A journey is a person in itself: no two are alike.
John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley
There’s a pass in California’s Central Valley that hasn’t been overrun by greed or ambition. During college, still heady with independence, I fell in love with that road between the Interstate 5 and Monterrey. Back then I’d drive home along Highway 152, on the way from San Francisco to Southern California several times a year. Today the valley is still mostly clear of development and traffic was light on my way through John Steinbeck country.
Memorial at San Luis dam.
The Highway 152 turnoff passes by a lake recreation area adjacent to the San Luis dam. I stopped to stretch my legs and found a memorial to two divers, Tim Crawford and Martin Alvarado, who lost their lives performing underwater inspections at the Dos Amigos Pumping Plant. It was the only bitter note all day.
The land lies smoothly in carpets of green during the winter, then golds and browns for the rest of the year. Commanding it all are the Oak Trees spotting the hills, their branches dark and twisting. The trees first seduced me on full moon drives. They stood round and alert, perfectly outlined in the bright, night light. It was unlike any darkness I’d known.
This trip wild poppies sparked along the roadside, in bright buttercup yellow. A small clump of horses stood in the shade of one tall Oak. They drew me to a stop. One by one they strolled over to the fence, curious, hungry for attention or a handout. I was sorry to have come empty handed.
Casa de Fruta
As a kid, on family road trips my parents would pull over to pick out snacks at roadside fruit stands. Casa de Fruta
remains one of the biggest I’ve seen. Who can resist piles of glowing dried apricots, tawny pears and walnut stuffed dates? A busy fountain in the back is a natural Artesian Well used many years ago by the Ausaymus Indians (an Oholone Tribe.)
Old Town Salinas Main Street.
Not everyone has the good fortune to be born in Salinas.
~ John Steinbeck
Once on the 101 Highway going south towards Salinas my intuition took me to turnoff at Main Street. In Old Town, the National Steinbeck Center stands at the north end of several blocks of buildings from the early 1900’s. Trish Sullivan leads Salinas 411,
the information center, from their office which also holds an art gallery, vintage shop and book store. She invited me over to see the work being completed on the Salinas Railroad Museum
later that evening. (More in posts to come.)
Trish Sullivan in the Salinas411 information center.
First there was the Steinbeck Center. The museum has a winding gallery that chronicles his life and books, his awards, marriages and even has an old truck, the same model that he cruised around the country in for 19 months with his dog, Charley, for company. There are movies about his life and adventures. A big party is planned commemorating his birthday on Saturday, February 28th.
What a life John Steinbeck had!
Yes, he’s the quintessential California writer but foolish me, I’d never thought of him as a travel writer. His nonfiction work, Log of the Sea of Cortez, journalistic writing from WW2, and explorations of Russia are a testament to that. The book, Travels With Charley, preceded other great American road trip novels by Kerouac, Studs Terkel and many other writers.
The route John Steinbeck took with his dog Charley.
In 1962, John Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for his body of work. The Nobel Committee wrote: “His sympathies always go out to the oppressed, the misfits, and the distressed; he likes to contrast the simple joy of life with the brutal and cynical craving for money. But in him we find the American temperament also expressed in his great feelings for the tilled soil, the wasteland, the mountains, and the ocean coast…”
I was so happy to be reintroduced to his great work and his hometown. Happy birthday, John Steinbeck. There’s so much to learn from your journeys and hope I cross your paths often.