Press "Enter" to skip to content

James Dean Lives!


Marfa, Texas, of all places. Three hours southwest out of El Paso, Texas, of all places.

Los Angeles, Paso Robles, Cholame, CA, Fairmount, IN, Manhattan, NY. Some of the James Dean sites I set my sights and my feet on.

Marfa, Texas, where they filmed Dean’s ‘Giant.’ Of all places, ‘Giant’ was filmed there. A must if James Dean is to be made more whole.

He got hold of me at the Griffith Observatory in LA, Rebel Without a Cause; and at the crash site, Paso Robles.

Then from the crash site to Salinas and Steinbeck and Dean’s ‘East of Eden.’ And then to Fairmount, IN, James Dean’s hometown. Deeply touching.

Deep in the heart of Texas now, 95 degrees, hot and dusty, just the way the make-believe folks of the Riata ranch of ‘Giant’ lived it.

I’m not expecting much from Marfa, tumbleweed and the remains of the windmill from Dean’s ‘Little Riata’ in the film.

That’s why I’ve come to west Texas, across the rattlesnake land, a Willa Cather Texas, flat and burned, dry bone, high plateau, steel gray mountains in the clear distance.

Van Horn, turn south for Marfa, about 75 miles, Van Horn? Can’t say I recommend it.

Flat and 75 mph, air conditioning on high; so is Buddy Holly.

I’ve been to see Buddy in his Lubbock, hometown and his crash site in Clear Lake, Iowa. With him on the CD in West Texas feels like home.

Wide open — fenced-in spaces. Wait a dern minute. Did I just see a solitary, hip little country store, like cowpokes come to the Hamptons, under construction with Prada Marfa written on its brow?

I did, flashing by… that Prada, in Marfa? Beats me.

Well, I’ll be, right on the edge of Marfa, a dead and decaying roadside sign for the Thunderbird Motel like a 1950s nuke test had taken it out. About what I’d expected.

Marfa, Pop 2,221. About what I’d expected.

Cheapo Liquor, I kid you not, like a bad Clint Eastwood adobe, right behind the Marfa’s name sign. About what, etc.

But, stopped at the four-way blinking light traffic stop, I turn to my left and up the street there’s a civic building that makes the make-believe grand Riata house from ‘Giant’ just that.

This stately beauty of a country courthouse building would go well on Knob or Beacon Hill. Hmm.

Find the cheapest motel in town. That should be easy at about 3pm. Texas time.

Hmm. A very starkly stylish art gallery, Urbane Gallery to be exact, exactly next to a 50s nuke blast auto repair shop.

A very stylish guy out front who appears to be dropping live fish into a stylish open-air fish tank. Hmm.

Him, he’s from Florida. What’s he doing here? As he directs me to the $55 a night Riata Inn up the road. My other motel options are in the $100 range. Hmm.

I’m told it’s Judd and the Chinati Foundation.

Now I know. Now I recollect a piece in the New Yorker about Michael Judd & Marfa a few years back. I never connected or expected me or Judd to be here in Marfa. Now that Prada Marfa back out of town begins to make some sense, I guess.

Stylish guy at the gallery gives me a bit of a low-down on Judd and his somewhat Cristo effect on Marfa. Then he goes back to his tropical fish.

I head up the road to the Riata Inn. Yep, same as the ranch in ‘Giant.’ Cool.

Semi-crummyish, but OK for two nights.

Drop backs, drink two ice machine aided Pepsis. It’s still in the hot mid-90’s.

James Dean in Marfa. Of all places. Another Pepsi and a little logic weed from California.

Marfa, Pop 2,221 and growing if the guy at the gallery was any indication.

You can put the new guy in town, but you can’t take the town out of it: Carmen’s Café, across the street from the Urban Gallery. Bogart, Duke Mantee, ‘Petrified Forest’ was shot here, on location, the café absolutely stopped in the same time, the same setting, hot dry Texas keepin’ Carmen’s Café together.

Marfa ID’d, already a most reassured endeavor. I’ve got a little paper place mat foldout, a numbered site city map from the motel spread out on my lap. Carmen’s Café comes in as #4. It’s just what I expected in this here Texas town.

Down to the blinking stoplight — more like y’all take ‘er easy up ahead stop light.

Turn right across the railroad tracks, highway signs like eye charts, dust, hot, cattle truck, PALACE, the ancient/American dry-dust-preserved movie marquee, solitary, an opera house where the Booths would have felt right at home. Hmm. So far, no real sense of being in Dixie. Texas — a confederacy unto itself? But so far…

The courthouse building at the end of the main block is outrageously fine and preserved and in business.

