There are worse places to be than the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas if your laptop decides to take a shit.
After all, even if your laptop, which you rarely use other than when you’re on the road and have to file a story on deadline for some infernal rag like OC Weekly, takes HOURS to update to Windows 10, you have an amazing shrine to one of America’s great writers with which to while away the time. So while away I did.
My itinerary for this spring break trip was Salinas and Big Sur. That was it. I had left Orange County at 4 a.m. on a Monday morning and knew I had to file a theater review by noon, so I figured I’d have plenty of time after the five-and-a-half-hour drive to the Steinbeck Center to write the piece, tour the joint, and then get up to Big Sur, where I had airbnb’d three nights in a cozy yurt in a campground. (I love to camp, but I have yet to meet a tent that I cannot destroy and just didn’t want to deal with the aggravation, so I took the easy route.)
Weeks later, the Mexican In Chief came up with the idea for this travel issue, and having heard me whine via text message about missing my deadline because of the aforementioned technical snafu, he suggested I write a piece about Steinbeck Country. But I hadn’t been wearing my reporter’s hat, so I didn’t see a whole lot of the Salinas Valley. I suggested a literary tour, a tale about the writers who had lived in and documented some of the locales I’d traveled through: Steinbeck in Salinas, Robert Louis Stevenson on the Monterey Peninsula, Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac in Big Sur, and Bugs Bunny in Pismo Beach (trust me: It will make sense). The proximity worked, but so did this: They were all drinkers, occasionally heavy drinkers, if not downright dipsomaniacs. Kerouac’s battle with the bottle was legendary. Steinbeck certainly enjoyed his sauce. Miller was still drinking wine at age 87 in 1978, when the documentary Dinner With Henry was shot. And Stevenson purportedly died of a cerebral hemorrhage after attempting to open a bottle of wine. No idea if Chuck Jones and the rest of the Looney Tunes crew were boozers, but they had to be on something while creating those anarchic classics, one of which alludes to Pismo Beach.
So call this a mini-drunken literary tour of a generous slice of central coastal California. Most of it has been done from memory, augmented by Google, but considering I usually don’t start drinking until noon, the mornings were fairly lucid, so onward and upward.
Steinbeck devoted a huge part of his prodigious prose output to the Salinas Valley, everything from one of his earliest published short stories The Red Pony and the epic East of Eden to In Dubious Battle, about a fruit workers’ strike, which presaged the labor tumult to come across the state, and his equally prodigious, if often overlooked nonfiction, such as 1955’s “Always Something to Do in Salinas.” All that and much more is on full display in the Steinbeck Center (1 Main St., Salinas, 831-796-3833; www.steinbeck.org). It’s anything but a stuffy museum, documenting not just his life and career, but also the course of the Valley’s development. It’s absolutely worth a stop; whether you’re a Steinbeck aficionado or possess just a cursory interest, you’ll be blown away by his incredible output and passion for social justice.
There are other Steinbeck-related sites to visit in town, from the Victorian house he was raised in, two blocks west of the Steinbeck center (132 Central Ave., Salinas, 831-424-2735; steinbeckhouse.com), to his final resting place in the Garden of Memories Cemetery (850 Abbot St., Salinas, 831-422-6417). Fans of the film version of East of Eden can spot a couple of locations where the film was shot, such as the building on the corner of Gabilan and Main and the Graves House at 146 Central Ave. And you can toast the man at several watering holes on Main Street, whose façades don’t seem to have changed much since the 1930s, the best of which is Dubber’s (172 Main St., Salinas, 831-676-0256), which used to be the Salinas Fish House.
But to really get a sense of a writer whose sense of place was so inextricably linked to his literary output, take a drive out to Fremont Peak State Park, the spot Steinbeck described at the beginning of his 1960 book Travels With Charley. It’s about 20 miles outside of town, followed by a rather daunting drive up a twisting mountain road, followed by a 1-mile uphill hike to the top of the peak. Once there, you’ll see the same panoramic view that greeted Steinbeck: a 360-degree view of the long valley that remains America’s salad bowl, along with the Monterey Bay and the back side of the Santa Lucia Range, with Big Sur on the other side.
(I kind of cribbed that from the interwebz: I didn’t drive or hike the peak. By the time my computer had finally uploaded, I’d been in Salinas for six hours, seen every inch of the Steinbeck Center, strolled down Main Street, popped into Dubber’s and nearly got kicked out of the public library that bears Steinbeck’s name for disregarding the signs that the public computers and their Internet connections were for library-card holders ONLY. I was tired and cranky, coupled with the bitch that is the Salinas Valley’s piercing wind—which nearly knocked me on my ass a couple of times—and all I wanted was to get the hell out of there and make it to Big Sur and jerk in my yurt. So I skipped the city of Monterey, which also factored in heavily in such Steinbeck classics as Cannery Row and Tortilla Flat.)
Made it to the Big Sur Campground and Cabins (47000 CA-1, Big Sur, 831-667-2322; www.bigsurcamp.com) and walked seven minutes to the Big Sur River Inn (46800 California 1, Big Sur, 831-667-2700; www.bigsurriverinn.com), which, like everything in Big Sur, was overpriced but graced with a friendly staff. After cursing Salinas’ wind and my goddamn laptop, as well as quaffing 147 pints of beer, I built a campfire, peed in it and called it a night.
