When we put the human brain under close observation we can view the snaps and pops of high frequency electro-chemical reactions much in the same way we watch fireworks bursting against the night sky – with wonder and awe. Yet little is known about these brief flashes of beautiful epiphany. We know only that the synapses are what link together the billions of neurons swirling around behind our eyes and under our skulls and give way to those curious creatures we call ‘Thoughts’.
What is a thought? What is it made of? How does it come to be? Surely a thought is not made of paper or plastic. Nor is it a combination of things nailed together like in building a house. Thoughts seem to come into the mind without effort. Some slide in like a draft from beneath the doorsill and are gone out the window in just the same manner, never to be seen again. Then there are notions which possess us. Like a violent storm they grip us, shake us around and slap us for good measure to assure that its presence has been felt. How is it that something which did not exist a moment ago compel us in such way as to move us beyond any and all previous states of being? There may never be a logical and scientific answer to this question. For now we are left in the dark along with our early hominid brethren and the ancient mystics of the past. Maybe the best ways to explore thoughts are to follow them, much like Alice and the white rabbit, and let the magic unfold before our very eyes.
It was within the final hours of Thursday evening when I laid down Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday. Hazel had solved the case of love with a baseball bat. Mack was glad and proud of him, yet cautious of any further ideas that might get into his head. And Doc, unknowingly grateful with his arm in a cast, headed for La Jolla with his new girl, Suzy, behind the wheel. That’s when the thought struck me just as it did Hazel and Doc.
“I’m going to Steinbeck country.”
Why not. I had money set aside. What else was I going to do. Sit around and wait for something to happen? No . . . But then I went to bed forgetting the matter, brushing it aside as if it were one of those lofty thoughts that quickly dissipate. Plus, I had work the next day . . . In the morning the thought was still with me and there was nothing I could do about it. There was no shaking the thing. It was Waiting Friday after all and I couldn’t leave until after 5 in the afternoon.
The anticipation of adventure can, by diagnosis, be what sends a man whirling into a fit of madness. He will pace and shift and move about frantically. He will pick up a book and set it down in one fluid motion for no other reason than on the basis that it might make Time move along a little faster. It does not. The stubborn bastard holds true. To consistently check the time is to delay the procession of the day. Seconds become snails. Minutes yawn. Hours drag their feet wearily. Until finally the time comes and our restless spirit breaks out of the gate with a steadfast excitement.
It was late when I left my apartment. Just after 8. And the pilgrimage from Elsinore to Salinas is a good 370 miles. I was on my way in my little Toyota Matrix with almost 300,000 miles under her hood. My own Rocinante! . . . Would she make the journey? I had my doubts. But I was going to find out one way or the other. In her belly was a full tank of gas, she had fairly new tires on, and started right up when I turned the key. That was good enough to get the thing going. All that was left was hot coffee and music to make my blood howl. I put on King Crimon’s The Talking Drum . . . Oh could it talk!
At night Southern California lights up like the last embers of a dying fire. Each shining thing begins to dwindle as you move further out over the dark California landscape towards an even darker possibility. By 10 I was coming down the Grapevine with the flatlands laid out before me. Long streaks of headlights and taillights cutting north and south on the 5 freeway. I stopped for a quick coffee refill at the northern base of the Angeles National Forest before moving on.
Where goest thou, America? What does the future have in store for you? This journey to the end of the night is only one more mile in the direction of AI, CRISPR and Mars, Neuralink and life extension, with a quivering pessimism and uncertainty lingering in our bones. The road rolls us towards the world they will make, toward the world they’ll influence. And we’re not very far away from everyone of these cars being autonomous. It is written in man’s uncontrollable urge to play god and creation all at once. But none of that mattered as I drove on. I was looking for the man. Looking to see his world and what kept him going, what inspired him to write the tales he so masterfully placed on the page.
At the Lost Hills exit I headed west onto Highway 46 towards Paso Robles. A full moon casted soft shadows on the hills. The white lines whirled past. The tires hummed. Sketches of Brunswick East played through the speakers. I pointed north onto the 101. My neck stiff. My legs aching. My heel numb. Vision blurring. I didn’t know how much longer I could go on. The caffeine was leaving my system and a heavy fatigue was creeping in. Passing semis became frightful. Their rigs wavering, and at times seemed like they were leaning into my lane. I pressed on past them.
