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California's Steinbeck Country

California's central coast region, from Watsonville to Big Sur, from Tortilla Flat to The Long Valley, gave John Steinbeck the stories of a lifetime.

Steinbeck country: Salinas Valley, California, picture
Photo credit
Photo: Sean Arbabi
Photo caption
Throughout his career, John Steinbeck found inspiration in the Salinas Valley's land and people.

It is a tribute both to the writer's sense of place and to his incomparable gift for expressing it that a large patch of scenic California landscape should be known simply as "Steinbeck country."

John Steinbeck is not the only author to have lived in and around Monterey County—Robert Louis Stevenson spent time there, as did Henry Miller, and poet Robinson Jeffers built his stone home, Tor House, in Carmel—and he's certainly not the only one to write about it. But no one so captured, in book after book, the very essence of what it was like to grow up there and to experience as boy and man the pull of the land. Writers are by nature a peripatetic breed, rarely attached to a single place. Steinbeck, too, did his share of traveling, but he was as firmly rooted to his home soil as a Monterey cypress. His novels reflect the view that humankind is never independent of environment, merely a part of it.

Remarking on his hometown of Salinas, Steinbeck once wrote, "I think I would like to write the story of this whole valley, of all the little towns and all the farms and ranches in the wilder hills." And he did explore the land and people of both the valley and the central coast in works as varied yet geographically fixed as East of Eden,The Pastures of HeavenCannery Row, and Of Mice and Men. An energetic traveler can cover Steinbeck country and gain some feel for the infinite variety of its scenery in two or three days. But a more leisurely excursion brings greater rewards.

He looked down on the little hills and ridges below and then out at the huge green Salinas Valley. He could see the white town of Salinas far out in the flat and the flash of its windows under the waning sun. —The Red Pony

Salinas is where Steinbeck was born, on February 27, 1902, and where he was buried in 1969. The Salinas of his youth was a rural community of nearly 2,000; it's now a metropolis of 152,000. But you can step back to that quieter time with a self-guided walking tour of Oldtown Salinas, a few downtown blocks where century-old buildings are lovingly preserved. And nearby is Steinbeck's birthplace, the house at 132 Central Avenue.

The family manse is now a combination gift shop and luncheon restaurant run by the nonprofit Valley Guild. Waitresses of a certain age in period-inspired dress recall an earlier time, as do such delicious specialties as the walnut cream cake. An occasional anachronism will, however, intrude on the good-old-days aura. When, for example, I commented on the superior quality of the celery soup, my waitress, a Mary Todd Lincoln look-alike, responded with a vigorous "We're No. 1!" gesture along with a startling "Awwwwright."

If it's both atmosphere and artifacts you seek, you'll find all you require in the $18 million National Steinbeck Center at the foot of Oldtown's Main Street. This is a museum with extensive exhibits that go a long way toward bringing the books to life. They include manuscripts, photos, screenings of Steinbeck movies such as Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath, clothing, and even the camper truck that housed the novelist and his French poodle, Charley, as they toured the nation on a trip that resulted in Travels with Charley in Search of America. Steinbeck named this durable GMC pickup camper after Don Quixote's hapless nag, Rocinante.

You drive from Salinas through a crease in the rugged Santa Lucia Range to reach the fabled coastal city of Monterey, the capital of California under Spanish and Mexican rule. Cannery Row has gone from stink to chic since the canneries' rapid decline in the 1950s. Once "Cannery Row" was just the nickname for a stretch of Ocean View Avenue, but in 1958 it gained official recognition. With restored structures, converted canneries, boutiques, smart restaurants, curiosity shops, and fancy hotels, the street has become a major tourist attraction. But that doesn't mean it's not worth seeing, particularly on those gray early mornings when Monterey Bay gently murmurs, the air is ocean fresh, and there is a stillness broken only by the barking of seals and the complaints of gulls.

At the far end of Cannery Row, on the border of Pacific Grove, is the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium. It recalls in greatly amplified scale the life's work of marine biologist Ed Ricketts, Steinbeck's close friend and the model for several fictional protagonists, including the scientist and curbstone philosopher Doc in Cannery Row.

Doc would listen to any kind of nonsense and change it for you to a kind of wisdom. His mind had no horizon—and his sympathy had no warp. . . . He lived in a world of wonders, of excitement. He was concupiscent as a rabbit and gentle as hell. —Cannery Row

Pacific Grove is different from neighboring Monterey in mood and look. Both towns hug the shoreline, but Pacific Grove, founded by Methodist churchmen as a religious retreat in 1875 and dry of alcohol until 1969, has the feel of a New England village while Monterey exudes a Mediterranean air. Pacific Grove was where Steinbeck did much of his early writing. His maternal grandmother occupied a house on Central Avenue at the time of her death in 1918. The current resident is one Richard Andolsen, a 78-year-old self-described oracle with a Brigham Young beard who proclaims himself "the world's greatest authority on Steinbeck."

The tiny dwelling is chockablock with Steinbeck memorabilia, and upon crossing the threshold, visitors are shown a lengthy video (narrated by Andolsen) on the author's life. The viewer is frequently distracted, however, by Andolsen interrupting his on-screen self with such exclamations as "That's all very true," "Absolutely authentic," and, regarding Steinbeck's second marriage, "Just like that he falls in love!" Since oracles are notoriously underfinanced, Andolsen gratefully accepts donations at the video's long-delayed conclusion.

A walk along Pacific Grove's pretty Lovers Point Park and dinner at any of several nearby restaurants, notably Lattitudes, will bring a busy day to a happy, even libationary, finish.

The Carmel is a lovely little river. It isn't very long but . . . it has everything a river should have. —Cannery Row

The 13-mile drive from Carmel to Carmel Valley Village offers a glimpse of what in Steinbeck's day was flourishing ranch land. There are still ranches in the hills and valley, but they are now all but lost among the golf courses, wineries, and plush resorts that thrive here along Carmel Valley Road.

Monterey County has 40,000 acres of vineyards and 40 wineries. It has 25 public and private golf courses. It has the unsurpassed beauty of Pebble Beach's 17-Mile Drive and the Big Sur coastline. It offers a dozen public-access beaches, whale-watching, scuba diving, sailing, and fishing. There are more than 120 art galleries plus theaters and musical events that include the internationally renowned Monterey Jazz Festival.

And yet there remains the sense of mystery and awe Steinbeck found in the forested hills and along the trembling streams of the land he loved so well.


This article was first published in September 2006. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.