The Great Dinosaurs of Cabazon

I drove west on a busy three lane interstate just east of the LA suburbs, trying to navigate around too many 18 wheelers to count. The construction barrier on the right side threatened to scrape my rental car and send me flying into the other lanes. There wasn’t much to see in this valley besides the loud, crowded highway and all of the traffic trying to get through it. On any ordinary day I wouldn’t be driving in this unremarkable corner of Southern California. But this was no ordinary day. In fact, I waited my whole life for this moment.

Just off of I-10 west of Coachella is a small roadside stop known as the Cabazon Dinosaurs, featuring huge replicas of a brontosaurus and tyrannosaurus looking over their dominion of visitors. They became iconic to many kids in the 80s and 90s – myself included – for their role in important scenes in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and The Wizard. Now, they’re the main attractions in a dinosaur park, where you can walk among smaller dinosaur exhibits, browse two different gift shops, and best of all, look out from the mouth of the T-Rex. As I drove towards the sun among thousands of other cars, the silhouette of the T-Rex came into my view, looking like a tiny plastic toy that I used to fight with a triceratops as a kid. I was already losing it.

In the film, Pee Wee Herman found this place at a frustrating time in his quest to find his stolen bike, where he no doubt wondered if the challenges he faced on the road made any difference. Out of nowhere, a truck driver helping him turned out to be an apparition of the late Large Marge, scaring the shit out of him and leaving him stranded by the road. He came upon the figures of the Cabazon Dinosaurs, glowing serenely in the late night. There was no doubt some encouragement in this, and at the very least, some cool shit to look at. He went into the Wheel Inn diner and made friends with the waitress Simone. They stayed up the rest of the night in the mouth of the T-Rex, making something of a connection bordering on attraction.

The dinosaurs were also part of a big scene in The Wizard, another cult movie from that era. Two young brothers, Corey and Jimmy, ran away from a broken home and made their way to the West Coast. Jimmy, a young shy kid of few words, repeatedly said “California”, motivating his brother Corey to sneak him out of a behavioral institution and start hitchhiking west. They met a fiery redheaded girl named Haley, played by Jenny Lewis, who figured out that Jimmy was a Wizard at video games. They made it into something of a hustle, with Jimmy eventually winning the national Nintendo competition at Universal Studios. The family finally caught up with them and started driving back after celebrating.

They passed by the dinosaurs on the highway. Jimmy saw them and started yelling “California! California!” The family stopped and they went inside the brontosaurus. Here, Jimmy revealed the reason for his obsession with California. It wasn’t to escape from his problems, or to win at Super Mario 3, or even to be in California. Those things he did for his brother. It was because he lost his twin sister two years ago, and his fondest memory of her was right there, among the Great Dinosaurs of Cabazon. He took out a family photo of them in front of the dinosaurs and left it inside the brontosaurus. Then the family agreed to bring their boys home.

As a result, the dinosaurs found their way into the imaginations of kids like me, and over time, into nostalgia. But it didn’t matter that I was all grown up as I drove into the parking lot that day – the 7 year old me was losing his fucking mind. These were the Cabazon Dinosaurs who I had spent my entire childhood and adult life wondering if I would ever have the chance to see. And so this wasn’t just a visit to a road stop or some half assed tourist attraction. This was something far greater. This place was hallowed ground.

I bought a pass at the ticket counter and entered the pathway behind the T-Rex. Dioramas displayed many smaller life-sized dinosaurs, like a pair of velociraptors of eight feet (Spoiler: They look just as vicious in person as they were in Jurassic Park). There was a sand pit off to the side where kids could dig up “fossils” and win free prizes at the gift shop. The path led to the tail of the T-Rex, where a door opened to the inside. Following a stairway up to a small spiral staircase, I reached the inside of the mouth of the beast. And I could look out and see the park below. Sunlight beamed through the teeth – perhaps the last sign of daylight I would ever see if this animal were real.

Outside, the sign of the Wheel Inn Restaurant was the only thing left of that famous diner. They bulldozed it to the ground several years ago, which is bullshit. But I did enjoy walking underneath the brontosaurus, where Andy chased Pee Wee in circles around its legs before he escaped on a passing train. It also had a door leading inside to a gift shop. There, baskets were full of dinosaurs of all types and sizes. They could have easily been added to my collection for some epic dinosaur wars in my basement.

As I drove east, the Great Dinosaurs of Cabazon vanished behind me. A stark full moon rose above the northern mountains against the lavender colors of the early night. I thought that it wouldn’t be much longer before those dinosaurs were glowing beneath the stars of the Southern California desert, as surely they were.