Tag Archives: John Steinbeck


Route 66 in San Bernardino County, California, with Roy’s Cafe and Motel, looking east

It occurred to me a few years ago that even though I have visited hundreds of places all over California and lived in quite a few, I have not set foot in most of the parts of the state where I have been.

This is because of an invention called the automobile. Before the 1920s, I would guess, most people in California would not have said they had traveled widely in the state. Land travel in those days was likely to be on horseback or by horse drawn wagon or buggy. Trains were reserved for the relatively few who could afford them. Cities had streetcars and limited bus services.

Then after the First World War came a transportation revolution. Detroit transferred a large part of its expanded manufacturing capacity to auto production. The economic upsurge of the 1920s enabled many more people to afford cars. Oil companies lobbied for better highways. The tourist industry promoted auto travel with free maps and advertising. Trucking assumed a larger share of freight haulage. And the automobile caused major social changes, affecting everything from teenage dating patterns to grocery store visits to proliferation of trailer camps.

I suspect that, from the 1920s on, many Californians, like me at a later date, began to notice that they had seen a lot of their state, but only from a car window, without ceasing to be in


Illustration from a 1930s auto manual

My earliest memory of automobiles goes back to age four, in 1948. My parents did not own a car, but one sunny day a friend of the family came to our house in Alameda driving a spiffy two-seater convertible (I didn’t know any of those words at the time) and invited my father and me to go for a ride in the “rumble seat,” the padded, nicely upholstered area for two passengers that appeared magically in the rear of the car when you opened the trunk that would otherwise be the place for luggage. My father and I climbed in, the car picked up speed, and we careened around the neighborhood. I felt unprotected and would not have wanted to be in the rumble seat without one of my parents. But the speed and the breeze and the quickly passing views were exhilarating.

My next strong memory of being in a car dates to age 8 when, with my mother and father and sister, I was on a winding road in the Santa Cruz Mountains on the way to Big Basin Redwoods State Park, where we planned to go camping. That was when I had my first attack of motion sickness, something I have experienced from time to time ever since.

My parents first became car owners when I was 11 years old and my sister was 7 and we were living in Albany on the east side of San Francisco Bay. Although my father’s Navy salary was not much, he had an evening job working at a local supermarket and used some of the money to buy us a dark blue, used 1950 Ford convertible. That allowed us to go see movies at the local drive-in, to make trips to the local 19 cents hamburger stand, to cross the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge for tours of the seacoast, and to visit newly constructed tracts of homes in places like Hayward and San Jose where we thought about buying a house (we never did). During the day, my sister and I absorbed the sights from our car windows. On nights when my father continued toward our destination, my sister and I slept under blankets in the back seat, wishing that the canvas top of the convertible did a better job of keeping the interior of the car warm.

In the mid-1950s, I began to learn about car design. One of my mother’s brothers was a decorator at the Capwell’s department store in Oakland. He bought one of the new-model Studebakers. It was sleek and had a daring color scheme: a cream-colored body and a wine-colored top. Even more dazzling were the cars I encountered through another of my mother’s brothers, who was a Chevrolet salesman in Albany. In 1955 he gave us a tour around the showroom of the dealership where he worked. That was the year that all the Detroit carmakers decided to roll the dice and present the American public with radical new designs. Cars now looked like rockets or jet planes, dripped with chrome, and came in color combinations like pink and charcoal gray, red and white, and blue and lime. Simply to touch the cars was exciting.

1955 Chevrolet

By then I was accumulating many memories of automobile trips both short and long. But my first sense of ironic detachment regarding cars, an intuition that the automobile was a cultural phenomenon that could be analyzed and contemplated, came at age 16 when I made my first visit to Anaheim to see the new and already wildly popular amusement park at Disneyland.

The most attended attraction – nothing else came close – was the “California Freeway” ride. My friend Steve and I stood in line for over an hour for the thrill of climbing into miniature sports cars and meandering through a controlled maze of clover leafs and underpasses and overpasses, passing small billboards, miniature gas stations and replicas of motels and groves of plastic trees, and then returning with a sense of puzzlement and un-fulfillment to our starting point. We had been driven by family friends of Steve on a real, full-sized freeway to get to Disneyland from Los Angeles, and we would be returning in the same manner. Why had we cared so much about experiencing an artificial version of the same thing?

The freeway ride at Disneyland in its current version

We could not say. The answer, of course, had to do with sociology, about which I knew nothing at the time. Postwar America was in love with the automobile even more in the 1950s than it had been in the 1920s. And freeways had become emblems of California life almost as powerful as the Golden Gate Bridge or the HOLLYWOOD sign in the hills above Burbank.

