I don’t have to step inside a church building to contemplate life’s big questions. All I do is go to one of my “introspection spots,” like the one at the intersection of highways 41 and 46 in the Central Valley. It was here at California’s great “What Might Have Been” spot that James Dean was killed 55 years ago today.
On the morning of September 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, which he planned to race in the Central California city of Salinas over the weekend. Around noon he set out with his mechanic, 29-year-old Rolf Wutherich, riding shotgun. They never made it.
At approximately 5:30 PM, a young Cal Poly 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), 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 and Wutherich was hospitalized for several months. Dean died on the way to the hospital.
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,” and as anyone who has ever made the trek can tell you, the intersection where he died still looks pretty much the same as it did back in 1955.
The site lies at the bottom of a wide treeless valley that is situated smack-dab atop the San Andreas Fault line where California is literally being ripped in two. It seems oddly appropriate that the crash happened here, because Dean’s death marked a tectonic shift in popular culture, and marked the beginning of the end of the Happy Days 50s.
A mile to the west, just past the sign for the non-existent town of Cholame (pronounced Sho-lam) is 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.”
As I stand around tree, I hear other Death Riders asking big questions based around the theme of “What might have been.” Would Dean have won a cabinet full of Oscars? Or would he have flashed brightly in the pan before drifting into obscurity?
As I quietly listen in, I wonder to myself if it would have mattered if Dean hadn’t been in Cholame at 5:30 PM on September 30, 1955? Would fate have simply set up a different place and time to carry out its wishes, making an alternate intersection a site of pilgrimage?
It is, of course, impossible to ever know. But I can’t help thinking about how Wutherich survived the crash in Cholame only to die 25 years later in a similar car wreck in his native Germany.
The site where Dean died is still starkly beautiful and unspoiled.
All-in-all, not a bad place to attend church.
(If you would like to learn more about Dean’s death, click here to watch The Stuff of Legend: James Dean’s Final Ride, which I hosted for SCVTV.)