Retracing Dean's Last Ride: 1955/1997
by Warren Beath
(Warren Beath is the author of The Death of James Dean, a seminal work on Dean's last days, Grove Press, 1986. He is also the author of a controversial novel, Who Killed James Dean?, TOR Books, 1995. This article was written especially for American Legends.)
As with most deities, James Dean's death is observed with the same enthusiastic ferocity as his life. On September 30, 1955, the twenty-four year old actor gassed up his Porsche Spyder on Beverly Glen, then sped off into eternity. The highway Dean drove down has also become part of American iconography. Each year, on the anniversary of Dean's fatal crash, the faithful gather to retrace his last drive and remember the young man who died... only to be reborn as a legend.
If you retrace Dean's route, start your day with a doughnut at Farmer's Market, not far from the (former) Vine Street site of Competition Motors where Dean had his Porsche tuned that fateful day. Today, a Goodyear dealership has replaced the motor shop. Jimmy had a doughnut at the old Ranch Market which also no longer exists.
Driving north from Los Angeles (on I-5), approaching Magic Mountain, you can see stretches of old Highway 99 on the lefthand side of the road. Descending the steep Grapevine Grade, you enter the flatlands below--stretches of land dotted by oil wells. This is Kern County where Dean received a ticket for speeding from the Highway Patrol. At one time, an aluminum likeness of the actor and his racing car were affixed to a telephone pole to mark the spot. Now, only the outline of Dean's name remains.
Passing through Bakersfield, you will notice some old airplane hangers at the Lerdo Turnoff. The hangers were part of Minter Field--a former airfield where James Dean had raced his Porsche Speedster in May 1955. Dean placed third; the trophy he won is now in the Fairmount Museum. The airport has its own museum; there is a little section devoted to Dean with a facsimile of the racing program from that long ago day.
Five miles to the north, hang a left onto Route 46, which was 466 in the 1950s. This two lane road has changed very little since Dean drove on it. The dot in the road up ahead is Blackwells Corner--a former general store which billed itself for years as "James Dean's Last Stop." It was here that Dean bought an apple and a Coke; the original building burned down under mysterious circumstances in 1967. The avid souvenir hunter can pry a chunk of concrete from the original foundation. I use mine as a doorstop.
Then move on: westward, toward the Polonio Pass, a landmark that was the subject of a cult article in Whisper magazine: "The Ghost of James Dean Haunts Polonio Pass..."
At the top of the hill, you can look down into the valley and see the fatal intersection. The new highway winds around the old route, but to your left you can see the remnant of the original road surface that Dean drove on. A quarter mile from the site, you pass the small trees where the actor literally ran some people off the road as he raced by. The original intersection has been obliterated by rechanneling, but you can make out the topographical features that were immortalized in the photographs that Sanford Roth took after the crash. Roth had been assigned by Collier's to do a story on the new star and was accompanying Dean to the races in Salinas that day.
Over the years, I have met some fascinating people at the site (and some dizzy ones, too). The accents include German, French, Norwegian, and British.
Some of the items people bring are unusual: kitsch. But there are interesting surprises. One fellow had a piece of the aluminum Porsche Spyder which he had plucked from the wreckage. It is an interesting day, an event--and meditative exercise which makes a visitor to the shrine feel that he or she has approached the essence of the James Dean mystique.
(Warren Beath may be e-mailed at email@example.com)