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Jack Ranch Cafe

My brother stood several feet away, his back turned to the monument, smoking a Salem.

"You should check this out," I said, nodding toward the monument. "Pretty cool."

He nodded but stayed put. Clearly unimpressed, he added: "I've seen his movies."

I've seen his movies?

"Dude, this place is iconic," I shot back. "This is where the most famous car accident in American pop culture took place."

There have been books, movies, and songs written about the death of James Dean. And it happened here -- on a desolate stretch of highway in rural San Luis Obispo County. It was here, near the Jack Ranch Café (fantastic burgers, by the way) where a Cal Poly student veered into the actor's path and unknowingly triggered a what-might-have-been mythology that still intrigues people six decades later.

I told my brother that, but he waved me off.

"I'm not into James Dean."

"You don't have to be," I said, then added, "I know it's not as exciting as online poker . . ."

A cheap shot. One of a couple I regret from that visit.

I brought my older brother and mom out from Indiana so they could see my home of 15 years. Like the many folks who have SLO LUV vanity plates, I guess I take a certain pride in the place Oprah called the Happiest City in America.

But no matter how many sea otters I showed them - no matter how much trivia I spouted off about Weird Al Yankovic or Pismo clams -- I couldn't impress them.

"I thought it was supposed to be warm in California," my brother complained when I took him surfing.


A real activity, not fantasy football.

"This isn't 'Baywatch,'" I said. "That's LA."

While my brother harped about fog, my mom dove in on cost of living.

"Eighty-nine cents for a donut? Good lord!"

"Mother, people have to make a living."

"Well so do you!"

"This isn't 1981 - prices have gone up in the world."

Of course, with every complaint, there was an underlying message: Why don't you come back home?

"I can't believe how much you pay for rent," my brother said, shaking his head during our long trek to Kings Canyon.

He probably envisioned a cartoon donkey head on my shoulders, braying like a fool who would shell out $1,500 a month for a zero-return living expense.


I had set them up at a room with a nice view of Morro Rock, a majestic 600-foot volcanic sculpture perched in the ocean. But my mom's first words were, "There better not be bugs in this place!"

Near the visit's end, after my brother was underwhelmed by my Steve Martin encounter, I went for the Hail Mary -- a story about how I once inadvertently helped locate a dead body. But his response was something like -- lemme make sure I get this right --


And I realized then that I'd made a mistake.

If my brother gets a stoke from online poker, then good for him; He doesn't need to surf. And if my mom misses her dog, then great - I'm glad she has a dog that she loves so much.

Surfing changed my life. And it happened here, where my daughter was born. Where the SLO LIFE is not only a good license plate, it's also a great mantra.

I don't need to sell it, like the chamber of commerce. I pay $1,500 a month because I love it here, and that's all that matters.

So when my niece comes to visit later this month, I'm going to wise up and tell her exactly what I should have told her dad when he was here:

Hearst Castle. Now that's a place you've got to see.


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