Energizing all of America’s fascination with highways is a more long-term awareness of being in motion and being on a journey. America itself is a product of journeys, whether by the aboriginal peoples who came here via the Bering land bridge, or by the Europeans and Africans who came here via the Atlantic Ocean, or by the immigrants who came to America via the Pacific. There was a great filling in of the North American land mass and, in the case of California, from the time of the Gold Rush on, a great push to the Pacific Coast, sometimes in search of economic opportunity, and sometimes to explore spiritual and emotional frontiers.

In American literature, the themes of westward movement and migration from place to place are easy to notice. For example, in Huckleberry Finn (1885), the main characters are on a metaphorical road, the Mississippi River, and Mark Twain ends the novel by having Huck “light out for the territory,” that is, the West. In The Grapes of Wrath (1939), John Steinbeck describes the exhausting journey of the Okies to California in the 1930s. In The Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943), Wallace Stegner searches for the meaning of his father’s lifelong effort to find a place where there would be riches and relief from recurring cares. The tropes of constant motion and quest for a better place are everywhere in our literature, as also in our music, painting, and movies.

When it comes to writings about California, there is probably no author who has explored the subjects of motion and journey more powerfully than Jack Kerouac (b. 1922-d.1969).

Jack Kerouac

An important fact about Kerouac is that he was only partly a California writer. He was born and raised in Lowell, Massachusetts, where his French-Canadian family worked in the mills. After a troubled childhood he attended Columbia University, dropped out, and in the late 1940s made his way gradually westward, eventually becoming part of the Beat culture that centered on San Francisco and Big Sur. Thereafter he was in and out of California, living at various times in Oregon, Florida, and Montana, among other places.

Map of Jack Kerouac’s travels for On the Road

Whether he is discussing California or other places, Kerouac’s writings, notably On the Road (1957), The Dharma Bums (1958), and Big Sur (1962), always involve a journey in the spiritual sense, as he struggles to synthesize Catholicism, Buddhism, environmentalism, and even jazz into a usable whole. And his physical motion – expressed with amazing power in the drive of his stream of consciousness prose style — takes him all around the United States as well as to Europe and Mexico. Still, he ends his life frustrated by the failure to find ultimate meaning in any of these places.

Kerouac’s biography helps us to remember an important fact about road culture in California specifically. Road literature in America is mostly about places outside of California. California writers have said a great deal about highway culture within the state, but California is the place where you end up. You can move toward the Pacific shore in your quest. But you run out of land when you get to California. Then all you can do is leave or go from one place to another within the state, and your quest for meaning must turn at least partly inward, as was the case with Kerouac.

I sometimes think of the Los Angeles freeway system as a symbol of this kind of road journey: an endless moving back and forth and around and up and down within California, on the way to a destination that can’t be defined.

Los Angeles freeway

On the other hand, California on its own is such a beautiful, inspiring place that one can, from time to time, go on the road within the state and have an experience that is just as fulfilling as any journey from elsewhere.

For me, one such experience occurred when I was 14 years old and my sister was 11, and we made our first trip, in early June, to Yosemite.

Our father drove us. Our mother, who did not like camping, stayed at home in Berkeley. But the other three of us made the journey enthusiastically.

It took several hours of driving eastward from Berkeley, across the flat, central farming area of California, before my sister and I felt reassured that we were in fact going to reach a place called Yosemite.

As we came to the area around the city of Merced, the highway began to rise and the topography started to change. Pine trees and big boulders began to appear, then ravines and streamlets, then occasional patches of melting snow. The two lane highway meandered ever higher and eventually we arrived at a gate where a ranger from the U.S. National Park Service came out of a small, brown, shingle-walled booth and collected our entrance fee and gave us a map and some friendly advice about bears and matches and snakes.

Afterwards, the road continued to climb upwards, and there were rock walls along the edge to guard us from dropping five hundred feet straight down. My father explained that the walls had been built in the 1930s, by prisoners and out of work young people who were members of the Civilian Conservation Corps.

As we rounded one of the turns in the road, I was especially glad the walls had been built. A car coming from the other direction was trying to pass on the blind curve and was heading straight at us in our lane. My father, with the incredible athletic quickness that I had seen him demonstrate many times, swerved instantly to his right and found just enough space near the wall to prevent a head-on collision.

A short while later, we found ourselves driving downward into a hot, dry area where there were no more rock walls and the road followed the bank of a river. There was almost no vegetation. The sun reflected off the high, stone cliffs on both sides of us, raising the temperature to almost one hundred degrees Fahrenheit. Then the road started to climb again, the temperature lowered, and we were back into a forested area.

