Some cultures do it, some don’t. Some countries allow it and, in others, it’s illegal. The ones which don’t permit it usually claim it to be too morbid a practice, or that its a safety hazard, although I suspect their reasoning has more to do with state property rights than anything else.
I’m talking about roadside memorials.
Out here, it’s a constant and ubiquitous reminder that every trip might just be your last. From simple flowers and candles at the scene of a mortal accident, to elaborately constructed cenotaphs remembering those tragically lost on the road. I’ve even seen car wheels bolted to trees with a photo of the deceased tacked on as an impromptu shrine. Around the time of All Saints’ Day, November 1st, these shrines, which are seemingly everywhere, flicker eerily with remembrance candles as I drive the roads of the Carpathians. At night, their guttering lights can be seen all around, reminding me that I might not be alone on the road.
It was the beginning of Winter in 20— and I had to visit a client in a small town in the foothills of the Tatra Mountains. The temperature had dropped way below zero during the night and, as my 2 hour drive started early in the morning, I had to pay attention to patches of ice on the potholed back road which wound its way from East to West along the northern border of the country. As it was a Saturday, the traffic wasn’t too bad – most trucks were banned from driving during weekends back then, unless they were carrying perishable goods. My biggest concern when driving through the hills is coming up behind a logging truck as they are so long and slow that it’s almost impossible to overtake them – there’s no safe way to do so before there’s another blind bend, and I never know what might be coming towards me on the other side of the road.
I’m not saying I never do it, overtake logging trucks I mean; it just usually depends on how much coffee I’ve had, what mood I’m in, or if Ministry’s Jesus Built My Hotrod is playing on my car stereo. It also depends heavily on what car I’m driving. The hill roads here either pass through very long villages or through endless swathes of forest. The closer you get to the Tatra Mountains, the steeper the hills become, and the forest changes from deciduous to mixed woodland to completely coniferous. True bear country.
That Winter, I’d just gotten rid of my old BMW, due to it being an extremely unreliable money pit, and was driving a much smaller engined, almost no-powered, Renault. Overtaking was a thing of fantasy, especially uphill. There just wasn’t enough juice in the car to risk it without a good half-mile of run up.
I passed through the village of H and took the double-back bend to begin climbing the hill out of it. This hill is extremely twisty and, with the zero run-up the first double-back offers, requires a lot of revs and 3rd gear tops for about a mile and a half upwards. Sure, there are cars which can power their way up it but the average car really struggles. On a plus side, it allowed me time to view the creepy abandoned Jewish cemetery which sits alone in a field on a slope a couple of hundred feet to my right. I can’t even begin to explain just how out-of-place that fenced-in graveyard looks. Hell, even the wooden fence is falling to pieces.
I crested the hill and put the car into 4th. I’ve never liked driving automatics so I apologize for those who aren’t used to stick-shifts and can’t understand the context. The road curved again and descended. In the distance, I could see the castle of SL atop its peak above the town. It looked fairytale-like with its own band of clouds slightly obscuring its walls.
In front of me was what I dreaded seeing – an immense logging truck, with a long front section and an even longer rear trailer. In front of that was another truck, some Polish articulated. Both had their air brakes on full as the bottom of the hill saw another sharp bend from which the road would climb again. As it were, both were crawling anyway. There was a stretch after that point – a bit more than half a mile – which was clear of traffic in both directions.
My stomach lurched and I felt that familiar tingling in my palms. I would have one chance to overtake – and it would need to be both of them. I would have to time it perfectly well, so that as soon as I’d cleared the bend at the bottom of the hill and had swung around to begin climbing, I’d have to pull out into the oncoming lane and floor the accelerator, and pray that the little Renault would give me all she had.
The road ahead, aside from the two behemoths before me, was completely clear. There were no side-roads or junctions or stopping places to worry about. All I had to concern me was whether the Renault could defy the laws of physics and act like a real car. As luck would have it, Onyx and Biohazard’s Judgment Night began playing on the stereo, so I turned up the volume and got ready for my chance.
I cleared the bend and floored it.
Unlike with the BMW, the Renault just didn’t have the whoompf. It was accelerating but there was definitely no G-Force involved. I felt my body rocking, as though willing the car to pick up speed. I was on the wrong side of the road, climbing, and only at quarter the length of the logging truck. Come on, come on, come on! To my left was thick pine forest and on my right was billowing diesel smoke from the struggling truck. I cursed as I saw the gap had widened between the two trucks but nowhere near enough for me to squeeze between them. I’d become so focused on willing that gap to open that I hadn’t noticed a dirty, dark blue, mid-sized car appear at the top of the hill some distance ahead of me, coming at an alarming speed in my direction. I had mere seconds to act before we collided.
I calculated the odds of me making not just one truck but both, as there was no sign of the gap opening, and then, in a flash, I panicked and gave up on the whole idea. I slammed on the brake so that I could fall back in behind the logging truck. My adrenaline must have kicked in and given me a short burst of driving ability and reasoning, as I’d managed to calculate the speed of the oncoming blue car and the time it would take to slow down my own and get back onto the correct side of the road, albeit behind a cloud of diesel fumes and falling wood fragments.
I felt sick from the close call, yet I still toyed with the idea of trying again when the blue car had passed. I waited.
Something felt seriously wrong. The blue car should have passed me by then. As the logging truck was blocking my view, I carefully edged my car over to the left so I could see around it, worrying that the blue car might at that moment pass by and hit me. As I crossed the central line I was stunned to see a completely empty road. On my side, there were still two lumbering trucks trying to climb the hill, but in the oncoming lane there was nothing.
No blue car.
I slid my car back behind the logging truck and felt as though reality had just taken a day trip. Where the hell had the car gone? At the speed our little convoy made its way up the hill, and over it, I had plenty of time to examine the forest edge for dirt roads or turnings. There were none. Plus, at the speed the blue car had been travelling, taking a sharp turn in icy conditions would have been a fatal mistake. Where the hell was it?
And then, I saw the shrine. On the grass verge, between the forest and the road, at the top of the hill, there was a small, home-made, wooden cross. Several wreaths had been hung over it or placed at its base, and many candles in different coloured pots burned dully in the early morning light. The cross was new and I knew, deep, deep within my gut, that it had been recently placed there in memory of the driver of a dirty, dark blue, mid-sized car.
I’ve had several near misses and close calls with cars, motorbikes and trucks over the years. Driving here can be quite hazardous. Having them vanish just before impact, however, is just something that I’ve never gotten used to.