The Crosses of New River Road
A Deadly Stretch
Life is a highway of odd connections.
Many years ago, long before I'd moved to this immediate area, I was traveling the 400-mile trek back from my acreage in northern Arizona. It was late night; I was tired and my dogs were sleeping happily in the back of the truck cab. As was my habit, despite the late hour, I decided to take a new route for the last hour of the trip, bypassing part of the freeway. It would add some time to my journey, but I've always liked taking roads I've never taken before. We only pass this way once; why take the same road twice if you can help it?
I left I-17 at New River Road and headed east. It's a dark road still. Two lanes are bordered by houses sprawled out well apart from each other, divided by patches of desert or horse corrals. There are no streetlights. I'd driven that twisting road for a while when I could see those familiar red-and-blue lights ahead indicating the road was shut down. As a cop myself, I could tell it was a fatality just from the way the responders were parked.
I headed back the way I'd come and wound around until I returned to the freeway. Having never been in the area before, I didn't know if there was a detour or not. Now that I've lived here, I still couldn't tell you. Backtracking was the only sure thing that night -- backtracking, and the fact there was clearly a tragedy that had just occurred up ahead in the darkness.
Stunning Views, Tragic Happenings.
I'm all too familiar with this particular stretch of highway now. It's a road called New River Road, the main artery of the rural desert community of New River. You can't really call New River a town; it's an unincorporated county area on the northern edge of the Phoenix metropolitan area. To the north is the Tonto National Forest, a land of rugged cactus-fringed mountains of consistent beauty.
The first time I drove the road again, years after that midnight adventure, I noticed the crosses along the roadside. Most were in pairs or groups, standing together in silent vigil. They intrigued me more each time I passed -- and, as we must now drive New River Road to reach our own home, I pass them regularly.
Driving by is not enough. You don't really feel a place until you walk it. Driving is just skimming across the surface. Walking lets you get under the skin of a place. It's a seven mile walk, roughly, spanning just a little bit north of Circle Mountain Road to the frontage road just a bit south of the freeway exit.
I don't know any of the people who perished on this seven-mile stretch. I feel I know something about them now.
The crosses tell their own story.
Skunk Wash Bridge
There's a big wash, rocky and broad, that passes under one of the bridges on New River Road. It's Skunk Wash, and it runs deep and fast during the seasonal rains. Just southeast of Skunk Wash bridge, a couple of crosses pay homage to a man named Donnie. One cross, a humble and touching slat of wood fixed to a metal pipe, says, "Donnie," and offers the dates of 7-7-66 - 7-10-02. The rusty welded iron cross beside it says merely "Donski" on the vertical pipe, "1966 - 2002" across the horizontal.
It's the first roadside shrine you encounter as you walk northwest on New River Road from Circle Mountain.
Donski, 1966 - 2002, may you rest in peace.
Just West of Skunk Wash Bridge
Near the freeway, a few miles away from Skunk Wash, you pass a rustic old saloon called "The Roadrunner." It's a popular place with the bikers who enjoy the ride from Phoenix for a breakfast on the patio. Many of the crosses on New River Road memorialize some of those very bikers.
Although in some cases it's impossible to tell for sure who died in motorcycle accidents or who was an avid biker who died in a four-wheel vehicle, it's certainly easy to see who among them was a biker at heart. You can tell a lot about Tracy Hutchinson, who died along the curve at Skunk Wash bridge, by the loving memorial made by her family and friends.
The engraved marble marker placed by Tracy's parents is enough to break your heart. There's a horseshoe, perhaps from her beloved horse; a faded trio of photos in a frame; and a concrete angel. A cell phone has been left beside the stone, open as if awaiting a call. Three crosses are festooned with brightly-colored flowers.
That's the thing with some of the New River roadside shrines: it's hard to tell exactly how many people died at each location. Many of the individuals are commemorated with multiple shrines, but the road is notorious for its greed: on multiple occasions, it has claimed several lives at once, and it's difficult to distinguish between the sites. Here, I could only find certain evidence of Tracy's death.
There may, though, have been others.
Tracy May Hutchinson July 28, 1960 - October 24, 2004. May you rest in peace.
An Introduction to New River
- What is New River, Arizona?
New River, Arizona: it's not a town, but it has its own identity and plenty of character. It's a unique place with equally unique residents. Here's an introduction to this weird and wonderful place.
New River Road has a few curves that could each, with less competition from the neighboring curve, rightfully be called "Dead Man's Curve." They're well-marked, but how long the row of barricades approaching each curve has been in place, I couldn't say. By daylight, driving at prudent speed, they're certainly easily negotiated.
At night-time, though, throw in a few risky variables -- high speed, inattention, impairment, wet weather, perhaps even a coyote dashing across the road -- and the curves aren't so gentle. It's easy to see how someone could quickly flip their vehicle over, or slide off the curve on a downed bike.
I broke my walk of the seven-mile stretch into two legs, just to spare my own two legs. Both times, I marveled at the succession of vehicles -- kindly drivers lifting a hand in greeting as they passed, punctuated by young drivers flying by at adrenaline-pumping speed. Things happen on that road. We'd just started our walk on the eastern-most portion when a loud crack and the sound of metal sliding on asphalt made me wheel around just in time to see a truck lose its front tire. The nose of the truck dove down and scraped across the blacktop ... just west of Skunk Wash bridge.