When I got to Soledad the final stretch to Salinas was at once rapid and a relief. A second wind swelled up in me and gave me enough energy to finish the long haul. I took a deep breath as I rolled into town ready for a place to lay my head. In the morning I would seek out the Steinbeck Center and his childhood home then move on to Monterey. I pulled off on John Street. Parked my car outside the Good Nite Inn. At the door to the office I was greeted with a piece of paper taped to the glass front. It was an ominous thing to find a No Vacancy sign the first hotel I stopped at. This was going to be a longer night than I thought it was going to be. I knew it before I wanted to believe it.
Either the prices were too high or one after the next every other hotel, motel, or inn had No Vacancy signs posted outside the establishment. Around 2 AM I parked outside Howard Johnson’s. A tall, pale man came out from some back room as I entered. His head was balding around the middle and his neck craned forward as if he had been looking down his whole life.
“Can I . . . Um . . . help you?”
“Do you have any vacancies?”
“. . . Um . . . Let me see.”
He went to work on the computer. Clicking. Typing. More clicking.
“. . . Um . . . It looks like there might be a room available . . . Um . . . Let me call them to see if . . . Um . . . They’re coming in tonight.”
The receptionist picked up the phone. Made the necessary movements. Sat a minute with the phone pressed to his ear. Then he hung up.
“ . . . Um . . . Yea I can get you a room.”
Together we went through all the formalities. The man printed out paper work which I was to sign and initial and date. I gave him my credit card. We waited for processing.
“. . . Um . . . Your card was declined.”
“What? . . . Ok. Can you split the total between two cards?”
“I . . . Um . . . Uh . . . No.”
“Ok . . . Do you take cash?”
“. . . Uh . . . Er . . . No.”
A young couple came in just then and waited behind me.
“Alright, well can you hold the room for me for ten minutes? I’ll go deposit cash into my account and then come back and pay.”
“. . . Um . . . Uh . . . Yea. Ok.”
I got out of there and found a bank down the street. I fed the machine a hundred bucks and was back in no time. The couple was gone.
“That should do it,” I said to the receptionist.
He began clicking and typing again.
“. . . Oh . . . Um . . . It’s not letting me give you a room . . . Because . . . Um . . . It looks like someone already . . . Um . . . Booked it online.”
If I had not been so exhausted I would’ve bubbled over with rage. I wanted so badly to blame the guy for not caring enough or going beyond his duty to make sure I find a bed to lay my head, although I couldn’t. All my instincts to turn red in the face and bang my head against the wall fell away into an unsurprised disappointment. There was nothing left to do but move on.
The signs continued to read No Vacancy. I rang bells and knocked on doors and no one came. Passing cars on the rode I could only assume they too were in search of a warm bed, shower, and a place to relax their traveling bones. Finally, after much debate about sleeping in my car I found a hotel with rooms to spare. Laurel Inn. I rang the buzzer and a young woman appeared from around a corner. She unlocked the door and let me in. I told her about my troubles finding a room and asked if it was always this way on weekends.
“There’s a race tomorrow at Laguna Seca.”
Just my luck. It was now 3 in the morning. We exchanged cards, debit for room.
When I got to the room marked 342 I swiped the key card. Nothing. I tried it again and jiggled the handle and pressed against the door. Still nothing. I went back to the office.
“There’s something wrong with the door.”
“Did you put the card close to your keys?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Yea, that can demagnetize it.”
She whipped up another room key and handed it to me.
I went back to the room and tried it again. Nothing. My body wanted to collapse right on the spot. There was no energy left in me. I had exhausted every ounce of it. The hoods of my eyes hung low. My movement was like my breathing, long and drawn out. Had I still been on the road I would’ve veered off and ended up in a ditch. I went back to the office.
“It still doesn’t work. I think I just need a new room.”
The woman smiled.
“Ok. Here. 344. Right next door.”
I don’t even remember taking off my clothes or getting into bed. The next thing I knew the sun had crept in through a crack in the blinds and already heated up the room. I looked at my phone. It was already close to 10 AM. The National Steinbeck Center would be opening soon and I need coffee and something to eat.
