Seeing John Steinbeck’s Monterey

Seeing John Steinbeck’s Monterey

Share This on Social Media

In a real and lasting way, author John Steinbeck put his home stomping grounds, Monterey County, California, on both the literary and tourism map.


Here’s what I learned about Steinbeck’s legacy while visiting Monterey County this month.

Steinbeck Festival Kicks Off

Every  year for the past thirty-four, Salinas, an agriculture center less than twenty-miles east of Monterey, has invited fans of its most famous son, John Steinbeck, to celebrate his life and his work as one of America’s top writers.

The 2014 edition of the Salinas Steinbeck Festival runs from May 2nd-4th, with many events taking place at the National Steinbeck Center, the museum honoring the author. This year’s event focuses on Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath.

This week, Festival events will take place in Washington, D.C. at the Smithsonian Institute (April 24) and the NPR Building (April 25).

Additional events will be held at the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (June 19), Los Angeles’ Autry Center for the American West (October 16), and the National Book Foundation in New York City, UC Merced/CSU Stanislaus, in Modesto, California, and the Ventura Museum in Ventura, California, in the Fall.

Grapes of Wrath Turns 75

This year marks the 75th anniversary of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, his iconic saga of the large_TheGrapesOfWrathmigrant workers of the Dust Bowl era.

Chapter 12 of the book begins with a lyrical description of the route that the “Okies” fleeing the Dust Bowl took, looking for salvation and a new life in California:

“Highway 66 is the main migrant road. 66—the long concrete path across the country, waving gently up and down on the map, from Mississippi to Bakersfield—over the red lands and the gray lands, twisting up into the mountains, crossing the Divide and down into the bright and terrible desert, and across the desert to the mountains again, and into the rich California valleys.

“66 is the path of a people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership, from the desert’s slow northward invasion, from the twisting winds that howl up out of Texas, from the floods that bring no richness to the land and steal what richness is there. From all of these the people are in flight, and they come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads. 66 is the mother road, the road of flight.”

The National Steinbeck Center has launched two projects in honor of the 75th anniversary of The Grapes of Wrath.

Last fall, the Center sent artists and filmmaker P.J. Palmer down Route 66 from Oklahoma, through Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, to California, retracing the path taken by the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath. Along the way, they completed twenty six-programs, and collected seventy-five oral histories, described in the following videos:

The “Journey” project hopes to raise $10,000 through Indiegogo in order to complete the work. The National Steinbeck Center says that

“Donations can be made for as little as $5, with donors receiving a special mention on the Center’s website, Donors can also receive 2014 Steinbeck Festival tote bags, coffee mugs and posters, copies of the 75th anniversary re-issue of The Grapes of Wrath, T-shirts, copies of the documentary The Grapes of Wrath: An American Journey, and limited edition prints from Steinbeck Festival artist Patricia Wakida.”

The Center’s “Tell Us Your Story” contest asks those from a family which has “faced a particularly challenging moment” to submit “a poem, a song, a photo collage, a written story, a video, or whatever you can dream up” to explain how that challenge was met and overcome. The contest’s grand prize is an iPad Mini.

In the headline to its recent story about the book, NPR said that its “Depictions of Poverty Are Timeless.”

Writing in last Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle, Julian Guthrie reviewed the impact that Grapes of Wrath had when it was published in 1939, and how the story still has meaning for not only Americans who were uprooted by the destruction of farmland soil in states like Oklahoma, but for those born decades later, quoting Steinbeck’s son, Thom, who said “There are always going to be Okies.”

Visiting the National Steinbeck Center

Regardless of whether you can make it to this year’s Steinbeck Festival, consider paying a visit to the National Steinbeck Center if you are headed to any location in Monterey County.

The permanent collection in the “John Steinbeck Exhibition Hall” include artwork, posters, videos, and other displays, leads you through Steinbeck’s haunts and his works.

Weston: Four Generations 1886-2014, an exhibition which I saw during my visit earlier this month, covers the careers of Monterey County’s renowned family of photographers, and runs through May 31, 2014.


The Center is open every day, year round. For more information, check out the “Plan Your Visit” section of the Center’s Website. If you tour the Center Tuesday through Saturday, you can lunch near by at John Steinbeck’s birthplace and boyhood home,  the Steinbeck House Restaurant.

Down on Cannery Row

Sardines, sardines, sardines. Where have all of Monterey Bay’s sardines gone?


Well, the sardines may have fled, but Cannery Row where they were cleaned, gutted, stuffed into tin cans, and shipped out to be eaten elsewhere, and where Steinbeck hung out with his friend, marine biologist Ed Ricketts, is still there. And efforts are being made to restore and reopen Ricketts’ Pacific Biological Laboratories, which the public can tour on special occasions.