Fig Springs Curve
Faded flowers and weather-worn paint. On the northeast corner of Fig Springs and New River roads, three crosses pay homage to Elizabeth Fry and, perhaps, her companions. One cross is metal; another, welded tailpipes from a motorcycle. The third is wooden slats with the simple words, "Elizabeth Fry," carefully, neatly, lovingly painted on the crosspiece.
There's something about homemade crosses. They tell you about anguish in ways that a granite slab can't possibly convey.
I don't know much about Elizabeth Fry, just a name a partial birthdate -- October, 1940 -- and the fact that a motorcycle might have been involved, or maybe that was yet another incident. The white silk carnations affixed to both crosses indicate that they were part of the same event, but that's only an educated guess.The wooden cross has marked Elizabeth's death for quite a few years, judging by the age marks.
Elizabeth Fry, 1940 - ? Rest in peace.
Northeast Corner of 15th Avenue and New River Road
Just a stone's throw from Elizabeth Fry's site is the Christmas tree cross. There's no name to go by, unless it's hidden behind the Christmas decorations carefully placed against the cross. There's glitter, a wreath, ornaments, and an artificial tree. It's hard to tell how long the memorial has been there, but it's clear that someone is keeping it up and marking each Christmas.
The cross, apparently of welded horseshoes, is festive, even now that Christmas is three months past and the red bows have faded to a dusky pink.
Unnamed horse-lover, may you rest in peace.
1700 West New River Road
Heaps of sodden stuffed bears, faded and beaten down by the elements, are the first thing you notice as you approach Mike Dowell's memorial. There, on the south side of the road on the second of the two "big" curves, is the biggest of the roadside shrines. A scrap-metal cross is topped by a welded motorcycle-riding dog rising above a rusty iron cross in the foreground.
"Mike Loves Suzie," says one arm of the cross; on the other arm, "Where's my pistol, Joe Arpaio?" Joe is, of course, our controversial sheriff here; folks across the country may know him by his self-appointed nickname of "America's Toughest Sheriff."
Mike Dowell died five days after having a wreck on the motorcycle he loved. He must have been a big teddybear of a guy, the way the stuffed bears populate his marker. His friends and family have placed the sign, "Live well, laugh often, love much," on the ground among them. Mike must certainly have done so.
Michael Dowell, 61 years old, August 6, 2006. Rest in peace.
The Warning Signs Approaching the 17th Avenue Curve
This is New River, after all: the place where, most afternoons, the sound of shots interrupts the desert air. Hunters and recreational shooters are ever-present in the Tonto National Forest, not far from New River Road. It's not uncommon for shooters to target practice just off the road -- and, as you can see from the sign, some don't even leave the road.
17th Avenue, Just Past the Big Curve
On the north side of the roadway, Jodi Huetter-Nelson's 1989 death is marked by the aged whitewashed cross with a small cross just behind it. Baby-blue paint holds Jodi's memory on the roadside. The cross is 24 years old now, just a few years shy of the 32 or so years of Jodi's life. It is perhaps the oldest existing marker along this stretch of road; maybe others have already been and gone.
Jodi Huetter-Nelson, June 1957 - August 1989. Rest in peace.
Just West of Coyote Pass
Survivors enshrine their loved ones with bits and pieces of personality. On the south side of the road, a much-loved son is memorialized with faded Christmas decorations, several eagle sculptures, an eight-ball, dream catcher, praying hands, and -- as with so many other of these New River roadside crosses -- a motorcycle model.
Judging by the eagle motif, this man could have been a free spirit -- or a patriot. The collection of empty beer bottles lying beside the cross indicate his friends drank a few cold ones with him in tribute after death. The most poignant touch to this memorial is the small handmade seat beside the cross. "My Son," is painted freehand across the top.
A much-loved son and someone's eagle. Rest in peace.
I-17 Frontage Road, South of the New River Exit
Technically, this cross might not belong -- unless you've driven New River Road. If you have, you know that after you make the stop sign in front of the Roadrunner, and you joggle to the south, it almost makes more sense to stay on the road than to turn abruptly right and take New River Road under the freeway to where it continues to meander west. The frontage road feels like New River Road, and it has claimed at least one more soul.
This one is the patriot. A solemn white cross is decked out with several U.S. flags, perhaps indicating a veteran lost his life here. A solitary angel stands nearby.
The unknown patriot ... rest in peace.
I'll never know exactly which cross, if any, marks the site of the fatal accident that delayed my journey home that night so many years ago. Others have died along this road. There aren't enough crosses to go around. In one spot, two small piles of stone, just feet apart, appear to be similar memorials -- but I'll never know for sure. At another location, several miles east, a rectangular border of stone the size of a gravesite may mark yet another -- or not.
In August, 2010, at least two and possibly three individuals died along the road, traveling too fast in a Mercedes as they reached the curve. They rolled the car; the woman driving, and one of the male passengers, died at the scene. The third man, in critical condition that night, may have ultimately died of his injuries. There are no memorials that are clearly related to that particular incident.
On the other side of the freeway, there are more still. That more-remote patch of road with its less-pronounced arc almost begs for high speed from drivers seeking to reach Carefree Highway. It offers ghosts of its own.
There is no moral, here. Just a series of crosses, casualties of the curves on New River Road. Each one tells a story of life and death and keenly-felt loss of lives cut abruptly short. There are many, and each one enough to break your heart.
Copyright (c) 2013 by MJ Miller
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