Saturday, October 29, 2011

Monterey - a Steinbeck pilgrimage - day 1

Without a doubt Steinbeck is the author that has appeared on this blog more times than any other. I'm not quite there but I'm close to reading everything he wrote and I still get moved on rereading his simple but powerful writing. The first paragraph of Cannery Row is a perfect example of this. No fancy-schmancy vocabulary, just the building of layer upon layer of imagery, until you can smell, and hear the minutiae of his vision:

"Cannery Row in Monterey in 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 flop-houses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, 'whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,' by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peep-hole he might have said: 'Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,' and he would have meant the same thing."

The first book I read of his, East of Eden, was his most epic and since reading these words I have wanted to go to Monterey bay, to sit in Cannery Row breathing in the air that caused those first incredible lines to emerge.

"THE SALINAS VALLEY is in Northern California. It is a long narrow swale between two ranges of mountains, and the Salinas River winds and twists up the center until it falls at last into Monterey Bay.

I remember my childhood names for grasses and secret flowers. I remember where a toad may live and what time the birds awaken in the summer—and what trees and seasons smelled like—how people looked and walked and smelled even. The memory of odors is very rich.

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. They were beckoning mountains with a brown grass love. The Santa Lucias stood up against the sky to the west and kept the valley from the open sea, and they were dark and brooding—unfriendly and dangerous. I always found in myself a dread of west and a love of east."

I started early in the morning from San Francisco to take the caltrain to catch the bus to Monterey The fog was still hanging over the valleys as we approached, and the homesteads and farm houses in the hillsides were exactly the images I'd had reading The Long Valley and the Pastures of Heaven. The arid fields fit my ideas perfectly and while I'd sat in anticipation, ready for a slightly disappointing trip having looked forward to it for so long, it couldn't have fit my imaginings better.

We arrived into the town centre, the low-rise buildings with old adobe structures dotted along the main street and I headed straight for Cannery Row. I knew it would be touristy, and indeed it is, but thankfully there is still a strong sense of the original here and while Steinbeck's picture of the poem, the stink, the grating noise is long gone, the light, the nostalgia and the dream are somehow still there and I sat in a cafe in the middle of it all, looking out over the sea, feeling very much like I was back in a familiar place.

I headed to the aquarium, one of the best in the world, and spent the last hour of opening time watching the displays and walking the boardwalks outside seeing the fog cut a curtain across the bay. I'll leave you for today with juts a few photos from Monterey day 1 and will attempt to finish this off tomorrow if possible:

Cannery Row


Monterey aquarium

fog from the aquarium

seagull and moon

fog rolling in over Monterey

dusk in Monterey