You see roadside memorials in nearly every state, but Montana uses them to teach a message. The state pays for and installs the identical crosses, but people are allowed to adorn them with flowers, teddy bears, or Miller Lite six-packs as they like. The message goes on the official state highway map: “Learn from those who passed before.”
It’s somber, and the location of some markers is just mind-boggling. Many are on flat, straightaway stretches of highway. Others are alongside city streets in 35 mph zones. You don’t see as many single crosses as you’d expect: most drivers took somebody – friend, family, or stranger – with them. Which begs the question: “If we normally lived 750 years instead of 75, would more people wear seatbelts? Would anybody ride with a drunk or stoned driver?” You want to think the answers would be ‘yes’ and ‘no’, but I am not so sure. We always have been, and will likely remain the planet’s stupidest intelligent life form.
We camped at the Rhinelander Wal-Mart a couple of nights, thanks to a Check Engine Light warning, next to a big cemetery. The graveyard has a border of huckleberry bushes between our campsite in the parking lot, and I wanted to see if any were ripe. My odds were good, as there were three or four different colors and several varieties of berry.
To get through the fence to taste what turned out to be wannabe hucks, I had to visit the St. Mary and St. Joseph Cemetery. I knew no one buried there, but it proved to be a moving experience. The epitaphs capture much of the folly, grandeur, sadness, and joy that is the human experience.
I noticed names you wouldn’t see in the south, so many missing vowels or beginning with Z. Then there was the uniformity of the brass plates on the backs of headstones of veterans. Some were very proud of their medals (Bronze Star) or units (82nd Airborne, USS Hornet) but most limited their information to war and rank, their relatives proud of their service but wishing it had not been necessary. There is the heartbreak of the tombstones of newborns: “Our Baby” who lived but a day or a week. Perhaps the ultimate sadness was just one among dozens of headstones with “Mother” and “Father” at the top. Dad’s birthdate was in 1901; Mom passed on in 1965. Is Father still around at 112, or did he outlive his children and his money?
I mentioned joy. There’s one headstone that does. It has a lady’s name, her dates, and a carved in red granite image of the the Peanuts cartoon’s dancing Snoopy.