I am a John Steinbeck man. I was introduced to him by reading, "The Red Pony" at the age of 12 and I've been reading him ever since. I was lucky, in my senior year of high school, to play George in "Of Mice and Men" for which I won a small scholarship to the Drama Department of a small local state university. Make no mistake, I consider him one of the greatest writers of all time. The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden are two of the most beautiful, meaningful and powerful reading experiences of my lifetime. As a Nobel winner in 1962 it's clear that others have agreed. John's work, of all authors, resonates in me deeply.
John Steinbeck was the first of the great writers with whom I fell in love. There would be dozens and dozens of others over the years but he's the one I've stuck with - through all the the other "reading eras" of my life. If you know Steinbeck's work then you that no other writer, perhaps ever, captured settings better than him. The majority of his novels take place in what is commonly called "Steinbeck Country" in California. The oak savannah of central California has always held a particular allure for me and I thought, last September, that I would plan a spring trip there.
I was hoping we'd have a decent rain year which can turn the rolling hills into a spectacular, verdant green. Well we finally had a downright wet year.
We had so much rain, in fact, that it threatened my trip and closed the campground at my first stop. Morro Bay State Park. The campground there on the coast had suffered significant storm damage and photos showed dozens of trees knocked down onto the campsites and blocking roads. I looked for an alternative and found pretty Cerro Alto campground off Highway 41 between Morro Bay and Atascadero.
(Quick digression - do you know what atascadero means in Spanish? It means "sticky mess" and ranks high on the list of dumb Spanish names for towns along with Los Banos).
The road to Cerro Alto, off Highway 41, is one lane and if you stay right at the Y leads you over a stream, and into a tiny dead end with 3 parking spaces. Of course I took the truck and trailer right in there on the way in - you always stay right, don't you? After some crazy yet dexterous maneuvering I got the truck and trailer turned around and made it to my campsite. It was a picturesque place and my campsite had tiny Morro Creek running behind it.
The following morning I drove to Morro Bay and filled up with gas, had breakfast and bought a few provisions. Morro Bay is one of my favorite places on the coast of California and I've made dozens of trips there in my lifetime. I do not believe I had ever seen it so quiet and serene.
On the way back to camp I drove for a bit on Highway 41 to check out the late winter splendor.
The following day I spent hiking around the camp and on the Cerro Alto trail.
After a morning hike I came back for lunch and then decided to take a short nap. As an aside, I met a woman a few weeks back who had warned me about ticks this spring being very bad in the area I was to be travelling. She had contracted Lyme's disease about ten years ago from a tick and told me she had been sick ever since. Scared the Hell out of me as I've had a lifelong fear of parasites (human and insect) but I was pretty sure that I'd scheduled my trip prior to the big spring "tickfest". I mean, I'm a outdoors man, I wasn't worried.
After I got comfortable on my bed in the trailer, ready for my afternoon nap, I looked up and, boom, a tick about 4 inches from my head. Shit. Oh no. They must be everywhere, right? I thoroughly checked my clothing and scoured the trailer. I showered in my little trailer bathroom. The camp host came by and I asked him about the ticks. He told me, "yep, been around all winter and they're everywhere". Thanks pal, thanks for the encouraging news. I spent the next several hours obsessively scratching and itching. In the end, I never did see another tick. After years of being outdoors I'd much rather deal with rattlers than ticks. I can generally see and sometimes hear the snakes. The ticks are sneaky little bastards.
The next day I drove to Fremont Peak State Park. I was looking forward to going there as it had been Steinbeck's last California stop in his wonderful and inspiring travelogue, "Travels with Charley". It overlooks the Salinas Valley of John's youth and I felt that I would be walking in his footsteps during my visit. I did stop at the Camp Roberts Rest Stop (one of the most scenic in California) and made a few photos of what I consider prime examples of "Steinbeck Country".
The road to Fremont Peak is harrowing and the campground road was narrow, one lane, with fallen tree branches and steep cliffs on each side in places. About halfway there I thought I was completely out of my mind for dragging a trailer to such a place. After finding my campsite I didn't feel quite so crazy. It set on a bluff overlooking the valley with a view all the way out to marine layer covered Monterey Bay. I was, until a few nights later, the only person camping there. Magnificent.
I love that old picnic table in the photo gallery above. It looks like it has been there at least since the time Steinbeck visited in 1960. I imagined him there - peeling an orange and relaxing with faithful Charley by his side.
I was now in full "Steinbeck mode" and decided to spend the next day in Salinas. My first stop was at the "Garden of Memories Cemetery" where the ashes of Steinbeck are buried near his parents and last wife.
I met some workers at the cemetery who told me that 300 old growth oak trees had fallen in Salinas during the series of strong Pacific storms this winter. It was a theme for the entire trip - so many old, stately, and beautiful oaks lost. Heartbreaking.
I then went to the National Steinbeck Center and spent a few hours immersing myself in John Steinbeck. The exhibits are wonderful and cover each major part of his life. I had heard that Steinbeck's truck and camper from, "Travels with Charley" was there and I raced around until I found it. It didn't disappoint.
After spending a few touching hours at the Center I wandered down Central Avenue in Salinas to the birthplace and childhood home of Steinbeck which is a now a fine restaurant staffed by volunteers and fellow Steinbeck enthusiasts.
The journey back to the campsite was not nearly as anxiety filled without the trailer and I did stop to take a few photographs of the drive.
That evening was quiet and serene - literally no one else around.
The next day, a Saturday, I decided to go ahead and truly follow Steinbeck's footsteps and hike to the top of Fremont Peak. I awoke a little later than I'd planned and worried it might be crowded. I needn't have worried - I saw a group of 3 women and a father and son on the hike. There was a 360 degree view at the top of Fremont Peak. It was blissful and I thought of John and Charley the entire time.
Fremont Peak State Park is an unheralded gem. Not only literary history but California history abounds as well. John Fremont and his troops ascended the peak during the Mexican-American war (1846-1848) and it was the first place that the American flag flew in California. It is also a dark sky place of some renown in California according to the stargazers I met on Saturday night. There is an observatory there and many folks just tote their telescopes to the park, set them up, and spend hours observing the constellations. It's quite a place. I'm pleased Mr. Steinbeck sent me there.
I planned to spend the last few days of the trip in Pinnacles and then visit the Carrizo Plain National Monument. Unfortunately, Pinnacles was overrun (the exact opposite of Fremont Peak) and I had a couple of minor issues develop with my Casita which necessitated coming home a bit earlier than planned. Nevertheless I did make some photos of the two days around Pinnacles.
I am a passionate person. Guess I was born that way. And the things I love? Like music and literature and the land? I love them deeply. I love John Steinbeck and I love the topography of my home state. I have my whole life. This trip was one I'd desired to take for many, many years. It satisfied a longing I had and felt as though I'd touched the heart of the golden state.
Haven't read Steinbeck yet? Start with, "East of Eden". Like me, you'll probably never look back.
This will mostly be a journal of my travels. I may include other items that interest me. Feel free to join in.
All content (C) Jeffrey C. Hubbard. No re-use without express written permission