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Down the road to eternity: James Dean’s last ride

Did James Dean stop for his last meal in the Santa Clarita Valley?

Posted: February 21, 2009 11:37 p.m.
Updated: February 22, 2009 4:55 a.m.

A stainless-steel memorial surrounds what is called the "Tree of Heaven." It is about a mile to the west of Dean's crash site.

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"Along came a Spyder and picked up a rider, and took him down the road to eternity"
"James Dean" The Eagles

"That looks like the place where Luke Skywalker grew up," jokes my lovely wife Kim, motioning toward a desolate San Joaquin Valley farm whose main crop appears to be sagebrush.

I know what she means. We are only a couple of hours outside of Los Angeles, but it's easy to imagine we have entered an extraterrestrial planet of jawas, droids and sand people.

We find ourselves on this lonely highway heading towards a destination that has become an annual pilgrimage for many.

On the morning of Sept. 30, 1955, 24-year-old actor James Dean drove from his home in Sherman Oaks to a garage in Hollywood to get a tune-up for his newest toy, a Porsche 550 Spyder.

Dean had purchased the Porsche a few days earlier to celebrate signing a new $1 million Hollywood contract and would be running it in a race that weekend in the Central California town of Salinas.

Dean had originally planned to tow the car to the racetrack, but changed his mind at the last minute. With his mechanic, 29-year-old Rolf Wutherich, riding shotgun, and a pair of friends following behind in Dean's station wagon, Dean set out for Salinas. He never made it.

At approximately 5:30 p.m., a young Cal Poly San Luis Obispo student named Donald Turnupseed was driving eastbound in a black-and-white 1950 Ford. At the "Y" intersection of California 41 and 46 (California 466 at the time) near Cholame, Turnupseed crossed into the oncoming traffic lane to head north. He apparently didn't see the hip-high, silver Porsche with Dean at the wheel approaching from the opposite direction.

They collided nearly head-on.

Turnupseed walked away with minor injuries, Wutherich was hospitalized for several months and Dean died at the scene.

Dean was a fast-rising star in Hollywood at the time of his death, having appeared in numerous roles on television, and as the star of the feature film "East of Eden," which had been released the previous spring.

During the intervening months, Dean found himself back in front of the camera in starring roles as the brooding Jim Stark in "Rebel Without A Cause" and alongside Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor in the oil epic "Giant." Both of these films would be released after his death and would prove to be hugely popular with both critics and the public.

Dean had been barred from racing - his second greatest love after acting - during the filming of "Giant," but with the wrapping of the film just two weeks earlier, he was off to Salinas. (Ironically, "East of Eden," for which Dean was to receive his first of two posthumous Best Actor nominations, was set in Salinas.)

Dean's tragic death, coupled with the rave reviews he received later with the release of "Rebel," immediately insured his legacy, and made the 41/46 intersection a site of veneration.

The weekend closest to the anniversary of Dean's death has become the annual time of pilgrimage for many of his most faithful fans. It has taken on the macabre name of the "Death Ride" for some who feel that an "official" pilgrimage only occurs when Dean's entire route is followed.

Our ride began a few hours earlier and a hundred miles to the south in the parking lot of the Marie Callenders restaurant just off the I-5 freeway in Valencia. Kim and I were joined there by our friend Alan Pollack, having decided to complete the Hollywood portion of the trek at a later date.

It was on this site in 1955 in a restaurant called Tip's that Dean may have had his last meal.

"The story goes that Dean and Wutherich stopped here and Dean had a piece of pie and a glass of milk," said Pollack, who, as president of the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society, is an authority on local history.

"This story is based on an interview that was made by Tony Newhall in The Signal newspaper here in Newhall in the 1985. He interviewed the restaurant manager at the time who said that a waitress named Althea McGuinness served Dean that day," Pollack said. "Unfortunately, there is a problem with this story. Newhall claimed that the Tip's manager sounded sincere, but Dean's mechanic Rolf Wutherich claimed in an interview in 1960 that they didn't stop until three hours after leaving Hollywood, and that would have put them much further past Tip's."

This could be simply a case of faulty memory on either or both of the parties. The manager may have remembered a visit by Dean on a different day, and Wutherich, who was severely injured in the crash, may simply have forgotten the stop.

But there is an additional problem with the story. In 1955, there were two Tip's restaurants only two miles apart. The manager said in 1985 that Dean had stopped at Tip's Coffee Shop (which would be at the current Marie Callender's site) and not at the main Tip's at Castaic Junction, but other accounts disagree. If Dean did indeed have his last meal at Tip's, there is no way to positively conclude in which Tip's it took place.

We leave the Marie Callenders at 11 a.m. and stop briefly at the intersection of the I-5 and California 126, which was the site of the other Tip's restaurant. Today, there is nothing but an empty lot.

Afterwards, we get on the I-5 and head north. A half-hour later we exit in Gorman, and after gassing up at the Chevron station there (said to be the oldest in the chain) we head up old Route 99, which today parallels the I-5. This would have been Dean's path in 1955.

We stay on the old road until we pass Lebec where we re-enter the 5. Within a few minutes we exit the mountains to find the seemingly endless expanse of the San Joaquin Valley before us.

