Travels with Steinbeck

“We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”

— John Steinbeck

I would like to say it was the weather that sent me cycling south. But in truth, it was lack of self-confidence.

It was the end of my 23rd winter in Tahoe, and not much of a winter at all. The predictable set of Pacific storm systems that usually pummeled my tiny cabin had not come this year, leaving the basin calicoed with splotches of dirty white snow. The trails couldn’t be ridden or skied.

So I sat at home, and wrote.

Having returned from a 25,811-mile bicycle journey through 33 countries around the globe, I’d spent the last three years recounting my journey in words. Ten chapters into a 40-chapter travelogue, I proceeded at a snail’s pace while friends, family—my entire life it seemed—waited on the outcome. The pressure seemed more than I could bear.

I tried to remind myself of the humble beginnings of another writer, the iconic American novelist John Steinbeck. I’d recently learned he wrote his first book Cup of Gold as a caretaker in a small Tahoe cabin not far from my own.

The problem was, I was no Steinbeck. Perched like an erect corpse in front of my laptop for six hours a day, I spent the better part of that time fighting a grammatical war within my mind, awash in a sea of self-doubt, grasping for words and descriptions that were well beyond my capabilities.

I needed a lifeline.

I joined a friend at his house for dinner and he mentioned something about a 250-mile bicycle loop around Big Sur. After further questioning, he emerged from a back room with a dusty copy of Lonely Planet’s Cycling USA: West Coast. He opened it to a section entitled “Big Sur Hinterland” and handed it to me.

Tracing my fingers along a line that looped from the central California coast around the mountains of Big Sur, I saw a cluster of familiar names: Monterey, San Juan Bautista, Tres Pinos, Paicines, King City, Jolon, Salinas.

“Steinbeck country,” I said. At that moment, a trip was born.

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Flanked by my good friends and fellow cyclists Gary Cronk and Eric Jarvis, I began the trip on the streets of Cannery Row. It was a place Steinbeck described in his book of the same name in 1945:

Cannery Row in Monterey California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses.

Apart from that quality of light, today’s Cannery Row seemed starkly different.

Negotiating our way through the tourist mobs drawn by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, we found that Steinbeck’s “stink” and “splintered wood” had since been replaced by the gleam of high-end galleries, apparel stores, and restaurants.

Past the odorous sizzle of just-cooked chowder, fish, clams, and calamari, we emerged from the madness of downtown and stopped next to the water below the pier. Gazing into those crystalline waters, I saw kelp beds sway in the tide above the glow of purple and orange starfish.

A block or two east, our route narrowed to the bike path that would carry us north between coastal dunes and a string of box stores through the unremarkable towns of Seaside and Marina. We cycled along farm roads with expansive rows of spinach and kale.

That afternoon we arrived in Salinas, Steinbeck’s hometown. Pushing our rigs along the sidewalk past a string of storefronts unchanged since the 1950s, we were approached by a local bike mechanic taking a bike for a test ride.

“Where you guys headed?” he said, pulling up to the curb.

“We’re looking for the Steinbeck Center.”

“There” he smiled, pointing north to a gargantuan building of steel and glass at the end of the street.

Parking my bike near the side, I moved giddily through the doors and forked over the price of admission. We wandered through a dizzying array of displays, surveying an array of Steinbeck’s writing, photos, and possessions. Then I rounded a corner and stumbled upon something magnificent.

It was Rocinante.

Named after Don Quixote’s horse, Rocinante was Steinbeck’s camper-truck, the vehicle he’d driven, slept in, and wrote in as he took on one final lap around America. I stared through the open camper door, feeling as if I was peering back in time. There was a small chair and table, a kerosene lamp, his typewriter and empty bottle of Courvoisier. I tried to imagine the elderly Steinbeck sipping cognac and typing pages from his notes.

In this cloistered space he would write his classic travelogue Travels with Charley.

I want to take a drive. Through the middle west and the south. And to listen to what the country is about now. I have been cutoff for a very long time and I think it would be a very valuable thing for me to do.

It was this longing to get out and explore that we shared.

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Our escape from downtown Salinas was marked by a surge of rush-hour traffic. Roughly five miles out of town the trail merged with Old Stage Road. As the volume of cars began to drop off, it became increasingly quiet.

We climbed the lush green hills into the Gabilan Mountains, one of Steinbeck’s childhood haunts. He described the Gabilans masterfully in the opening chapter of his novel East of Eden.

