California State Highway 46 streaks eastward from the city of Paso Robles, near the northern edge of San Luis Obispo County, and cuts across gentle rolling hills and sweeping fields dotted with an occasional ranch. It is a desolate, windblown vista, broken only by the squatty, weather-beaten buildings that make up the hamlets of Whitley Gardens, Shandon, and Cholame.
Almost twenty-five miles from Paso Robles, and less than a mile east of Cholame, the highway cuts through a gap in the Temblor Mountains, so named because the San Andreas Fault runs at their base.
Here the highway splits: 46 continues eastward to Bakersfield, and its branch, Highway 41, turns northeast toward Fresno.
Today, February 17, 2001, the sky is a silken, sullen grey. The hills are a literal shade of blue and a distinct stillness has descended over the landscape, a quality of immensity that is difficult to recognize in one sweeping gaze. The intersection is sparse, completely unassuming except for the fact that on the south side of the street, a towering telegraph pole stands in rapt regard. I know this telegraph pole. I know it from photographs and stories. I swing my car into the parking lot of the Jack Ranch Café and look back at it, not even 100 feet away. It has the same quality of a memory: old, distant, but very real. It is the telegraph pole that James Dean crashed into at 87 miles per hour on September 30, 1955.
Imagine it: the downgrade from the pass runs straight as an arrow down to the “Y” intersection of Highways 46 and 41; a short distance beyond, the tiny town of Cholame is visible. It is 5:59pm, late summer, and his Porsche Spider is the colour of glass. Approaching the intersection from the opposite direction is a large black-and-white 1950 Ford Custom Tudor coupe.
Dean’s Porsche accelerates to 85 mph on the downgrade toward Cholame, flying from the low, sweeping curve just as the Ford veers over the center line.
Cholame, population five, consists now of a Chevron gas station, the Jack Ranch Café, and a tiny post office, virtually unchanged since Dean’s death. It is a quiet place to die.
I step outside my car into the cool winter air, in the dusty shale parking lot of Jack Ranch Café, noticing the silver memorial erected beside an old tree, a memorial for James Dean, who died so close to this spot that I can feel some sense of the loss even now – nearly fifty years later- the vacuum sense of some element missing. I walk over to the intersection, looking at the ground, imagining I can see the skid marks and grooves in the asphalt but in reality the road has been paved over. The telegraph pole stands there though and looks like it’s taken quite a few hits over the years. This stretch of road is called “Blood Alley”; there were 110 fatalities between 1996 and 1998 alone.
I stand beside the tree. Constant inland breezes rustle the leaves over my head. It stares back at the telegraph pole, tall sentinals on the lonely highway intersection.
Slowly, as if approaching a dangerous animal, I walk across the street. I stand at the telegraph pole, searching for some sign – a smear of red paint, a dent, something. It’s just a pole. It doesn’t remember the crash, it has no scars.
For the two hours I stand there, not another car passes. I think of that ad that James Dean did shortly before he died. “Slow down,” he says, “the life you save might be mine.” Or is it “the life you save might be your own?” I can’t remember now. That last moment is so vivid to me that tears form in my eyes. He is awake after the crash, stunned but alive, aware enough to understand what has happened to him. That acknowledgment – the last tussel of breath and then letting go.
The sun has begun to sink behind the California mountains, and the chill in the air is really starting to sting. I slump against the telephone pole and sigh, “Oh James.”
Slowly I trudge across the street to my own car and climb inside. I think of him in Rebel Without A Cause, a movie I have loved all my life. I think of his achingly tender kiss with Natalie Wood, and then later, when he stalks out of the Observatory after Plato is shot by the cops, screaming till his voice cracks, “I have the bullets! I have the bullets!”
We, all of us, lost someone special when he died out there on that lonely road, the same lonely road that unfurls through the mountains, taking me back to Los Angeles.