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Thursday, May 26, 2011

HOT SPOTS in CA: The James Dean Memorial

James Dean billboard at the gas station, now a Texaco,
where he filled up his tank for the last time.

The situations that bring me around to certain celebrities are peculiar. True, it could be purely circumstantial-- the way I bounce from studying one person to another. Yet, I cannot deny that there is a strange sort of synchronicity in my life, which brings different subjects to the forefront at the perfect time. I say this only to set up the unity that I forged with James Dean over the past couple of months. Not to get too personal, but I haven't been myself lately. For various reasons, I have found myself stuck, confused... Let's face it, I've been a deer in headlights. Getting to the source of my existential dilemma has not been an easy one, but the feelings of immobility and sometimes abject fear have been difficult to cope with. Particularly for me: a Grau, for whom Stagnation is synonymous with Death. As such, in retaliation against my mental and physical paralysis, there has been but one thought echoing in my mind: escape. All I have wanted to do is open the door, take off running, and not stop; hop a plane to anywhere and not look back. But mostly, I've felt the urge to jump in the car, turn the ignition, and just friggin' drive. The feeling of motion, and most particularly motion without purpose or pressure, has been tantamount. I needed to get away. Thus, my road trip brain child was born.

It is probably no surprise, considering my pedal-to-the-metal frame of mind, that James Dean (left) entered my thoughts. Thus, visiting the scene of his tragic crash site became item #1 on the itinerary. So, as I planned my getaway over the coming months-- which would include another visit to Hearst Castle, a trip to the Winchester Mystery Mansion, and a pilgrimage to poor Bettie Short's grave in Oakland-- I started re-boning up on my Jimmy info. Whereas, in the past, I had looked upon JD as a strange, otherworldly creature, one very different from  my all-too-grounded and responsible self, this time around I was able to find our commonalities. Strange as it sounds, driving brought us together. I could see his attraction to racing. In the same way that I love flying-- being in the air and completely out of control, and thus free-- I feel that at this juncture/crisis of my life, I can empathize with a racer's mindset. When all the world is crazy, when nothing is certain, when you can't shut off the pressure-filled voices in your head, there is a certain, profound beauty in being able to get behind the wheel and just drive, even if it's only in circles. These past weeks, I have even skipped my lunch break to simply drive-- not the best idea, gas prices being what they are-- but it relaxes me. And so, as the date for my trip grew closer, I was chomping at the bit to get in the driver's seat and get the Hell out of dodge. With my lovely mother serving as my co-pilot, I finally hit the open road on April 17, 2011. While all of my voyage would be enjoyable, it was the moments surrounding James that I will always remember. There comes a moment when researching all of these various people where I go, "Aha, I found you!" In keeping with the spirit of Hollywood's favorite speed demon, I found James Dean, thus, while gripping the steering wheel. Here are the locations were JD and I collided:

To begin my journey, I took the I-5 North. Starting out around 10am on a Sunday, Ma and I were blessed with no traffic. Had I wanted to remain more faithful to Jimmy's drive, I would have veered onto the 99 North, which was the highway he took before the 5 even existed, but I stayed on the more modern course. After about 2 hours, I hit CA Route 46 and followed it West. Knowing that I was getting closer to the famous crash site, I started getting antsy. The area grew less populated as we passed through the small town of Lost Hills. A school, a few small shops, and a dusty field full of oil rigs (made me think of Jett Rink) met our view. Then, there was nothing but land and a two-lane highway (under construction nonetheless). I gradually became hyper-aware of my surroundings as well as the astonishingly low speed limit. The sun was shining, the day was beautiful, and it would have been so easy to push the pedal down a little, but for the knowledge of James's fate-- and for fear of getting a ticket-- I maintained the designated pace. Going 55 mph was bad enough, but when it got down to 45 mph, it was almost intolerable. Despite this, I was in high spirits. I noticed that all of the cars around me were driving respectfully, though some did dare to up the ante and pass me. Passers-by were cautious, turning on their headlights in the mandatory headlight zone, and I found myself wondering if this strange stipulation was enforced specifically because of what had happened to Dean, or if many others had suffered injuries or lost their lives on this same road due to hazardous driving? I too wondered if the other cars were aware of the sacred ground they rolled upon or were simply passing through. There did seem to be a strange, communal understanding in the atmosphere. (Jimmy pulls away in "Little Bastard," right).

Then, on my left, I saw the Texaco-- the last gas station for several miles, and James Dean's last stop before his wreck. Passing quickly, I was able to catch a glimpse of the two artistic billboards dedicated to him, now marking the infamous site, and continued on, making a mental note to return later. Onward we drove. Again, I felt nothing but freedom-- the joy of life purely in the moment and without consequence. Underneath the bright sun, listening to my iPod on shuffle, life was good. This too is something that JD allegedly said to driving partner Rolf Wutherich as they headed down this same road: "Life is good." In this moment, I felt Dean's happiness; the simple purity of his life, otherwise so riddled with conflict. This was what made him happy, and his absolute fearlessness enveloped me as I continued on. Finally, I hit the 46/41 intersection, now known as the "James Dean Memorial Junction" (left). Over 55 years ago, on September 30, 1955, this was where Jimmy met his doom when Cal Poly student Donald Turnupseed failed to see him while merging from the CA-41 onto the CA-46. Yet, in the present, while taking note of the locale's importance, I felt no despair. Today was about life, not death. I passed on, leaving the bleak end of James behind and embracing only his life.

