Monterey - the soul of Steinbeck country


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California, the State. San Francisco, the city. Monterey, the town. John Steinbeck, the author. For this Steinbeck fan, San Francisco is quite close to heaven. From San Francisco it is an easy drive down the peninsula to Santa Cruz and into Steinbeck territory.

I fly into San Francisco airport late in the afternoon. The signs are immediate America. ‘No Ped Xing', ‘Squeeze right', ‘Occupation by more than 132 persons unlawful’. From Rent-a-Wreck I collect a Chevrolet in two tones - cat-sick green and vile yellow. A veritable pimpmobile. And was it not in a car like this I drove into San Francisco for the 1967 Summer of Love, to follow Timothy Leary's instructions to ‘turn on, tune in, and drop out'? It was. And was it not in very much the same automobile I parked outside the City Lights Bookstore and went in and listened to Ginsberg recite ‘Howl’ and got Jack Kerouac to sign my copy of ‘The Dharma Bums'? It was. This antediluvian American monster is the car of my youth. Be damned to the characterless compacts of today. (It is a sad reflection on progress that the Rent-a-Wreck franchise now rents modern compacts. )

Now I drive across Highway 92 and its beguiling signs leading to San Jose along the Camino Real - the Royal Road. (Yes, I know the way to San Jose and a sterile, dreary city it is. )

Swing on to Highway 1, America's very own Pacific Highway, which takes me down the peninsula and along the coast, the rugged, rocky coast on the right, the remains of cypress forests on my left - and goes through Santa Cruz to Monterey. Coming back, I will use Highway 9 which is a backroad, in spite of the grandiose title, and follow the San Lorenzo river up, up into the Santa Cruz mountains and then through the magnificence of California redwoods in the Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park.

If I have enough time, on the way back I will stop at Felton on Highway 9 and ride on a steam train for an hour of nostalgia on the wondrously named Roaring Camp and Big Trees narrow-gauge railway line. No railway line of my youth ever swooped through stands of redwoods; it is true that only God could have made these trees, one of which is within spit of being a hundred meters tall.

No train in the darkness of the Rhondda Valley in Wales puffed like the ‘Little Red Engine’ - I think I can, I think I can - up one of the steepest railway gradients in the world to Bear Mountain.

But that is on the morrow. Today is for blessed Monterey. Robert Louis Stevenson in travel-book mode wrote of Monterey in a fish-hook simile as being ‘cosily ensconced beside the barb’. (At the time Stevenson was skulking around Monterey, waiting for the divorce of the light of his life, Fanny Osbourne. ) Much earlier than Stevenson, Gaspar de Portola and the intrepid explorer for God, Father Junipero Serra, claimed Monterey for Spain and the Holy Catholic Church by establishing a fort and a mission in 1777. Now I claim it, yet again, for myself.

The sea as I drive down the coast road is white with rage and foam. A hurricane has been creating havoc at sea and in Mexico. This is the dying fringe of the storm. Waves slam against the rocky coast and burst in white flags to mark the route ahead. I see no sea lions or seals as I did last year. Perhaps the sea is too rough. Perhaps they have a shelter where they hide from the big waves. Perhaps.

I am staying at the Monterey Bay Inn simply because of its address, 242 Cannery Row. From here, last night, I walked past the appalling tourist mockery that is Fisherman's Wharf - what sins are committed for the tourist dollar - and on to the Municipal Wharf at the end of Figuero Street. This is where the real fishing fleet is moored; where the buildings are designed for work, not tourist, and the pelicans stalk the fish-smelling docks and landings. Pure Steinbeck.

Last night I dreamed I was Doc Rickett and that I still worked in my laboratory among the wonderful desperates of ‘Cannery Row’. This morning, over breakfast, I consider sadly the strong moral purpose that ran through all of John Steinbeck's ‘Cannery Row’ novels. He was worried the major canning companies would, by dint of financial muscle, bully their way into ownership or control of all of the agricultural land in the area. Steinbeck was right to be worried. For that is what has come to pass.

Sad also to realize that the year ‘Cannery Row’ was published, 1945, was the year the sardine fishing industry of Monterey died. As Steinbeck said at a later time: ‘They are fishing for tourists now. ’ In the heyday of Monterey there were eighteen canneries, 100-odd fishing boats, 4,000 workers, three gaudy brothels and a terrible smell of dead fish. Now, nearly all are gone.

(It used to be that Monterey, and nearby Salinas where he was born, was angry and ashamed of John Steinbeck. In 1944, after the success of ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ Steinbeck bought a house in Monterey; no one would rent him an office for writing. He was harassed when trying to get fuel and wood from a local wartime rations board. He wrote that his old friends did not want him, partly because of his works and partly because he was so successful: ‘This isn't my country anymore. And it won't be until I am dead. It makes me very sad. ’ He late wrote: ‘After I had written “The Grapes of Wrath" . . . the librarians at the Salinas Public Library, who had known my folks remarked that is was lucky my parents were dead so that they did not have to suffer this shame. '

In truth, the whole American literary establishment should fry in hell for their treatment of this author. When Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1962 he was damned in newspapers with faint praise. ‘The New York Times’ in particular should hang its head in shame. )

Now there is a National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, about 25 km inland from Monterey. It is not for me. I am not of the school who thinks these things can be packaged, tarted up, represented. Of itself the center says: ‘Discover Steinbeck's works and philosophy through interactive, multisensory exhibits for all ages and backgrounds, priceless artifacts, entertaining displays, educational programs and research archives. Seven themed theaters showcase “East of Eden", “Cannery Row", “Of Mice and Men", “The Grapes of Wrath" and much more. ’ That is not my scene.

Yet we can still see the old Cannery Row if we look with care.

This morning I go to Foam Street, where the true Cannery Row starts. I stand silently on the stone pilings of the deserted loading dock. A pleasant melancholy. It would have been better if I had delayed my visit by a couple of months. For this is the end of summer and the weather is still too warm, too pleasant for my mood. Cannery Row needs a touch of cold damp in the air for true dismal authenticity. And it is wrong that I should be here on a Saturday. Thursday, Sweet Thursday, is surely the only day to visit Monterey. But how can we change a business itinerary for literary requirements?

Much in Monterey remains the same, much has changed. La Ida Cafe of blessed memory is now Kalisa's, down from my hotel at 851 Cannery Row. Wing Chong Market, at 835, has been transmogrified into the Old General Store and the building that once held Doc Rickett's Marine Lab still stands at 800 Cannery Row. Last time I was here it was a private club and I managed to smooth-talk my way in. This morning it seems sadly deserted and I am told it is owned by the city of Monterey and the public is not welcome.

Do not confuse this, the genuine article, with Doc Rickett's Lab, which is a restaurant at 180 E Franklin Street, and is not the sort of place Doc Rickett would have dined at, but didn't.

When I have finished writing, I will stroll down to Sancho Panza for lunch. This restaurant is in an adobe building built in 1841 in Calle Principal - Main Street. There, in the crowded, low-ceilinged room, I will drink Mexican Corona beer with slices of lime and eat chile con carne con frijoles and remember John Steinbeck, the writer who gave me the smell, the feel, the reality of Monterey when I was a small boy in Wales.

Gareth Powell runs, among other sites, Travel Hopefully - - and has been a travel writer and editor for far too long.


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