Each Christmas season someone decorates a pine sapling as a Christmas tree along a stretch of Highway 98 in the Naval Live Oaks, a federally protected forest near my home. I’ve watched the sapling double in size the last few years, supporting heavier ornaments each year. And every year I wonder why someone decorates that particular tree in that particular spot. Did someone die there? Is it a shrine like the white crosses along so many highways?
I’m fascinated with holy wells, retablos, grottoes and roadside shrines. It’s a morbid interest, I know. But viewing symbolic objects on display in a special place entrances me. My curiosity has led me to research state laws and white cross guidelines for memorializing highway deaths. I keep an eye out for roadside shrines and on a recent trip to verify a historical marker for my book, I found a fascinating one.
The historical marker I was searching for is the third in the Pensacola area honoring Colonial-era botanist William Bartram. This one is located on the same Highway 98, about 25 miles northwest of the Christmas tree. It’s at the Florida entrance to the Lillian Bridge which crosses Perdido Bay at the state line. On my roadtrip to find the marker, I missed it on my initial approach and was forced to make a u-turn in Alabama. I crossed back into Florida, quickly veered off the road to park and barely avoided a construction ditch. Traffic flew by.
I inched out of my car, camera in hand, watching for oncoming vehicles zooming off the bridge like downhill racers. The historical marker by the bridge’s guard rail is on tricky terrain — a steep drop off.
To my surprise, the beautiful gold-embossed William Bartram Trail marker established by the National Council of Garden Clubs had been vandalized with spray paint. Of the many markers I have verified for my book, this is the first to be defaced. Only after I discovered the roadside shrine did I realize the graffiti read R.I.P. I had stepped into another world – a shrine on the highway of the dead.
Three people – two 19-year-olds and a 48-year-old truck driver delivering lumber, died on this spot in a traffic accident around 5:00 a.m. the morning of October 10, 2019. The car crossed the center lane, caused a head-on collision, and the 18-wheeler overturned, resulting in a fiery crash and fuel spill. All three men — Russell Drummond, Christian Beech and Sheldon Ray Liddell — died on the scene. All three lived within 15 miles of the bridge.
The southside shrine to the two younger men is enclosed by a tiny decorative white fence. Inside the fence are silk flowers, trinkets and tokens, and an autograph bench. There’s evidence of recent visitors who wrote messages and left Halloween memorabilia. Or perhaps it was Día de Muertos and they brought mementos of the deceased. Across Highway 98 I saw a second shrine, but I couldn’t reach it due to traffic. There, on the opposite guard rail, Sheldon Ray Liddell, a father and grandfather, is remembered with a “Drive Safely” highway sign, photographs and flowers. I learned more about him reading online tributes from his family and members of his church.
I learned about the two younger men from the messages of remembrance written on the small bench at the shrine. Sharpie pens remained as if I, a roadside visitor, might wish to add to the tributes for Russell and Christian. Yet I felt like I shouldn’t touch the shrine out of respect for the dead.
I wonder why those mourners didn’t feel the same way about the tribute to William Bartram. Why mar a beautiful historic marker of the first botanist to explore and write about this area? What good does spray painting R.I.P. do for Christian and Russell? ATTENTION TAGGERS: show some respect for all of the dead, William Bartram included! He didn’t die here, but he made history here.
I’m glad I stopped at the shrine because it gave me a chance to think about the wilds William Bartram encountered in 1775 before the United States even existed. Today there’s no need to take a boat across the bay like Bartram but I still dodged palmettos, watched for snakes, and avoided the dagger-like Spanish Bayonet yucca, just like Bartram. Dangers are still here. Oncoming vehicles are the deadliest.
Drive safely this holiday season!