The National Steinbeck Center.
Come and ride along with me as I follow the Steinbeck route from Travels with Charley around the U.S. and “rediscover this monster land.”
Itinerary: There are few clues about which routes Steinbeck traveled through Oregon and California. As for me, it was, all interstate, all the time when I was rushing to meet my wife Dimmie in Santa Cruz, California. I’m eagerly anticipating a more leisurely route down the coast to Santa Barbara on U.S. 1 in a few days.
The Landscape: Simply put, Oregon has it all—from an environmentally oriented and culturally rich city (Portland) to Shakespeare (Ashland)—from sunny rugged desert to rainy rugged coastline with some of the most significant geography and flora in this nation, in between. California had it all. The old expression “California or Bust” has become “California is Bust.” The beauty and sheer expansiveness of California has become marred with litter, traffic,
graffiti, gangs, traffic, poor roads, traffic and people—people everywhere—many of whom are unemployed. The California prison system is at double capacity. As one Californian put it, “We are just putting on a front.
Things are very bad.” She went on to say the state parks were only open because vendors with contracts threatened lawsuits if the parks had closed as planned. I learned at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas that Steinbeck didn’t want to get out of the truck at times when he visited his home state in 1960 because it had changed so much. I can’t imagine how he would feel today. What is going to happen when we experience a reverse migration and California’s eleven million residents flee to the east? Refugee camps in Arizona and Nevada come to mind.
The Steinbeck Connection: Central California is
Steinbeck, or at least it is early Steinbeck. Just about everything from San Francisco to the bottom of the Baja Peninsula has the Steinbeck stamp on it. Tortilla Flats, The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row, The Sea of Cortez, East of Eden, The Red Pony and The Pearl, among others, were rooted in this region. The National Steinbeck Center was wonderful—helpful and knowledgeable people and excellent exhibits. I must go back.
Profile: The last two days in Salinas, Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Francisco have been rich and textured and peppered with colorful characters. Here are profiles of a few.
Herb: I had my second hour-long conversation with Herb Behrens the retiree/volunteer archivist at the Steinbeck
Center. This time it was in person. It is always stimulating when one aficionado meets another. Herb was, once again, very helpful and giving.
Merilyn: We met Merilyn who volunteers at the Aquarium in Monterey. Merilyn is a sparkly elderly woman who knew Ed Ricketts, Steinbeck’s Cannery Row soul mate and the person upon whom the character Doc from Cannery Row is based. Merilyn shared stories of sneaking into Ricketts’ laboratory as a young woman.
Amber: Amber is an aging blonde actress who read my Tarot cards on Cannery Row at Mrs. Laurie Palm and Card Reader. She assured me that it “was all green lights” for my Steinbeck project. Her take on the current administration in Washington is that “we are being lied to less than previously.”
Cathy: Cathy works in an optometrist’s office in Santa Cruz. She has an “Elvira” sort of shapeliness and beauty with
long straight raven hair and black eye shadow. Cathy was kind enough to help me understand what is happening vis a vis the recession and Santa Cruz and Silicon Valley. It is not pretty. Unemployment is high. Businesses are hurting. People are still being laid off. Meth use among the middle class is rising and destroying families.
The Dog: Dimmie has now experienced the phenomenon of Max’s surfing. She was kind enough to drive while visiting me in California leaving me free to observe, write notes and take a break after approximately 9,500 miles of solo steering. At one point we jumped in the car and started out and then she immediately burst out laughing and stopped the car. She had just noticed Max in the rearview riding on top of his plastic kennel. Dimmie confirms Max is a new man jumping over obstacles that in the recent past would have stopped him in his tracks. He gets ecstatic in San Francisco charging around trying to decide what to sniff next.
Sweet Notes: Scott Hirschfield-headmaster (who stands head and shoulders above the rest) at Jackson Hole Community School where I serve on the board, is riding along. And I haven’t said much about Dimmie. What a pleasure it was to have her with me literally riding along during this important exploration of Steinbeck Country. In my world, Dimmie is magnetic north. And a sweet note to Sweet Wil, my San Francisco son. You are a different
drummer. I love you. Thanks for riding along.
Thank you for riding along. Let’s talk again soon, shall we?
Travels with Steinbeck: In Search of America Fifty Years Later
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