She’d begun to feel a little squeamish, knowing that she was finally getting close to the place where he died. Shondelle had long dreamt of making this trip, this pilgrimage. Now, it was happening, and she was careful to note how it felt, all of it. She took note of the butterflies in her belly. She liked them there. She liked the feeling of a physiological something as she approached the place, as it reminded her that this was something important.
Shondelle had no idea what this land would look and feel like. All she knew was that it was way out there, far from both San Francisco and Los Angeles. Now, as she moved along Highway 46 in her rented Toyota, she could see how remote, how barren, how brown it all was. This was not the California of her mind’s eye. The low rolling hills, covered with the stalks of last year’s grasses, oak trees able to gain purchase only in the gullies and gulches where the rains ran off. Not a beautiful landscape, really, but a striking one.
Up ahead, she could see the cars on her road meeting up with cars from the highway on her right. It was, she knew, the “Y” where Highway 46 merged and consumed Highway 41. The Place. Those butterflies flapped their wings more strongly.
Traveling at 65 miles an hour, she saw the simple sign—James Dean Memorial Junction. In a country loaded up with highway death markers, this was the Big One. The place where the actor’s Porsche 550 Spyder had been hit by an eastbound guy, who had carelessly turned his big Ford in front of Dean while trying to turn left onto 41. The near head-on collision had been, of course, fatal to Dean (not the other man, who lived until 1995). The date was Sept. 30, 1955. On that day, one of the enduring legends of American popular culture was born.
She had been 19 years old, growing up in Omaha when she first saw Rebel Without a Cause. It had been unexpected and undeniable, the figurative lightning bolt that had zapped her heart and mind. After viewing it for the 10th time, she was firmly in the grip of the star-struck. Some time later, she had the idea to come out here. She just had to.
The memorial, about a mile west of the actual crash site in front of the Jack Ranch Cafe, was nice. Simple, tasteful, even elegant, surrounding a large tree in the parking lot. She sat there and reflected on the energy within that compelled her to be here. She felt pretty damn good about following through and doing this crazy thing, realizing that it wasn’t all that crazy. She thought about the quote at this tribute from The Little Prince, one of Dean’s favorite books: “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” She decided to stick around and watch the sun set over the strange, brown hills.