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Tahoe local sees Steinbeck Country through the author’s eyes on a 250-mile bicycle journey around the Big Sur mountains
Words and photos by Rick Gunn
“When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job.”
~John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America
I’d like to say it was the weather that sent me cycling south. But truth be told, it was a lack of self-confidence.
I was nearing the end of my twenty-third winter in Lake Tahoe. By most people’s account, not much of a winter at all. The predictable pattern of Pacific storms had not come this year; the basin left in scattered random patches of dirty white.
With the trails unrideable, and ski resorts not worth the effort, an unusual quiet began to inhabit my surroundings; a restlessness seemed to spread amid the people and the pines. Through it all, I tried to sit and write.
Having recently returned from a 25,811-mile bicycle journey around the globe, I’d spent the last three years documenting the journey in book form. Ten chapters into a 40-chapter Travelogue, I was on a snail’s pace. This while friends, family, my entire life it seemed, waited upon the book’s completion.
The pressure became intense.
I tried to remind myself of another writer, one who’d also had humble beginnings in Lake Tahoe: the iconic American novelist John Steinbeck. Only recently had I learned from author Scott Lankford’s book Tahoe Beneath the Surface that Steinbeck wrote his first book Cup of Gold while working as a caretaker at a small lakeside cabin at nearby Cascade Lake.
The problem was, I was no Steinbeck.
Perched like an erect corpse in front of my laptop for six hours a day, I’d spent the better part of my time cursing, battling a grammatical war within my mind, and grasping for words and descriptions that were well beyond my capabilities. And so it was that I spent my time sitting at a desk, writing, waiting for the return.
The return winter, the return of the economy, the return of my creative spirit —a return to self.
When it didn’t come, I looked to the universe and began to question its abundance.
Then one night, while I was at a friend’s house for dinner, he mentioned something about a 250-mile bicycle loop around the Big Sur Mountains. After further questioning, he emerged from his back room with a dog-eared copy of a guidebook and opened it to a section entitled Big Sur Hinterland, then handed it to me for closer inspection.
Tracing my fingers along the page, I looked to a series of central California coastal towns, each with familiar names: Monterey, Salinas, San Juan Bautista, Paicines, King City, Big Sur. “Steinbeck Country,” I murmured in quiet revelation.
At that moment, a trip was born.
A month later, I found myself bent over my bike on the streets of Pacific Grove, in the same neighborhood where Steinbeck had lived in a cottage with his first wife, Carol Henning, in the 1930’s. Stuffing the last of my gear into my bike bags—tent, stove, sleeping bag—I looked to my cycling companions, Gary Cronk and Eric Jarvis, who were flanked on either side of me.
“You guys ready?” I asked.
The smiles on their faces answered my question without words. Climbing atop our fully-loaded rigs, we stepped to our pedals and hit the road.
What came next was a kind of predictable magic, that indescribable feeling that comes with any bicycle journey. Less an activity, than a rolling art form, true bicycle touring blends freedom of spirit with self dependance; modern day nomadism with physical exertion; and chance-encounters with the art of simply being.
With that magic flowing through our veins, we initiated our journey beneath the towering stands of Eucalyptus in Asilomar, out along the coast at Spanish Bay, around the Point Piños Lighthouse, then directly into Monterey. This had been the backdrop for Steinbeck’s 1945 novel Cannery Row. Describing it he wrote:
“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.”
Narrowly avoiding the throngs of tourists drawn to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, today’s Cannery Row seemed something of the antithesis. Steinbeck’s “stink” of “tin” and “splintered wood” had long since been replaced by a homogenous blend of tourist fair: high end galleries, souvenir shops, apparel stores, and upscale restaurants.
Happy to depart this commercial world, we returned to the spiritual world as we quietly rolled along the shore of Monterey Bay. Casting my eyes over the sparkle of water, I surveyed a burst of marine life: sea otters frolicked above the of kelp beds in the distance; seals moved with fluid grace; mollusks and crabs clung to the rocks below the surface —an entire underwater world—scattered with purple and orange of starfish.
I could have stopped and gazed for hours, but there was an eagerness in our legs, a craving to put miles beneath our tires. A voice in the back of our minds that whispered, “east.”