It’s a bureaucratic Xanadu, almost unreal in its pristine presence, Riata on good feed and good water. A Texas birthday cake.

There’s the store front Marfa Chamber of Commerce. A friendly port in my sailing along.

I’d called Marfa, surprised to learn that there was a Chamber of Commerce. Sorry.

It’s Mayberry/Marfa RFD comfy and cozy office, a rack of free brochures, a short glass case with Marfa T-shirts, a desk, a phone, a woman, some paper and box clutter. ‘Giant’ was filmed 50 years ago here in Marfa. Some of the clutter is left over from the city celebrating.

The stylish woman, she’s from Houston. I could tell right away she wasn't from around these parts.

She and her husband have moved here to retire — and the hurricane, Rita, was a-comin’.

She’s restoring an adobe home in town. She’s full of enthusiasm for her town and its movie screen set-up on the main street, showing ‘Giant’ on its 50th anniversary. The whole town, the whole world was invited.

She gives me no names: let’s call Ms. A. and Ms. L. Young girls, extras on ‘Giant.’ They knew Dean. I want very much to meet them.

Ms. Chamber of Commerce wants very much for me to stay in Marfa, help fill up the artistic community. What can I say? You’re still in Texas, executing people day and night. I just say, “You’re a long way from San Diego…”

She heads me towards the windmill on Dean’s ‘Little Riata.’

Official bookstore and coffee cup scene, another gallery, a large tan building, something or other of the Chinati Foundation. Maybe an old railroad depot?

But first I’ll look in on the Chinati Foundation. They have a Claes Oldenburg; info from a fine color brochure of Marfa from off of the Chamber’s rack.

The Oldenburg represents a large rusted horseshoe with one long spike. “The Last Horse,” set out in open dry and dusty.

Down the side streets of Marfa, somewhat paved, somewhat not. Some poverty, some not. Some Chicano, some semblance of suburbs.

Border Patrol HQ for this gigantic district. Good luck.

No luck at the Chinati Foundation, a serious front gate with a serious lock.

You can see the hanger/barracks-like building where Judd had his initial Marfa installation.

Concrete blocks out in the yellow dry grass. Some of his work? Like discarded drainage pipes. Sorry.

The windmill, to bring up some make-believe water to make-believe ‘Little Riata.’

That’s why I’ve come. Ms. Charming, chic Chamber of Commerce, told me it’s about 10 miles out of town the way in. It’s still standing, 50 years after the make-believe facts.

But second, back in town to check out the Paisano Hotel, almost attached to the Chamber of Commerce, with its semi-Moorish/Colonial-Spanish entrance and its Gene Autry hallway and lobby, ritzy in a Tom Mix/Will Rogers/ Tex Ritter sort of way. Charming.

Elizabeth Taylor herself stayed here during filming. More charming. James Dean hung around here. Most amazing, being here, personally, for the actor, the legend and the person. Most satisfying.

Quiet on the set, not exactly the racing season, big buffalo’s head on the wall like a Hemingway/Bill Cody home.

There’s room off the hallway set aside for Dean and ‘Giant,’ photos, off limits, T-shirts, posters, fake Dean’s driver’s license, etc., Jimmy, etc.

All a little bit out of reach at mostly $14.95 and up. No postcards, especially the famous shot of Dean all covered in black oil from the gusher, ‘Little Riata’s’ oil well.

Well? The windmill before a Dairy Queen dinner back at the Riata Inn.

Driving back out of town the way I came in, air conditioning, way up, still required.

I can’t find it. I’m looking, prairie, prairie ranchland on out to the hard dry mountains. No windmill.

I was told in the lobby of the Paisano Hotel that the windmill is small, made to fit in a movie shot to include backdrop mountains. Not bad for a front desk clerk, huh?

Beats me. I’ve gone far enough. There’ll be time tomorrow.

Long, slow freight train haulin’ along in the opposite direction whistles me back home to Marfa.

Back to the Dairy Queen, absolutely intact from every ‘Last Picture Show’ town in America, an empty, abandoned grocery store across the street, railroad tracks out back of the DQ, pickup trucks out front. And James Dean attached. Priceless.

$12 for a full DQ to go.

The price for gas here in Texas? $2.89. Thought it might be cheaper. But no oil wells pumpin’ out this way.

The stars at night are big and bright. Tomorrow night.

Este dia en Marfa. No mas. No necesario.


