CHOLAME – I am on a morbid mission and, frankly, I am a little spooked. I am driving east on Highway 46 from Paso Robles toward the junction with Highway 41 – all for the sole purpose of visiting the site of James Dean's fatal car accident.
My mind keeps flashing back to ghoulish black-and-white photos of twisted metal on the roadside, images of Dean's demise easily downloadable these days and sure to stay in your mind's eye.
It doesn't ease anxieties that this stretch of 46 is a narrow road that seems fraught with hazards that I fear might lead to my own demise – only without the attendant fame and public outpouring of affection that a '50s movie star commands. Me? I'd be just another statistic.
Call me wimpy, but every roadside signs seem portentous:
"Daylight Headlights Section"
"Help Promote WRECKless Driving"
"Please Drive Safely"
"Report Drunken Driving"
Of course, these signs can be seen – and, let's be honest, ignored – on any number of remote California highways. But this time, I am paying heed. Unnerving skid marks mar the asphalt at several intersections on the snaking path. A severed side mirror on the soft shoulder gets my attention. All around me lie only beige hillocks, not a gas station in sight.
For the first time in recorded history, I am driving below the speed limit – 50 in a 55-mph zone – and, in doing so, ticking off a conga line of drivers behind me. I pull into a rest area about five miles from my destination to splash water on my face and keep the screaming fantods at bay.
What I see shakes my confidence even more. A posterboard history reads, ominously, "Miles below your feet, two huge chunks of the earth's crust, tectonic plates, are grinding slowly past each other. Just east of Cholame, the highway crosses (San Andreas) fault line where the two plates meet."
I also learn the earth here moves 2 inches a year and, every 22 years or so, there's a 6.0 temblor.
Great. Wonderful. Just my luck. I temporarily forget about the irony of dying in a car accident on the way to a memorial for a car accident victim and start envisioning the company hybrid car being swallowed in the gaping maw of a riven fault line.
At last, I pull myself together and drive the last few miles toward Dean's demise with no further freakouts.
The James Dean memorial, erected in 1983 by a Japanese businessman who was just wild about the star of "Rebel Without a Cause," "East of Eden" and "Giant," sits smack-dab in the parking lot of the Jack Ranch Cafe, which is smack-dab in the middle of nowhere.
(For you sticklers, yes, I know that the memorial is 800 yards west of where the crash on Sept. 30, 1955, took place. And I know that the current junction of highways 46 and 41 is not the true crash site, either. The roads were moved – and improved – in the decades since, and the actual site is now pastureland.)
As tributes go, it's tasteful and understated. It consists of a tree encircled by stainless steel and concrete with two plaques at the base. Inscribed is the benefactor's (one Seita Ohnishi) tribute to Dean: "It stands for James Dean and other American Rebels who taught us the importance of having a cause."
A family in an SUV has pulled up and stands staring at the tree. Teenager Jeremy Pruyn of Lake Havasu, Ariz., has dad Jack snap his picture in front of it.
Afterward, I asked Jeremy if he knows who James Dean was.
"Not really," he said.
A couple then join me under the tree's natural canopy. This is Gary and Sue Giberson of Huntington Beach. They are in their late 60s and sure as heck know James Dean. They are on their way to their grandkids' graduation in Santa Cruz and just had to stop, again. This isn't their first time.
"We stopped here a long time ago," Gary said. "Now we can't remember. Did he get killed back there when he was coming off 41? It says 800 yards east of here, so "
"They said," Sue adds, "that whoever ran into him was coming off a farm road, so it had to be that one up there."
The Gibersons know the history: how Dean was speeding in his brand-new Porsche 550 Spyder, how the 1950 Ford Tudor coupe, driven by a Cal Poly San Luis Obispo student, turned left into him, how Dean was instantly crushed.
To leaven the mood, the Gibersons tell a funny story that involves Dean. They were at a performance of the play "Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean," about a James Dean fan club, when at intermission the woman next to them started chatting them up.
Sue: "This old gal says, 'I didn't know Dean ever did movies. I thought all he did was make sausages.' I said, 'No, that's Jimmy Dean. This play's about James Dean.' "
They certainly know James inside the neighboring Jack Ranch Cafe. But, who knows, they might serve Jimmy's links, too. In any event, worker Ethan Gonsalves says the restaurant embraces all things Dean, as evidenced by the scores of publicity photos on the walls, a life-size cardboard cutout, and books about Dean they sell.
"A lot of people just come in because of the Dean thing," Gonsalves says. "I've met people from all over the world. Most of our locals who eat here are cowboys or farmers coming in for a steak or a drink. But the locals don't mind. It kind of gives us our 15 minutes of fame."
After 15 minutes at the Dean memorial, my morbid mood has been lightened, and I'm itching to hit the road. I've got a long way to go to reach Sacramento by sundown.
I turn left on Highway 41, headed for Interstate 5. The sign says "End Daytime Headlight Section." I'm pushing 70 now. Damn, when is that passing lane going to get here? These slow cars really tick me off.