JAMES DEAN AND A COUNTRY DRIVE
On a drive through California’s San Joaquin Valley, on our way to Monterey, my Prince Charming husband and I drove through miles of farmland growing every crop imaginable. Traveling west on Route 46, ahead of us we could see the soft rolling hills that border the western edge of the valley. There were horses, grazing cattle and nut trees as far as the eye could see. We were passing out of the bread basket of California and into the beautiful vineyard country of the central coast. In typical fashion for farming country, we passed several signs inviting us to a country store and gas station offering edible treasures from the surrounding area. My husband read one of them, “Pistachio Almond Bark.” “Let’s go in”, I said, thinking that sounded good. Besides, I love these kinds of country stores with homemade yummies.
Turning into the parking lot, we passed a towering cut out figure of James Dean in rolled up blue jeans and t-shirt, his hand pointing us in the direction we should go. Inside we were greeted by a vast array of plastic bags of flavored nuts; honey almonds, maple cashews, jalapeño pistachios and a hundred others lining the aisles. There were jars of jams, jellies, syrups and other delectables, everything made from the bounty of the land around us.
The walls were covered with pictures, posters and artists renditions of the famed actor James Dean. I initially thought they were there because of the charming 1950’s style diner in the back corner of the store. The real reason though was one my Prince Charming husband was about to discover. As I was busy photographing an interesting truck display in the center of the store that I was so enamored with, my husband interrupted me and called me over to him. Holding up one of the jars of preserves, he showed me the label on the front of all the jars on the numerous shelves. It said ‘Blackwells Corner. James Dean’s Last Stop.’
Having chosen our yummy selections; a jalapeño honey mustard, two jalapeño preserves, some almonds and pistachios, I asked the young man at the register what it meant by ‘James Dean’s Last Stop’. He informed us that the legendary actor’s tragic auto accident happened about 25 miles up the road, in Cholame, and while passing through he stopped in this very truckstop. Perhaps he wanted a cup of coffee, a sandwich or some of the wonderful nuts, just like we were buying now. It was approaching sunset as we left with our goodies and we continued up the hills toward the spot where the acclaimed actor lost his young life. As we passed the junction of highway 46 and 41 we saw it was marked by a small official looking sign that reads ‘James Dean Memorial Junction’.
On September 30, 1955, James Dean was on his way to an auto rally in Salinas, California with his friend and mechanic, Rolf Wuetherich. Unfortunately they would never make their destination. At the junction of Highway 466 (now State Route 46) and Highway 41, shortly before sunset, a vehicle turning left didn’t see the silver Porsche coming toward him until it was too late. The Porsche rammed into the Ford, the small sports car torn through like tin foil. Sustaining fatal injuries including near decapitation, James Dean, the actor who was astonishingly talented, and achingly beautiful, was gone forever.
About 900 yards from the accident site on Route 46 there’s a tree called ‘The Tree Of Heaven’ where a memorial for the actor still stands today 59 years later. There’s a quote from a dear friend and an epitaph. On the epitaph it says, ‘Death in youth is life that glows eternal.’ Appropriate, since his legacy still lives on. It’s a lovely, simple tribute to a man who made a huge impact in only 24 short years on this earth.
James Dean only completed three films in his life as the lead, two of which were released after his death. All three are classics and must-see viewing for movie lovers. He is, to this day, the only actor to earn two Academy Award Oscar nominations after his death, none in his lifetime.
We continued on the road James Dean would have driven, had he lived, thankful to enjoy the pastoral drive through Paso Robles, admiring all the wineries that beautify the landscape. We talked about the actor, films, young lives cut short and, of course, we drove very carefully.
My husband and I, being the classic movie lovers we are, had always heard about how James Dean died but never really knew any details or even where it happened. We were simply driving to our destination for an art show I was participating in. We had no idea that we were about to stumble upon a bit of film history, however sad it was. That is what I love most about traveling. Whether it is around the world or just around the next bend, you never know what amazing things you might discover.