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19 – Chapel of the Forgotten Dead

Driving across the country is a very strange experience in many ways. For one thing, it’s impossible to avoid thinking about death. Even if I weren’t moving my mother to the other side of the country because my father has died, after a few days of driving it’s impossible to avoid noticing that death is everywhere.

Every time the gas gauge starts getting down near 1/4 tank – which is pretty often, given the low miles-per-gallon of a 25-foot RV and the high rate-of-speed at which I tend to drive – I look for a filling station. The best places are the ones that cater to trucks, the kind of gas stations that have 20-foot overhangs, plenty of drive-through clearance on both sides, widely spaced gas and diesel pumps, a much better selection of snacks, and lots of conveniently placed buckets of windshield cleaning fluid with long-handled squeegee/sponge window cleaners. At first the abundance of window cleaning supplies surprised me, but now it makes perfect sense.

During the 12 hours or so that it takes for the RV tank to fill, I always scrub the windshield. And yet, no matter how often or how thoroughly I scrub in an attempt to get it clean-ish enough to see the road, a smeary layer of dead insects and bees and butterfly splats just builds up again. I’m honestly relieved that the bend under the RV canopy is too high to see into without a ladder. There are so many flocks of birds that like to swoop down in front of us while we’re moving (Riding the air currents? Playing chicken? Going through some kind of teenage bird initiation ceremony?) that I’m frankly afraid of what I might find wedged in there.

So many tiny deaths. The only consolation is that at least they never know when it happens. Though it may be unfair, I feel sad and guilty about hitting butterflies and dragonflies in a way I don’t about other insects. To see all those delicate bits of loveliness obliterated is strangely painful, particularly when it feels as though we need all the beauty and wonder the world can produce.

Then there are the astonishing number of dead animals on the side of the road, little bundles of fur and occasionally feathers, slumped as though melting into the concrete or quietly crumbling back into the earth. Though I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that freeways would be lined with carcasses. Multi-ton boxes of metal hurtling along at high speeds are bound to do damage to whatever else might be trying to exist in the same general area.

I imagine small creatures warning their offspring with cautionary fairy tales about those great rivers of death, little circles of wide-eyed rabbits and foxes and deer sitting around the elders as they spin yarns about the ghost-filled wastelands that eat any who dare to cross, telling stories of the unwise adventurers who attempted the journey but disappeared into screaming flashes of light, never to be seen again. Maybe they have an entire mythology built around blazing demigods and daemons who must not be approached lest they crush any unwary supplicant in the all-encompassing power of their passage.

About 35 miles outside of Amarillo, right along the side of the freeway, there’s an old grain elevator. From a distance it’s rusted and sad-looking, apparently abandoned, and wearing a forlorn air of deterioration and neglect. But as you get closer something magical happens. The metal and dirt and discolored wood gradually transform in front of your eyes into something that looks more and more like a centuries-old stone chapel, until suddenly you find yourself astonished by its beauty.

There’s something joyous yet haunting about that transformation from ruin to relic, and I can’t help wondering if it’s a place where the ghosts of all the creatures killed by our passage gather in their own chapel of the forgotten dead.

It’s at this point that mom, who has been napping (and seriously neglecting her photographer duties, which is why we have no moody photo of the chapel of the forgotten dead), suddenly sits up and leans to the side, then shrieks. Given that I’ve just spent the last half hour pondering death, I naturally assume she must be having a medical episode and might need to be rushed to the nearest hospital.

“What? Mom! What’s wrong?”


“Is it your back? Is it your heart? Are you having a stroke?”

She turns and looks at me as though I’ve lost my mind.

“What? No, I’m not having a stroke! What are you talking about?”

Swallowing the momentary panic, I grip the steering wheel, hard, and try not to grind my teeth.

“Why. Are. You. Shrieking?”

She points toward the door.

“I dropped my phone down the side of my seat and I can’t reach it. I think it’s gone!”

This is… unexpected. And baffling.

“It can’t be gone. The door is closed and the window is up.”

“No,” she replies, waving her hands in a fluster. “I don’t think it fell through the floor, that would be silly! I’m afraid it’s broken.”

The wave of relief I feel upon realizing that my mother isn’t actually about to die in front of me convinces me that if I just wait a minute or two I’ll probably stop wanting to kill her for making me think she was about to die in front of me just because she dropped her damn phone. One deep calming breath. Two deep calming breaths.


“Yes, sweetie?”

“First of all, it’s highly unlikely that the phone is broken. Second of all, can we please agree that from this point forward you will not scream, or shriek, or do anything dramatic that could possibly be misconstrued as meaning you’re in mortal danger or having a medical emergency unless you are, in fact, in mortal danger or having a medical emergency?”

She looks surprised, then abashed.

“Oops. Sorry.”

There’s silence for another moment.

“Um… Do you think we could pull over and find the phone?”


  1. Kerry

    Love this so much, Amber. So much pathos and poetry.

  2. Diane

    Gave me a Watership Down vibe which is one of my favorite novels.
    Watch out for “hurududus” little creatures!


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