Labor - And A Whole Lot More

Learning from Steinbeck
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There are many very good reasons for visiting California's dynamic Central Coast, its rugged mountains and coastline, lush farmland and historic, colorful cities. But one of the most compelling reasons is to follow the path of John Steinbeck, who wrote of the area and its people in many of his universally-praised short stories and novels.

Start, if you can, at the National Steinbeck Center a couple hours drive south of San Francisco along U.S. Highway 101. It's at No. 1 Main Street in Salinas, where Steinbeck was born and where he died in 1968. There, in what surely is one of the best museums anywhere devoted to an author, you'll learn more about the Central Coast than any mere guide book could possibly tell you. You'll be learning from John Steinbeck.

He'll speak to you on audio tapes, and you'll view film and video excerpts from several of the movies and plays that have been based on his works. You'll see realistic reproductions of places vividly described in Steinbeck's writings -- crumbling migrant labor camp shacks and cabins like those that housed farmworkers in "The Grapes of Wrath," for instance, and such specific sites as the Wing Chong Grocery in Monterey that Steinbeck wrote of in "Cannery Row."

As the exhibits demonstrate, Steinbeck stuck closely to reality. While eloquent, his writing was simple, clear and highly descriptive, based on actual events with very little literary embellishment. Steinbeck wrote about real people doing real things in real places.

In covering Steinbeck's work, the center also of necessity covers much of the history of the Salinas Valley, whose agriculture has made it extremely important to the economic life of the entire country. "America's Salad Bowl," it's rightly called.

The displays candidly note the irony of Steinbeck being honored in Salinas. For most of his life, the home folks -- or at least their political leaders -- reviled him as a dangerous radical who had brought shame to his hometown by showing how badly locals treated the desperate migrants who had swarmed into the region from Oklahoma, Arkansas and other drought-ravaged southern and southwestern states during the Great Depression of the 1930s. They were among the heroes of his stories. Among the villains were the members of the agricultural establishment who controlled Salinas and environs.

Steinbeck's books actually were banned -- and burned -- in Salinas. Local hostility against him didn't ease until after he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1962.

You could easily spend several hours in the Steinbeck Center, if not several days. But not to worry: Ticket holders have in-out privileges and there are several good places for lunch in the very near vicinity.

You can also visit the house at 132 Central Avenue where Steinbeck was born and raised and his grave in the Garden of Memories Memorial Park nearby.

For more information on the Steinbeck Center, call (831)775-4720, or e-mail info@steinbeck.org.

Plenty of motels to choose from in the Salinas area and more than a few moderately priced restaurants featuring the excellent seafood that's a regional specialty.

For more Steinbeck lore, head off to Monterey, about 15 miles west on State Highway 68, and onto Cannery Row along the Monterey Bay waterfront. Although it's hardly what it was in Steinbeck's day, Cannery Row is well worth visiting.

The pungent smells and loud machine noises of sardine factories and fish canneries that Steinbeck described are long gone. Now it's the noise of tourist crowds and the smell of garlic and frying fish and fresh candy and ice cream wafting from shops and restaurants that line the street. If you look closely -- and follow the guide available free at Cannery Row shops -- you'll nevertheless discover a few of the old places. Among those still there is the ramshackle laboratory of Steinbeck's close friend, marine biologist Ed Ricketts -- "Doc" in "Cannery Row" and "Sweet Thursday." You can also see the actual Wing Chong grocery.

The greatest attraction in the area is at the northern end of Cannery Row -- the huge, world-renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium. Be warned: it's invariably crowded -- but crowded for very good reason. All of the more than 500 species there are native to Monterey Bay, and you'll view many of them by looking directly into the water where they live, through high glass walls at some of the more than 100 exhibit spaces. It's a unique experience. You'll feel as if you're at the bottom of the bay, amidst the marine life swimming around you.

Back in downtown Monterey, you can walk along a three-block "Path of History" laid out by the State Parks System on Alvarado Street. Yellow lines on the pavement lead you past, and in some cases into, carefully restored adobe buildings dating from the days when Spanish, then Mexican and finally Americans ruled California from Monterey.

There's much more in the area of particular interest, certainly including the art galleries and beaches of Carmel and scenic countryside of the fertile Carmel Valley just a few miles from Monterey.

And of course there's the memory of John Steinbeck, whose stories evoked for millions of readers the very special nature of a very special place.

Copyright Dick Meister