Story and Photos by David A. Laws.
A ranch in “the wilder hills” from Old Stage Road
“I would like to write the story of this whole valley, of all the little towns and all the farms and the ranches in the wilder hills. I can see how I would like to do it so that it would be the valley of the world.” [Steinbeck: A Life in Letters]
In The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer, Steinbeck’s biographer Jackson Benson explains that “scene and setting assume a far heavier burden of meaning in his work than in the fiction of most other novelists.” 1n 2001, I explored Monterey County’s Steinbeck Country seeking landscapes that matched quotations from his stories to photograph for a presentation at the Steinbeck Centennial Conference the following year.
Twenty years later, I retraced my steps and took new photos. I found new residential estates spilling out into the fields, technology-enhanced agriculture making ever more efficient use of the valley floor, vineyards consuming former produce and cattle country, and giant windmills churning out megawatts of electric power. But, just as I had discovered more than 50-years after the writer first described them, the essence of the settings invoked in his stories remained.
My journey began atop the 3,169-summit of Fremont Peak State Park, eleven miles up a steep, winding road through dense oak and chaparral from San Juan Bautista. It was from this highest point in the Gabilan Range that, in Travels with Charley, the travelers bade goodbye to “the whole of my childhood and youth, the great Salinas Valley stretching south for nearly a hundred miles.”
“The Salinas Valley is in Northern California. It is a long narrow swale between two ranges of mountains” [East of Eden]
Deep rich soil, copious irrigation water, and a temperate climate make this an extraordinarily productive agricultural region. Promoted as “The Salad Bowl of the World,” the valley floor is intensively cultivated year-round. From strawberries near the ocean to warmer climate crops in the south, the Salinas Valley grows much of the nation’s lettuce together with other produce — from artichokes to zucchinis.
“When I was a boy we occasionally found cannonballs and rusted bayonets in the area” [Travels with Charley]
Descending into the north end of the valley, I stopped at a historical plaque recording the 1846 “Battle of Natividad” when scouts from Captain John C. Fremont’s party strayed into Mexican California. The marker lies on San Juan Grade Road at Crazy Horse Canyon Road, opposite the site of the little red schoolhouse attended by Jody in The Red Pony. The original building is now at the Boronda Adobe History Center in Salinas.
Steinbeck’s father Ernst operated a Salinas feed and grain store when livestock formed the mainstay of the region’s agriculture. While most of the valley now depends on irrigation culture, the foothills of Gabilans remain solidly cattle country. Red-tailed hawks soared high above dry, golden-hued grass slopes sprinkled with beef cattle.
“The Gabilan Mountains to the east of the valley were light gay mountains full of sun and loveliness.” [East of Eden]
To avoid busy 101, the main coastal highway from San Francisco to Los Angeles that carves down the center of the valley, I traced a figure-of-eight route on local farm roads. Following Old Stage Road along the foot of the Gabilan Range in the east, I crossed to the west side at Gonzales River Road. From there, I hugged the foothills of the Santa Lucia Mountains and across the Arroyo Secco Gorge south to King City.
“The vegetables grew crisp and green in their line-straight rows.” [The Pastures of Heaven]
After mile upon mile of flat, treeless, intensively-managed soil, broken only by lines of irrigation pipes and flapping remnants of black plastic curtain fences erected to deter feral pigs, fields of cabbages at the foot of the Santa Lucia’s appeared positively bucolic. Narrow side roads with rustic homesteads shaded by evergreen live oaks yielded scenes from “The Chrysanthemums” and other stories from The Long Valley.
“The Santa Lucias stood up against the sky to the west and kept the valley from the open sea.” [East of Eden]
Fifty miles of gravelly bench slopes of the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, cattle pasture in Steinbeck’s era, are crowded with vineyards. Tasting rooms and production facilities for premium, cool-climate wines line River and Foothill Roads. Manicured vines of predominantly chardonnay and pinot noir varietals glowed fluorescent green in the bright spring sunlight.
“The crops of any part of this state could not be harvested without them” [Letter to Elizabeth Otis — 1938]
During college breaks, Steinbeck worked sugar king Claus Spreckels’ fields bordering the river near Mission Soledad. Here he met characters and recorded incidents that inspired Of Mice and Men. Generations of immigrants have toiled on this land. Spanish-speaking workers from Central America succeeded in the succession of Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, and Okies. Hispanic culture permeates the valley, from colorful street murals to mercados stocked with Mexican produce and merchandise. With his portrayal of Pepe in “Flight” and later stories about Mexico, Steinbeck was one of the first prominent American writers to portray sympathetic Hispanic characters.
I crossed the Arroyo Seco River on the Elm Street bridge. This double-span, iron structure, built-in 1915–16 at a former Salinas River crossing, was moved here in 1943 to provide an evacuation route from the Monterey Peninsula in the event of an enemy invasion during World War II. It reminded me of a western movie set frozen in time awaiting the film crew.
