Travels Without Charley
On the Roof of Steinbeck Country
Fremont Peak, Calif.
My trip chasing John Steinbeck's ghost isn't over yet, but I know exactly when it started -- six months before my wheels started turning.
It was March 11, 2010, Day 4 of my extreme West Coast Steinbeck research tour. I was sitting and shivering on top of John Steinbeck’s favorite mountain. I couldn’t see his grave or his ghost, but they were both out there somewhere under the glare of the dying California sun as it slipped toward Monterey Bay 25 miles from my knees.
Everything Steinbeck was down there somewhere – the house he grew up in, the statues and libraries that glorify him and preserve his works, the places and characters he made famous for eternity in “Of Mice and Men,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “Cannery Row” and “East of Eden.” It’s why they call it “Steinbeck Country.”
Except for the pushy wind and the drone of a private plane, I had had the top of Fremont Peak to myself for two hours.
No tourists. No lovers. No pot smokers. No park rangers. No other ex-journalists without dogs doing books about “Travels With Charley.”
Just lucky me, my official Reporter’s Notebook, my cameras and a head full of thoughts about my new pal John Steinbeck and the long journey I was going to take with him.
I had flown, driven and hiked 2,737 miles from Pittsburgh to reach my dizzying perch. The raw spike of weathered gray marble boulders, 100 million years old and blessedly unregulated and unimproved by lawyers or the Nanny State, is now my favorite mountain, too.
The peak is the star attraction of Fremont Peak State Park’s collection of grassy round mountains and steep wooded canyons. It’s only 3,169 feet high. But its distinctive little tooth is visible from almost anywhere in the Salinas Valley and vice versa.
No wonder young Johnny Steinbeck hoped he could be buried there someday. It’s the closest a human being can get to a heavenly view of Steinbeck Country without putting on wings.
I didn’t scale the last hundred feet of Fremont Peak like a mountain goat to enjoy the 360-degree view of the Monterey Peninsula or the sunset, spectacular as both were. I was up there only because Steinbeck said he climbed to that exact spot while he was on his “Travels With Charley” trek in the fall of 1960.
In six and a half months I was going to go everywhere Steinbeck went on his famous road trip – from the timeless fishing village of Stonington, Maine, to the former copper boomtown of Butte to the soggy Upper Ninth Ward of New Orleans.
I wasn’t going to follow Steinbeck for any of the usual TV-docudrama reasons. John Steinbeck wasn’t my real father. I wasn’t hoping to find myself or anyone else. My old dog and I didn’t each have prostate cancer and six months to live. I didn’t even own a dog.
The boring truth was, I thought it would make a good book if I took Steinbeck’s route around the USA and compared the country I found in the Tea Party Fall of 2010 with the simpler, poorer, less equitable Cold War/Jim Crow America Steinbeck toured in 1960.
It’d be an easy way to show how much the country has -- and has not -- changed along the Steinbeck Highway since Ike was president, Elvis was king and everything worth buying was still Made in America.
Lonely, peaceful, rugged, a little dangerous and scary, Fremont Peak is a perfect platform for viewing Steinbeck Country. Though it was the end of a hazy day and the sun was losing wattage by the second, I could see more than 20 miles in every direction.
Behind and below me the valleys and rounded hills and mountain ranges stretched eastward to the Sierra Nevada. The San Andreas Fault was down there too -- which explains why Fremont Peak, Steinbeck Country and the rest of the Pacific Plate have moved 8.33 feet closer to San Francisco since Steinbeck’s 1960 visit.
Twenty-five miles southwest across the Salinas Valley, hugging chilly Monterey Bay, was the historic city of Monterey.
To be honest, I couldn’t see it, even with the zoom of my camcorder. I only knew it was out there somewhere in the shadows, hidden by a strip of low coastal mountains, because that morning I had gone to Cannery Row to watch the sun rise over Monterey Bay.
Seeking inspiration or just a few free telepathic writing tips, I stared deeply into the frozen eyes of the Steinbeck bust in Steinbeck Plaza. I heard only the squeaky chatter of fat seagulls hang-gliding on the cold ocean wind and the banging of garbage trucks as they flipped dumpsters over their heads and into their hungry bellies.
Cannery Row is nothing like it was when Steinbeck was a struggling writer there in the 1930s, and it’s nothing like it was in 1960, when he checked it out on his “Charley” trip.