There is never enough sleep, and there’s no way of “catching up” on it either. Sleep eludes us. It seems to slip through the fabric of Time and we are left drearily wondering if there will be any more. Even homebodies and professional athletes who sleep for ten to twelve hours a day still think it’s not enough. Sleep should really be used as an echo chamber, a state where we send out signals into the deep well of our subconscious mind and await the callback of ideas on pending obstacles . . . A viewing room of dreams, perhaps. Otherwise it’s only a mechanical procedure we do to reboot and propel us into the day with a new sense of momentum. And most of the time we don’t even realize how tired we are until we stop what we’re doing. Only our movement keeps us from falling back to sleep or closing our eyes while behind the wheel. I knew I was still tired when I woke up. I could feel it. There was a grogginess of the bones and weariness of the mind. But I had to carry on. There were things to do. Places to see. This was to be a quick dip into the waters of Steinbeck and view the monuments erected and preserved in his honor.
Before I left the hotel I called The Steinbeck House to make reservations. Apparently you can eat right there in the living room where He once proclaimed he wanted to be a writer. A sweet and elderly voice answered.
“Good morning, Steinbeck House.”
I told the sweet voice I wanted to make reservations for lunch.
“Oh. Well, we’re only serving tea today.”
Tea? I thought. What kind of place is this?
I hung up the phone.
I’m not against tea. In fact a good cup of chai or earl grey suits me just fine. But TEA in the STEINBECK HOUSE? I didn’t like the sound of that. I’m no detective nor well-versed in the art of site-seeing, but I knew very well that tea in the Steinbeck House was not my cup of . . . well, tea. I’d rather have a beer. I gathered what little I brought into the hotel room and left.
When I parked on Main Street I could only imagine it was as it had been, plus or minus a few details over the years as there has been no doubt growth in Salinas’ economy since He was here. The buildings rang the bell of an older time though with new businesses occupying the space. And it was here where he set in motion the story of East of Eden. And it was here he spent the earliest years of his life, shaping the stories he would tell . . . Timshel.
First Awakenings seemed to be the place to eat with locals crowding the corner where it stands. I passed it by thinking it would take at least an hour to get a seat. I hadn’t been the first to awaken, nor were many others idly making conversation, shifting their bodies to move time a little fast, looking at their watches and cell phones and to the receptionist each time he came out to call the names of those next on the list. Heads darting in his direction. Disappointment settling on their faces. I decided to go to the Steinbeck Center first, to give the growing crowd outside the restaurant enough time to dwindle.
The center itself gave me the impression of a fish tank. Its facade covered in glass and straight lines, the sky reflecting morning blueness. A few bodies could be seen swimming about inside. I opened the door and went in. Two young women greeted me at the front desk. I paid them the small fee.
“There’s a bio film here to the right to start the tour, then to the left is the museum.”
I thanked them and headed for the film room.
The film was black and white and briefly brushed over the history of the man: his early life, his relationship with Ed Ricketts, his marriages, his writing and the honoring of his work with the Nobel Prize for Literature, and then finally his death. It was only about fifteen minutes in length before looping back and starting all over again. I moved across the lobby towards the museum.
I was at once unimpressed and had little patience to stop and read many of the quotes on the walls around each installment related to His work and history. There were televisions and screenings of films based on his books. James Dean flashed on one of the screens. I moved quickly through the place, I confess. Not because my stomach grumbled for a bite to eat or from anxiousness to visit The Steinbeck House and Cannery Row, but because there was nothing much to see. The museum was a caricature of the man and his work, his history. Nothing was real but only resembled reality. It reminded me of diorama boxes we had to make in school. There were scenes set up with props and mechanisms to educate and stir excitement for kids. I felt nothing and moved along. It is only Rocinante that sparked something wondrous and beautiful. When I turned the corner and saw her parked I stopped and admired the beast of a burden-less adventure. Her large green body and shell covered like a giant snail. I moved around her. The back door to the camper was open. There was His stove and fridge and the small table with two benches facing one another. A yellow light illuminating the scene. I was moved to get a move on and live my own history. It’s the possibility of adventure that churns the blood. You can feel it pulsating as the heart-rate increases. That’s how you know you are ready to live.
I exited the museum and took a look around the gift shop. There were t-shirts and mugs and key chains and of course rows of His books on the shelves against the walls. We really do like to exploit the dead. It’s not enough to have had them live, but we have to squeeze out of their existence every and all possible means to make a buck. I left disappointed in our ability to make a vaudeville show of the human spirit. I hope I don’t come off as a pessimist. It’s certainly not my aim. However, I couldn’t help but feel a swelling of sadness rise up in me as I left the Steinbeck Center. I did not feel His presence save for Rocinante, the true symbol of the American wanderer and his yearning for the open road.
