John Steinbeck’s typewriter has left a well-known mark all over this pocket of California, where agriculture meets clear beaches and layered mountains, not to mention one of the world’s great coastal drives. What’s less known is that Steinbeck isn’t the only writer to capture it.
For the last leg of this year’s Digital Nomad road trip across the U.S., I’d like to pull out a few books—some less known than others—to illustrate how some pre-reading can transform a visit to one of California’s, and the country’s, most beloved regions.
The obvious entry point to a lit journey around this pocket of the central California coast is Steinbeck, who—unlike other writers of the region—was born a local, growing up in the wide Salinas Valley between mountain ranges and the long arched beach north of Monterey.
Salinas’s National Steinbeck Center, at the end of Main Street in downtown Salinas, is laid out by book or screenplay (did you know Steinbeck wrote Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat?). The overlap of audio feeds, TVs, and placards sort of comes off as a (pleasing) attack on your Steinbeck senses.
The highlight is Steinbeck’s old GMC green truck/trailer, Rocinante, “a beautiful thing, powerful and yet lithe,” as Steinbeck described the ride that sent him around the rim of America in his travelogue Travels with Charley. Peeking into the trailer’s open doors, it almost looks as if Steinbeck just stepped out, complete with a typewriter and a couple bottles of spirits set out on the table.
One staff member here, Nancy, a New Yorker who has been in Salinas since 1999, isn’t a fan of The Grapes of Wrath, the Nobel prize-winner novel about Dust Bowl refugees. “He bird walks in it too much,” she says. “I like the short stories, where he doesn’t stray from the story.” For that, and better atmospheric details of the area, Nancy recommends The Long Valley, a 1938 collection.
In “The Red Pony,” for instance, Jody asks what’s beyond the mountains looming to the north edge of the Salinas Valley, and his dad answers, “More mountains. Why?” “It would be good to go.” “What for? There’s nothing there.” Jody falls silent, but, Steinbeck wrote, “Jody knew something was there, something very wonderful because it wasn’t known.”
This isn’t just a great travel creed, but also a tip for the modern visitor to the region, eyeing the forbidding layered hills of Big Sur. That’s where Pepe, in the story “Flight,” is a boy becoming a man on the run, and heads into the hills “fifteen miles below Monterey.”
Steinbeck doesn’t say specifically where, but one way to follow is via Palo Colorado Road from Highway 1, equally south of Monterey, where an enticing narrow paved road twists past redwoods, dreamy cabins, and rises up to the hiking trails of the ruggedly gorgeous Los Padres National Forest.
Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea
As a kid, Steinbeck wrote in the margins of his sister’s copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Prince Otto that he wanted to be a writer. The great Scottish traveler/writer lived in Monterey in 1879, hanging out, as he had in France before, with French artists and bohemians who were helping draw wider attention to the area.
Stevenson lived in the “French Hotel,” now called the Robert Louis Stevenson House (530 Houston Street), where (in spring and summer) you can walk the dark wood interiors of a French-run boardinghouse that was a popular guesthouse during Monterey’s early days as an artist colony.
This is where Stevenson wrote “The Old Pacific Capital,” an essay predicting how Monterey’s paisano culture (of mixed-race locals, chiefly Spanish and Native American) would give way to the more commercialized Cannery Row of today: fudge and taffy, souvenirs, Bubba Gump.
“Alas for the little town!” Stevenson wrote half a century before Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat or Cannery Row, noting how the “essentially and wholly Mexican” town that comes off as “foreign” to East Coast visitors was bound to change and tourism was about to hit.
The site that most captured his attention was Carmel-by-the-Sea’s “roofless and ruinous” mission—already a popular subject for painters like Jules Tavernier.
What would have surprised Stevenson is that an increasingly Americanized local base, however, didn’t leave the San Carlos Borroméo de Carmelo Mission (established in 1771) to languish, instead renovating it into one of the area’s most popular attractions. The mission’s lovely exteriors featured seashell gravestones in the cemetery and contorted Monterey cypress, “the most fantastic of forest trees” to Stevenson.
Monterey and Carmel are home to several great bookstores. Half a block from Stevenson’s old home is the best, Monterey’s Carpe Diem Fine Books, a small store of rare and out-of-print books (“most are $50 and up,” they’ll tell some visitors) and Oliver the house Scottie.
Since 1937, Big Sur has increasingly been a road trip destination, as Highway 1 crosses implausible cliffs and gullies on its stretch from Monterey to Cambria. Today you’re as likely to overhear diners speaking German, Chinese, or Portuguese at sea-facing restaurant decks as English.
The real secret of a Big Sur discovery, however, is off the paved road, where one finds redwoods and, surprising to some, locals. “It’s like a big lazy Buddhist paradise here,” as one puts it. A former local, author Henry Miller, called the community in 1957 “not only writers and artists … but ping-pong and chess players.”
Miller called Big Sur home for nearly two decades and summed up his love in the rambling memoir Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch. His former home is now the Henry Miller Memorial Library, a library/café/museum “where nothing happens” (as the sign promises). The library recently closed temporarily due to lack of permits, so check before you go.
Miller fans are left to follow his description of a region he described “as full and rich, as compelling and instructive, as Thoreau found at Walden.”
For Miller, “November to February are the best months,” when skies are clear and the sun is warm. He was particularly fond of bathing in hot-spring tubs at Slates Hot Springs (or Slade’s as he put it), where Hunter S. Thompson, of all people, once worked. The best hot spring target today though, and one requiring a night of camping, is Sykes Hot Springs, a 20-mile round-trip hike.
Another source of Big Sur inspiration—and one found more frequently in gift shop bookshelves here —is Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur.
In the novel, Kerouac’s fictional alter ego starts out having a fine ol’ time as a “sea beatnik” in Big Sur’s Bixby Canyon (called Raton in the book). He’s staying alone, at first, in the cabin of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, founder of City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. Every night he hits the coastline with its “big elbows of Rock rising everywhere” to record the sound of the sea. He befriends a stray donkey on the beach and takes “long curious hikes” into the interior.
Good idea. You can’t visit the cabin or get under the bridge as he does (Big Sur, the surprisingly good 2013 film of the book, was actually shot under Rocky Creek Bridge nearby). But you can hike up inland peaks at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, or reach Kerouac’s stomping grounds along the ten-mile thriller Old Coast Road, rambling inland from the Bixby Bridge hordes via a one-lane dirt road that cuts across hills and into spooky patches of redwoods. It’s not always passable, at least not with your typical rental, but if it’s been dry, and you go slowly, you can manage. Few will follow you. And that’s the point.