With nearly 20 sardine canneries operating 24/7, the street in the 1930s and during World War II truly was “The Sardine Capital of the World.”
By 1960, however, Cannery Row had devolved into a hollowed out slum-by-the-sea. The lovable lowlifes, rough bars and tender cathouses of the mid-1930s Steinbeck immortalized in “Cannery Row” (1945) were long gone.
So was the sardine industry -- dead from overfishing and natural causes. All but one of the street’s canneries had closed by 1960. Except for a piano bar or a Bridgett Bardot movie at the newly christened Steinbeck Theatre, arson provided the chief form of entertainment.
As every travel writer and parachuting journalist must mention because it is so obvious, Cannery Row is now a PG-rated theme park of its former colorful, sinful self.
A street that once stunk of dead fish and buzzed with flies has been spiffed up with wine-tasting rooms, pricy restaurants and snazzy seaside hotels with awful corporate names like “Intercontinental: The Clement Monterey.”
Entrepreneurs and enlightened local government have transformed it into a safe place for nice families from Iowa heading for the Monterey Bay Aquarium or the candy stores and souvenir shops of Steinbeck Plaza, where the Steinbeck brand-name and mug shot are used to sell refrigerator magnets and wax museum tickets.
At my feet, sprawled on the valley floor, was the city of Salinas, Steinbeck’s hometown and the barely fictionalized setting for “East of Eden.”
The city’s population of 160,000 is twice what it was when Steinbeck last looked down on it from Fremont Peak in 1960. Salinas is now wracked by Latino gang violence and, like so many California governments, is in serious financial trouble.
But it’s still surrounded by a shallow sea of strawberries, lettuce, tomatoes, spinach and other crops -- the “green gold” that made the city rich 100 years ago and earned it the nickname “The Salad Bowl of the World.” The valley’s fertile black soil and climate produces 80 percent of the lettuce Americans eat per year.
In Salinas’ old downtown I visited the Victorian middle-class house Steinbeck grew up in and the National Steinbeck Center, the city’s official shrine to Steinbeck.
One of few reasons tourists have to visit the scorched windy flats of Salinas, the center, which also puts on Steinbeck Fests each summer, is smartly designed and visitor friendly. Steinbeck’s life story and his books co-star in a dozen well-staged exhibits and clips of movies like “Cannery Row” or “East of Eden” are shown in loops in small themed theaters.
The center’s holiest relic is “Rocinante,” the fully restored dark green 1960 GMC pickup-camper shell combo Steinbeck used for his “Charley” trip. You can’t get inside the cab or the camper, or even touch them, because Rocinante is corralled behind a tall fence of Plexiglas.
Steinbeck set up the camper like the cabin of a small boat. Squared-off and hard and clunky, the cab’s Spartan interior is uncomfortable just to look at. It’s a reminder of how luxuriously we all travel today and what Steinbeck had to endure for 10,000 miles – with only a French dog, an AM radio and his imagination for company.
While I was in Salinas, I also drove across town to visit Steinbeck’s gravesite in Garden of Memories Memorial Park.
Despite a colorful “Steinbeck” sign with a helpful hand pointing the way, his small flat stone is hard to find among the weathered grey slabs and old spiky stone monuments.
Seeking anonymity, privacy and simplicity even in death, Steinbeck is buried with his parents, third wife Elaine and sister Mary in the Hamilton plot, the plot of his mother’s family.
A pot of bright yellow mums, wilted and knocked on its side by the unrelenting wind, gave away Steinbeck’s final whereabouts.
Standing guard over his modest marker was a 2-inch white ceramic poodle with a pink heart for its collar. Maybe I was overreaching, but I took that replica of Charley as a sign from Steinbeck’s ghost – a symbol. Whether it was a good sign or a bad sign, I had no clue.
In March of 2010 I had no idea where else my trip with John Steinbeck was going to take me. I certainly never dreamed that I would end up on NPR’s “On the Media” explaining why “Travels With Charley” is a 50-year-old fraud. Or get a write up in the New York Times Book section.
But last March, while Pittsburgh waited for spring and two feet of snow to melt, chasing Steinbeck’s ghost across America had become my destiny, my mission, my mad obsession, my extreme act of entrepreneurial journalism, my big waste of money and time – I wasn’t sure which.
Alone, chilled to the bone and sitting on the roof of Steinbeck Country waiting for the cold sun to go down, the only thing I knew for sure was it was too late to turn back.