Not long after, we arrived at the Jack Ranch Cafe, home to the memorial sculpture designed by Seita Ohnishi in James Dean's honor. Ma and I pulled over, parked the car, and investigated the simple yet sublime monument. Erected in 1977, the silver, clean-lined marker stands in the center of the diner parking lot, surrounded only by green hills stretching as far as the eye can see. The sculpture remains wrapped around the "Tree of Life," as stipulated by Ohnishi, whose Japanese brethren consider this flora to be sacred. It also possesses a quote from one of Jimmy's favorite pieces of literature, The Little Prince: "What is essential is invisible to the eye." A set of plaques commemorate the brief but impactful life of Dean, and there too is a plaque honoring Ohnishi's tribute and the method behind his design. While this location is not Dean's exact crash site, nor his grave site, it still possesses a powerful presence-- an energy of a brilliant life left behind. It was heart-warming to enjoy it, however briefly, and after kissing the shrine goodbye, my partner and I giddy-upped to Paso Robles, where we toasted James at the Dark Star Cellars winery.

Jimmy's memorial at The Jack Ranch Cafe. It reads:
James Dean 1931 Feb 8 - 1955 Sep 30 pm 5:59 (and the symbol for eternity).

To visit the memorial, visit The Jack Ranch Cafe on Route 46 at 19215 East Hwy 46, Shandon, CA 93461. If you punch this into your GPS and arrive at your destination only to be met with nothing but empty fields, never fear. Just keep driving. You can't miss it, for this lone building is the only structure for several miles.

My story didn't end there. After leaving Paso Robles behind and travelling up North, Ma and I returned back South down the I-5 three days later. Remembering that we had neglected to stop at the Texaco when visiting the James Dean Memorial, we elected to make one last, quick stop before returning home. Hopping back on the 46 West yet again, we approached the infamous gas station. Yet, as the sun began to set, the atmosphere became quite different from our initial voyage down the same road. Perhaps it was merely the quickly darkening sky-- which made me worry that we wouldn't make it in time to take pictures-- or perhaps it was just the melancholy knowledge that my brief vacation was almost over, but this time I felt a bit sad. If trip #1 down Route 46 represented James's life, trip #2 suddenly felt like his death. A sense of foreboding fell on my shoulders. I became oddly anxious and nervous, especially as cars whizzed past me heedless of the low speed limit-- very different from the drivers I'd encountered previously. As the sun continued to dip down behind the hills, I kept thinking, "Time is running out. Time is running out..." Telling indeed. The liberated feeling of endless possibilities was gone. In its place was the curse of an irreparable ending.

Luckily, just as I was about to give up hope, the Texaco came into view. I made a left and managed to take a few pictures of the Dean billboards, which bookend the lot. One pictures him standing in his red windbreaker, as he appeared in Rebel Without a Cause. The second is a bust of his youthful face surrounded by flowers as he appeared in East of Eden. Walking into the store, which was once the Blackwell's Corner Market (right), there was little to greet the eye. A large space, it was mostly empty, filled with scattered patrons and a few aisles of snacks and knick-knacks. On one wall, some life-sized cardboard cut-outs of JD and Marilyn Monroe were on display. Further in the shop came a surprise: a large dining space made to look like a retro, Hollywood Diner a la Googies or Mel's. Sitting at the soda fountain was a dummy, dressed to look like James but failing miserably. Strange to think that 55 years ago, Jimmy had come into this store, then a very different environment, paid for his full tank, and taken off to meet his doom a mere 40 miles away. Downtrodden, but making my peace with it, I filled up my own tank, and then Mama Mia and I hopped back in my broken down car and returned to Los Angeles. My James voyage was sadly over.

James Dean's Rebel billboard at the infamous Texaco.

To visit the Texaco, again make the stop down the CA-46 at 17193 Highway 46, Lost Hills, CA 93249. It is about a third of the way between the I-5 and the JD memorial.  

While these areas don't really give you much to do but meander and reminisce, they are still worth visiting. They are landmarks on the road maps of true fans and those out to pay their respects through physical pilgrimage. For those looking for a way to burn off steam while burning rubber, the drive itself is quite relaxing, and at least gives you an ending point, so you're not wandering in circles. I chose the simpler route, but if you are a huge Dean fan, I suggest taking the following itinerary, which stays as true as possible to the last drive of that wonderful, adorable, deeply missed James Dean. While sitting back and watching a movie can provide a pleasant enough form of escape, it can at times prove too passive. Living and feeling without consequence is temporarily liberating, but finally limiting. When you can't take life sitting down, sometimes you must go out and meet it... and occasionally old ghosts. Happy trails.


  1. Nice story Meredith. I have been to the crash site, but didn't realize the Blackwell market was still around. Completely missed it. I will definitely check it out and the billboards next time I go.

    1. Thanks! You should definitely check it out. It's really simple, but somehow appropriate. :)

  2. What a great write up. I also made it up there and thought you might like to watch this video and hear Jimmy's voice. It is here I am headed up again next week.


    1. Ooh! Thanks so much for passing that on. And thanks for reading. Enjoy your trip, and say "hi" to JD for me. :)