A set of traffic lights in the middle of a California highway perplexes Michael Wayne . . . until he reads the sign
An eerie feeling strikes me as I clip along the long, lonely two-lane blacktop westbound toward Cholame, California. There's no reason for it — just a sudden sense of unease.
I'm currently on my way from Las Vegas to San Francisco. It's a pretty straightforward and non-descript series of highways and national routes offering little in the way of visual stimulation, unless you're a wheat enthusiast.
That's why it's strange when I see a huge standee of a 50s greaser pointing to a petrol station in the middle of nowhere. He's sporting a petulant smirk, and radiates an easy cool in his leather jacket and Levis 501s. There's some text beside him, but I'm going too fast to read it.
It's a reminder that I'd better slow down.
A few dozen wheat fields later comes another, more immediate reminder: a set of traffic lights. Give me a break! There's nothing around. I'm literally miles from nowhere. It's a 55mph highway, but I'm stopped at a red light. My impatient eyes drift to the big green sign beside the angry red eye that's brought us to a standstill. James Dean Memorial Junction.
Suddenly, it all makes sense.
It's been over six decades since Dean, a rising Hollywood star, crashed his cursed Porsche 550 Spyder and died aged just 24. Go and have a look at any picture of Dean. Does he look 24? They lived large back then, and nowhere did James Dean live larger than behind the wheel.
An avid auto racer, Dean competed in professional racing events around California in the months before his death. Cholame, more the sound of a throat being cleared than a town, was meant to be just another cluster of lights in his rear view mirror on his way to victory.
Instead, he made it immortal.
Ooh, my soul.
Once I get a green, I pull over to check out the memorial. Just past the sign, someone has collated a bunch of stuff along a fence: an American flag, some flowers, a note that reads "We love you, James".
I notice that it's all fairly recent, and as I take another look around the desolate landscape, I get another chill. Someone's coming out here regularly to maintain this.
Further up the highway is the Jack Ranch Cafe, which is a kind of de facto town hall for Cholame.
Here, you can enjoy some damn good food and check out the bizarre tribute to Dean beneath the tree outside.
In 1977, Japanese businessman and big James Dean fan Seita Ohnishi erected the memorial, which includes a place to throw money and a plaque inscribed with the exact time of Dean's death. I toss a five and dime onto it and head back to the car.
There's so little to Cholame that I wonder why they don't name more things around here after the man. There's the James Dean Memorial Tractor, the James Dean Memorial Hill, the James Dean Memorial Hay Bales. In fact, why not just rename the town James Dean? It's easier to pronounce.
I'd later learn that the traffic lights were put in to prevent the accident that claimed Dean's life from ever happening again. That cacophony of honks I can hear in the distance are probably offered in thanks by grateful motorists.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: The James Dean Memorial Junction sits where California State Route 41 and 46 meet, just a little to the east of Cholame, which itself is about three hours' drive northwest of Los Angeles. Just don't hire a Porsche Spyder.
The writer travelled at his own expense.