Reporting from Cholame, Calif. — At age 8, Emily Melville lost her mother, father and older sister along a stretch of Highway 46 when a big-rig collided with the family's minivan in May 2006. The family was returning home to the Central Coast after visiting Disneyland.
Earlier this year, Aaron Salgado, 26, died as he attempted to turn off Highway 46 into the driveway of his home. His car was struck from behind and propelled into an oncoming pickup truck as his wife watched in horror from their frontyard.
And perhaps most famously, actor James Dean died on the same highway 55 years ago last Thursday as he was heading to Salinas to compete in an automobile race.
Death does not discriminate along this stretch of two-lane highway, where 38 lives have been lost since 2000, according to statistics from the California Highway Patrol. Much of the carnage, officials say, is the result of drivers trying to pass slow-moving big-rigs or inattentive motorists drifting into oncoming traffic. Drivers are warned to keep their headlights on at all hours on the route and to exercise extreme caution.
In the last two years, the California Department of Transportation has begun widening sections of the 110-mile highway that cuts through San Luis Obispo and Kern counties. If money is available, Caltrans hopes to widen the entire highway to four lanes. "That's the plan, anyway," said Jim Shivers, a department spokesman. "That corridor has a terrible history, and it's mostly due to unsafe passing maneuvers. Hopefully, widening it will improve its safety."
Part of the project is already underway near Lost Hills, on the highway's eastern end, and just outside Paso Robles, on its western end. Roughly $78 million in Proposition 1B money is paying for the first two phases of the program, and Caltrans hopes additional funds will come from the federal government. It's a massive undertaking but a necessary one, officials say. The route, which has been nicknamed "Blood Alley," is a key corridor between California's Central Coast and Central Valley.
"What people don't understand is that some of the highways in our nation are killing fields, and this is just one of them," says Vince Pagano, a CHP officer in Kern County.
From 2006 to 2009, there were 239 accidents and collisions, six fatalities and 71 injuries along Highway 46, according to Caltrans officials. However, the department says that the accident rate along the route is slightly below average when compared to similar, undivided two-lane highways in California.
Yet the highway's reputation remains, due in great part to Dean. The actor died at the junction of Highway 46 and Highway 41 when Donald Turnupseed, a Cal Poly student, turned his Ford coupe in front of Dean's silver Porsche Spyder 550.
Dean's last words to his mechanic, Rolf Wutherich, reportedly were: "That guy's gotta stop.... He'll see us."
The highway was desolate back then, according to Caltrans and CHP officials. But over the decades it's become overwhelmed — and, to a certain extent, overrun — by thousands of commuters, truckers and residents flocking to the Central Coast for relief from the landlocked San Joaquin Valley, especially when temperatures soar into the 100s.
The route also attracts Dean aficionados who flock to where the actor's feet last touched soil before his death: Blackwells Corner Grocery in Lost Hills. Those obsessed with the actor have retraced his steps and say he bought apples and Coca-Cola there before fueling up.
Farther west, in the ranching community of Cholame, a micro-economy has evolved near the site of Dean's crash. Last weekend, the owners of the Jack Ranch Cafe, the only restaurant in town, held a classic car show in tribute to Dean.
However, locals say they've long grown weary of the Dean fans who descend on the area. "He was a spoiled brat who didn't know how to act, but that's just my opinion," said Jack Ranch waitress Shelly Lucero.
Roger Warner, the restaurant's owner, acknowledges that the crash site's infamy has attracted more than a few eccentric characters. One time, a man walked into the restaurant with a framed photograph of Dean, then proceeded to order beers and have an "imaginary drink" with the actor, said Warner, 63.
"He'd drink his own, then order another one, then I'd take the one that Dean was supposed to drink and bring it back to the refrigerator," he said.