Death of a stranger leaves lessons for all
Editor’s note: Biff America is on vacation. During his absence, the Journal will be rerunning some of his all-time favorites.
Maria Baca died violently by the side of the road.
It was on a barren stretch of lonely highway, common in the West before developers fertilized and irrigated the prairie into a country club.
A scarred wooden crucifix held a faded snapshot wrapped in plastic. The top of that simple cross was spread and splintered, I would guess by the hammer that drove it into the hard earth.
Maria looked to be Hispanic and in her late teens. Dark hair and laughing eyes were captured at a time and place where she had no thoughts of an untimely death. The picture was a Polaroid taken at a party or festival with other girls in the background, all wearing white dresses, all feeling immortal.
Surrounding the improvised monument were the scattered mementos of stuffed animals, plastic flowers and teenage trinkets. Also tacked to the cross were notes and letters all tattered, most unreadable. Some were written on pastel stationary in a feminine and flowery script. I imagined this being the effort of a mother, girlfriend or big sister. I only gave the letters a cursory look; they were not written to me and, to be truthful, I was a little spooked. I didn’t want the ghost of Maria haunting me on the rest of my bicycle ride, causing me a flat tire or saddle sores. One message I couldn’t help but read was written in black magic marker in the unmistakable hand of a young man. On an index card about the size of pack of cigarettes were the words, “I loved you Mari.”
The message was not signed, allowing me the luxury of speculation. I imagined a shy boy writing those words and leaving the message at a time that would assure privacy. Maybe a boyfriend, but I guessed not. More likely a secret admirer whose declaration of love was thwarted by Maria’s accident.
No one seemed to use that road anymore; it paralleled the main highway and was narrow and rough. I had not seen a single building for miles or a vehicle in 20 minutes. I wondered what Maria was doing traveling on that route when the interstate was faster and more direct. Was she driving or a passenger? Was anyone else hurt? Did she suffer?
The wind blew the dust around, causing my eyes to water. It is times like that when I very much want to believe that a soul is not dependent on a heartbeat. It would be nice to think that Maria might have a second chance.
I had no idea if she was a nice person or not, but I do know she was a young girl, and how bad could a rural teen-ager be? My guess was that her greatest sin was one of bad driving, or putting her trust in someone who was drunk or careless. She, more than likely, was a sweet, uncorrupted Catholic girl from western Colorado, who was loved by her family, friends and at least one boy with bad handwriting.
I pedaled on that day with few distractions. As the terrain became more remote, the traffic and diversions were nonexistent. I thought about how appropriate it was to erect a tribute to a life on the spot that the life ends. What more suitable place to grieve the passing, and to celebrate the life than at the spot where the body transforms into the spirit of the person? Now, granted, Maria picked a scenic place to die; a nice place, if you will, to visit. I’m sure I would not have so moved to emotional speculation if she had met her end in a bowling alley in Muncie, Ind. But even that still would be better than a graveyard, which to me, is simply rent-controlled housing for dead people.
You see ad hoc monuments to the dead throughout the West. It seems more prevalent in rural New Mexico and Colorado. I’m not sure if this is a byproduct of religion or homespun tradition. Even in the ski resort I call home, with most of the vacant real estate dedicated to the erection of passing lanes and trophy homes, you’ll see roadside tributes to the fallen.
When passing those remembrances, I always take note. Someone’s demise on a particular stretch of highway suggests a possible danger. If it could happen to them, it could to me; so I slow down. If nothing else, roadside markers remind us of the danger of speed and life’s precious frailty.
Perhaps we should make them mandatory.
There is one particular intersection in Addison, Texas that had almost 300 serious accidents in a year’s time. It seems drivers are still clinging to that old Texas tradition of “The biggest belt buckle has the right of way”.
If, when drivers approached that intersection, they saw a cluster of crosses reminiscent of a boneyard, they might be more careful. If the drivers of those house-sized SUVs who risk their, and our, lives on a daily basis were reminded by the deadly mistakes of others, perhaps they’d slow down.
Maria Baca died all too soon by the side of the road. By the evidence of her memorial, she was loved and is missed. I hope she took full advantage of the time that she had.
Biff America can be seen on RSN television, heard on KOA radio, and read in this and other fine newspapers.
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