Day 2

Up early with the Texas dew on the Texas sage. It’s Big Bend National Park today. A drive and just a look-see. I’m here, I have to. About 100 miles south from Marfa.

Carmen’s Café just down the road for breakfast. Already hot.

Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, Leslie Howard are sitting at a window table, smoking, waiting for the stage to arrive. James Dean’s twirlin’ his rope, hangin’ his hat on the required, all types of barbed wire spice rack display above the Alexander Graham Bell cash register, absolutely bare necessities, two rooms, faded western saga frescoes on the walls, the waitresses too, faded frescoes of Chicanas too long in too dry Texas.

I seat myself, a few other folks, all of them striking displays of life against the faded murals.

Foreigners, for of them, at one table, pronounced English use accents. Mexican-American family of six like they’d climbed down off a ranch wagon parked at the curb.

One dazzling, naturally tanned beauty of a woman, all decked out in LL Bean, beautiful, obvious breasts. Love at first glancing glance. She’s with some skinny, redhead LLBean guy with a four hundred pound diver/climber watch.

Me and Ms. Lovely LL Bean exchange smiles while he’s paying their tab. I love her and she loves me — but whattaya gonna do…

A Santa Claus without the beard has, uninvited, shoved his way into the foreigners’ conversation at the table next to him, good-naturedly and lonely.

He’s oil, proud of it — they’re architects. That Marfa magic again. What are they doing here?

They finish their breakfast and get up to go. I have to know.

One of them, the woman, is from Britain. She lives here in Marfa. She’s young mid 60’s, rail thin, weathered chic. The other architects are visiting from Germany. They look the part, red-faced and portly and somehow here in Marfa.

With them gone, portly Santa Claus oil guy gets it on with me. He does oil, in fuckin’ Siberia! What the hell is he doing here?

He’s interesting but once I mentioned Dean he suddenly knows Chill Wills and every other cowboy in Hollywood history. That’s enough, and besides, Ms. LL Bean beautiful is up and going to the ladies room. I undress with her hands.

Adios bonita…

Bonita, right away, south out of town, the hills that are going to become Big Bend already forming or falling away depending on your direction of travel.

Bonita, Arizona and New Mexico Tex-mix, the prairie ocean showing some swells, some rifts, some local continental shifts, Comanche bluffs and Apache cliffs, the road a rope trick, twisting and turning, rising and falling, pancake flat, plateau tall.

I’m going to shorten the day a bit by passing through Presidio, TX, gateway to Big Bend Ranch State Park right along the Rio Grande US-Mexico border along Rt. 170. I’ve still got that windmill to take care of back in Marfa.

No fences along this enormous border; none of the DMZ-style killing fields up around San Diego way.

Unmarked horses wander along beside the two-lane road.

This could be the holy land, palisades of sheer rock, pillars of salt, well, rocks, the Negev Desert does Austin City Limits, the greenish Rio Grande twisting into view, disappearing down a canyon, reappearing, green grasses on its edges, hard rock dry and climbing high above it, narrow road between towering stone, watch for falling rocks, listen to the ceremonial Doors: “Texas radio and the big beat. . .”

Still plenty of heat, no one in sight, left, right, up, down.

Suddenly, almost impossibly, a big black SUV Cadillac Escalade, like a conquistador’s armor, parked in a turnout.

A fake adobe village. A movie set? Yep. A sign says so.

It looks like a more miniature John Wayne could come amblin’ in to the more miniature set.

The family from the black conquistador armored vehicle is in there having a look around. Mad dogs, Englishmen and a Mexican-American family.

Cool air-conditioned air, cool, cool water cupped in my palm, me and my horse at the edge of the Rio Grande. Dreams on the land.

Land of Georgia O’Keefe dreamscapes.

Dreamscape, teepees, colorful murals on their hide/sides.

Nope and yep, but just an impressive rest area above the river. Stop.

“Rio Grande”

Rio Grande

I’d swim you but I can’t

Late at night

Flickering fire

Keeps me warm

And safe from harm…”

Brian Wilson serenades the scene, the narrow Rio Grande.

Go. Git goin’ Back to Marfa, Buddy Holly, the best of west Texas on the CDio.

Terlingua? Gas station entranceway to Big Bend nearby.

No one in the way, 85, 90 mph. Back through the same country as Marfa, dry prairie, dry mountains, “dry martini/jigger of gin.” It’s all Nevada with soul.

Buddy Holly and his Bob Wills band of rock ‘n roll.

Alpine, Texas, stopped at the edge of town railroad tracks, freight train, as far as the Eyes of Texas can see.

