Savoring Steinbeck Country

Nora Caplan at the National Steinbeck Center.

Ever since I read “John Steinbeck: A Writer” by Jay Parini, I’ve longed to visit his literary landscape of Monterey County, Calif. I’ve yearned to see Cannery Row in Monterey, Monterey Bay, and especially Salinas, Calif., Steinbeck’s birthplace and now the home of the Steinbeck Center. The Center may be one of America’s less well-known treasures, at least for fans of this writer.

Recently, as a birthday gift, my family surprised me with a weekend visit to Steinbeck Country. For Steinbeck fans like me, Salinas is Mecca. For others, Steinbeck country can be an incomparable experience.

You won’t find much left of Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row” in Monterey. Most of the sardine factories that were flourishing in the early 20th century are tourist shops now, but Ed Ricketts’s Pacific Biological Lab, where many other writers besides Steinbeck met and had multi-day parties, is at 800 Cannery Row. Fishing boats still bob at anchor in the marina, and bevies of seals still loll on the rocky shores of the bay. At least there’s no longer the stench that used to hover around and above the canning plants. You can still:

Watch seals dive for their dinner from a seafood restaurant on Fisherman’s Wharf.

Visit the Aquarium on Cannery Row.

Rent a sailboat at the Monterey marina.

Hike, bike or take a run along the waterfront path from Monterey to Pacific Grove, where Steinbeck lived when he wrote his first short stories and novels, “Cannery Row” and “Sweet Thursday.” Pacific Grove is a charming Victorian seaside resort, well worth viewing.

Take the famous 17-mile drive to Carmel-by-the-Sea and stop on the way at the fabulous Pebble Beach Golf Resort. The clubhouse and gift shops are open to the public. (Club neckties cost $95, but a handsome, engraved-while-you-wait brass luggage tag is a best buy at $25.)

Ed “Doc” Ricketts was a marine biologist and Steinbeck’s best friend. “Everyone who knew him was indebted to him. And everyone who thought of him, thought next, ‘I really must do something nice for Doc,’” said Steinbeck.

Salinas is approximately a half-hour’s drive from Carmel through rolling countryside with a backdrop of the Gabilan Mountains. As you approach Salinas, there are cultivated fields on either side of the highway as far as the eye can see. It is a rich tapestry of America’s produce, possible only by irrigation.

“The Salinas Valley … is a long narrow swale between two ranges of mountains and the Salinas River twists up the center until it falls at last into Monterey Bay,” wrote Steinbeck. “East of Eden” is a portrait of these fields, Steinbeck’s hometown and the people of ”The Long Valley.”

After one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had, at First Awakenings restaurant, we savored a leisurely tour of the National Steinbeck Center, appropriately housed in a landmark building at One Main Street. Looking from it, down the center of historic Oldtown Salinas, you can visualize a streetscape that was familiar to Steinbeck in his youth.

I concentrated on exploring the John Steinbeck Exhibition Hall rather than rationing my time between that and the Center’s other wings, Valley of the World Agricultural Wing and the Gabilan Gallery of art. I was so absorbed in the former that I even had to browse quickly through the last part of Steinbeck’s “Adventures on Land and Sea Gallery” and “Steinbeck’s America Gallery — 1960s.”

The Exhibition Hall is a journey through Steinbeck’s life and works through “six themed galleries of artifacts, photographs, movie clips, stage sets, and interactive exhibits” (Visitor’s Guide). For instance, in the Harness Room exhibit that relates to “The Red Pony,” children can “help” the young protagonist groom his pony’s coat. A young visitor can mount onto the saddle on a full-scale replica of the pony, Gabilan.

I think I enjoyed best the “Cannery Row Gallery’s” exhibit of a packing shed, Lee Chong’s grocery, the Bear Flag Restaurant, Doc’s Lab, and the Malloy’s boiler pipe home. The “Grapes of Wrath Gallery” brought back my memories of the Great Depression with its replicas of a Hooverville-type of cabin that used to house migrant workers. You can view clips of the film, “The Grapes of Wrath.”

Another wondrous exhibit contained a carved wooden box that Steinbeck had made, with “East of Eden” and the Hebrew characters that spelled “Timshel” (“Thou Mayest”) carved on the lid. When it was opened, it contained the manuscript of “East of Eden” that Steinbeck had first sent to his editor.

After I left the Center, I resolved not only to set up an exhibit of Steinbeck’s works in the library of the retirement community where I live, but also to read all of his books I’ve missed. As the author himself said, “I guess there are never enough books.”