Saturday, May 30, 2015

James Dean Memorial on Highway 46

Just outside of Paso Robles, on a lonely stretch of Highway 46, is the James Dean Memorial. The memorial, a strange affair of aluminum, stainless steel and iron, perhaps emulating the Porsche James was driving, was commissioned by an obsessed fan, was made in Japan in 1977. Someone said it represented a broken infinity sign. Whatever it is, it girdles a tree.

Perhaps the late James Dean's biggest fan is Seita Ohnishi, a self-made real estate millionaire, who periodically makes an anniversary pilgrimage to the memorial site every few years.

The prefab memorial was commissioned and shipped across the Pacific Ocean from Japan by Ohnishi. The memorial is a concrete and steel sculpture that envelops a tree in a dusty parking lot outside the Cholame "post office" (a ramshackle collection of metal mailboxes stuck on poles in the parking lot), and the Jack Ranch Cafe. 

Someone said the memorial surrounded the tree of heaven. I looked it up, it's a Chinese sumac, or stinking sumac. It's a prodigious cloner, another nickname is the tree of hell. There is a thick grove of sucker trees on the other side of the road.

Two iron slabs below the cenograph, covered in writing, are hard to read, and people have scattered coins on top of them. it's become a dry wishing well of sorts in a place of little rain. It's too hard to read and I have little patience to read around the coins. Concentric rings of copper and nickel and silver. A frozen pond. Chrormium and iron are invoked. Between the two metal slabs, a bronze sparrow rests.
"On Sept. 30, 1981, Onishi dedicated a gleaming $15,000 chromium cenotaph. In the years since, he has added two tablets and a tiny bronze fallen sparrow. He explained his devotion to Dean on a card handed out at the 1981 cenotaph dedication. "James Dean was the brief, living manifestation of a new era," it read. "There are some things, like the hatred that accompanies war, that are best forgotten. There are others, like the love inspired by this young actor, that should be preserved for all time." People 1989

The monument celebrates the life of Dean in three ways: “his agony, his glory and his tragic ending — all existing for eternity,” Ohnishi told The Tribune. “The monument itself forms a circle around the Tree of Heaven … and when viewed from a certain angle it takes the shape of the symbol for infinity. At the back, there is an angled cut for a life tragically incomplete.” From the Vault SLO Tribune


Across from the memorial, the walls of the old '50s Jack Ranch diner are covered with photos of James Dean and '50s memorabilia, The generous slabs of homemade pie are pretty good too. It's all about the crust. I passed on my compliments to the cook.

The land surrounding Cholame is still owned by Hearst Ranch, but the old Cholame general store is gone. Now the store is the Hearst Ranch Winery's newest tasting room at $10 a glass. Sign of the times. But, hey, if you want a thimbleful of wine....


The ad hoc James Dean memorial crash site (different than the memorial itself), is roughly a mile down the road from the diner towards Lost Hills, at the Y junction where Highway 41 joins Highway 46.

Cholame was once known as "Blood Alley" for the sheer number head-on collisions. James Byron Dean, enroute to a race in Salinas, was killed just before sunset at the junction of Highway 41 on September 30, 1955. Dean was 24, he was only a year older than my mother.

Dean, a member of the Acting Studio, only starred in three films during his five-year acting career: East of Eden, the unreleased Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant, for which he received a posthumous Academy Award. His portrayal of the misunderstood and troubled James Stark, in the iconic Rebel Without a Cause, (played close to home), released a month after Dean's death, became a lodestone for teenagers coming of age during post-war America.


A 23-year-old Cal-Poly student headed home from San Luis Obispo in his 1950 Ford coupe, failed to signal while making a left turn onto Highway 41 and turned in front of Dean's Porsche Spyder 550, dubbed "Little Bastard," headed towards Paso Robles. (There may have been another car involved, read about it here).

Donald Turnupseed was unharmed, a scraped nose and bruises, but James was killed instantly. James' mechanic, Rolf Wütherich, was catapulted from the car, but James was pinned between the steering wheel and tartan seats, his neck broken. Said Turnupseed, "I didn't see him, by God, I really didn't see him." Turnupseed was hounded the rest of his life by the press for interviews.
Many at the time thought the Porsche Spyder was too high-powered for him and, indeed, days before he died Alec Guinness, the actor, had a premonition that he would die behind its wheel.  —The Telegraph


Fifty years later, in 2005, "Blood Alley" was revamped and renamed the James Dean Memorial Junction.

During the first 20 years after James Dean's death, before the official memorial was erected, makeshift roadside memorials sprung up at the Y. The tradition of the people's impromptu memorial continues to this day. To some it may look like trash, but it's ongoing folklore in the making.

Making my own memorial offering, I wrote James a postcard, a photo of dean and his Spyder, and left it at the site for the wind to read. The barbed-wire fence becomes an aeolian harp of sorts, translating the wind's thoughts.

So many crazy memorial tributes left for the fallen rebel: packs of Chesterfield's, and beer bottles but the labels were worn off. Votive candles, coins in a jar, a nude push-up bra, a mysterious blue binder, a book—his bio, lots of lighters (modern), broken aviator sunglasses, etc. Significance and randomness and holiness. Things found by the side of the road. Hubcaps. Rims. Tail lights. No Eden, this is where he exited the door to his life.

The faux headstone mentioned in other blogs was stolen, but the push-up bra, and a biography on the actor were still there a year later. The bra was in good shape but the book had seen better days. Only the wind was reading it.

I collected some amber road reflectors, placed them in a half-circle, left a bouquet of flowers, and tidied up the site. I imagine a new carload of tchatchkes will appear after September 30, the anniversary of Dean's death.

Every time we drive down I-5, and stop at Love's in Lost Hills, James Dean comes to mind. I'm so very glad I finally got a chance to see the famous Y junction after all these years. An odd pilgrimage of sorts. A legend that has morphed into the fantastic, in a hayfield by the side of the road.


James Dean
Memorial Crash Site
The Death of James Dean
Seita Ohnishsi's blog and inscription

More information online from The SLO Tribune

* — Web site by James Dean author Warren Beath of Bakersfield.

* — Official site by CMG Worldwide, which markets the Dean name and likeness.

* — An unofficial tribute site.

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