“A small bridge in time” [Travels with Charley]
South of King City, I drove by the entrance to Hamilton Canyon. Steinbeck’s grandfather Samuel Hamilton, who played a significant role in East of Eden, homesteaded in these barren hills. This dry year was no exception. Years of overgrazing have eroded the topsoil to expose bare white patches of “flinty bones.”
‘There were no springs, and the crusty topsoil was so thin that the flinty bones stuck through” [East of Eden]
Returning north, I followed County Route G15, Metz Road, up the east side of the valley. The road hugged a narrow ledge following the contours of dry foothill slopes on one side and the meandering river bed on the other.
“The Salinas River winds and twists up the center until at last, it falls into Monterey Bay” [East of Eden]
Since my first trip, new vineyards have replaced much traditional produce on the flatlands close to Soledad. Acres of fresh vine plantings marched to the horizon in tight military formation.
I crossed the valley to the westside for the second time at Gonzales and stopped for a close-up view of two massive wind turbines that power the local economy. Their height dwarfed a tractor chugging steadily across a field in the foreground.
“I wonder why progress looks so much like destruction” [Travels with Charley]
Back on River Road, I drove north to Salinas where artist John Cerney specializes in Giant Highway Art. In 1995, he painted a series of ten plywood, cut-out murals of farmworkers commissioned by grower Chris Bunn to pay tribute to his labor force. Recently repainted, the 18-foot-high figures continue to overlook and surprise drivers hurrying along Highway 68 south of town.
“The valley land was deep and rich” [East of Eden]
In Steinbeck’s time, Salinas was the largest community and the county seat for one of the most prosperous agricultural regions in the nation. Today the population exceeds 150,000, and sleek automobiles and powerful pick-up trucks replace boxy, black Fords that lined Main Street early last century. Even though most traditional stores and businesses have fled to the suburbs, it is easy to picture downtown much as the Steinbeck family would have known it — as four bustling blocks of banks, hotels, and retail stores. The most striking new feature since my original visit is a bold arch emblazoned “Salinas” spanning Main Street. It weighs about nine tons and is the centerpiece of a downtown revitalization project.
Sadly, the plight of the city’s homeless has not changed. Swelled by the pandemic, tent encampments spill onto the pavement of Bridge Street, the former area of gambling parlors and houses of ill repute on the other side of the tracks featured in East of Eden.
Ernst and Olive Steinbeck purchased their Queen Anne-style, redwood-frame home in 1900. Their son was born in the house in 1902 and lived there together with his three sisters until leaving for Stanford University. The Valley Guild of Salinas now owns the Steinbeck House and operates a luncheon restaurant and boutique to raise money for local charities.
“It was an immaculate and friendly house, grand enough, but not pretentious, and it sat inside its white fence, surrounded by its clipped lawn, and roses and cotoneasters lapped against its white walls. [East of Eden]
Four imposing bank structures at the intersection of Gavilan and Main Streets recall the town’s early wealth. Now restaurants and antique stores, these buildings served the landowners and business people of the valley. Many were angered by the social commentary of The Grapes of Wrath. Some families sustained their vendetta for years, but community anger began to mellow into civic pride with the unveiling of a bronze bust outside the renamed John Steinbeck Library at 350 Lincoln in 1973.
By 1998, when the National Steinbeck Center opened at the head of Main Street, all was forgiven. The Center is a museum and a community resource designed to promote awareness of Steinbeck’s works, ideas, and the value of the written word. The prodigal son is now the favorite son, and his name and face grace businesses and landmarks throughout the city.
I made one last stop in Salinas at the Garden of Memories Cemetery where Steinbeck’s ashes are buried in the Hamilton plot. Elaine, his third wife, has joined the family since my last visit. His parents, grandparents, and their children, all portrayed in East of Eden, rest nearby. Many of Steinbeck’s detractors lie here also, but while they have long been silent, the writer’s voice lives on.
Attendees of the Steinbeck Centennial Conference at Hofstra University on Long Island, New York, in 2002 gave my talk and slides a kind reception. Several asked for copies of the photographs. As I had taken them with an early digital camera, printed images were too small for display. Instead, I reproduced them, together with expanded text, in a 32-page souvenir and guide under the title Steinbeck County: Exploring the Settings for the Stories.
My timing was perfect; Oprah chose East of Eden for her book club in 2003. She opened the show at the National Steinbeck Center and included a link to my title on oprah.com. As a result, Exploring the Settings enjoyed multiple printings and launched me into a topic and a community that continues to hold my interest to this day. Following are links to some of my travel articles inspired by this beginning:
The Settings for the Stories: John Steinbeck’s Valley of the World
Steinbeck in Somerset: “The Time at Discove”
Note on Photographs
All photographs, other than the view from Fremont Peak, were captured in May 2021 on an iPhone X with a 12-megapixel sensor. The Fremont Peak image taken on a Nikon Coolpix 950 camera with a 2-megapixel sensor shows the dramatic improvement in consumer digital technology since 2001.
This article also appeared on Medium.com under the same title.
I love these “Travels with David.” Thanks for a wonderful photo essay, insight into Steinbeck and his “community” – detractors and all — and The Backstory. Glad your timing was perfect — well-deserved!