The afternoon gave way to a series of county farm roads and the smell of freshly overturned earth. Pedaling along the expansive rows of spinach and cauliflower we entered the Salinas Valley. It was here, on February 27, 1902, that Steinbeck was born. Forever the place of his youth, he’d described it eloquently in his 1938 short story The Chrysanthemums. He wrote:
“The high gray-flannel fog of winter closed off the Salinas Valley from the sky and from all the rest of the world. On every side it sat like a lid on the mountains and made of the great valley a closed pot. On the broad, level land floor the gang plows bit deep and left the black earth shining like metal where the shares had cut. On the foothill ranches across the Salinas River, the yellow stubble fields seemed to be bathed in pale cold sunshine, but there was no sunshine in the valley now in December.”
Though the winter fogs had come and gone, there was an unusual chill to the springtime air. As we drifted over the same streets where Steinbeck had once delivered newspapers on his bike as a child, we ignored the threat of dark clouds approaching from the west.
At the heart of downtown Salinas, the sleek glass and steel of the National Steinbeck Center contrasts sharply with Main Street’s 30’s-era storefronts.
Parking my bike near the entrance, I wasted no time getting inside. Instantly engaged within this, the only museum in America dedicated to a single writer, I found myself wandering among a dizzying array of displays: Steinbeck’s biography, timelines, photos, writings, and personal possessions. Then, roughly half-way through the exhibits, I stumbled upon something amazing: Rocinate.
Named after Don Quixote’s horse, Rocinate is the truck/camper Steinbeck had built in his later years to make one last lap around America. It was from within this camper that he would produce one of my favorite books, 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.”
Taking a moment to ponder the exhibit, I peered in through the back door of Rocinate’s camper door. Looking inside, I imagined an elderly Steinbeck, illuminated by the light of a kerosene lamp, hunched over his manual typewriter, sipping Courvoisier, his beloved French poodle lying by his side. It was an image that left me mesmerized.
The quiet pavement of San Juan Grade stretches nine miles into the Gabilan Mountains. Pedaling through this verdant, bucolic landscape, we’d entered one of Steinbeck’s favorite places. It was a place he’d written masterfully of in the opening pages of East of Eden:
“I remember that the Gabilan Mountains to the east of the valley were light gay 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.
Cycling upward along field and fence lines, we reached a small summit. It was there we looked upon a lone red-tail hawk circling high above a huddle of oaks. To the south, the horizon opened. It was here I watched the last of the day’s light stretch across the Gabilans; the fertile soils of the Salinas valley tinted in black and gold below.
As the other two pressed on, I waited behind for a moment to absorb my surroundings. Taking a seat cross-legged in the dirt, I watched a sway of wildflowers dancing in the wind. With that, I suddenly found myself at want for nothing.
On the far side of the pass, Old San Juan Grade dropped a thousand feet, unfurling like some long, gray asphalt snake into San Juan Bautista below. After descending through a blur of oaks, we pitched our tents at a lush RV park on the town’s outskirts. The day concluded with conversation and pasta; the pitter-patter of rain fell on my tent that night, prompting a head full of pastoral dreams.
State Route 25 south of Hollister seemed less a road as it did a gateway into an impressionist painting. Like the single stroke of an artist’s brush, it flowed like a smooth, wide line through a soft focus scene of field and farm. Wildflowers, like tiny brushstrokes, illuminated the countryside in yellow, purple and white. Rolling with a kind of ease through this rapturous span of greenery, our surroundings seemed to prompt deeper conversations of work, life and love.
Having married three times in his life, Steinbeck was no stranger to the complexities of love. In a letter he’d written to his son, Thom, in 1958, Steinbeck divided love into two dualistic concepts:
“There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you — of kindness and consideration and respect — not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had.”
Setting my intentions on Steinbeck’s larger idea of love, I spent the rest of the day turning my pedals in contemplative observation. Drawing my energy from the beauty that surrounded me, there came a kind of peace from the simple act of simply noticing: a handful of cattle here, a scattering of horses there, a lone fox trotting across a field, all of it loosening the mental grip of expectations and deadline that had consumed me during the winter months.
