When I left Indiana for a week in Northern California, I had determined to spend some time in San Francisco visiting the hang-outs of the beat poets, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, among others. I’d walk along Russell Street, hoping the loose culture of the beatniks that still oozes out of North Beach in its bars and cafes and museums would inspire me.
After our first trip into San Francisco left my husband and me on a wild goose chase of narrow, hilly streets and U-Turns around Treasure Island, though, I wasn’t sure I could handle a repeat trip by myself back to the city from our hotel in Newark. The thought of driving alone through graffiti-clad Oakland was reason enough for pause. Not to mention, I’ve never even read the Beats. I’ve just never had the stomach.
But Northern California’s literary reputation doesn’t live and die with Kerouac. In fact, when I think of the Bay area, I also think of dark, fertile fields, wine-stained vineyards, and heavily muscled men pulling nets from the sea. In other words, when I think of Northern California, I think of John Steinbeck. And if there’s any area to haunt on a trip there, it’s the Salinas Valley and the Monterey Peninsula.
So, in Steinbeck-style, I let the “tour masters, schedules, reservations, brass-bound and inevitable, dash themselves to wreckage on the personality of the trip, ” and let The Trip take me south instead of north, into the fields instead of the city, toward a California I already knew though I had never been there.
I drove down Highway 101 through Gilroy, the Garlic Capital of the World, then up through the artichoke fields of Castroville and along the US Army Reserve of Marina on the way to Monterey Bay. I found the harbors and fields and mountains of Steinbeck’s California so familiar not simply because he described their contours and climate, but because he captured her people, in all their shades of skin and in every hue of good and bad and kind and miserable.
All through the Salinas Valley, I pictured James Dean’s train filled with ruined lettuce in the movie version of East of Eden. As I lunched at the Fish Hopper in Monterey, I imagined the rolled up shirt sleeves and the captain’s hats of the fishermen in Cannery Row. And I imagined the young Steinbeck writing Tortilla Flat in the “blue room” of his family home as I scraped bites of crème brulee from a ramekin while sitting in the parlor of historic landmark.
But I was breathing the words of Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: in Search of America which I bought to accompany me on My Trip. By the time Steinbeck took his three-month adventure across the country which he recounts in this work, he had written about her for years, and had lived on both of her coasts. But he wasn’t sure he knew her anymore. Or maybe he feared that he no longer knew himself.
I, an American writer, writing about America, was working from memory, and the memory is at best a faulty, warpy reservoir. I had not heard the speech of America, smelled the grass and trees and sewage, seen its hills and water, its color and quality of light. I knew the changes only from books and newspapers. But more than this, I had not felt the country for twenty-five years. In short, I was writing of something I did not know about, and it seems to me that in a so-called writer that is criminal . . . . So it was that I determined to look again, to try to rediscover this monster land.
But in the end, it wasn’t a place Steinbeck was trying to rediscover. It was a people. Because though the country covers a wide swath of distance and terrain, her inhabitants share much in common.
If I were to prepare one immaculately inspected generality it would be this: for all our enormous geographic range, for all of our sectionalism, for all of our interwoven breeds drawn from every part of the ethnic world, we are a nation, a new breed. Americans are much more American than they are Northerners, Southerners, Westerns, or Easterners . . . California Chinese, Boston Irish, Wisconsin German, yes, and Alabama Negroes, have more in common than they have apart.
And that’s the California I fell in love with: hardworking people of the fertile valleys who seemed remarkably similar to the farmers in the plains of Indiana. Drivers who honked when I didn’t merge quickly enough onto I-880, who were no more insistent than Chicago drivers merging onto I-90. People with different shades of skin than mine, whose English sounded better than the soft Hoosier twang I just can’t lose completely. Groups of friends laughing over beers just like they do in Boston and Ann Arbor and Bozeman.
Steinbeck’s California is filled with people I already know, though I have never met them.
Buy a year of Every Day Poems, just $5.99 — Read a poem a day, become a better poet. In February we’re exploring the theme Purple, Plum and Indigo.