Friday, June 13, 2014

Travels with Prius

I’m in Steinbeck country, dead center Monterey and only blocks from Cannery Row and the site of Tortilla Flat. A few miles away, Salinas provided Steinbeck with the setting for East of Eden. Later in his life, he wrote Travels with Charley (his poodle), but not having a dog to sit in my front seat, I travel solely with Prius.

Fifty years ago, Monterey hadn’t become a tourist destination particularly; at least, I don’t remember that it had. I was here thanks to the US Navy, and the military commandeered not only Fort Ord (now going the way of NTC San Diego), but also much of the Defense Language Institute. Tourists went instead to nearby Carmel to see the town that one wag described as ‘smaller than life itself’ or to Pebble Beach for famous golf tournaments.

But in Monterey, Cannery Row was still lined with decaying sardine canneries, abandoned after the sardines decamped to other, less dangerous waters, leaving the factories that had been the economic life blood of the city to rust along its bay front. The Palace Bar took over part of one of the old canneries, positioning itself beside the John Steinbeck Theater, and the Palace Bar was where we went for what must have been cheap beers and unamplified singers who came by with guitars and folks songs. One night who should show up but Joan Baez, accompanied by a partner of indeterminate gender, to sing an entire set for us as we settled into more beers and comfortable listening.

The Navy didn’t keep me here for long, but long enough to place Monterey onto a list of places that warm my heart when I think of them. It’s a city that ranks below New Orleans and Florence, but it’s on the list nevertheless, and I’ve been looking past its burgeoning tourist trade in an effort to find the Monterey I knew back then. Isn’t that what we do on nostalgic visits, look for the unchanged among the constantly changing?

The view from Highway 1, by SLF
You can still find the old customs house and Robert Louis Stevenson’s residence. They are right there along with Benihana’s and LouLou’s Griddle in the Middle. Fisherman’s Wharf used to be one where fishing boats unloaded their catches, and the sea gulls and pelicans still think it is, but nowadays the birds perch on the roof of Crabby Jim’s Seafood Restaurant, and flap over to Carousel Candies for the occasional diversion. Gone are the canneries on Cannery Row, replaced by endless boutiques and t-shirt shops but also with one of the world’s most spectacular aquariums. Thus, time giveth and time taketh away.

By now the foggy Monterey morning wanes and I want to go out walking in it before the clouds lift. There is a slight mist falling; I need a jacket for my trip down to the bay, and I am exhilarated by the smell of iodine coming in on the sea breeze. The streets begin to fill with tourists, and a woman asks me if I’ve passed a particular fudge vendor on my way here. We all have, it seems, reasons for being here.

Robert Heylmun 11 June 2014

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