When I first saw the sculpture honoring movie star James Dean, I found it unusual. I’m not a big fan of markers for tragic events.
In this particular tribute, I found it odd that a memorial for the man killed in a car accident was steel wrapped around a tree.
Dean’s car accident in 1955 at the intersection of Highways 41 and 46 in San Luis Obispo County marked the end to a promising movie career.
His death was the result of a collision of his sports car with another vehicle that authorities believed pulled out in front of Dean.
At that time, investigators believed speed was not a factor, but rather an apparent lack of visibility by the other driver. Highway Patrol investigators believe the driver of the other vehicle likely did not see Dean’s car heading west on Highway 46.
According to accounts at the time, neither that driver nor Dean's passenger
The memorial is a piece of steel that wraps around a tree in the parking lot of the Jack Ranch Café, less than a mile away from the actual crash site.
Bronze plaques explain the tribute and touch briefly on Dean’s career.
Even more interesting to me is the green highway sign at the intersection of highways 46 and 41. That sign looks no different from other markers dedicating sections of roadways after police officers, first responders, or political leaders.
This sign does not dedicate anything. It says “James Dean Memorial Junction”.
Hopping out of my car to take a photograph of the sign, I couldn’t help but think about what it must have been like on that night in 1955. James Dean, fresh from finishing the filming of the motion picture Giant, had returned to Hollywood from his location shoot in Texas.
Having received a speeding ticket in Bakersfield earlier in the day, he might have considered flooring the gas pedal on this somewhat desolate highway.
Investigators ruled out speed as a factor, so we can only presume he was just focused on his final destination.
His death forever froze an impression on the minds of the generation that produced such stars as Natalie Wood and Dennis Hopper. Hopper had a small role in Giant.
Natalie Wood worked with Dean in Rebel Without a Cause.
That era marked by James Dean’s death is celebrated at the Jack Ranch Café, a diner where the metal Memorial is maintained in the parking lot.
The walls inside the Café are covered with photographs, paintings, and souvenirs of Dean. Among the tee shirts, coffee mugs, and postcards, I spotted a photograph of Clint Eastwood with the operators of the Café.
On another wall, there’s an enlargement of the speeding ticket Dean got near the intersection of highways forty-six and ninety-nine in Bakersfield.
Some might say it’s over the top. Some might ask why we still care.
Every year, the Dean Memorial and the Jack Ranch Café are seen by tens of thousands of drivers passing by this lonely stretch of highway that connects Highway 101 to Interstate 5.
Whether it is just a place to satisfy a curiosity, or a desire to visit a spot to recall the promise that James Dean's life held, the crash site and the accompanying memorial continue to fascinate visitors who take the time to go off the beaten path.
Steve Newvine lives in Merced. His new book on California will be published in December.