There’s really nothing remarkable about the stretch of Highway 101 heading north from Paso Robles.
More adventurous souls would cut over to Highway 1 and bask in the amazing coastal views. Absolutely worth the price of admission, but the route might include car-sickness or vertigo for those not at ease with winding roads and drop-off cliffs. Since we are in the faint-of-heart category, we plodded up the inland highway and pondered where we might take a fast-food break along the way, since that’s all there really seems to be between Paso and the Bay Area.
I stared out the window at the dusty brown hills between King City and Soledad and had a sudden flash of inspiration: we were approaching Steinbeck country! John Steinbeck grew up in Salinas, CA, a place that always seemed a drab, dusty agricultural outpost to me until I saw it through the lens of Steinbeck’s genius in East of Eden:
“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 the west and love of east. Where I ever got such an idea I cannot say, unless it could be that the morning came of the peaks of the Gabilans and the night drifted back from the ridges of the Santa Lucias. It may be that the night and death of the day had some part in my feeling about the two ranges of mountains.”
Steinbeck as a child in Salinas:
And again on the brink of literary fame:
Steinbeck wrote basically every word of East of Eden in New York City but his memories of the Salinas Valley were so unerring that you literally have a mind picture of individual blades of grass by the time you finish the book. And, of course, so much more. I know that The Grapes of Wrath is his magnum opus but I am drawn again and again to the sweeping epic that is East of Eden. It is a swirl of evil and good told against the backdrop of the Salinas Valley and as good as American literature gets.
My most recent Steinbeck read was The Long Valley, a collection of short stories that also include his classic novella The Red Pony. Steinbeck somehow draws a painful beauty from human tragedy in these carefully crafted works and always, there is an awareness of the land. Steinbeck wrote these stories in the 1930’s when he was struggling in his career and living in his childhood home in Salinas and tending to his ill mother. The setting for almost all the stories is what was then known as the Tiflin Ranch in the Salinas Valley between the Santa Lucia and Gabilan Mountains.
Thus, what has always just been a lackluster strip of just-get-through-it highway now held a new promise. We were going to drive right past Salinas – let’s go see Steinbeck’s childhood home!
The Steinbeck House is now run as a restaurant, which, of course is closed during COVID, as is the nearby National Steinbeck Center. But no one could keep us from having a drive-by look-see, so we cruised right through downtown Salinas to the corner of Stone Street and Central Avenue. And there it was:
Steinbeck’s father was a successful accountant and they must have owned one of the finest homes in Salinas at the time. Today, the neighborhood is modest, with the Steinbeck house a gem from yesteryear on a quiet, humdrum street.
We paid our respects and I made a mental note to dip back into East of Eden sometime soon.
Onward to San Francisco!