The soul of Vidal Gonzalez Sandoval left its body on Dec. 16, 2001, along Mexico Highway 1. Someone—a family member, most likely—memorialized Sandoval’s death on the side of the road in Baja, with a white wooden cross and a black-rod iron one. The white one is covered in colorful silk flowers.
It’s one of several descansos that Alex Kerekes photographed along the road also known as Baja Transpeninsular Highway, which stretches for nearly 1,050 miles, from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas, in his own sort of memorial for the departed.
Kerekes is a former chief of police at the Presidio of Monterey who retired from the Department of Homeland Security last year. He bought a $1,600 camper on eBay, and has spent the last year traveling through Mexico with his 81-year-old father, following migrating whales, searching for lost civilizations, shooting photographs and writing short stories about his adventures. Crosses, Shrines, Monuments and Prayers for the Departed in Baja California, a softbound, 36-page book with pictures on every page, documents one of Kerekes’ trips.
Kerekes says he has always been drawn to the religious symbols that show up in ordinary places in Mexico. “I wanted to know what they meant and what the stories behind them where,” he says. “We have a lot of traffic collisions in the US, but we don’t document them. Descansos do.”
Descansos means resting places, and they mark the site of a death on a roadside. There is the occasional single white cross on Monterey County highways following a fatal traffic accident. The roots of these roadside memorials, however, lie in Mexico and the American Southwest.
The shrines that Kerekes has photographed are made out of wood, stones, dolls, car metal, and statues. Some are carved into boulders. Others look like gravesites or altars. Many are decorated with flowers, candles and statues of Mary and the saints. They honor the spirits of the dead and remind the living to drive safely.
In Descansos: An Interrupted Journey, a book by Rudolfo Anaya, Juan Estevan Arellano and Denise Chavez, the authors write about the origins of the roadside crosses.
“The first descansos were resting places where those who carried the coffin from the church to the camposanto paused to rest. In the old villages of New Mexico, high in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains or along the river valleys, the coffin was shouldered by four or six men.
“Led by the priest or preacher and followed by mourning women dressed in black, the procession made its way from the church to the cemetery. The rough hewn pine of the coffin cut into the shoulders of the men. If the camposanto was far from the church, the men grew tired and they paused to rest, lowering the coffin and placing it on the ground. The place where they rested was the descanso.”
On Jan. 4, 2006, Kerekes began driving south from Carmel to Guerrero Negro to see the grey whales migration to the Pacific lagoons in Mexico. “That’s when I started documenting the crosses,” he says.
“You would see a descanso for a young person—a tragic death. I was awestruck by the fragility of life, right there on the side of the road.
“In the US, we’re a fast-moving society. We’re usually driving so fast. You may see a roadway cross out of the corner of your eye, but we pass them with barely a glance. Why don’t we stop and pause? At each one of these sites, I did just that.”
Kerekes flips to page five of his book, which shows a descanso honoring a dead “roadside angel of mercy.”
“It’s completely built from the wreckage of a Green Angel truck,” he says. Green Angels patrol Mexican highways and help motorists in need of mechanical assistance, towing, first aid and information.
“This one made me very introspective,” he says, turning to page 12, which shows four white crosses on a large shrine that looks like a gravesite. Each cross has a name on it: Oscar, Rogelio, Gabriel and Isreal. Their souls departed on May 25, 1994. “Four people die here,” Kerekes says, “and this was a straight-a-way. What happened?”
Kerekes says he found Baja’s southernmost descanso on the Pacific side of a cliff trail where the Pacific and the Sea of Cortez meet and Baja ends. It’s marked with a white metal cross that has become rusted from the saltwater. “Patricia Ruiz,” it reads. “Born January 1, 1980. Fallen December 1, 2002. Rest In Peace.”