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Jesse Sensibar documents loss along the highway in new book

At the intersection near my local Trader Joe’s, there is a roadside shrine that I pass by at least once or twice each week.

The site consists of a simple white marker, a few brightly colored votive candles and some plastic flowers discreetly placed beneath a traffic pole near a precariously situated right turn lane. It is easy enough to imagine the accident the shrine commemorates: a fatal, split second error in judgement or loss of control, a tragic loss of life. 

The imagining is easier still leading up to All Souls' Day. Some friend or loved one or family member has lovingly tended to the site in recent days, lighting the candles and leaving fresh flowers amongst the cloth and plastic blooms. A pair of smiling portraits have been wheatpasted to the traffic post above the makeshift memorial — a young man and woman, maybe teenagers, maybe young adults, definitely too young for whatever fate befell them. 

Roadside shrines are a way to ensure just a tiny bit of immortality in the wake of such catastrophic loss. This anonymous pair — whether they were brother and sister, husband and wife, or ill-fated strangers — will be remembered for as long as the shrine exists, even by those who never met them or felt their loss. In a culture that is often sanitized and distant, far removed from ritual remembrance, small symbols like this matter.  

Flagstaff's Jesse Sensibar knows the bittersweet reverence and reflection inspired by roadside shrines a little bit better than most folks. The Arizona author spent the better parts of the past decade as a tow-truck driver, clearing the highways of the detritus of fatal wrecks, driving along remote stretches of road and encountering thousands or maybe millions of plastic wreaths and homespun whitewashed crosses along the way. In his new book "Blood In The Asphalt: Prayers From The Highway," Sensibar muses on a few such sites, in dispatches that are equal parts poetry, slightly macabre travelogue and impressionistic memoir. 

The author will visit Tucson on Friday night for a book release party and reading at Downtown’s Gallery 2 Sun in the historic Tucson Warehouse and Transfer building. The event will feature readings from the book, a book signing and sale of trinkets from historic Route 66, as well as a live music performance by Tucson singer-songwriter Billy Sedlmayr.

The timing of the reading Friday, a few nights before Tucson’s annual All Souls Procession, is no coincidence. The procession is deeply meaningful to Sensibar, a rare public acknowledgment and remembrance of those who have passed and those who grieve. He feels that the often lovingly tended and highly visible roadside shrines serve a similar purpose. 

“These shrines are expressions of public grief, when in our culture death is sanitized and something we don’t talk about much.”

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They are also more common in rural and poorer communities than in urban centers.

“You don’t find a lot of shrines created by the well-off. Poorer folks tend to not have much money for funeral expenses and opt for cremation instead.” This means the shrines are sometimes the only marker and site to visit and remember those lost. 

Sensibar notes that many such sites only last for a few seasons, till they begin to age and disintegrate, but others are kept up faithfully across the years. One roadside memorial near Bisbee has stood since 1951, with mementos left by the grandchildren and great grandchildren of the deceased. Another memorial, to two sisters who died in a 1987 wreck along Interstate 10 just east of Tucson, has been beautifully dressed and decorated every October since it was first constructed.

The sometimes gruesome and often emotionally challenging work of tending to roadway accidents once the wreckage has been cleared away can in some ways be seen as an almost sacred task, one that Sensibar has never taken lightly. 

Even so, there are moments in such work when the real impact of human loss is felt more sharply than others.

“There was this one tow we did after a young native guy was killed in a motorcycle wreck on the reservation, everything was covered in blood and the motorcycle was just...pieces.” Sensibar recounted.

“His people came, three generations — mothers, sisters and aunts. They brought bucket after bucket of water and wiped it all clean, pouring away the bloody water and not leaving one piece of the wreck or his belongings behind in the tow yard.”

The story echoes many of the accounts shared in "Blood In The Asphalt," much of which documents Sensibar’s experiences on the highways of Northern Arizona as well as the many shrines and sites he has encountered along the way. Within the book’s pages, Sensibar also shares reflections of his own past struggles with addiction and drug abuse. Having survived and conquered his own demons, Sensibar has great empathy for those who were not as lucky.

“I’ve been real blessed and lucky to have the opportunity for reinvention. Many of my contemporaries from that time are dead or in prison, or..in bad shape. I’ve been real, real lucky. I have a voice that others don’t and a platform to document what they no longer can.”


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Kevin Dooley/Flickr

A memorial along an Arizona highway.

What, where & when

  • Tucson release of Jesse Sensibar’s "Blood In the Asphalt: Prayers From the Highway," plus live music by Billy Sedlmayr
  • Gallery 2 Sun, in the Tucson Warehouse Transfer building, 100 E. 6th St.
  • Friday, Nov. 2 at 7 p.m.
  • For more information, visit the author’s website at www.jessesensibar.com