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Extinction Along Interstate 10

How a 250-ton, steel-reinforced dream disappeared

November 27, 2005|Martin J. Smith | Martin J. Smith is acting editor of the magazine and the author of five books, including "OOPS: 20 Life Lessons from the Fiascoes That Shaped America," which HarperCollins will publish in March.

Interstate 10 was brand-new when the steel skeleton of Dinney began to take shape in the 1960s. By then Bell was in his mid-60s, and even older when he started work on Rex. He had a financial stake in the Wheel Inn, and he imagined his dinosaurs as a reliable magnet for passing motorists with an appetite. But making money was hardly Bell's prime motivation. (He eventually spent about $300,000 and countless hours building the dinosaurs, but charged only 50 cents admission for adults, 25 cents for kids between 10 and 14, and nothing for kids under 10.) No, this clearly was about something else.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 30, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Extinct animals -- Sunday's Los Angeles Times Magazine article on Claude K. Bell, the creator of two dinosaur sculptures in Cabazon, referred to a mastodon as a dinosaur. It was a mammal.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 18, 2005 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Part I Page 6 Lat Magazine Desk 0 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
The article "Extinction Along Interstate 10" (Nov. 27) incorrectly referred to a mastodon as a dinosaur. It was a mammal.

And so they rose, two dinosaurs marooned in that Godforsaken place. And there they have remained, silent testimony to their creator's pluck and to this land of infinite possibilities. Didn't most of us, after all, come here to build our dinosaurs?

At one point during my visit, Claude Bell leaned forward in his rocking chair and gestured toward a piece of plywood leaning against his studio wall. On it, he had sketched plans for a third dinosaur, a mastodon. "You've got to work from the inside out," he said. "It's kind of tricky getting around them." He conceded that a mastodon "isn't in view at this time," but even at 91, he wasn't entirely ruling it out.

Before I left that day, Anna flipped through a scrapbook of photographs of her husband's sculptures. "All these things you see here were torn down," she said. "There's only a few things left."

The biggest of those stood just outside--massive, unmovable, as permanent as one man could make them. Bell's partner in the Wheel Inn, who had helped assemble Dinney's steel skeleton, predicted that the dinos would be structurally sound for at least 500 years, and at one point Anna bragged that "they'd need a bulldozer and then something to get them down."

I remember wanting to congratulate their creator for actually doing what so many of us want to do, for leaving a mark. But by then Claude Bell was asleep in his chair. And six weeks later, the man who built the Cabazon dinosaurs was dead.

Here's the thing about Southern California: Permanence is illusion. Legends wither. The past impedes the future. And so, sad to say, Claude Bell's mighty dinosaurs have practically disappeared in the nearly two decades since they first caught my eye.

Oh, they're still there, standing strong and proud as ever on the same patch of desert. But Bell's family eventually sold the 60 acres and the dinosaurs to an Orange County developer who wanted to make a mark of his own. In conjunction with a Christian group, the developer decided to use the dinosaurs as massive roadside billboards to help sell the biblical notion that life on Earth was a divine creation during God's one productive week rather than the result of millions of years of evolution. Bell's dinosaurs have found gainful employment as proselytizers.

But at the same time, the dinosaurs have fallen into a modern version of a tar pit. First came a two-story Burger King, which rose between the dinosaurs and the interstate and partially blocked them from passing motorists. Another restaurant went up, as did a gas station. The dinosaurs seemed to get smaller, sinking deeper and deeper into a creeping commercial swamp that Bell never envisioned. The most thrilling way to see them these days is in satellite photographs. The last time I drove past, I was so distracted by the traffic around the nearby outlet malls and the new 27-story casino resort that rises into the desert sky like a Kubrick monolith, I didn't even notice the concrete creatures that once so fascinated and inspired me.

The moment struck me later as both sad and inevitable. Anyone with a dream can make their mark here. Few marks, though, are big enough to endure.

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