James Dean crash site in Cholame is a reminder of what might have been

In October 2014, a famous movie star sat at the counter inside the Jack Ranch Café. But because his face was partially obscured by a hat and sunglasses, the employees at the historic Cholame eatery didn’t know who he was until he ordered food in his gruff, half-whispering voice.

While Clint Eastwood stopped by for a meal, he also took time to visit the famous James Dean Memorial, just outside the café.

“He said, ‘James Dean was a really good friend of mine,’” recalled Chris Mize, who was working at the café that day.

Even though the memorial is located on a desolate stretch roughly 65 miles northeast of San Luis Obispo, its role in pop culture makes it a must-see bucket list item that requires only a bit of gas, a couple of hours of round-trip travel and perhaps a viewing of the movie “Rebel Without a Cause.”

Before The Tribune launched its SLO Bucket List feature, photographer Joe Johnston and I took Highway 46 to the site, passing a caravan of campers headed from the Central Valley to the beach.

Although the James Dean memorial is located hours from the nearest big city, it attracts visitors worldwide. Other recognizable guests have included actors James Woods, William Devane, Matt LeBlanc and Martin Sheen, Mize said. But most of the people who stop by aren’t well known.

Tim Limbrick of Fresno, who once lived in Creston, first saw the memorial 30 years ago, while applying for a psychiatric technician job at Atascadero State Hospital. Through the years, the former ASH employee said, he’s driven by thousands of times, stopping often.

During a recent pit stop, he again took time to see the memorial. “A young man who was in his prime — had a lot going for him — lost his life here,” Limbrick reflected.

The James Dean Memorial marks what is perhaps the most infamous tragedy in American pop culture history, right up there with the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly. Like Holly, Dean was a rising star on Sept. 30, 1955, when he got behind the wheel of his Porsche Spyder that — to quote an Eagles song — “took him down the road to eternity.”

Headed from Southern California toward a car race in Salinas, Dean and a mechanic friend had planned to stop in Paso Robles for dinner that night. But as they were traveling near what is now the intersection of Highways 46 and 41, Cal Poly student Donald Turnupseed, driving the opposite direction on 46, pulled in front of the Spyder in an attempt to turn onto Highway 41. After the collision, Dean’s lightweight Porsche traveled 45 feet before coming to a stop near a phone pole and a fenced pasture.

Turnupseed got a ride home that night, while the mechanic, Rolph Wütherich, was taken to a hospital with serious injuries. Dean wound up at the Spring Street Mortuary in Paso Robles.

Sixty years later, Dean is still a Hollywood icon, even though he made just three movies — “East of Eden,” “Giant” and “Rebel Without a Cause.” Through the decades his what-might-have-been legacy has arguably grown greater than his celebrity ever could have, the mystique having taken on a life of its own.

“I think he was one of the first teen idols, so that made it really significant,” said Limbrick.

In 2005, two signs noting “James Dean Memorial Junction” were installed at the intersection of Highways 46 and 41. Long before that, in 1977, Japanese businessman and Dean fan Seita Ohnishi paid to have a stainless steel and aluminum memorial built within eyeshot of the junction on Highway 46. The memorial stands just outside the café — a historic building that sells James Dean mementos and some of the county’s best burgers.

At the café, you’ll often see some valley visitors, mixed in with foreign tourists and local cowboys. As country music pipes in from a flat-screen TV, you’ll see prints, shirts and mugs with Dean’s image on them.

And near the counter, you’ll see a photo of another famous actor, born eight months before Dean. Eastwood, now 85, posed for that photo in 2014, drove past Dean’s final stop and continued down that road until his car shrank into the distance.

Do the Bucket List

Looking to uncover all that’s fun, Tribune reporters are scouring San Luis Obispo County, checking off must-do activities from our SLO Bucket List.

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