By now, however, the trees were bigger and the river flowed in cascades. I recognized redwoods that reminded me of the ones I had encountered many years before on our family’s first camping trip to Big Basin. But the boulders were unlike anything I had ever seen – huge chunks of gray, textured granite that looked like they had been tossed into the middle of the fast moving river by some mysterious, unseen giant. Around, through, and over the rocks, the water ran and churned, in amazing, translucent color.

Then suddenly I noticed that my father and my sister were laughing happily. I asked them why. My father explained that I had been exclaiming “Ooh” and “Wow” for several miles, apparently without realizing it. I was usually much more reserved, my father said – more like my mother and her father.

Another wonder followed. The road soon opened before us on either side and we drove alongside the by now deep green water of the river into a huge, flat valley — a vast amphitheater, walled on all sides by gray granite cliffs over two thousand feet high, with groupings of trees here and there on the valley floor, and vast swaths of Alpine meadows and marshland. This was the center of Yosemite National Park, and from here it was only a short drive to the wooded camping areas where we could begin searching for a site.

My father told us that “camp 7” and “camp 14” were the two most desirable areas along the river. There was a conspicuous firmness in his manner as he relayed this information. He was really saying that the areas had been the most desirable twenty years before, when he had gone to Yosemite with his father and mother and two sisters, and he wanted the camps to be the same way now. But, as we drove the dirt roads between the trees, I could see that his information was up to date. We found a beautiful site right next to the river and parked our car in the fresh, white sand that had been deposited recently by the spring floods. And, because my father had remembered to come in June and beat the rush, our site was almost twenty-five yards away from the ones occupied by other campers.

As we got out of our car, I was struck by how odd it looked: an industrial intrusion in our forest surroundings. But there was no time to dwell on the contrast because we were soon busily unpacking our cargo and setting up camp: a brown canvas tent, three cots, an ice chest, and a kerosene stove placed on top of the wooden picnic table the Park Service had constructed at the site along with a stone grille.

Our stay in Yosemite over the next two weeks was not perfect. We could see that the Park was already beginning to be under stress from too many visitors. We had to wash our dishes in cold water. The public bathrooms were not always clean. I got a bad sunburn. And so forth.

But the meadows in the valley and the high cliffs and the cool water and clean air and the stars at night were more than worth traveling to see. And the most rewarding thing of all, for me, was that first sight of the park as we entered it, on the road.

Woodcut illustration of Yosemite, 1879




If today you drive around Monterey County, stopping, for example, in the urban areas of Salinas, Monterey, or King City, or in the vast agricultural areas that provide the United States with a significant portion of its lettuce, artichokes, radishes, wine, herbs, and other products, you will be impressed by the great care that has been taken to protect and publicize the area’s many historic sites and structures.

San Antonio Mission, Monterey County

The resources that have been saved and made part of the ongoing life of the county are numerous and mesmerizing: for example, several Spanish missions, hundreds of ranch buildings and farmhouses, small town collections of Victorian business buildings, Stone Age remnants of hunter-gatherers, the building where California’s constitution was drafted, Gatsby-like mansions near the Pebble Beach golf course, the house where John Steinbeck was raised, and the nineteenth-century building where Robert Louis Stevenson lived for a time when he visited California.

Robert Louis Stevenson house, city of Monterey

As in all parts of the United States, there is a constant danger that such resources may be lost because of neglect or, more likely, demolition to make way for land development and new construction driven by short-term concepts of economic gain. But in Monterey County, at least, something like a balance has been achieved. Local residents and visitors appreciate the value of historic sites and structures, yet still make room for intelligent growth.

I take pleasure in knowing that I played a role, several generations ago, in achieving the present balance. My memories go back to the 1970s, when one could not at all say with certainty that Monterey County would be protecting its patrimony, and when historic preservation there was in the midst of a “quiet crisis,” to borrow a phrase the novelist Wallace Stegner coined at the time to describe America’s nationwide challenges in natural resources conservation.

Dutton Hotel, a nineteenth century stagecoach stop in the south of Monterey County, a preservation failure
Dutton Hotel, a nineteenth century stagecoach stop in the south of Monterey County, a preservation failure

In 1972 I was working as an assistant to the president of the community college that served the Salinas Valley. The college was under great budgetary pressures. In the early summer of 1972, the president decided he would partially meet the crisis by eliminating my job.

Through a string of fortunate coincidences, I was eventually able to find a new source of income. One day, a retired member of the college’s History faculty, Bob Johnston, asked me if I would like a job helping several groups, made up mostly of retired people like him, who were working to preserve the old homes and historic landscapes in Monterey County where they had grown up. The groups thought that I, as a historian who, more than most academics, enjoyed working with local organizations, and was as an experienced writer of grant proposals, might be able to help. I said I’d love to, but I didn’t know where the money would come from. Bob explained how it would be handled. “We will talk to the members of the Monterey County Board of Supervisors. We will simply tell them to create a consultant’s position for you.” They did.


