Monday, July 29, 2013

Steinbeck Country

There's a Death Cab For Cutie song I really like, "Bixby Canyon Bridge," wherein Ben Gibbard pays homage to his favorite author, Jack Kerouac. In the song, Gibbard retraces the footsteps of Kerouac in Big Sur, California, hoping for some sort of manifestation of being or truth only to be disappointed:

In the silence it became so very clear
That you had long ago disappeared
I cursed myself for being surprised
That this didn't play like it did in my mind

While I have visited Steinbeck Country — Monterey County in California — twice before, I've often thought about Ben Gibbard's experience in Big Sur, a region often associated with Kerouac, a region that also appears in Steinbeck's body of work. And I wondered when the time came for me to visit Steinbeck Country, would I leave the countryside of my favorite writer disappointed, like Ben Gibbard?

And then it started getting dark
I trudged back to where the car was parked
No closer to any kind of truth
As I assume was the case with you

== == == == ==

We arrived in Salinas, California, late Wednesday afternoon and drove straight to the Garden of Memories Cemetery. The air was fresh and damp with a breeze — perfect after 10 hours in a car. Having been to the cemetery twice before, it took no time to find the Hamilton family plot where John Steinbeck's ashes rest. (Hamilton was Steinbeck's mother's maiden name.)

My travel mates, Brian, Angie, and Anna, and I stood around the grave. We took pictures and chatted and wondered about the significance of the pennies on the grave. Angie found a small booklet with notes written to John and his family behind the Hamilton family headstone.

And after a few minutes my friends began wandering among other graves and I was alone with John and his family. I pondered a line from East of Eden that has meant so much to me over the past couple months, "And now that you don't have to be perfect, you can be good."

I added my piece to the booklet behind the headstone, joined my friends, and we drove to foggy Monterey to meet up with our friends, Danny and Jacquee, who would be hosting us for the next two nights. (Danny is one of my best friends from high school. He recently joined the Army and is studying at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey. By coincidence, Jacquee is one of Angie's best friends.)

The next day, after a morning drive along 17-Mile Drive in Pacific Grove and Pebble Beach, we made our way back to Salinas for lunch at the Steinbeck house.

The Steinbeck House was built in 1897. As you enter, to your left is the room in which the man himself was born (the bed on which he was born is downstairs in the Best Cellar Gift Shop). From what I gathered, most of the fixtures are original as is much of the furniture. The Steinbeck House is operated by volunteers and serves lunch Tuesday through Saturday.

After lunch we drove back to Monterey where we met Katie, who drove down from her new home of Palo Alto, as well as Jacquee and her daughter. Jacquee scored free passes to the Monterey Bay Aquarium on Cannery Row and we spent the afternoon there (thank you, Jacquee). (It's worth mentioning that before our visit Katie possessed a phobia of aquaria.)

After the aquarium, we walked a couple hundred feet down the Row, where we encountered Pacific Biological Laboratories, a lab once operated by Steinbeck's friend and one-time collaborator, marine biologist and renaissance man, Ed Ricketts. (Ricketts appears as a character in many of Steinbeck's novels under different names; the most obvious character is Cannery Row's Doc.)

On May 8, 1948, Ed Ricketts' car was struck by a passenger train as he was leaving his lab for dinner. Ricketts survived for three days before passing away. There is now a life-size bust of Ed at the site of the crash. We made our way slowly from the lab to the sculpture, stopping for ice cream, and unknowingly walking on a path where the fatal railway once existed.

Upon reaching the statue, as I posed for a photo, words that Steinbeck wrote of Ricketts after his passing came to mind, "Once Ed said to me, 'For a very long time I didn't like myself.' It was not said in self-pity but simply as an unfortunate fact." These words bounced around inside of me as we walked back to my car, bought sandwiches and groceries for dinner, and ate dinner on the beach at Carmel-by-the-Sea. (You can read more about why I love Ed Ricketts here.)

== == == == ==

I once thought that upon visiting Steinbeck Country, I would encounter some sort of ephemera, something I could not take home with me. True, Monterey County possesses a certain magic I haven't felt anywhere else. But as I walked where Steinbeck and Ricketts walked, where they came to life and where they came to death, where they still live, I felt something familiar and concrete and real and useful. I felt gratitude.

Gratitude to these men who told me that I don't have to be perfect, but that I can be good — that I am good.
Men who, like me, didn't like themselves.
Men who showed me how to like myself, not in narcissism, but in a way that made it comfortable for me to be around me.
Men who followed their improbable dreams, not for accolades or wealth, but for the simple intrinsic pleasure of doing what they enjoyed.
Men who taught me that in being good and wanting good that I am whole and complete.

And I learned that I don't have to be in Monterey County to rediscover that gratitude. All I have to do is pick up a book.

== == == == ==

Thank you, John. Thank you, Ed.

1 comment:

  1. I just realized I never commented on this post, but I read it when you posted it. I was probably reading it on my phone and commenting via phone is the pits. Anyway, glad to be included in this trip. And, this: "And now that you don't have to be perfect, you can be good." If I could sum up like...ANYTHING...about the last month I've spent in CA with a lot of time alone with myself, that would be it. I've had so much time to just really THINK about what's important to me and figure out who I am and who I want to be in my new phase. And then you shared those words and I was like YES. Those are the words I was looking for. I'm not trying to blame it on culture or anything but my own head, but I've spent a good chunk of my life trying to be perfect. And now it's like the physical act of moving has also moved me away from myself. Away from an older version that needed to be left. And now that I don't have/need/want to be perfect, I can finally be good. (I've been concocting a post on all of this so don't be surprised if some of the words from this comment make their way over to my blog.)