Film Buffs on a California Road Trip

« Blog posts

Posted by Dan Webster on March 9, 2018, 11 a.m.

We stood there, my friends Tom, Dave and I, gawking at the makeshift road-side memorial that sits near the intersection of California State Routes 41 and 46.

Traffic flowed past, and the occasional driver honked in support as we studied the items that so many others had left behind: pairs of discarded sunglasses, American flags draped on an adjoining barb-wire fence, empty beer cans and cigarette packs.

Prominent amid the display rested a white wreath adorned with plastic flowers that bore a red ribbon, which carried the inscription “We Love You James.”

That’s James as in James Dean. I’ll explain more in a moment.

James Dean roadside memorial

James Dean roadside memorial. Photo by Dan Webster.

First, though, let me stress something: Nothing says friendship better than a road trip. And for movie fans in particular, California provides the perfect backdrop.

I met Tom and Dave during our first year of graduate school. We bonded over our shared interests in cold beer, off-color jokes, University of Oregon football – and movies.

Tom loves music and the 2009 film “Pirate Radio.” Dave and I share an abiding interest in, among other things, samurai movies. All of us adore “Blade Runner.”

So when we hold our reunions, which we do every couple of years, we try to include at least three of our four favorite activities.

It was Dave’s turn to host our last get-together, and because he lives in Santa Ynez, Calif., some 30 miles northwest of Santa Barbara, I made a suggestion: Let’s drive up the coast to Hearst Castle.

Why? Well, as anyone who has seen Orson Welles’ 1941 masterpiece “Citizen Kane” understands, William Randolph Hearst’s “Castle” was the inspiration for Welles’ fictional estate of Xanadu. What better destination could there be for a trio of movie-lovers?

Then I upped the ante: On the way, we should stop by the intersection of California State Routes 41 and 46.

Why? Because at that very spot, about 5:45 p.m. on Sept. 30, 1955, the actor James Dean was killed in a car accident.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: weird. But my fascination with Dean’s death is more than merely morbid. Not only was Dean one of the biggest movie stars of his time, his mega fame came after his passing – when he evolved into the embodiment of the “live fast, die young” cliché.

Besides, I’d never been able to understand the actual mechanics of the crash itself. At least not until I stood there, across the street from a sign that reads “James Dean Memorial Junction.” Not until

I’d actually visited the highway where Dean came speeding down a grade in his Porsche Spyder and I was able to look at the very spot where the other car pulled in front of him.

Only then did I finally comprehend how the whole accident unfolded. How Dean attempted a last-second racing maneuver, how the cars collided and how Dean’s crushed Spyder bounced off, cartwheeling several times before coming to a stop.

And how a legend was born.

We took photos, of course. But we also shared a moment of reflection for a giant talent gone too soon. “Rebel Without a Cause,” indeed.

And the cost? Just the price of the gas it took to drive there.

Then we headed off, proceeding up the coast to San Simeon where the experience was impressive in a far different way. And just a bit more expensive.

I didn’t know what to expect from Hearst Castle. I had first seen “Citizen Kane” sometime in the early 1970s, in a special screening held at San Diego State University. I’d arrived just as the film was starting and, while stumbling to find a seat in the dark, was lulled into a near drowse by the slow and gloomy “Rosebud” opening.

Then, just as my eyes were starting to droop, I was nearly knocked from my seat when the movie’s tone changed and the mock newscaster blared out “News … on the march!”

I was transfixed. And I remained so for the rest of the 119-minute running time, which is exactly what you’d expect from one of the greatest films ever made.

And now, some four and a half decades later, I was again fully awake while visiting the place that inspired it all.

Hearst Castle

Hearst Castle. Photo by Dan Webster.

We’d stayed the previous night at a motel in San Simeon, an unincorporated beach town boasting a population of less than 500. Located along scenic State Route 101, almost midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, San Simeon’s main claim to fame is what is now officially called Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument. The castle itself sits amid the hills, some five miles to the town’s northeast.

After parking at the visitors’ center, we made our way to the ticket counter. Dave had arranged reservations for us, a recommended approach given the site’s popularity. We opted to buy tickets for the Grand Rooms Tour ($26 for adults, $12 for children), which provides guided access to the main building and a free run of the immediate grounds.

Tickets in hand, we boarded buses that chugged up the winding, narrow road that leads to the estate itself.

On the way, we learned how Hearst’s father had purchased the original 40,000-acre ranch in 1865, how Hearst had camped there as a child and how he’d inherited it from his mother. How in 1919 he’d hired noted architect Julia Morgan to design a “bungalow” that would let him stay at the property without having to camp out.

And how, by 1947 when Hearst’s declining health forced him to leave, the construction still hadn’t been completed – largely because Morgan’s original design had morphed into something far more grand, eventually encompassing 127 of the Hearst ranch’s total acreage.

All by itself, the main residence – known as Casa Grande – boasts 38 bedrooms, 42 bathrooms and 30 fireplaces. Add in the massive swimming pools, both outdoor and indoor, and the guest residences – not to mention the artwork that Hearst had collected over the decades – and you have an estate that ranks with anything any U.S. tycoon has ever imagined, much less built.

Hearst Castle

Hearst Castle interiors. Photo by Dan Webster.

But even with all that, not to mention a view that extends to the Pacific Ocean, the most impressive aspect to Hearst Castle is the feel of the place. As we drove away, back to Santa Ynez and a round of cold beers, my imagination ran wild.

I wondered what it might have been like to be an invited guest of Hearst’s, dining with and/or performing for the entertainment of my host. Or to be Hearst himself, standing at a table large enough to host a polo match and reigning over his media empire.

In whatever scenario, I knew this: Hearst Castle has a feel of magic. Given the grave tone of Welles’ film, you might even suspect the place is haunted with a bit of black magic.

Seems appropriate. In that case, anyway, James Dean’s ghost would feel right at home.