Ricketts was the model for characters in Steinbeck’s books, including Cannery Row. In another San Francisco Chronicle story, Julian Guthrie reported on his interview with Rickett’s son, Ed Ricketts, Junior, saying that

“[p]arties at Ricketts’ lab on Cannery Row went on for days and drew writers, mystics, painters and musicians, including Henry Miller, Joseph Campbell, Ellwood Graham and John Cage. Sundays were filled with books and music, with his father smoking cigars and listening to symphonies on his phonograph.

“Through it all was his father’s best friend, American novelist John Steinbeck.

You can learn more about Steinbeck’s relationship with Cannery Row and Ricketts by taking a walking tour from Tim Thomas, as I did this month.

No stroll along Cannery Row would be complete without a a visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, a facility whose collection of marine creatures, such as jellyfish, would undoubtedly astound both Ricketts and Steinbeck if they were alive today.

Tentacles,” a first-of-its-kind exhibit of cephalopods, including octopus, chambered nautilus, and the you’ve-never-seen-one-of-these-critters, and a brilliantly crimson-colored “Flapjack,” opened on Saturday, April 12th and will run for at least two years.

Here are my tips for the best way to see the Aquarium:

  • Buy your tickets in advance, by phone or online, to avoid a long wait to pay your admission and enter.
  • Plan to spend an entire day at the Aquarium.
  • Make a list of the exhibits that you want to see, ranking them in order of preference.
  • Arrive as soon as the Aquarium opens, spend about an hour or so checking out your top choices.
  • When the Aquarium gets crowded—as it almost surely will by late morning—get your hand stamped so you can re-enter, and head off to walk around Cannery Row or have lunch.
  • Its not unusual to find a heavy marine layer of fog hanging high above Monterey Bay in the morning and late afternoon, but it usually “burns off” by mid-day, making it the best time to take photographs along Cannery Row.
  • For an upscale meal in an elegant setting with a great view of Monterey Bay near the Aquarium, try “The C” restaurant and bar in the Clement Monterey InterContinental Hotel, practically next door to the Aquarium.
  • You can grab a sandwich and a beverage, pastry, and espresso drinks, at Austino’s Patisserie, across the street from the Aquarium, or sate your appetite at any number of other nearby eateries.
  • In the Aquarium, you’ll find a Coffee Bar, Café, and Cindy’s Waterfront, but since many visitors may want to eat there, I’d recommend trying to grab a table in the latter two either very soon after they open for the day or near their closing time.
  • Return to the Aquarium and take a “Behind-the-Scenes Tour” (advanced reservations recommended), and then when most other visitors have left for the day, leisurely roam around until the place closes (6 pm; later on summer weekends) to see what you missed out on during the morning and browse the gift shop when it has fewer customers.
  • Another way to enjoy the Aquarium is to split your visit into two days. Some Monterey area hotels offer a package that includes a 2-day-for-the-price-of-one ticket. And if you are spending time in San Francisco during your California vacation, the CityPASS will cover your Monterey Bay Aquarium admission as well as various attractions in San Francisco.
  • At the end of the day when you’re feeling famished (and maybe thinking that “marine life on a plate” would be tasty), try one of these restaurants for dinner: The Beach House (the early-bird “Sunset Specials” are a real bargain), Passionfish (my favorite), Bay of Pines (the nautical decor sells the place), or Peter B’s BrewPub in the Portola Hotel.

For more information, go to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Website.

There’s An App for That!

Got an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch? If so, get the free “Steinbeck Country & Beyond” app which covers:

  • Detailed descriptions, photos and interactive maps to the settings for stories from “Of Mice and Men,” The Red Pony,” “Cannery Row,” “The Grapes of Wrath” and “East of Eden.
  • Admission prices, hours, and phone numbers for publicly accessible places.
  • Walking tours and scenic drives.
  • Food and Lodging in places familiar to the writer.
  • Links to related websites
  • Brief synopses of more than 30 books.
  • Links to sources for purchasing the books

You’ll also want the free Monterey Bay Aquarium app for iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch to:

  • Learn all about the animals, exhibits and programs.
  • Set reminders for feeding shows and auditorium programs.
  • Share stunning professional photos and postcards with your family and friends—or take your own!
  • “Check off” exhibits you’ve seen so you won’t miss a thing!
  • Get tips that will help you get more out of your visit.

(Tales Told From The Road publisher, Dick Jordan, received complimentary admission and tours at the National Steinbeck Center and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Cannery Row tour with Tim Thomas, and meals at the restaurants mentioned in this story, during a recent stay with other travel writers in the Monterey area arranged through the courtesy of the Monterey County Visitors & Convention Bureau.)

Get more travel news! Subscribe to our e-mail updates!

[button link=”” color=”red” shape=”rounded” size=”large” align=”left”]Back to Front Page Stories[/button] [button link=”” color=”red” shape=”rounded” size=”large” align=”right”]Explore This Blog[/button]

Share This on Social Media

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.