Old Margo seemed like a character ripped from the pages of a John Steinbeck novel. There was a story seething right under the surface but darn if we would be able to figure it out.
She stood short and stocky behind the counter of a dusty convenience store. I guess it was a store, it had a cash register and all, but there wasn't much to buy. A can of soup here, some other stuff over there. A Mexican man wearing a wide cowboy hat and a thin guayabera quietly browsed the nothingness. He had a story too, I'm sure.
Margo took one look at the camera and screeched "Get out!" Could we at least buy something to drink? "No, get out."
Armed with a guidebook, we'd walked into the former Spreckels Sugar company store looking for an authentic Steinbeck experience. The red brick building seemed the place, as if nothing had changed from the days Steinbeck shopped here.
The tiny town of Spreckels is just a lettuce field or two away from Salinas, where Steinbeck was born in 1902. Over the mountains, toward the Pacific Ocean, are the more likely tourist stops of Monterey, Carmel and the enclave of Pebble Beach, where some of the guest houses look like McMansions.
Steinbeck and his father worked at the sugar factory in the '20s and it was there that the novelist collected the stories that became Tortilla Flat. Another classic, Of Mice and Men, was born in Spreckels, too. At the factory, Steinbeck once said, he worked alongside the model for the large but limited Lennie.
Maybe Old Margo, cranky and secretive, was a relative of that guy; she did seem a little murderous. We asked a woman at the Veterans Memorial Building about the store and the shopkeeper who rebuked us.
"Yes, it's still a store," she said. "And that's just Margo."
We got our Steinbeck experience.
Finally, a favored son
Many images of Steinbeck's California are gone. The sardine factories of Cannery Row are mostly tacky souvenir shops save for one that's been transformed into a renowned aquarium. Coastal cottages in Pacific Grove that drew valley farmers to the cool weather in summer creep toward $1-million, even those that spy just a sliver of sea. And the people who live near the coast are mostly from somewhere else now, able to afford the high prices on dot-com bonuses or a CEO's stock cash-out.
There are some sights that Steinbeck would recognize. Big Sur, featured in the short story Flight from The Long Valley, remains an untamed wilderness though Highway 1 provides access north and south along the dramatic coast. Migrant farmworkers, long an inspiration for Steinbeck, still work the fields, especially in the Salinas Valley, often called the world's salad bowl. Iceberg lettuce is grown there by the tons.
Today, Steinbeck is an honored son of Monterey County. A statue of him welcomes visitors to a plaza near the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The National Steinbeck Center, which opened in 1998 in the sleepy historic downtown of Salinas, pays tribute to his contributions to American literature with an impressive array of exhibits. More than 25 businesses in town bear his name, and the former family home has been turned into a restaurant.
He wasn't always so beloved. Because Steinbeck wrote often about social injustice, he was labeled a communist. Plus many of the town's secrets found their way into his books, and city fathers didn't much like that. Even in Monterey, home to many free-thinkers and artists, he was scorned by city officials and the business community.
He eventually left California for New York and died there in 1968.
We started our tour of Steinbeck country at the center at One Main St. A maze of rooms examines his life and work. Sit down to watch clips from movies and plays based on Steinbeck's work, including Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden and Cannery Row. A life-sized replica of the pony from The Red Pony and the bunkhouse from Of Mice and Men are on display. The camper in which Steinbeck and his poodle, Charley, traveled the country is also on exhibit. That 1961 adventure became Travels With Charley.
A couple of hours is plenty to peruse the exhibits and well-stocked gift shop. We opted to forgo lunch at the old Steinbeck house and ate at Monterey Coast Brewing (165 Main St.). The brew pub offers California cuisine and a taste of what's in the fields around the city. Nice place to sip local beer.
Steinbeck would have liked it.
On the coast
We've been to Monterey and its grand aquarium several times, but we looked at the area anew after the visit to the Steinbeck Center. The author wrote masterfully of the haves and have-nots, and the area is certainly full of examples of that division today. The Victorian Seven Gables Inn, prominently featured in a Visa TV ad several years ago, is beautiful to behold. The second-floor Breakers Room overlooking the crashing waves is $320 a night.
Plan to spend several hours, maybe even an entire day, at the aquarium, which features sea creatures found in local waters. And that includes the critter-rich tide pools that so fascinated Doc Ricketts in Cannery Row.
Ricketts was a real-life buddy of Steinbeck and you can drive by his home at 331 Lighthouse Ave. in Pacific Grove, just south of Monterey. It's a private residence, as is the Steinbeck family cottage at 147 11th St. The family often spent summers at the cottage, escaping the merciless heat of the valley.
A long-weekend stop in the Monterey area is enough time to get a feel for the coastal region. Take a drive south on Ocean View Boulevard from the aquarium, through Pacific Grove. If you want to poke around, take a detour onto Lighthouse Avenue. There are lots of shops and restaurants there.
After Pacific Grove, head back to the coast road and continue southward. When you get to the gates of Pebble Beach, signs will direct you to the highway that skirts the tony enclave. Or, pay $8 and experience 17-Mile Drive. We recommend doing this because it's the only way you'll see the ritzy homes and some of the most gorgeous golf courses in the world. Even if you don't play, you can appreciate the scenery that the enthusiasts enjoy when they aren't concentrating on their games. It's a wonder anyone can play well with the natural distraction.
The famous lone cypress, the symbol of Pebble Beach, isn't looking too good these days. Maybe it's the exhaust from all the tour buses but it appears weary and is held in place by cables. On the drive, you'll marvel at how builders perch houses on precarious cliffs. Oh, yeah, you'll think about mudslides.
After Pebble Beach, you come upon Carmel-by-the-Sea, a quaint 1-mile square village that has a jillion art galleries. Get out of the car and browse the shops on Ocean Avenue. The western end of the main thoroughfare meets the Pacific Ocean, and the beach there is a lovely place for a picnic or a game of Frisbee.
Steinbeck spent time in Carmel and even then it was a "community of the well-to-do" as he wrote in Travels With Charley. "The town's founders could not afford to live there anymore." Still true today.
The Pine Inn, at Ocean Avenue and Monte Verde, is where Steinbeck met his third (and last) wife, Elaine Scott. And it was in Carmel that Steinbeck was introduced to the farm labor activists that populated In Dubious Battle. From Carmel, find Highway 1 and head back north to Monterey. See if you can get a window seat at the Chart House restaurant on Cannery Row. Watch the otters play while you eat and the sun sets.
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Steinbeck wrote eloquently of the physical beauty and the human drama of this rugged and fertile corner of California. Seeing it through his writings and experiences adds another layer to a trip here.
Even today we can't help thinking about Old Margo and how Steinbeck would have gotten to the bottom of her ornery ways. If you stop by the Spreckels store, leave your camera in the car.
Times photographer Scott Keeler contributed to the this story. Janet K. Keeler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8586.