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Monterey – Steinbeck’s Country Soul

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

Flight to San Francisco airport in the late afternoon. The signs are immediate America. ‘No Ped Xing’, ‘Squeeze right’, ‘Illegal occupation by more than 132 people’. From Rent-a-Wreck I collect a Chevrolet in two shades: sick green and vile yellow. A real pimpmobile. And wasn’t it in a car like this that I drove to San Francisco for the 1967 Summer of Love, to follow Timothy Leary’s instructions to ‘start, tune in and quit’?

It was. And wasn’t it in the same car that I parked in front of the City Lights bookstore and went in and heard 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. To hell with today’s characterless deals. (It’s a sad reflection of progress that the Rent-a-Wreck franchise now rents modern compacts.)

Now I drive through Highway 92 and its alluring signs that lead to San Jose along the Camino Real, the Royal Road. (Yes, I know the way to San José and it is a barren and sad city).

I turn onto Highway 1, America’s own Pacific Highway, which takes me up the peninsula and along the coast, the rugged, rocky coastline to my right, the remnants of cypress forests to my left, and through Santa Cross to Monterey. On the way back, I’ll use Highway 9, which is a back road, despite the grandiose title, and follow the Saint Lawrence River up into the Santa Cruz Mountains and then through the magnificence of the California Redwoods in the Park. State Henry Cowell Redwoods.

If I have enough time, on the way back I’ll stop in Felton on Highway 9 and ride a steam train for an hour of nostalgia on the wonderfully named Roaring Camp and Big Trees narrow gauge rail line. No railway line of my youth ever swooped through redwood forests; it is true that only God could have made these trees, one of which is about to reach a hundred meters in height.

No train in the darkness of the Rhondda Valley in Wales chugged like the ‘little red engine’ (I think I can, I think I can) up one of the world’s steepest railway grades up Bear Mountain.

But that’s tomorrow. Today is for blessed Monterey. Robert Louis Stevenson, in travel book mode, wrote of Monterey in a fishhook simile as “snugly ensconced by the barb.” (At the time, Stevenson was hanging around Monterey, awaiting a divorce from the light of his life, Fanny Osbourne.) Long before Stevenson, Gaspar de Portola and the intrepid explorer of God, Father Junípero Serra, claimed Monterey for Spain and the Holy Catholic Church by establishing a fort and mission in 1777. I now claim it, once again, for myself.

The sea as I drive along the coastal road is white with fury and foam. A hurricane has been wreaking havoc at sea and in Mexico. This is the dying fringe of the storm. The waves hit the rocky shoreline and break out into white flags to mark the route ahead. I don’t see sea lions or seals like last year. Perhaps the sea is too rough. Maybe they have a shelter to hide from the big waves. Maybe.

I stay at the Monterey Bay Inn simply because of its address, 242 Cannery Row. From here, last night, I walked past the hideous tourist mockery that is Fisherman’s Wharf (what sins are committed for the tourist dollar) and arrived at the Municipal Dock at the end of Figuero Street. This is where the real fishing fleet berths; where buildings are designed for work, not tourism, and pelicans lurk on docks and landings that smell of fish. Pure Steinbeck.

Last night I dreamed that I was Doc Rickett and that I was still working in my lab among the wonderful desperados of ‘Cannery Row’. Over breakfast this morning, I sadly consider the strong moral purpose that runs through all of John Steinbeck’s ‘Cannery Row’ novels. He was concerned that the major canning companies, by dint of financial muscle, would force their way in to take ownership or control of all the agricultural land in the area. Steinbeck was right to be worried. Because that is what has happened.

Sad also to realize that the year ‘Cannery Row’ was published, 1945, was the year the Monterey sardine fishing industry died. As Steinbeck put it at a later point: “Now they’re fishing for tourists.” In Monterey’s heyday there were eighteen canneries, some 100 fishing boats, 4,000 workers, three garish brothels, and a terrible smell of dead fish. Now, almost all of them are gone.

(It used to be that Monterey, and nearby Salinas, where he was born, were 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 an office from him to write. He was harassed when trying to get fuel and wood from a local wartime ration board. He wrote that his old friends didn’t want him, partly because of his works and partly because he was so successful: ‘This is not my country ever again. And it won’t be until I die. It makes me very sad.’ people commented that it was lucky my parents were dead so they didn’t have to suffer this shame.’

Truly, the entire American literary establishment should be fried in hell for their treatment of this author. When Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1962, the newspapers condemned him with feeble praise. ‘The New York Times’ in particular should hang its head in shame).

There is now a National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, about 25 km inland from Monterey. It’s not for me. I am not of the school that thinks that these things can be packaged, launched, represented. Of itself, the center says: ‘Discover Steinbeck’s works and philosophy through interactive multi-sensory exhibits for all ages and backgrounds, priceless artifacts, entertaining exhibits, educational programs and research archives. Seven themed theaters show “East of Eden”, “Cannery Row”, “Of Mice and Men”, “The Grapes of Wrath” and much more. That’s not my scenario.

However, we can still see the old Cannery Row if we look closely.

This morning I’m going to Foam Street, where the real Cannery Row begins. 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 for a couple of months. Because it’s the end of summer and the weather is still too hot, too nice for my mood. Cannery Row needs a hint of chilly moisture in the air for true grim authenticity. And it’s wrong for me to be here on a Saturday. Thursday, Sweet Thursday, is probably the only day to visit Monterey. But how can we change a business itinerary for literary demands?

Much in Monterey remains the same, much has changed. The Ida Café of blessed memory is now in Kalisa, downstairs from my hotel at 851 Cannery Row. Wing Chong Market, at 835, was transformed into the Old General Store and the building that once housed Doc Rickett’s marine lab still stands at 800 Cannery Row. The last time I was here it was a private club and I managed to get in with no problem. This morning it looks sadly deserted and I have been told that it is owned by the City of Monterey and the public is not welcome.

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

When I have finished writing, I will go down to eat Sancho Panza. This restaurant is in an adobe building built in 1841 on Calle Principal — Main Street. There, in the low-ceilinged crowded room, I’ll drink Corona Mexican beer with lime wedges and eat chili con carne with beans and remember John Steinbeck, the writer who gave me the smell, the feel, the reality of Monterey when I was a little boy in Wales.

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