Sunday, March 27, 2011

Sands of Time: The Dunites of the Guadalupe Dunes

The solitude of the Dunes

It requires a stunning degree of short-sightedness to build anything on shifting sands. But that is exactly what was attempted on the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes which spans both Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo county lines, at the turn of the last century. The area was to be ‘the future Atlantic City of the Pacific’ with a boardwalk, a hotel and a pavilion, and venture capitalists were enthralled with the possibility of resort style living on the sand dunes facing the Pacific Ocean. But the wind blown sand wouldn’t stay put and it inevitably won. By 1917, the few foolishly grandiose and now abandoned buildings that had telegraphed a possible new existence had became used lumber which ended up being scavenged by the dune-dwellers, an eclectic group of nomads and misfits who built their own new lives in the dunes.

George Blais (L) at the Dunes
The dunes had long been the home of a drifting population of vagrants and eccentrics, but it was in the 1920s that the people who became known as The Dunites claimed the transitory area for their own; a rag tag collection of everyone who felt disenfranchised with the world. Edward St Claire a Spanish-American war veteran turned poet was one of the first to claim residence. Then came George Blais, a reformed alcoholic turned evangelist and a naturist, who dressed to go into town in a loincloth and bandana, but otherwise lived naked in the dunes, surviving off fruits and nuts. One of the most illustrious and flamboyant Dunites was astrologer, writer and socialite Gavin Arthur, grandson of United States President Chester A. Arthur and who ‘had it all’ by the standards of the day, but opted out of society. Probably the most well-known resident of the make shift dune neighborhood was the artist Elwood Decker.

The Dunites even published their own magazine which was distributed nationally called the “Dune Forum,” with contributions by photographers such as Ansel Adams. The magazine was heavy on intellectual style and expensive for the time at 35 cents. The publication ran for five issues before it too succumbed to forces greater than itself. Eventually the Dunites left their Bohemian ways, as life in the dunes simply could not be controlled and to this day, the sands shift where they will. Today a visit to the dunes is still something of an ethereal experience; it’s still relatively isolated, but the stark beauty is worth the drive. But pack a sweater, the winds can be fierce. The official visitors center is located in the town of Guadalupe and provides maps, historical information as well as schedules of ranger led hikes and photography.
The fierce winds at the Dunes create windswept trees like this

Thursday, March 17, 2011

James Dean: Death on the Highway

In the 1950s, James Dean was fast becoming a well-known movie star. He loved making movies, and he also loved fast cars, specifically a silver Porsche Spyder 550 he named “Little Bastard.” In the early afternoon of September 30, 1955, Dean and Porsche factory mechanic Rolf Weutherich were on their way to an auto rally in Salinas, California. Dean was pulled over for speeding in Bakersfield, issued a citation for driving 65 in a 55 zone and released. Dean and his companion continued on their way towards Paso Robles with plans to spend the night, and then head to Salinas the next morning.
Dean and "Little Bastard."
As Little Bastard climbed down toward the little town of Cholame around dusk, Donald Turnupseed, a 23-year old Cal Poly student was heading the opposite direction in his 1950 Ford Tutor. He began a left turn at the intersection of Highway 41 and what was then called State Route 466 (later named Route 46), unaware of the Spyder approaching. The two vehicles met nearly head-on. Little Bastard crumpled and spun around, throwing Weutherich out of the vehicle. The car came to rest about 15 feet off the road near a telephone pole. Weutherich suffered a broken leg and serious head injuries, though he survived. Turnupseed escaped with a bruised nose and gashed forehead. However Dean suffered fatal injuries. The Coroner listed the cause of Dean’s death as a broken neck, multiple fractures of the upper and lower jaw, fractures to the left and right arms and severe internal injuries.

Contrary to news reports of the day, Dean’s car was not going in excess of  80 MPH. California Highway Patrol Officer Ron Nelson, one of the first to arrive on the scene, wrote in his report that the wreckage and position of Dean’s body, “indicated his speed at the time of the accident was more like 55 MPH.” Nevertheless, people speculated Dean was speeding and that he was still alive shortly after the accident. Regardless, he was pronounced dead at a Paso Robles hospital. He was 24.
CHP officers Ron Nelson (L) and Ron Tripke (R)
In 1977, a James Dean memorial was erected near the site of the crash. The stylized sculpture is composed of concrete and stainless steel around a tree located next to the Jack Ranch Café in Cholame. The café is still there as is the memorial, but that’s all that’s left of the little town. Japanese artist Seita Ohnishi built the memorial in Japan and transported it to the U.S., never clearly revealing why he had done this. At the dedication Ohnishi stated, “I am only one of many who feel strongly that James Dean should not be forgotten. There are some things, like the hatred that accompanies war, that are best forgotten. There are others, like the love inspired by this young actor that should be preserved for all time.”

The memorial is not the exact spot where the crash occurred; that spot is approximately 900 feet to the northeast, before the highways were realigned. In September 2005 the intersections of highways 41 and 46 were renamed the James Dean Memorial Highway. Donald Turnupseed went on with his life, forming a fairly successful electrical contracting business and avoiding the spotlight. He refused all interviews and passed away in 1995, never talking about the crash. The site still draws visitors and curiosity seekers. James Dean made only three films: Rebel Without a Cause, East of Eden, and Giant, but his legacy lives on.