I remember that the Gabilan Mountains to the east of the valley were light gray mountains full of sun and loveliness and a kind of invitation, so that you wanted to climb into their warm foothills almost as you want to climb into the lap of a beloved mother.

And climb we did.

We sweated up a hilly landscape of farms and fencelines, red-tailed hawks drifting in slow turning circles above. When we reached a small summit, the horizon opened and the rich, fertile sea of the Salinas Valley stretched before us.

My friends pressed on as I stayed behind for a moment to rest and absorb my surroundings. Removing my camera from my bike bag, I took off my helmet, wiped the sweat from my forehead, sat down at the side of the road, and framed the orange sunlight on ribbon of roadside wildflowers.

Five minutes later, I was flying with Gary and Eric on one kick-ass downhill, rocketing through a blur of oaks, hooting and hollering around every curve, blazing along a thrust of brush—until the the last pull of gravity delivered us to San Juan Bautista.

Just before dark, we set up our tents in a lush little park and concluded the day with talk and pasta. After dinner, I lay in my tent, the patter of rain prompting a night of pastoral dreams.

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State Route 25 south to Hollister seemed less a road than a poem. A smooth gray line that looked to have been made by a painter’s brush, it moved through an impressionist scene of farms and fields dotted by purple and white lupine.

We rolled along with rapturous ease, drifting through an expanse of greenery beneath the swish of oak leaves in the wind.

I tried to focus my attention on what appeared before me—a handful of a cattle, a scattering of horses, a lone fox trotting across a field—and soon the mental grip of expectations and deadlines faded away.

That afternoon we arrived at Pinnacles National Monument, a massive geologic wrinkle in the landscape representing millions of years of tectonic plate movement. We set up our tents in a sheer-walled canyon beneath the stone monoliths.

After the hiss of our camp stoves went quiet, a kind of music began, a dusk symphony. Frogs bellowed from a nearby pond. Birds filled the air with their song. Quail and rabbits burst from the underbrush.

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Hail!” I shouted the next morning—as it came down on us near a small lonely pass on County Road G13 West. With those BB-like pellets bouncing off our helmets, we dropped for 20 minutes into yet another fertile valley on the outskirts of King City.

There, in a scene right out of Grapes of Wrath, a host of Hispanic workers stooped in the frigid rain, filling waxed cardboard boxes full of lettuce.

We Americans bring in mercenaries to do our hard and humble work. I hope we may not be overwhelmed one day by peoples not too proud or too lazy or too soft to bend to the earth and pick up the things we eat.

After seeing the mistreatment of migrant workers by big farms and big banks, Steinbeck spent a large part of his mortal energy in support of the migrant worker. For this reason, his books were burned in the streets of Salinas, near the site of today’s Steinbeck Center.

In Grapes of Wrath he warns us:

And the great owners, who must lose their land in an upheaval, the great owners with access to history, with eyes to read history and to know the great fact: when property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away. And that companion fact: when a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need. And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed.

The day’s riding spanned miles of vineyards crowned by a series of climbs to a high, inland plateau on the remote Jolon Road. We saw a drove of wild boar. Deer bounded in the tall grass, moving parallel to us in delicate arcs for a quarter mile or more.

There wasn’t enough food in our bags to fuel the 1700 foot climb up Nacimiento-Fergusson Road. After devouring the last of my bars, dried fruit, and gels, I scrounged for crumbs at the bottom of our bike bags—and discovered a box of macaroni and cheese. The meal was nothing less than religious.

With this blessing in our bellies, we packed our dirty pots into our bags, made the climb, pointed our tires downhill, and began the 2600 foot descent.

Flying over the pavement, we coasted at high speeds, aided by the 70 pounds on our bikes. Beneath the pines and scotch broom, the wildflowers blurred into a continuous ribbon of vibrant hues.

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Ahead of us was the marble expanse of the Pacific. The next 28 miles of hills and headwinds would erode our strength, but we were soothed by the warmth of our campfire, fresh fish roasting in foil, microbrew beer, and a desert of pie and red licorice.

I thought about something Steinbeck had written about the uniqueness of journeys:

Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process, a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. Tour masters, schedules, reservations, brass-bound and inevitable, dash themselves to wreckage on the personality of the trip. Only when this is recognized can the blown-in-the glass bum relax and go along with it. Only then do the frustrations fall away. In this a journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.

I realized these words were not only true for exploring, but also for the journey of writing. All plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. After years of struggle, I would return to my cabin in Tahoe, and the trip would take me.

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