the apparent contradiction–full of life*. Each one is unique, glorious, heartbreaking, and beautiful in its own way.
And yes, it’s a good way to squeeze vacation for an Orbit story.
* In fairness, though, the relentlessly dry sunny weather in New Mexico naturally elongates the lifetime of a descanso. Pennsylvania’s omnipresent rain and thick humidity, plus winter snow and ice, make all SW PA memorials de facto temporary installations. For what it’s worth, it is also true that New Mexicans die in motor vehicle accidents at greater than twice the rate of Pennsylvanians. [Source: https://www.iihs.org/topics/fatality-statistics/detail/state-by-state]