(This piece is an excerpt from ‘A Rite Of Paso: Paso Robles Wine Country’ to be released December, 2013).
Within the annals of the eerie, two almost inconceivably bizarre images come to mind:
First, the photograph of John Lennon signing Mark David Chapman’s copy of Double Fantasy hours before Chapman murdered him. The second is the brief black-and-white reel of James Dean’s public service announcement made at the end of an episode of Warner Bros. Presents meant to plug the release of Dean’s upcoming film Giant. Responding to host Gig Young’s questions about his sudden obsession with car racing, Dean ad-libbed the following advice to young people:
“Take it easy driving; the life you save may be mine.”
Thirteen days later, on September 30, 1955, at the intersection of Route 466 (now CA 46) and Route 41, Dean was killed in a head-on car crash that was, by all accounts, the fault of the other guy—a Cal Poly student with the unlikely name of Turnupseed.
At the time of his death, Dean was a popular star, but hardly a cultural icon. In fact, two of his legacy films (and there are only three), Giant and the persona-defining Rebel Without A Cause, were released after he died, and he remains the only Hollywood legend to have received more posthumous acting award nominations than pre-humous ones.
Dying, as the wags like to quip, was a good career move. He was twenty-four years old.
James Dean and his German mechanic Rolf Wütherich were traveling on then-Route 466, heading west toward Paso Robles, intending to have dinner with a couple of Dean’s racing buddies. All were ultimately aimed toward Salinas, where they were scheduled to compete in a road race that weekend.
Dean was driving the now infamous ‘Little Bastard’, a tiny, aluminum-bodied 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder he had bought a week before with his proceeds from his East of Eden, and at $7000, the purchase likely took the entire kit and kaboodle. In another macabre premonition, upon viewing the car at Dean’s insistence, British actor Alec Guinness shook his head and told him: “If you get in that car, you will be found dead in it by this time next week.”
And exactly seven days later, he was. Wrong place, wrong time, wrong everything.
Twenty miles from Paso Robles, at around six in the evening, the Porche passed the Y-shaped junction at Cholame and was struck nearly head-on by Turnupseed’s lumbering Tudor coupe; the student was making a left turn and failed to see the low-profile sports car in the failing light. Dean himself took the brunt of the crash and died of a broken neck on the way to the Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital; Turnnupseed was slightly injured and Wütherich, who was ejected from the car, more so.
For perspective, Wütherich survived the crash but not its psychological endowment: He soon fell into a pattern of heavy drinking and was unable to hold a steady job and himself died in a drunken auto accident a few years later. Not so Turnupseed, who went on to turn the family electrical business into a multimillion dollar empire—he died of cancer in 1995, but his odd Burpee-esque moniker can be seen on re-wound motors to this day.
That almost unfathomably unlucky instant, which amplified the ‘Live Fast, Die young and Leave a Good-Looking Corpse’ rallying cry that empowered generations of rebels—with or without causes, and who James Dean, in retrospect, probably would have rejected—remains preserved in cultural amber. The interchange has been re-routed a few hundred yards northwest, the nitrate on East of Eden has begun to deteriorate and to upwardly mobile millenials, the name ‘Jimmy Dean’ may connote more sizzling sausage than smoldering sexuality. But to those of us from another era, that horrific scream of metal impacting metal, the smell of blood on dirt, the useless tug of speculation remains as keen and relevant as any tragedy before or since.
Also suspended in prehistoric animation is Cholame’s Jack’s Ranch Café, a quarter mile from the crash site. It was certainly standing here when the shit came down at the nearby junction because it lays claim to having ‘the oldest drive-thru window’ in Central California, dating from the turn of the twentieth century. The music loop playing when I stopped in could have been playing the day that Dean died—moldering country tunes with twangy lyrics, where, in ‘I’m-a jest a rollin’ stone, and I keep on traveling on…’, the word ‘stone’ rhymes with the word ‘on’. The sign above the cash register reads ‘Today’s menu; take it or leave it’ and even the plastic sunflowers in the vase look dead.
But Dean could have known none of this—he died a thousand yards before he would have passed Jack’s Ranch Café.
Nonetheless, the place is decked out in James Dean paraphernalia, ‘Bouldevard of Broken Dreams’ posters, coffee mugs emblazoned with James Dean’s mug, ‘4-Ever Cool’ license plate holders, a rack with ten different types of post cards, but all of James Dean. The staff speak so affectionately of him that he might have been born in a manger out back and I’m half-tempted to ask the oldsters if they can share with me any Dean stories—and equally expect them to say, ‘Yeah, ol’ Jimmy, that little whippersnapper would go and break his fool neck ever’ damn time he passed by this way…’
The landscape through which James Dean sped, this very time of year, is proudly dessicated and savagely beautiful; as stark and subtle as Cal Trask. From a distance, the buttes and pastures look barren, but become wildly fertile when nurtured from stream water or the many artesian aquifers with which the county is blessed.
And equally, it’s somewhat cursed with hot springs. Cursed because—commercial ka-chinging and made-up health benfits aside—geothermal groundwater is volcanic in nature, and here you are standing on ground zero of the most famous transform fault on earth, the San Andreas. Carrying much of the California coast and all of Baja along with it, the Pacific plate shoulders northward at a rate that might have had James Dean pulling out his hair—but keeping him alive to do it—two inches per year, and every once in a while decides to have a grand mal seizure like the one it did in 1906, causing the greatest loss of life from a natural disaster in California’s history.
But that is history. Throughout fifteen thousand years of pre-history, the T’epoy’aha’l tribe, who used the Dean death route as a hunting corridor, must have experienced many earthquakes; seismologists claim that megathrust quakes above 8 in magnitude—where one of the earth’s tectonic plates is thrust under another—happen every few hundred years. Without buildings to collapse, damage done among ‘The People of the Oak’ was likely minimal and was probably no more than fable fodder to passed through the generations via the songs of elders.
Geophysicists predict that the fault is overdue for another massive temper tantrum, but whether it will most devastate Los Angeles or San Francisco is a prediction that no one is willing make. One thing is certain, though: Regardless of this quake’s epicenter, many more will follow as the Pacific Plate continues its inexorable ride northward and the neighboring North American Plate, carrying the rest of the United States on its back, slides south.
In fifteen million years or so, Los Angeles will be closer to San Francisco than is Oakland—a scenario which should piss off residents of both cities more than the temporary trembles.
This steady grinding of mantle rock against mantle rock, like the grinding of Turnupseed’s Ford and Dean’s Porche, is essential time perspective. However much it seems so, nothing is really preserved in amber, and any other overview of our lives, James Dean’s life, the Jack Creek Café smorgasbord of the macabre, is pure illusion.