It was here just off of California 99 that Dean signed his last autograph on a speeding ticket issued by patrolman O.V. Hunter just a couple of hours prior to his death. Officer Hunter clocked Dean going 65 in a 55 mph zone.

Wutherich claimed later that Dean was embarrassed by the ticket because he had recently filmed a public service announcement with actor Gig Young on traffic safety. In this commercial, Dean eerily ends his message encouraging slower speeds by saying, "The life you save may be mine."

After a stop in Bakersfield for lunch we turn left onto California 46 and head west.

We immediately enter farm country and traffic trickles. It's easy to speed on this stretch, even without Dean's legendary lead foot.

At Corcoran Road, we briefly leave the route to journey north to find another iconic site from the 1950s. It was here at the intersection of Garces Road that Cary Grant was chased by the murderous crop duster in the 1959 Alfred Hitchcock classic "North By Northwest." It's about a 25-mile detour from our trek to take in this site. That's a long way to go to see an empty intersection made famous in the 1950s, but that, in a nutshell, is exactly what this day is all about.

It's while returning to Highway 46 that Kim sees the farm that was seemingly lifted from Tatooine. We may not be in the middle of nowhere, but it feels like we could hit it with a rock from here.

Back on the 46, we head west, stopping briefly at Blackwells Corner to snap photos next to a large billboard of Dean who stopped here briefly to stretch his legs before heading west. His final 20 minutes of life would be spent inside the Spyder.

Minutes later, we crest a ridge of mountains and look below into a large valley. At the base of the valley is the intersection. We're almost there.

We try to slow down to what we feel to be a more reverential velocity, but traffic and inertia speeds us through. We hardly have time to glance up at the green "James Dean Memorial Interchange" sign that undoubtedly informs many of the passersby of something we have known for years - James Dean died here.

We pass through the intersection and head west for another mile. Near the crest of a hill we see the sign for the non-existent town of Cholame (pronounced Sho-lam), and pull into the parking lot of the Jack Ranch Café. It is here that the faithful traditionally gather. Their totem is a stainless steel monument that bears Dean's name, birth and death dates and times, and the infinity symbol. It surrounds a tree that has come to be known as the "Tree of Heaven."

I expect to see dozens of Dean fans milling about, perhaps even a replica Spyder or two, but the only people we see are two men in T-shirts and cowboy hats sitting behind several tables of James Dean memorabilia. The men turn out to be Matthew Grant and his father Glen, who live nearby. The collection was assembled by Glen's mother who was the postmaster of Cholame for many years.

The collection is impressive with copies of the coroner's report, newspaper clippings from the accident and fan magazines sent from Japan by the Japanese businessman who paid for the memorial. I get excited when they show us a license plate that was found one morning at the memorial that appears to be signed by Elvis Presley. Elvis was a big Dean fan and I try to imagine what something like that must be worth. I calm down when I realize the relic isn't authentic when they mention that it was found in 1983 when The King was already long in his grave in Memphis.

I ask Matthew if we missed the crowds and he tells us that there weren't any this year. He estimates that only about a dozen showed up during the whole day. I'm surprised by this, especially since this is the year of the death of Heath Ledger, another talented young actor struck down on the verge of superstardom.

"If you wanted crowds, you needed to be here in 2005 on the 50th anniversary," Glen tells us. "I counted 325 people that day," he said. Next, we spend a few minutes inside the Jack Ranch Café. There are some James Dean posters on the wall and a few postcards for purchase, but no museum. There are a couple of diners inside who look on us dismissively as tourists. The locals seem more annoyed by the Dean fans than welcoming of them. I remembered getting the same impression when I visited Dean's hometown of Fairmount, Ind. many years ago.

We head back over to the crash site, park the cars and walk to the spot where the collision occurred. All the while, we keep an eye out for cars that still speed through the crossing.

It is the common belief that Dean was traveling at a high rate of speed at the time of impact. Warren Beath, the author of "The Death of James Dean" believes otherwise. He thinks that Turnupseed was actually at fault for making an unsafe turn that put him in the path of the oncoming Porsche. We had planned to meet with Beath back at the Jack Ranch Café to talk about his theories, but missed him by a few minutes.

Whatever the cause, whether it was excessive speed, an unsafe turn, or just a moment of distraction, James Dean lost his life at this intersection.

Ironically, the crash site is situated smack-dab atop the San Andreas Fault line where California is literally being ripped in two. (As a matter of fact, this site was the epicenter of the 1857 Ft. Tejon Earthquake - the biggest earthquake ever recorded in California.) This, in a maudlin way, seems an appropriate site for the crash, because Dean's death marked a tectonic shift in popular culture, and marked the beginning of the end of the "Happy Days" 1950s.

The landscape is identical to 1955, but the intersection has changed slightly. Due to the Dean crash, among others, the "Y" intersection has been given a flashing light, and eastbound traffic now has to stop before turning north.

There is a small memorial that has been created on a fence on the north side of the intersection at the approximate spot where the Spyder came to rest. Fans have left many items, including sunglasses, a panoramic photograph of the crash site, some flowers wrapped around a pack of cigarettes, a bronze plaque padlocked to the fence and a small medallion embedded in concrete from his high school back in Indiana.

We spend a few minutes at the site shooting video, snapping pictures, and trying to visualize how everything went down 53 years earlier.

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