Highway 46 is known for many things: rolling hills, near-desert landscapes, and long stretches of empty road, but most famously (or infamously) it is known for a small, once poorly directed, intersection where James Dean was killed on his way to a race in Salinas in 1955.
The details were entirely vague to me, but Andy realized that we were near the site of the crash, and asked about a memorial. A quick google search revealed that technically there are two memorials on this stretch of road (1 formal, 1 informal) – a bit of a surprise given how little else is between the I-5 and Paso Robles.
If you are heading west from I-5 on Route 46, you will first encounter a place called Blackwell’s Corner (you’ll know it because James Dean is literally pointing the way). It’s at the intersection of Route 33 and Route 46, attached to a Texaco, and it’s rumored to be the last place Dean was seen alive. We parked and walked into the store. Even from the front doors, you can see the pictures of Dean and other celebrities along the back walls. It’s a great place for picking up snacks, “East of Eden” fudge or even a bite to eat in the “Forever Young” restaurant. It’s also seemingly the only rest spot for miles, so even if you aren’t a James Dean fan, you will be pretty excited that this rest stop, originally founded in the early 1920s, is still around.
The “Forever Young” restaurant was not open yet when we were there (it was relatively early in the day still), but we did walk around. The paintings on the walls remind you of those celebs who have passed (Elvis and Marilyn Monroe also make an appearance), and there are some other movie shout-outs along the walls of the diner.
Just outside of the diner area was a “Dust Bowl” truck. Taken to fairgrounds and educational spots, the “Dust Bowl” truck is a symbol of the families fleeing the agricultural disaster of the 1930s in Oklahoma to California with their belongings strapped to their vehicle. If you get a chance to see it up close, it’s definitely worth your time (and much like everything in Blackwell’s Corner, it’s a reminder of all the history that came before you).
Back out on Route 46 heading west, you will cross the intersection with Route 41 where the fatal crash occurred. Less than a mile from this point another memorial has been placed by a tree in front of the Jack Ranch Cafe. Built in Japan, this steel structure stands over plaques and fan offerings. It’s lovely, simple, and still attracts its share of visitors despite the years that have passed and the relative remoteness of the location.
Is this a place I would go to just for the sake of seeing the memorials? No. But if you find yourself driving down a long, lonely stretch of road between I-5 and Paso Robles, you may find yourself slowing down and taking a moment to reflect on how fleeting life can be (and maybe recommitting to making the most of each day).