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.”
October 26, 2009
The Route: After a bittersweet visit to Salinas and Monterey Steinbeck wanted out of California by the quickest route. That according to his description in the book and my 1959 Rand McNally would have been U.S. 101 to Gilroy, state 152 to Chowchilla, U.S. 99 to Bakersfield, U.S. 466 to Barstow and Route 66 to Needles. I varied from this itinerary because of a desire to see Big Sur and the need to include Santa Barbara in my travels. From Gilroy, I hauled the Bambi down U.S. 1 all the way to Isla Vista where I camped at El Capitan State Beach north of Santa Barbara.
The Landscape: Yes sir! Big Sur! Everything I imagined—squared—slamming surf, slanting rock, tall timber. Big Sur is a magical place. I was surprised at the topography south of it. Here the Santa Lucia Mountains pull back from the sea. It was rolling and treeless and arid, a little like high desert on the coast. The zebra wandering unfettered on the Hearst property north of Cambria added to the exotic feel of the land. At one point, a car approaching from the south was inundated by waves arching over both lanes of the highway.
The Steinbeck Connection: Not far south of Carmel Highlands, I stopped at the Henry Miller Memorial Library, “where nothing happens.” I purchased two Steinbeck novels and chatted under the towering redwoods with Susanna Williams. Susanna’s grandmother was the first baby born in Jackson Hole (or so her relatives claim, she admitted to a family tendency to make a good yarn, better), her parents were beekeepers in Dillard, Georgia for a time and she attended college in Utah. When I told her all those places where fixed firmly in my peripatetic history she accused me of making it up. Then Susanna, red-haired and comely, pointed to her lip stud and said that she had her piercing done in San Francisco at Mom’s Body Shop. I happened to be wearing a Mom’s T-shirt because I got my one and only tattoo there (a fir sprig—upper right bicep). I accused Susanna of making it up.
Segue. Thomas Steinbeck spent a leisurely hour and a half with me in Santa Barbara, outside a cafe under the trees. Thomas was kind enough to give me a copy of his first book, Down to a Soundless Sea which captures some of his “native relatives” intriguing stories about early life along the rugged and beautiful central California coast. The first in the collection is entitled “The Night Guide” and recounts the saga of Bill Post moving his expectant wife, Anselma from Monterey to a piece of land bordering Soberanes Creek in Big Sur. That was in late February of 1859 in the midst of some of the worst storms to pound the California coast that century. Bill’s son, Charles Francis Post (Frank) was, “the first child born in the high Sur under the American flag.” In the magical Big Sur, I met the granddaughter of the first child born in Jackson Hole, where I live, and the next day I met John Steinbeck’s son, Thomas who has written a story of the first child born in the Big Sur. I find connections of that sort remarkable.
Thomas looks like his dad. And like his dad, is a raconteur. One only has to read a page of his work to see Thomas loves words and knows how to use them. He is neither overly modest about his heritage nor smug about it. He treats his patrilineage, as all things, with humor. He has fond memories of his father and feels for a person who really just wanted to write and who was backed reluctantly into fatherhood, John Steinbeck was a pretty good dad. Thomas asked to meet Max and pronounced him, and my rig, right for the journey. He said, quoting his father, “you don’t take a trip, a trip takes you.” It is about the experience not the vehicle. It was an honor to meet Thomas.
Sweet Notes: Mary in San Diego. Thanks so much for all of your help over the last few weeks. And thanks for riding along and becoming a fan of the Travels with Steinbeck Facebook page.
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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