The day’s ride ended with a brief climb through a sparse forest of scrub and pine, where Highway 25 delivered us to Pinnacles National Park, a massive geologic wrinkle in the landscape caused by a millennia of tectonic shifts along the San Andreas Fault. Setting up our tents amid a sprawl of chaparral and oak, I began to feel as though I entered some sort of bike-in wildlife park.
Quail chirped from the underbrush. Rabbits darted through forest. Frogs bellowed from a nearby pond. Birdsong filled the air. By early evening, the sound crescendoed into what Gary would go on to describe as a “Dusk symphony”. And as we engaged in that simple act of listening, there came a return of that indescribable element missing from this modern life; that which has been stolen from us by digital representation, iPhones and the internet.
Call it a deep satisfaction, a placating of the soul.
“Hail!” I shouted the next morning. As we climbed a faint, lonely pass on County Road G13 West, I looked at the pellets bouncing off Gary’s helmet and couldn’t help but giggle. Pulling off the road to put on our shell jackets, I then watched as he sunk to his rims in a roadside area of sticky clay. The two of us broke into laughter. Then, with mud flying from our tires in orbital sheets, we descended for the better part of 30 minutes along a string of ranches and remote rural canyons until we emerged in the vast expanse of agricultural farmlands on the outskirts of King City.
It was here we stumbled upon a group of Hispanic migrant workers, stooped in labor, picking lettuce in the frigid rain. Pulling off the road out of curiosity, I looked at them somberly, a few of them returning my gaze with empty eyes.
“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 …“
Steinbeck penned these words painstakingly in his best-seller, The Grapes of Wrath and they spoke to the scene before me. They also marked a turning point in his life. Hired to write a series of articles on the Dust Bowl migrants for the San Francisco News in 1936, “Steinbeck traveled through labor camps and fields recording the terrible living conditions faced by the migrants,” according to the Steinbeck Foundation.
This single experience changed the man forever. From that point forward, his writing seemed to shift, transcending the page toward something larger than himself: the greater good of his fellow man. It was a notion I deeply identified with.
Having also witnessed the impoverished, the hungry and the oppressed of the world during my bicycle trip around the globe, there had come a time where I also had the sacred responsibility of writing about their plight through a series of newspaper articles. Now it was time for me to increase that responsibility in the writing of my book. Returning my attention to those human souls toiling before me, I recognized it was for them and their equivalents around the globe that I was writing.
That’s what Steinbeck had taught me: to remain awake and aware of suffering around me; to direct my energy to harness the power of words; to use it to educate, illuminate and alleviate; to move beyond my perceived inabilities and stay focused on the greater good.
The last of our journey would carry us from King City along Jolon Road, through the perimeter of the Fort Hunter Liggett Army Garrison, and into the gentle sift of light that speckled through the forest along Nacimiento-Fergusson Road. After a substantial effort, we ascended the 1,700-foot climb into the Santa Lucia Mountains, then began our 2,600-foot descent. We moved with God’s speed through a blur of coastal greenery: douglas fir, ponderosa pine, coast redwood, pacific madrone.
Ripping through the bends and the curves, we descended toward our destination on the Big Sur Coast. Emerging from the forest, along hills splashed with wildflowers—Lupine, Mustard flower and Indian Paintbrush—we dropped and dropped and dropped. Giddied by this extended free fall, we finally rounded a corner and came upon the marble-blue waters of the Pacific Ocean, growing ever-larger in our field of vision. Body in motion, synapses firing fully, I gazed upon its vast cerulean surface swept in dazzling patches of afternoon sunlight.
And it was at that moment that all the sights and sounds of the journey; all the aches and pains, all the thoughts and feelings, everything coalesced into a single entity. Something I might describe as the many voices of the road. Among those many voices, Steinbeck’s remained ever-present, his words from “Travels with Charley” dancing through my head like children’s laughter:
“A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find that after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”
And so it was, upon this descent through the Big Sur Mountains, as the universe opened up and poured it’s richness upon me, that there came an end to my waiting. For somewhere within that panoply of light, life and emotion that is inherent to any true journey, there came a recognition, a gratitude, something more.
In a word: Abundance.