Deteriorating buildings at Cannery Row, Monterey Bay
Deteriorating buildings at Cannery Row, Monterey Bay

That was my accidental introduction to the historic preservation movement, one of the streams of environmental consciousness that was beginning, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, to take on its own features within the larger river of awareness about ecology then developing in the United States.

A contract with the County soon materialized. I was supposed to inventory the good work that had already been done in some parts of the Country, for example in the excellent preservation efforts in the city of Monterey; fill out forms to nominate eligible sites and structures to the National Register of Historic Places, a federal listing that had been established in 1965 and that was gradually expanding throughout the United States; and visit a sampling of concerned groups and organizations to learn their views and mobilize public support. This would lead to a written plan of action for preserving resources, following precedents established by historic preservation efforts elsewhere in the United States, such as Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Williamsburg, Virginia.

Bob Johnston and his fellow senior citizens pointed out to me that all of these activities should have been set in motion many years before. They hoped that, now, they could catch up and rescue the county’s patrimony before it was obliterated.

Point Pinos Lighthouse, Pacific Grove
Point Pinos Lighthouse, Pacific Grove

In my car I wandered around the county to learn more about sites I had not yet visited. I talked with old timers – in their homes, in bars, at truck stops, at their farms. At local newspaper offices, I spent fascinating evenings going through old clippings and files. At home, tapping away on my portable Olympia typewriter (I knew nothing about computers in those days), I happily produced nominations to get sites listed on the National Register. Drawing on past experience as an intern in Washington DC, I compiled lists of funding sources and relevant regulations, and I gathered information about successful preservation efforts already in progress in places such as Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Williamsburg, Virginia.

The parts of the job involving public contact showed me the reasons why historic preservation had made some progress in years past, but still was not moving quickly. In one series of meetings, I worked with a group of wives of local growers who were determined to save from the wrecking ball the old house in Salinas where John Steinbeck had grown up. The women explained that their greatest obstacles were their own husbands, who maintained that the house ought to be demolished because they believed that Steinbeck, if still alive, would have sided with the migrant workers’ unions who were striking to obtain improved conditions at the time.

At the meetings of the Parks Commission, my challenge was the odd assortment of members, none with formal training in history or even a college education. Most of the commissioners were longtime community volunteers who knew a lot, in a concrete way, about outdoor recreation. One of the members, wealthy and garrulous, revealed his conception of history by using up all the time at one meeting to reminisce about the food he and he his wife had eaten while touring picturesque inns on a recent vacation in France. With people of this kind, I had to learn the trick of presenting the past in small chunks. I had to be respectful. But I had to present the intellectual aspects of history gradually, and disguise that I was doing so.

To move things along, I relied often on the Chair of the Commission, a charismatic, elderly woman named Elmarie Dyke. In the course of more than a half century of community organizing, she had accumulated a great deal of knowledge and developed a sense of the difference between big issues and little issues, and she was an attentive listener who loved to learn and knew how to ask penetrating questions. She had also lived a significant part of the history we were trying to preserve. I realized this once when I asked her to mail me something. She asked my address. I told her, and then asked, “Do you know where that street is?” She laughed and answered, “I not only know where it is; I named it.”

Bixby Creek Bridge on California's Big Sur.
Bixby Creek Bridge, on Highway 1, Big Sur, south of Carmel, a successfully preserved work of historic American engineering

The speaking engagement that I enjoyed least took place at the historical society that drew its members from Carmel, the city of Monterey, and Pebble Beach. The society was not representative of the enlightened attitude toward preservation I found in the local population as a whole. At the time almost all the members of the society were newly rich and regarded historic structures merely as prestigious antiques, not as assets for the community.

At the opposite extreme, in terms of integrity, was the historical society that served the southern portion of Monterey County. This area was almost completely rural. The economy was based partly on viticulture, but mostly on ranching. The largest urban area, King City, was essentially a town of about 5,000. There were a few rich landowners in the area, but most of the holdings were small and medium-sized and were owned by families who traced themselves and their workers back to the nineteenth century. These people liked their way of life and wanted it to continue. They had their share of foibles and weaknesses, but they also had tremendous dignity. Meeting them, I understood what it meant to say that someone revered the land. They regularly received offers to sell their properties to agricultural conglomerates or to re-zone the area for industry. But they refused and were willing, if necessary, to be cash poor and land rich.