I have traveled alone over the years, to France and Mexico and places around the US, and although it can become a lonesome journey at times with no company to share in the joys and sorrows of an experience, I have found there are perks to being a solitary sojourner. An individual who embarks out into the unknown world, who becomes a stranger in a strange land, finds themselves welcomed into the warm embracing arms of all fellow men and women. All rise and fall of expectation is ones own. One person is not responsible for the letdowns and holdbacks of anyone else except themselves. No diverging roads. No counter scheduling. Nothing to hinder all possibility. When there is a waiting list for tables at a local breakfast hole, you can find a single, solitary seat at the counter. No waiting. No idle conversation. Right to eggs benedict and a cup of hot coffee. You’re in and out and that’s the end of it.
A young boy, maybe in his early teens, sat across the way from me where we could see only each other through the threshold separating two parts of the register area. He looked like a young Steinbeck. The seriousness in his eyes. The hard lines of his face. The slicked back hair. He tried staring me down. I held my gaze. He looked away. I drank my coffee and ate my eggs benedict, occasionally making notes on a napkin. When I was done I wrote on the back of the receipt for the server.
“My gratitude goes beyond the few flipped bills. It goes deeper than the refills of coffee and the eggs benedict. I hope this is only a waiting room for you before you move on to the greater glory of your life. Thank you. Sincerely, Francis Rourke.” And I meant it.
I got out of there stuffing the napkin in my pocket.
The Steinbeck House was only a minutes drive from Main Street. It is a Victorian-style home on the corner of a neighborhood on Central Avenue. It is a doll house. The paint used to preserve the quality of the time period is thick with a glazed look to it. The house is usually for dining, but on every second Saturday of the month it’s scheduled for tea parties for women with large sunhats and flowery dresses. They looked liked they belonged to the Red Hat Society. Debutantes in their Sunday best. I went up the back steps and peaked inside. An elderly woman with white hair came over.
“Did you have reservations?”
“Oh no. I just wanted to have a look.”
“Is there anyway I can go upstairs?”
“No, unfortunately the stairs are a bit steep and rickety. Even the employees have to sign a waiver in order to go up there.”
“Can I sign the waiver?”
The woman laughed easily.
“No, I’m sorry.”
There were small tables littered around the living room. The wallpaper was ornamented and washed out.
“Is this all original?” I asked.
“Well, no but it is of the time period . . . And it was right here in the living room where John said he wanted to be a writer.”
“Didn’t he say there was never a time when he wasn’t writing?”
“Yes. He did.”
More women were gathering around. The place was filling up like a vase of blooming things. I thanked the woman and left. I could not see Him among the flower-printed dresses and large hats. Nor in the embodiment of a time that no longer existed. There was nothing left of Him in this place they called his home. Nothing at all save for his name on the place.
Downstairs there is another gift shop much like the one at the Steinbeck Center. It sells everything minus what gave the house its meaning. Jewelry. Paintings. Clothes. His sons books. Postcards. The only thing they preserved was the shell, and a few stories about the man who grew up there. Everything else is for profit.
There was nothing left for me to see in Salinas. I had been letdown. And I did not go to his grave. I had no interest in it. Why should I? I like to think by writing this I am paying more respects to the man whose body is buried in the ground. Years ago I went to Pere Lachaise in Paris. It is in this graveyard you will find large headstones in memory of George Melies, Moliere, Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf, Apollinaire, Jim Morrison, and many others. I walked along the cobbled path that winds through this enchanted and hallowed ground and I did not feel a thing. The monuments that stand as markers of great and wondrous beings only do just that. They are placeholders so that their names may not be forgotten even if their work does. I did not go see His grave in Salinas because he wasn’t there, and I didn’t need to see it to remind me of His work. And that’s the truth of it.
When I entered Monterey I was greeted by a homeless woman squatting at El Estero Lake taking an afternoon leak right there on the grass. She looked on unabashedly as the cars passed her by.
The Row that He wrote about is dead. The life and times have past. They have been replaced by souvenir shops and restaurants and fine hotels, by long lines for clam chowder and the aquarium. Outside one of the hotels was the parading of sports cars like they were prized ponies gearing up for a race: Lamborghinis, Audis, Ferraris, and Bugattis. Their owners revving the engines as they pulled out of the valet roundabout and on to Cannery Row. The smell of sardines in the air. Seagulls squawking and shitting on unsuspecting sight-seers. An old juggler with knee pads twirled bowling pins into the air as the glimmering procession made its way before it was gone.
