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Steinbeck Country: Monterey or bust

“The beaches are clean where once they festered with fish guts and flies. The canneries which once put up a sickening stench are gone, their places filled with restaurants, antique shops and the like. They fish for tourists now, not pilchards, and that species they are not likely to wipe out.”

John Steinbeck’s return to a much-changed Monterey in 1960 was more bitter than sweet — he found it much improved cosmetically, and economically, but its old fishing character and its saltiness were gone.

It wasn’t home anymore.

The town’s transition from a sardine-based economy to a tourist-based one was well underway by then, and while that would ensure that Monterey would continue to thrive, seeing how much had been erased — fish guts and all — returned Steinbeck, a native of the area, to the kind of funk he seemed to teeter on the edge of, periodically, in “Travels with Charley.” 

“My return caused only confusion and uneasiness,” he wrote. “… Tom Wolfe was right. You can’t go home again because home has ceased to exist except in the mothballs of memory.”

If he were to return again today to this spic and span city by the sea, he’d likely be even more displeased. Cannery Row and Fisherman’s Wharf are now full-fledged tourist attractions that, while giving nods to the past, no longer have much connection with it.

And, quite possibly, he’d be downright irate over how his name and likeness have become an integral part of the area’s business and tourism marketing.

He probably wouldn’t think much of the way his name has been seized by business operations large and small: Steinbeck Garden Inn, Steinbeck Jewelers, Steinbeck Mortgage, Steinbeck Travel, Steinbeck Credit Union, Steinbeck Country Bail Bonds.

Steinbeck shunned publicity. In fact, he once moved out of the area to avoid it. Maybe he’d be OK with his bust being on display, in Steinbeck Plaza, but to see his face flapping in the breeze on banners above the streets in Cannery Row? I’m guessing he wouldn’t care for that.

The Steinbeck bust is right in the middle of things, and tourists regularly stop and have their photos taken with it. It faces away from the bay, toward the traffic, which probably wouldn’t have been his preference, either. He stares, somewhat solemnly, into the distance. Not even Ace could get him to break into a smile.

Monterey, and the surrounding area makes much of its Steinbeck connection — Steinbeck Country, they call it — from the flatlands of Salinas to the hilly bayfront of Pacific Grove.

It was in the family cottage there, purchased by his father as a family retreat, that Steinbeck wrote several novels and got started on “Of Mice and Men.”

Steinbeck stayed in the cottage with his wife Elaine, as he headed south through California and then back east on the trip that would become “Travels with Charley,”

He visited old haunts, at least those still standing, and old friends, at least those who were still around. Between the people who had died or moved away and the makeover the city had received, Steinbeck felt out of place.

“The place of my origin had changed, and having gone away I had not changed with it. In my memory it stood as it once did and its outward appearance confused and angered me.”

Monterey was a new place. And Carmel, he wrote, ”begun by starveling writers and unwanted painters, is now a community of the well-to-do and the retired. If Carmel’s founders should return, they could not afford to live there…They would be instantly picked up as suspicious character and deported over the city line.”

Ace and I visited Cannery Row, then drove by Steinbeck’s former cottage in Pacific Grove to snap a quick photo. We found a nice spot, cliffside, near Lover’s Point, to rest our weary paws.

We walked Fisherman’s Wharf, which once served as the major port on the Pacific and whose fishermen once set off daily on quests for huge whales, and later tiny sardines — until overfishing brought the sardine industry, which thrived during the Depression, to a grinding halt in the 1950s. By 1960, as Steinbeck noted, tourists had become the city’s salvation.

In the 50 years since, the supply of them has not depleted. I’ve visited Monterey  several times, first  in 1987, and a couple more times in the early 1990′s, once for a story at Ford Ord, the once massive military base that was shut down in 1994. This visit, I was surprised to see mostly emptiness on the massive Army base by the sea, built in the 1940s to train soldiers for World War II. And surprised, too, that, given our times, it hadn’t been reopened.

Funny how sardines are limited, but we seem to have an endless supply of wars. Even over-warring doesn’t seem to bring an end to that industry.

Ace and I stayed at Motel 6 near what used to be Fort Ord, in a town called Marina, which I don’t even remember existing when I was last here. But we spent most of our time in Monterey, which, despite all the tourists trappings, despite never being my home, still never fails to touch my soul.

It’s not because of anything man has built; it’s not because John Steinbeck slept here. It’s the pockets of nature that still exist between the seafood restaurants and wax museums and souvenir shops and boutiques. It’s the topography, the way the peninsula stretches into the bay, and the wildlife that, despite all man’s tinkering, still call it home.

To me, that, more than anything else — moreso even than the famous writer — is what still gives salt-free Monterey  character:

The pelicans, the gulls, the seals and sea lions and all the other squirmy sea life you can see, not just in the confines of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, but in their natural habitat.

If I ever return — and I hope I do — that will be why.

Comments

Comment from Marilyn
Time November 24, 2010 at 9:08 pm

I love the picture of Ace at Lover’s Point. Tell him, his girlfriend, Ivy, misses him!

Comment from Julie Norwood
Time November 24, 2010 at 11:24 pm

Beautiful photo of Ace on the beach!

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