They also pushed hard politically to protect the large areas of conserved land that were between their area of the county and the Big Sur coast to the west. Here there were several national forests and state parks and a large military reservation. The landscape in these areas was unsettled, unknown to most tourists at the time, and hauntingly beautiful. Here and there, midst the forests and creeks and valleys, one found important archeological and historic sites, including caves used by Stone Age Native Americans, as well as stagecoach roads, the remnants of old inns, and pioneer graveyards. The San Antonio Mission was also in the area. Many people regard it as the most beautiful of all those in the network built by the Spaniards in California.

Art Deco facade of the community theater in King City
Art Deco facade of the community theater in King City

With two of the local ranch owners, I developed a close friendship. Their names were Olive and Rachelle Gillette. They lived on separate ranches and were sisters. They told me fascinating stories about themselves and their neighbors, led me to important historical documents, gave valuable advice about county politics, asked probing questions about preservation initiatives elsewhere in the U.S., and took me on numerous drives in their old cars to see historic sites I would never have been able to discover on my own. Several times I got phone calls from the sisters before dawn in my apartment seventy miles to the north. “Dr. Messinger,” I would hear one of them say, “I’ve been tending the chickens and it looks like it’s going to be a nice day. Would you like to come down here for a tour?”

Even with the cooperation of gracious people like Olive and Rachelle, I might not have succeeded in my work, had it not been for the help I received from Bill Curry, the Deputy Director of the county planning department. Bill was my immediate contact at the department, the person assigned to help me navigate local politics and bureaucracy. Bill had grown up in the county, but had then gone on to Yale where he received a degree in Architecture before returning home. He understood local mentalities, but was also well equipped to integrate the contributions of an outsider like me.

Remains of the Pacific Biological Laboratory maintained by Doc Ricketts and immortalized in John Steinbeck's Cannery Row; protected against abutting new construction
Remains of the Pacific Biological Laboratory maintained by Doc Ricketts and immortalized in John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row; protected against abutting new construction

I dropped by to chat with Bill every few weeks in the big county office building in Salinas. We didn’t become close friends but we did greatly enjoy each other’s company, and we had both experienced the bittersweet process of understanding home by means of temporarily leaving it.

About five months into the project, I got a late afternoon phone call from Bill, saying he wanted to come over and see me right away to discuss the introduction to the draft plan I had given him earlier in the week. When Bill arrived at my apartment, he was carrying the plan in one hand and a six-pack of beer in the other. We sat down in my living room and Bill opened two cans of beer and told me we needed to talk friend-to-friend. Bill showed me passages he had circled. All were in the opening section of the draft where I had provided an analysis of the interest groups in the county that helped or hindered preservation.

My analysis was accurate, Bill said, but politically naïve. I seemed to be trying to impress an out-of-county audience — perhaps others in the planning profession, perhaps academic historians, perhaps my friends in Berkeley, perhaps readers of the New York Times and Harper’s Magazine. I did not yet seem to have learned the difference between a document that is designed simply to speak the truth – especially that portion of the truth that attacks everyday assumptions – and a document that is going to be used to get a diverse group of people to unite for action. I did not need to go on at length about the snobbery I had seen among some of the preservationists, or about the anti-Hispanic prejudice of some of the growers in the Salinas Valley, or the reluctance of many county organizations to accept federal grants. I should focus upon the elements of pride that all county residents shared when they encountered their heritage. I should talk about the admiration that would be won by impressing outsiders with the history and achievements of the county. I should more fully explain the economic and social benefits obtainable from well-managed preservation.

In 1974, my work culminated with an address to the County Board of Supervisors after two years of working as their consultant. I described the historic treasures the people of the County had been given by earlier generations, and I talked about the fragility of the historic landscape in Central California, most of which was still in private ownership. I emphasized that, in the hands of the wrong people, much of this environment could be gone within a year, taking away vital benchmarks of identity, as well as economic assets that were vitally important for strategic expansion of the tourist industry. In response, the Supervisors voted my plan into law, directed the planning department to publish an illustrated version, and prepared to hire a staff to coordinate preservation energetically. The groundwork had been laid for more extensive activity.

By this time, however, the County was running into budgetary problems just as the state education system had two years before. I did not see much of an economic future for myself locally. I decided that I would try to find work in Los Angeles, and, if that failed, go to Washington DC. I gave notice to my landlord, packed my car, and began a long journey to find a place that would, I hoped, have room for a historian with a practical bent.

John Steinbeck's childhood home in Salinas, preserved by adaptive economic reuse as a restaurant
John Steinbeck’s childhood home in Salinas, preserved by adaptive economic reuse as a restaurant