Shut off the engine, get out, sit on the fender panel.

There’s some University here, rather Athenian, gathered on a Grecian, Texas hill.

Football? It’s some university in Texas. Right next to the tracks. Not exactly the Cotton Bowl but big enough to hold all its own. “Hook ‘em you horns” out loud.

The Marfa water tower and the country courthouse comin’ into view, another island in the Texas ocean.

Water tower. Windmill. Right. Right out to where I couldn’t find it, and god damn it all, I still can’t find it, until I’m too many miles out to where the Air Force has some miniature weather blimp/spy/listening blimp moored to some small Mars landing colony.

Back towards Marfa I go.. . . Literally, a Texas utility truck workin’ on the wires.

Like askin’ a Con Ed worker in New York, same hard hat, different accent. Me and him, alone on the prairie.

“Sure,” he tells me. “It’s about five six miles up the road on yer left. Y’all see a for sale sign. It’s small, the windmill.”

“I know. Thanks.”

“Sure thing.”

The first sign I see is Hughes Cattle Co. No kiddin’. If you look on the title page you’ll see Hughes. So, at least eight photos of that karma.

I still don’t see it. I still don’t see the windmill on ‘Little Riata’ that James Dean climbed up on. That reason I’ve come to Texas.

I still don’t.

I do. There it is. Whip a u-turn and get off on the road shoulder. From this distance it looks rusty red.

How do you like them windmills. James Dean on site, on location? How did I wind-mill up here? Aww, shucks, just smart luck, I reckon.

The wire fence is posted: private property, no trespassing, former New Yorker/Californians will be shot twice on sight.

The lineman for the county drives by and honks his county horn in recognition.

I wave back with my two gallon ball cap.

That settles the already settled. The windmill’s about 150 yards in on private property.

I slip up a loose wire flap in the fence. No one around for endless miles.

I hurry under the fence, through the dry sage, through a dry wash. Dry wash? Where does a suburbanite come up with a Zane Gray? Wonderful.

Slow down, walk right up to the aging skeleton, under and through the aging fence post frame that once dangled ‘Little Riata’ from its cross post. Elizabeth Taylor will appear at any moment.

There’s a tall, sheet metal, working windmill out beyond Dean’s smaller, wooden version. That may have been what kept throwing me off, too obvious to notice its lesser half.

Half gone, and half here, the dry bone, wind blown, time worn ‘Giant’ windmill, still god damn standing after all these 50 years, still tall enough to hold its own young actor, a Quixote on the prairie, both windmill and knight errant.

Touch it. Touch Dean. Gently. I don’t want to break the darn thing.

I’m already composing letters to Warner Bros. and the head of Texas Parks & Rec. Get the hell out y’all and save this remarkable American artifact! And that’s a fact, Jack Warner.

The fact of the matter is I got here while it’s still standing.

I’m still there, standing and staring, a bit anxious — that posted fence. But no dust clouds comin’ so I linger wit the legend a bit more.

The ground is brittle it’s so dry. Big blue sky for hundreds of mies. Not a scent of rain. Starbuck; wherefore art thou Starbuck?

I begin the ending of this James Dean.

Back to the car, carefully, rattlesnakes in the parched grass?

One last look back. Too bad, I’ll probably never see it again. Not because it’s in Marfa, TX but because y’all better get out of here and “This old artifact it. . .” Save our history! Ah, shut yer yap you aging hippie bum. . .

Martin Scorcese’s Bob Dylan is on PBS tonight. So that’s the social agenda for Marfa, stopping back at the Chamber of Commerce just to tell them Eureka, I found the windmill.

I notice they have a photo copy of a James Dean local soda ad from ‘Giant’ days. The same photo next door in the Paisano Hotel’s gift shop sells for that $14.95.

Another Chamber of Commerce lady gladly makes me a photo copy of the photo copy. Yipp-ty-yhy-yeah.

A good day finally starts to cool off. Pizza for dinner: the Pizza Foundation — a converted gas station complete with former adobe-like pumping islands under a sheltering overhang. Now yer talkin’, eatin’.

While they prepare a large sausage and mushroom I’m going to check out that Urbane Gallery again.

Its front door is open. Nobody around so I leave a poem of mine about Dean and an announcement of my upcoming 50th anniversary Dean show in Sacramento.

And then another quick check at the Chinati Foundation. Gate still locked. Tomorrow.

Pizza ready, motel ready, Bob Dylan and the plains of west Texas. Bob would approve, what he heard blowin’ through the sage on his home radio as a lad in Minnesota.