The city immortalized by a man’s work strived to immortalize the place of a man’s work only immortalized the man even more by establishing a bronzed bust of His head for all to see and a fountain in his honor. As I passed this sculpture I placed my own book just under His chin with my room key from the previous night marking a story I wrote emulating the style of the man. I thought it fitting. And what was strange about it was the street and sidewalk was crawling with people taking photos and laughing and moving about under the sun, and yet none of them even noticed what I had done. I walked a little ways before turning around to see if anyone would pick it up and there was nothing. I shrugged an moved on heading back towards my car.
There were no more paisanos. No Lee Chong. No black cypress up on the hill with Mack and the boys beneath it in all their wisdom of the world and what lies within it. No, all that was left was an amusement park, a blistering sea-town bustling with life, but not the life He wrote about.
After a quick beer at the Irish Pub at the north end of Cannery Row, I left. I had not seen Him anywhere and felt no waters of inspiration flowing forth from land He found his. Rightfully so.
In Travels with Charley He references the work of a writer He admires by mentioning that His readers were “. . . more interested in what he wore than what he thought, more avid to know how I do it than what I do. In regarding my Work, some Readers profess greater Feeling for what it makes than for what it says.” Here I have found where the developers of Cannery Row and the preservers of His past have failed to notice what it is the man was actually saying. We cannot go back to how things were, and we certainly cannot emulate the experience one person had and try to bottle it up for mass production. The history of the man is now only sold for capital gain, for personal interest, and not for Him at all.
The Salinas Valley we perceive today is not the same seen with His eyes. Nor is Monterey and the likes of Cannery Row. It just cannot be. And although I may think and feel this way, others may not. I don’t believe that my experience is the one and only truth, but it is my truth and I can’t help but share it. Our morning eyes do not see what our afternoon eyes see, and our evening eyes can only see a late and dreary world. So too goes for the present against the past.
Driving along the coast towards home, a new sense of anxiety gripped me. There was work to be done. Books to write. Thoughts to put on the page. Stories to tell. What do I do next? Where to go from here? This micro journey was for the mind to get serious about the work that needs to be done. He was a man who enjoyed the process. This is part of my process. The extrication of oneself from the work only makes the work more meaningful. More desirable and enticing and gravitating.
I felt good driving through Los Angeles. The tall buildings lit up in the night. Great beacons of human activity looming over the land. Movement for movements sake. That’s all we’re doing. Building up. Progressing. Creating. For what else? For what gain? To give ourselves reason for existing at all.
I rolled down the windows and let the warm summer night air whip about. It was only a moment afterward I realized the napkin I wrote my notes on had blown out the window. At first I had sense of loss, that I would not be able to remember the things I wrote about, but as I drove on I remembered what He had said about notes on the road, how they always seem to get lost and that one has to sit and marinate from the experience before putting down the word.
I pulled through the gate of my apartment close to midnight. The journey started at night and ended at night and I was dog-tired from the long trek that I fell asleep immediately.
For me, I struggle to stave off laziness. In my experience I find it is a burden and daunting task to start anything. The more I think about it, the more overwhelming it becomes. I wonder, if the tortoise should think about the weight of its shell on its back would it not leave it on that very spot? The weight we carry could be what harbors us, keeps us protected. So I bear down at my desk and wince and fidget and fight with all my impulses to get up and go to sit on the couch, pick up a book, turn on the television, or just get outside hoping the work will write itself. I am a tortoise and writing is my shell.
The words will come, I thought. And if they do not, then I guess I’ll have to write them myself.
The next day at home I sat in my rocker and opened Travels With Charley inspired by the journey and Rocinante. Steinbeck spoke of an urge to move. An instinctual need to travel and go somewhere. And this he met constantly on his journey from those he spoke to. They eyed Rocinante. Peered into its homely accommodations with envious eyes and would say, “I’d like to go.” It never mattered to where so long as there was movement.
After reading a few pages I flip through the book and holding a space somewhere in the middle was the empty sleeve of a hotel card key much like the one I’d left behind. It may be my own interpretation of the symbol, but I knew right then I was right where I was supposed to be. I felt as happy as kings.