Looking For James Dean

by William J. Hughes, January 25, 2012

If you go, take a full day trip to go round trip. September is the best time to go. That's a qualified best time because it's the James Dean Memorial Junction — where State 46 meets State 41 outside Paso Robles — where James Dean and his infamous car crash occurred on September 30, 1955.

You take the I-5 south from Sacramento for about three hours to state 41 at Kettleman City. Kettleman City is burgers and gas, but once you turn off, heading north on 41, you'll drive through some lovely, pastoral rolling hills of burnt golds and still verdant greens.

20 or 25 minutes on 41 to the junction with 46 gives you time to feel James Dean coming, to appreciate his presence, then, now — always.

Roll to a stop at the junction, wire fences, some cattle grazing, low-lying hills, dusty brown, without housing, silence, the tall green and white sign: “James Dean Memorial Junction” — finally set in place several years ago by the area's local state politicians.

It's all very real. It could be Wyoming or Dakota. The Dean myths are made real. Truly a California place.

It's about 3:30pm. Dean will be coming in about an hour.

Time enough to drive east on Highway 46 for a bit and trace the route of Dean's silver Porsche Spider, the “Little Bastard.”

He's got a recent cash contract with Warner Bros., a new sports car, a race in Salinas, a drive up from Los Angeles.

Driving up 46 for about 20 miles you'll come to a still countrified mini-store. There you'll see a billboard sized Jimmy with laurel flowers by local artist John Cerney. It will sort of stop you in your — and Dean's — tracks. James Dean stopped here just before the final scene.

It's beautiful back in here, again, wire fences, ranchland, sensuous, wheat golden hills, little to no traffic.

Here he comes, with his mechanic passenger, full out, James Dean, only seen in “East of Eden,” so far invincible, only 24 years old.

You can stop along 46 and guess at where he was stopped for speeding. His last living act was to sign a speeding ticket: James Byron Dean.

This day's and that day's glomming dust is settling in.

No headlights, low to the ground, Dean's Spider is speeding toward the intersection.

The 54 Ford Fairlane, driven by Dave Turnupseed (that's right) is coming up to the intersection. He's east on 46, ready to turn left onto 41 south. James Dean is coming straight on.

“He's not going to turn…” the Dean myth says. But the 54 Ford Fairlane made of solid US steel does turn left.

Does he see James Dean? Perhaps. Does he try to get out of his way? Perhaps. Does Dean slowdown? Perhaps. Fate? Perhaps.

You can feel it in the front seat of your car. Dean's sheet-metal Spider hits the Fairlane, Dean's driver's side out, shearing it away, snapping Jimmy's neck, crushing his chest. Instant death? Perhaps — the mechanic is thrown clear and alive.

Roll to a stop, no traffic signals, no weekday traffic. “Two fast too live/too young to die…”

Ah, what might have been — “Easy Rider” with him.

From the junction, stay on 46 for just a bit and you'll come to the Jack Ranch Cafe and its gravel parking lot — at a spot in the road, Choalme, California. The Jack Ranch Cafe is a true roadhouse ramshackle, ornery and still active — all by its lonesome. A true original, cowboy boots and spurs or red jacket, white t-shirt, jeans, motorcycle boots.

In the gravel parking lot you will see one lone oak tree, tall, thick and spidery. Partially wrapped around the oak like an embrace, tall, thick and silver — James Dean and his life dates.

The memorial has been described as representing a car fender wrapped around a tree, representing the accident?

Not so — it's a peace garden. You will understand when you read the inscription words of Seiti Ohmishi, on a plaque at your feet. Seiti Ohmishi, the Japanese businessman who gave us this memorial in thanks to James Dean and much more. It can bring you to tears, so unexpected. It did.

You can sit and have a Jack Ranch beer on the low stone wall around the memorial.

Daylight is fading, casting shadows across the open ranchland. Quiet on the set.

Dinner in Steinbeck's Salinas. Right into “East of Eden” and home.

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