Motel room door open to west Texas, Scorcese’s Dylan like the wind, like the hills, like the high and dry, like the 50,000 watts that brought Texas to Minnesota.

Excellent, damn near perfect, pizza and a Pepsi, untumbled weed in my simple pipe. An American’s way of life.

James Dean never heard Bob Dylan. Absorb that for a moment in the vast Texas silence.

Here’s to you, Jimmy, as the stars at night begin the big abd bright.

Once Dylan’s done I’m going to drive back out to where the windmill stands and let the Milky Way crush me like a wine grape, oozing with delight.

Dylan Part 1 done, and the Milky Way does, beach sand numbers, scraping yer scalp, as if the city world you lived in wasn’t worth any effort since it doesn’t include folks in TX last week. Weak.

Barely a shadow shape of the windmill out there in the starlight dark, parked on the shoulder, headlights, engine off.

You can hear Dean breathing.

Can you feel the contentment, the deep sleep?


Day 3

Another bright hot day. Fort Davis, TX, home away from the original Kansas home of the ‘Buffalo Soldiers’ — you know, the freed slave brothers sent west to murder the blood brothers.

It’s only 21 miles to Fort Davis from Marfa and my flight doesn’t leave until tomorrow at 10am.

But today’s first, Ms A & Ms L, the two young ladies, then, eyewitness to James Dean.

Ms A is in an office in town. She was an extra, most especially in the birthday scene in ‘Giant.’

She’s at her desk, at work. I’d called ahead to say I was coming but she still ain’t all that thrilled by my visit.

Of course she met Dean and Liz and Rock, at about age 10. She looks like the Texas wind has worked her over good, tired housewife pushin’ past her 60s.

She won’t let me take her picture, so pressing her hand, the worked flesh that pressed the young actor’s flesh will have to do.

Ms L isn’t in town. Some medical has sent her to El Paso. I hear tell from the Chamber folks that Ms L drove Dean around, at 13, with a hardship, sharecropper’s daughter’s driver’s license? I left a message on her machine.

Checked out of the Riata Inn Motel. It would owe Michelin a star.

Again, that fine country outside of Marfa, flat and rolling, hills and the burnt brown of the earth.

Some large scale, inside earth, greenhouse farming going on a few miles out. It looks like pod production for the ‘Body Snatchers.’

Easy does it to Fort Davis, Texas.

Fort Davis is easy does it if west Texas appeals to you, signature Victorian courthouse on a green knob, cowboy store fronts, quaint and cute, dry and cattle skulls.

Fort Davis itself: dried earthen bricks, signature adobe posts like every adobe post stickin’ out of every adobe wall in the southwest. Lumber buildings too.

Parade grounds, standing and crumbling buildings. A god awful place to have been stationed. First you get the Civil War then you get this. The Comanche and the Apache get it in the neck. Hot.

Buffalo soldiers. The Crips and the Bloods were the tribes? The Buffalo soldiers are the man. Strange.

The woman at the info desk inside the earth brick Visitor Center is from Long Island like me. She now lives in, yep, Marfa. Odd.

I get as many free brochures as I can. Got to give some, well, one to a brother co-worker back home. Black History Day.

The day has one more stop; make that two: I’m still looking for a postcard of Dean under ‘Giant’s’ oil gusher covered in oil — really molasses?

Marfa’s bookstore and coffee klatch and then one last poke at the Chinati Foundation just to plead for a quick look at their Oldenburg.

Their gate is open. It’s not much of a place, more like an abandoned barracks or elementary school.

One young woman at a bare desk, some brochures and postcards set out on a table.

I ask her about going out to see the Claes, by myself.

“No way,” not in those words, but close to them. My, “I’m all the way from California?” are left out.” Fuck you,” is too.

Well, sir, that about wraps up Marfa, Texas. Thanks, Jimmy.

It’s a couple of hours back to El Paso. I don’t want to leave and I don’t want to stay the night and have to start early in the morning.

Adios, Marfa. I’ll never forget you. I’ll most likely never see you again.

I stop on the side of the road. There’s the windmill. I wish you’d lived, Jimmy, and I’m on down the flat road, takin’ it easy does it up Van Horn for gas — why else would you stop?

Hot. AM-FM bands takin’ me towards El Paso and a stripped malled Ramada Inn.

It’s strip mall paradise, nothing of any value; nothing except Scorsese's Dylan Part II is on tonight.

James Dean never got to hear Bob Dylan. ¥¥

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply