California Day Trips: A Visit to the James Dean Memorial
Even though he only made three films, James Dean remains an American legend
Kern County, USA
I'm a bit spontaneous sometimes. I'll hop in my car some days and pull out of the driveway and into traffic, headed for one of the nearby freeways. I'll think to myself, east or west, north or south, should i hit the expressway or take a back road? Not really having a destination in mind. After all, as they say, the point of the journey is not the destination, it's the trip itself.
On this afternoon, a rather warm one, I found myself out exploring Kern County. I had recently moved to the Central Valley City of Bakersfield and was still trying to get to know the area. Bakersfield is a city of a little under half a million people, with an urban downtown, surrounded by pockets of suburban housing units. Several freeways, often crowded during rush hour, intersect within its boarders, reminding one of a miniature Los Angeles of the 1980s.
Much of the 8,163 square miles of Kern County is made up of small towns with names like Buttonwillow, Shafter, Taft, California City. Semitropic, Stallion Springs. It is the third largest county by area, and the tenth most populous. Driving along many of the open and sometimes primitive roads in the desert, you may find yourself next to rich farmlands, fertile with vegetation. Many of these plantations produce food that feeds much of California, the country and the world. You notice the active oil derricks racing like colonies of ponies, surrounded by thick, dusty, gardens of weedy thistles. One day these thorny plants that now pocket the ground like green tarantulas, will grow into the large tumbleweeds and gallop across the stark plains.
Kern County, is also the location of the last streets a man named James Dean drove through, on a September morning in 1955.
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Farm Country in Kern County
Oil derricks still active
What's in a Name?
On this afternoon I decided I visit the place where James Dean had died. I was told it was not too far from neck of the woods, the intersection of the 46 or the 43. I didn't remember which, and when i decided to try out my telephone's GPS, I thought I had found the answer. "James Dean memorial" I said to my cellular phone and followed the directions until I heard "You've arrived !"
I looked around and only saw a couple of gas stations and a hotel.
I double checked my device and did a search for "James Dean memorial" and received the same report. That I was already there, in the town of Famoso, which is right at the intersection of Interstate 46 and Highway 99. I looked around and saw some benches with a covering and some vegetation. That must be it I thought and as I pulled my car into the parking lot and came closer, I wasn't so sure. Why not go in and ask the clerk. If the memorial is nearby, then certainly someone who works in one of the local businesses can confirm for me.
Interstate 46 and Highway 99
I walked into the gas station, a bit embarrassed and wondering how I would approach the topic. If the memorial for James Dean was right here, then it should be obvious and why would you have to ask. The automatic doors opened and I was greeted by cool refreshing air and fine aromas of coffee and chocolate. I felt a bit prejudicial for thinking this, but I hoped the clerk behind the counter would speak English and at least have a reasonable sense of direction - as well as popular culture. When i was younger, these places were called service stations. Over time, candy stands and soda machines replaced map displays and where there were signs that read "Full Service Here" nw said "ATM/Credit Cards Only".
"Hello," I said to the clerk as she looked over at me and made her way out from behind a CD/DVD rack that was resting on the counter.
"Can I help you" she said and smiled slightly. She had dark hair, was probably Hispanic and I guessed in her thirties. She seemed to be comfortable with English. I'm always a little bit unsure and sometimes awkward when I go into some of the smaller towns and speak with the local residents. I'm always, with my black hair and darker skin, mistaken for being from Mexico, or Central America. Often people seem surprised at my lack of Spanish language skills and approach me uttering words and phrases in a tongue I do not understand.
"Can you tell me where the James Dean memorial is supposed to be? My GPS says it is here?" I asked, speaking a little slower then normal. Pausing to see if she understood.
"James's bean?" she asked, looking a little confused and scrunched up her face. She curled up her lips and squinted her eyes as if I had just asked her for the recipe to Chocolate Malted Crunch Iced Cream.
"No, James Dean"
She looked directly at me, brought her thin hands up to her pink lips. "Who's James...?" and shook her head back and forth and let me know she didn't know who I was talking about
I was a little shocked and regretted laughing audibly and then caught myself and stopped. "He was an actor in the 1950's," I explained. "There is a place for him here near the 46 where he was in the accident. He made a few films and was a teen idol" and then was a bit surprised at how I was going on about this character. I had expected everyone capable of breathing to have heard of James Dean, but this experience has taught me otherwise. I wasn't sure if it was cultural - perhaps she was a new American, something to do with the language - again, perhaps a slightly prejudicial idea on my part. On the other hand I should consider the fact that as we move further into the 21st century, things that happened over fifty years ago, seem less important today. I take for granted, that when I was younger, most of the population had known about the event that happened in the outskirts of some California desert town and been enchanted by it.
Frustrated with Technology?
Does your GPS give you bad advice?
Some scenes from 1950's America
Go West, (ahem) Young Man
I knew that the famous intersection, where Dean had ran his Porsche into an oncoming car, was off the 46. I couldn't remember though if it was the 43 or the 41. I knew the 43 was closer, so it wouldn't be counterproductive to try that are first. I knew that the 41 - a major highway once it reached Fresno - was a little further west.
I asked the woman behind the counter for directions, just to confirm my gut instincts and because I still find human information more accurate than something provided by a machine. She told me "to head out on the overpass", pointing out the window, "like you are going to Wasco until you reach the 43". There wasn't much on along the way other than a narrow and sometimes dangerous road.
The town she was referring to was one of those many places in Kern county that seem to rise out of nowhere. Wasco was a farming community, probably best known for the correctional facility named after it. There was one other claim to fame that Kern County had: the prison capital of California: five of the state's 33 prisons are located here.
Like most of the freeways and back roads in this area, both the 43 and the 46 were crowded with large trucks - big rigs sometimes carrying fruits and vegetables, sometimes volatile cargo and farm equipment - tractors grand as houses - that were difficult to see past. There were places where the road either curved around blindly or rose and fell in a pace that reminded you of a youthful amusement park ride. In the summer you would often encounter gusty winds that rollicked your car as you navigated the strange thoroughfares. In the fall and winter months, thick fogs enveloped you like an unnecessary cocoon, while other drivers whirled past you, heavy as toxic lead spiders.
California Back Roads
Of Course! (Are you daft?)
When I arrived at the 43, I pulled into another gas station, wanting to get my bearings and perhaps a cool beverage. I thought about asking the clerk behind the counter here too, but gave some consideration as to how I should approach when I saw her age. I had to keep in mind that not everyone would be familiar - or even interested - in something that happened to a man who made only three films and was no longer alive.
She was a young Asian girl (I happen to be Asian myself and should mention that because in our day and age, there will be readers who object to my use of the word), and wore glasses and her arms were covered with thick, black tattoos. She was jovial and smiling, seemed active and full of energy and had a welcoming aura. I approached her and said "Excuse me, can I ask you a question?" which of course is a silly way to approach someone, because you already are asking them a question while asking their permission to inquire. It doesn't quite make sense, a bit daft I guess.
"Sure, go ahead," she smiled and the man she was speaking with a little while ago, at the side of the counter perked his head up. He must have been someone of some significance to her, a bit curious about my need to announce my interrogations.
"Do you know who James Dean is?" I inquired.
"Yes! Of Course I do!" she proclaimed, looking at me as if I had just stepped out of a rectangular shaped space ship that had landed on the other side of the wet canal that bordered the gas station parking lot. "I want to be like him and die young!" She smiled and danced around a bit, as if the dead 1950's actors name had awakened some presence that had been long slumbering and she were trying to channel it.
"No, I don't think you want to do that" I offered, guessing her to be in her twenties, close to the age that Dean was when he met his demise. "Not yet. I have to ask though, because there are people who haven't heard of him. I want to see the memorial, do you know where that is?" I was a little more relaxed suddenly and enjoyed her observations. I thought about an English professor I had in college who talked about the magical mystique about dying young. And then I wondered if Dean would have been the cultural icon that he had become, had he lived and continued making films.
Both the young man and the clerk seemed to wake up a bit. I didn't want to get into too deep conversation with either of them, I just wanted to make sure I was on the right path to see the famous intersection.I was enjoying the dialogue though. It certainly is interesting how there are certain events that define an era and contribute to a society's culture. I thought about the many posters I had seen of Dean, the post cards and the poses that he is identified with. A cigarette, a hand in the pocket, walking down a boulevard wearing an open petticoat. The upturned eyebrows that you still see many young men try to emulate, The hair, the bravado. I'm not quite certain what it is about this young man who seems to be the quintessential, Mid-Western type of male you would expect to see wandering around, full of angst and promise.
She stood up on her heels and pointed out the window. "You take the 46 all the way out. You see where that car is going, follow it." I saw a black car, making a right at the corner. "That Honda" she added. "Where it's going."
"Oh you've been there then." I said as the boyfriend came out from behind the side corner and began talking too.
"Yeah, it's right out there. Pretty neat," he offered, smiling. I started to step away and was looking around the clean, well kept convenience store. Colorful bags of snack chips, pristine rows of sweet candies, the hum of cola beverage dispensers.
"You can't miss it," she said. "There is a thirty foot handsome cutout of him standing there." I headed back to the bathroom and wondered if I should buy something to eat there. I always feel guilty just walking into a business establishment and asking a question without making a purchase. I looked over in the corner and saw some hot food. Chicken tenders, hot dogs probably. There may be soda and nachos. Candy. Something good to accompany on my journey to see trace the last steps of Jimmy. "He's so handsome!" she exclaimed, smiling.
I thanked the couple and headed out. I didn't feel so far removed as I did with my earlier encounter. I decided against the gas station food. I really wasn't that hungry right now. I thought there would be a diner or some other stand where I could get something to eat when I arrived at the memorial. That would be more appropriate I thought, ceremonial. Find the marker dedicated to Dean and enjoy a small meal, relax with the other tourists and think about the 1950s. Sputnik. Eisenhower. Marilyn Monroe. The beginning of the cold war. Bomb shelters in back yards. A dark sky full of bright stars.
"Are there any nice restaurants near here, or on the way?" I asked, turning to the clerk one last time - just in case something sounded appetizing.
"Um,"she looked deep in though. "Denny's" she said.
What do you think of the tattoo fad
A Fine Young Man
Are you a fan of Dean
Finding the Intersection; Seeking the Crossroad Marker
I really wasn't sure what to anticipate: I thought there would be a large marker with benches, a stand that sold memorabilia like postcards or little statues; a vendor that provided milkshakes and hamburgers. I knew I was coming upon the site when I drove along the 46 and saw the roadside attraction with a large cutout of Dean, but that was at the 33 and I wanted the 43. I would stop at the market on the way back. This was probably the one the Asian girl at the gas station was talking about.
I came upon the intersection of the 46 and the 41 a few more minutes down the road. I looked around and didn't see anything except a sign that had his name on it.
I pulled off to the side and then realized I was in a private drive and knew this couldn't be the place. I then decided to head west a bit and little further down the road, I saw a little cafe and some benches. I would pull over here and ask someone if they could direct me to the right place, the marker that was erected in memory of Dean. I found a shady spot: there were a few other people parked, a couple with motorcycles parked near a tree. As I got out of my car, a few other people pulled in - for the restaurant, the postal boxes, i wasn't sure.
But then I realized, that this was it. A couple of plaques, a strange metal object that looked like an optical illusion sketch. The kind you see in books that looks three dimensional, infinite. As I approached closer, I saw his name on it.
A brief description said that the accident actually happened 900 yards east of here - about a quarter mile. That would have been where the 41 and 46 met. I knew they couldn't put something in the middle of the road, but I had expected much more. I thought people would be around taking photographs. I thought maybe even a curator or tour guide. There were a few people though, and some were quiet and I wondered if they were solemn, trying to behave as if they were someplace sacrosanct. The other people didn't stay long though and I wondered if they had differing expectations.
I stood around a bit and took some photos. A couple that were riding motorcycles were there too and they looked old enough to remember when Dean was alive. They appeared to be here for convenience, or perhaps were meeting some other riders. A man smoked a cigarette. A young couple had a camera. There was a camper and few other people that walked into the restaurant.
I thought about coming this distance and having grander expectations. After all, this man had become a symbol for the 1950's, for the United States, for youth.
But then again, it was just another car accident. One that cost James Dean - just another guy - his life.
In Memory of James DeanClick thumbnail to view full-size
Have You Been to the James Dean memorial?
James Dean's Last Stop
On the way back home, I decided to stop at the corner market where I had seen the large cut out of Dean. I didn't know if this was a marketing technique the owners were trying to exploit to get better business, but I wanted to see what was behind all the fanfare.
When I stepped inside the crowded store, I saw people milling about and was taken aback at the various statues and other iconography that paraded the aisles and graced the walls: a few mannequins that looked like they stepped out of a classic horror show offered empty silver platters. A sign on one of them said "Free Fudge Samples in the Back". I saw a Marilyn Monroe sitting on a luncheonette stool. There were posters of Elvis, Humphrey Bogart. And of course, many pictures of Dean.
What I did find out is that this was Dean's last stop before his accident. He had earned a speeding ticket, near Bakersfield, on the 99 before pulling onto the 46. This was where he pulled over, to devour and apple and acquire a pack of cigarette before moving a little further west, to where the roads forked. Everyone smoked back then. The California Highway patrol had clocked him at 65 in a 55 zone near Bakersfield and offered him a citation.
As I was reading the laminated newspaper clippings that talked about Dean's last moments, I felt a presence near me. I looked over and a woman had been standing there reading along. I didn't notice her at first and wondered how long she had been there.
"Do you remember when that happened?" she asked.
I looked over at her and wasn't sure how to respond. "No. I'm not old enough" I told her. She looked up and her husband had appeared behind her, and he seemed to raise himself up. I wanted to be part of this conversation and felt a bit alienated as if denied entry to a special club. I wasn't insulted that she thought i was 20 years older than I was. How old would you have to be to remember Dean, to have it be a memory that was significant i wondered.
"There are some people who don't know who he is" was all I could offer, thinking about the first woman I had spoken to at the gas station in Famoso, where I was told by my telephone the site was supposed to be. I thought that must have sounded silly, I had wanted to tell her more. I had wanted to ask her what it was like for her, for them - the people at the time. I could sense her energy and knew this was something special for a generation of people who were alive, before the volatile decades of the 60's and the 70's were to follow. I found myself wishing I had been there to experience what was probably just another news story to many reporters, but had an impact on those who sat in front of the radio or gathered in the light of a television.
What could I compare this to in my generation? The suicide of a rock star? Someone like Kurt Cobain? An actor that had passed away from drinking or narcotics? I couldn't think of anyone. Was it because James was so young? No, there really was no one like Dean before. He was a giant of a man, a genuinely rebellious young man and somewhere east of this point, back in the fall of 1955, he would get into his car one last time.
"Well, have a nice trip" she said walking away.
I suddenly felt very alone.
James Dean's last stop: Blackwell's CornerClick thumbnail to view full-size
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© 2017 Finn Liam Cooper