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Mourning along life's highway

Local View



Twice in recent weeks, traffic accidents have taken the lives of local teenagers. And twice in recent weeks, it took less than 24 hours for a roadside memorial to be erected.

Just west of Nevada Avenue on Garden of the Gods Road, T-shirts, flowers and candles were placed close to the scene of the accident that claimed 16-year-old Katy Mushak on Aug. 21. On Hodgen Road and Roller Coaster Road, mourners have placed a cross with a mountain of flowers to mark the scene of the accident that took the lives of Beau Begier, 17, and Ryan Pappas, 18, on Sept. 1.

The significance of these roadside memorials lies with the family and friends who venture to the place where they lost loved ones. Long after the reporting on the accident fades, the memorials will probably remain.

Michael Moats, a local licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in grief, says we might try hard to analyze the meanings of these tributes, but, "With grief, all bets are off." He says some people might mark the event because of how significant it is in their lives. Others use the monument as a remembrance — for themselves, for others.

I drive the length of Garden of the Gods Road most days. I don't think of the drive as dangerous, but some days I find myself thinking of all the memorials I've seen on this rather short stretch of road. At the corner of Garden of the Gods and 30th Street, a short-lived memorial was in place after a motorcyclist was killed in that intersection in 2008. Just across the street are the remains of a memorial that once contained a cross, track shoes and a photo of a 19-year-old killed there in a drunk-driving accident. (According to reports, that memorial was stolen two years after the accident, in 2011.)

A little farther down the road, at the intersection with Forest Hill Road, there once was a bike — painted white, almost like a ghost bike — marking the spot where a bicyclist died.

Bob Wilson, Colorado Department of Transportation spokesman, notes there is a law stating that nothing unauthorized can be placed on state roads. But the reality is that as long as the memorials are not themselves a hazard, CDOT looks the other way. "We don't go out on search-and-destroy missions," Wilson says. (And when memorials are removed by CDOT, they are kept and returned to the family if requested.)

Cindy Aubrey, chief communications officer for the city of Colorado Springs, says the local streets department generally follows the same protocol of looking the other way as long as the memorials are not an obstruction.

Our governments' willingness to let them stand is commendable. Roadside memorials have a rich tradition in the Southwest, dating all the way back to Spanish rule, according to research cited in a March 2014 story by Nathan Comp in the Rio Grande (N.M.) Sun. Some believe that a soul will not rest until a cross or memorial has been placed. Wilson says New Mexicans, in particular, are poster children for abusing highway rights of way with roadside memorials, though it's actually a crime there to desecrate a shrine.

In Colorado, you'll also find blue road signs at accident sites that bear specific messages. For instance, "Don't Drink and Drive" (when a DUI conviction or proof of blood alcohol content has been established in the accident) and "Please Ride Safely" (for motorcycle or bicycle accidents). Below the safety message is a second sign that reads "In Memory of ..." For a fee that covers the cost of materials, installation and upkeep, families can apply to have them placed.

Along state roads, Wilson says, there are 490 of these signs. They remain in place for six years.

Most of us cannot understand the suffering experienced by family and friends who have lost someone so suddenly in a traffic accident. And of course the memorials will mean different things to different people. But as Moats sees it, there is a common thread: "Our world gets shattered," he says, "and it's something to make meaning out of something that makes no sense."

And hopefully, each serves as a reminder to the rest of us to be careful out there.

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