* * * * *
The next morning, I needed to drive to Carmel to find a grocery store to fortify my provisions (like all savvy campers, I brought nothing with me). On the way, I decided to drive The 17-Mile Road. Hailed as one of the most scenic routes in America, I always dismissed it, thinking it was just a $10 ride through ridiculously overpriced real estate and snooty golf palaces. And I was right. But even though the whole place is owned by a corporation (read: fuckers), it’s also stunningly beautiful, curving through a coastline with turbulent waves and lush forest, transitioning seamlessly between foggy and misty to glorious sunshine and blue skies. And even a non-golfer can’t help but be stirred by history when standing in the clubhouse at Pebble Beach and peering at the storied 18th green. (Oh, and Pebble Beach is a perfect inclusion on a drunken writer literary tour; the best sportswriting has always been about baseball, boxing or golf. Makes sense. At their core, they are the most focused and solitary of sports: fighter vs. fighter, golfer vs. course, batter vs. pitcher. Plus, sportswriters are drunks. Or they used to be.)
On the way back, I checked out Point Lobos State National Reserve (62 California 1, Carmel-By-the-Sea, 831-624-4909; www.parks.ca.gov/pointlobos). Only after being continually stunned by its jaw-dropping scenery of cliffs and coves did I realize that it may have inspired the setting in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Stevenson had a short sojourn in Monterey in 1879 and wrote about being captivated by forests of live oak—”the kind of wood for murderers to crawl among”—and Monterey Pines: “No words can give the idea of the contortion of their growth. They might figure without change in a circle of the nether hell as Dante pictured it.”
Heading back to Big Sur, you cross Bixby Bridge, one of the most photographed bridges in the world (you’ve seen it countless times on car commercials). Beneath the bridge, some 250 feet, is the site that inspired my favorite writing about Big Sur: Kerouac’s 1962 novel Big Sur. Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti owned a cabin here and invited Kerouac to stay for a couple of weeks in 1960. Getting to the bottom of the canyon is possible but precarious. The only way down is a small dirt road flanked by steep drop-offs, and according to locals and at least one website, interlopers on foot have been waved off by shotguns held by residents who take their “No Trespassing” signs seriously. So if you absolutely need to make the pilgrimage, do so at your own peril.
Big Sur, as with all of Kerouac’s stream-of-consciousness ramblings, is a fascinating, teetering wreck of a novel typed by an acutely sensitive man with an astonishing ability to spew words who was also a hopeless alcoholic (he’d be perfect as the Weekly‘s theater critic or editor). Only about a fourth of the book is actually set in Big Sur, but it documents Kerouac’s rapture at the thunderous surf, the creepy wind and trees, and the chilling horror it elicited (he was either experiencing a nervous breakdown or in the throes of delirium tremens).
Farther down Highway 1, on the southern edge of the small community of Big Sur, lies the Henry Miller Memorial Library (48603 CA-1, Big Sur, 831-667-2574; henrymiller.org), a groovy, unkempt place that commemorates Miller’s time living in the region, as well as serving as the focal point for Big Surian culture, with music, poetry readings, writers’ workshops and a killer book selection. It’s funky, and while it’s debatable whether the center is frequented less by artists who live in Big Sur (I’ve heard it’s terribly expensive to live there) than by out-of-towners, you’re always going to run into someone interesting. Such as the guy on the deck strumming a mandolin who was in the early stages of a bicycle trip that, he said, would ultimately take him from Los Angeles to British Columbia and across Canada to Connecticut. Or the comely painter whose accent I couldn’t immediately place and who I somehow convinced to say, “I love Joel Beers” in hopes of guessing correctly. I did. English. She was also in the process of reading Big Sur and the Oranges of Heironymous Bosch, Millers’ 1957 account of his life in Big Sur, which he moved to in 1944. Miller lived in a few places (the site of his library was owned by a friend of his), including above the Nepenthe Restaurant (48510 CA-1, Big Sur, 831-667-2345; www.nepenthebigsur.com), which has sickeningly gorgeous views, but he stayed longest at Partington Ridge, which is about 7 miles south of the library, just before Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.
bout 3 miles from where Miller lived on the ridge is Partington Cove. Far less frequented than most of Big Sur’s hikes (there is no sign suggesting there’s a trail), it’s a gem. You park near a gate on the ocean side of the road and walk about a mile through a canyon and a 60-foot tunnel to the secluded cove. You won’t want to leave.
After three nights in the yurt, it was Thursday, and the plan was to get back to Fullerton that night, but then the words “Fuck that” popped into my head, and I wound up driving down the 1 and staying the night in Pismo Beach, a kind of scuzzy-around-the-edges beach town with a pretty cool nightlife. Though now overclammed, it was once the Clam Capital of California and the destination for Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck in the 1957 Looney Tunes classic Ali Baba Bunny, in which, after one of his frequent non-left turns at Albuquerque, Bugs winds up in a cave somewhere on the other side of the world.
I saw no rabbits, ducks or clams in the sand in Pismo, but I ate a few at the most-delish Cracked Crab (751 Price St., Pismo Beach, 805-773-2722; www.crackedcrab.com), and had a “few” pints at the bustling Harry’s Bar (690 Cypress St., Pismo Beach, 805-773-1010; www.harryspismobeach.com), which was only a short walk from my hotel, the Edgewater Inn and Suites (280 Wadsworth Ave., Pismo Beach, 805-773-4811; www.edgewater-inn.com). It was close and affordable ($130 for a beachfront hotel on a Thursday), and best of all, I woke up in the morning with no crabs in my immediate vicinity other than memories of the previous evening’s repast—and with a pounding in my head that could have awakened the souls of those dead writers, had they not already been dead.