Rick, my soon-to-be seventeen-year-old son and I took a drive of several days down California's Highway 101 to Morro Bay, north of San Luis Obispo on the Central Coast, then up Big Sur to Carmel, and back to San Francisco. We figured Hearst Castle and Big Sur, the wild and winding coast would be the sights to see. Along the way we made a few stops I'd like to mention in order to lay out a notion.
As we approached Salinas, I recalled that this was where John Steinbeck came from. It's sort of the StatNisland of California with farms. Steinbeck's works were burned there, more than once. The farm owners didn't appreciate his sympathetic portrayal of the broke and homeless Dust Bowl refugees from Oklahoma and Arkansas who arrived during the Depression looking for work and living under bridges. "Grapes of Wrath," was the novel Steinbeck wrote based on his newspaper reporting of these folks at that time; won the Nobel Prize for literature for that. Well, the local folks who owned the land didn't like it and let Steinbeck know, loud and clear. So in some of his other works, like "Cannery Row," and "Tortilla Flat," which also featured the people living on the bottom rung of the economic ladder, or perhaps they are the ground on which the ladder rests, Steinbeck made sure to populate the bordellos with Salinans.
So it is with some adverse context and history that Salinas is now home for the National Steinbeck Center, a museum, just opened at the end of Main Street, which looks like Richmond Avenue back when they had the Christmas Lights, some decades ago.
Rick and I decided to check the place out and were glad we did. It's a lovely modern building complex, airy and light, with indoor and outdoor meeting rooms, a computerized research room, a gallery of paintings of the valley and the people, a bookstore and gift shop, but most of all, the museum area, featuring published works, notebooks, reviews, selections, film clips, memorabilia such as the camper van Steinbeck traveled across the country in to write "Travels With Charlie," (his dog) around '57, and a lot of other good stuff.
It was a wonderful way to remember Steinbeck and what he told us was important in our lives. Later on in our drive we stopped at Cannery Row in Monterey, which Steinbeck put on the map.
When we arrived at San Simeon, down the Central Coast, after cutting over on Highway 46, through picturesque vineyard country mountainside, tended by Mexican migrant workers, we eventually visited the prime attraction along the coast, Hearst Castle.
William Randolph Hearst was the son of a man who struck it rich in the Nevada silver mines then went into politics, became a U.S. Senator, and owner of what became the Hearst chain of newspapers. WR was the only child he left it all to. WR built the empire up even further and became the man Orson Welles portrayed in "Citizen Kane." WR also started the 1898 war against Spain, to improve circulation, launching the U.S. on it's hegemonistic course which we haven't been able to get off our backs since. We stripped Spain of its remaining possessions (Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Cuba) and took the prizes for ourselves.
What Hearst did with his money was to build a castle on the Central Coast of California. The Hearst Corporation, which owns about a quarter million undeveloped acres of pristine ranch land along the coast unloaded the castle on the State of California forty years ago, sparing the corporation of taxes and upkeep. California now owns one one of the prettiest White Elephants you ever saw, complete with beautiful pools no one is allowed to swim in, which is a sin to an old lifeguard like me.
WR kept a single talented architect, Julia Morgan, in business for thirty years adding on-and-on to his castle. He'd buy rooms from castles in Italy, and churches in France, and have them shipped over and installed in his. The place is loaded with expensive tapestries, silverware, lamps, carpets, antique furniture, etc. Kind of like Bill Gates on steroids. If you can imagine having Gates's fortune and spending it on a castle, this is Hearst Castle, 'twenties style.
The guides point out this antique and that. The group from the bus is free to go "Ooh," and "Ah," if they want.
Me, I'm a little different. I've gotta wonder what it all means, coming from Faw Cawnahs, and all that, where the number of castles, apart from my own on Hodges Place (two story, red brick, attached, on a play-street), were few and far between.
Having just visited the Steinbeck museum in Salinas, and thus having something recent to compare Hearst Castle with, I figured that Steinbeck's meant a lot more than Hearsts.
Hearst was a guy who needed someone to tell him when to say when, just like Michael Jackson needed someone to tell him when he had enough surgery on his face. Having more money than brains, they could indulge their neuroses more than the common run of mankind, for the latter of which, thank goodness, can you imagine all the mischief.
After a leisurely drive up the windy Big Sur Hwy 1, Rick and I stopped at the Cannery in Monterey. Back in the 'Twenties, 'Thirties, and "Forties, the canning industry was very big in California; this was before frozen foods flattened the canneries. Cannery Row is on the coast in Monterey, next door to Fisherman's Wharf, in Monterey Bay, now a protected seashore, where the sardine fleet home-ported and off-loaded shoals of sardines, where the canneries persuaded the individual fish to line up in the little cans for distribution to kitchen cabinets all over the country. Naturally the fishermen, backed by the canners, overdid it, and one year there were no sardines left in the ocean and all the canneries closed, all of them, leaving a ghost town.
Decades pass and a guy named William Shockley, not a nice guy, invents the transistor which supplants the vacuum tube in all those old radios you field technicians used to screw around with with big soldering irons. Then Hewlett and Packard rent a garage in Palo Alto, next to Stanford University where they've both just graduated and invent what becomes Silicon Valley which spews computers like a volcano does lava, all over the world.
Packard has a daughter who likes the ocean and is influential with her father, who donates the money to convert an old, abandoned cannery into "The Cannery," the world's greatest marine aquarium, except for the ones I haven't visited yet, I guess.
So Rick and I visited "The Cannery," located where Steinbeck set his "Cannery Row." You can see Chong's Store and Doc Rickett's lab; at least you can walk past the old wooden storefronts; the rest of the place has become Coney Island with visitors from all over. But nice. Monterey Bay is good scuba country; lots of diving in clear water; good scenery, kelp beds, down to forty feet, not deep. Loads of sea life to see. Plus (or including) sea lions, whales, etc.
Now here was another "museum" built around a theme, that the sea and what's in it have to be protected. Good for Packard's daughter, and for Packard, to invest his dough in something worthwhile. The plexiglass tanks are huge, deep, and clear, and chock-full of fish, kelp, anemones, and the occasional volunteer guide in a wet-suit. Plenty of dry-guides to answer your questions, and tide-pools for the kids to handle the starfish. Kids like me I mean. Even microscopes you can look thru at the plankton we all seem to be sitting, or swimming on. Zoo-plankton, phyllo-plankton, and swordfish plank-steak plankton.
Later Rick took a swim in the Pacific while I played lifeguard (50 degree water is a little chillier than South, Midland, or Great Kills Beaches, and I won't go in it, not voluntarily, at least, not without a wetsuit at any rate, and I seem to have outgrown mine).
So there you have it; two out of three museums wasn't bad. So when you win the lottery and wonder where to put the left over money, you get several choices. You can do like someone finally did for Steinbeck and celebrate a man who reminded us to respect common humanity, and who in return is respected for it, or like Packard's daughter, who protects the sea by teaching about it through "The Cannery," or even like the Stanford parents who, when the lost their son, Leland S. Jr., established a university in his name. It's full name is "The Leland Stanford, Junior, University." Or you can build a castle that your family refuses to visit and unloads as a white elephant to beat the upkeep and taxes and the tourists can go "Ooh, aah, what a jerk."
Some of the tourists, at any rate; it's a nice place to visit for about an hour and you won't leave burdened by any deep thoughts about how we must all protect the environment.
Rick and I then drove up the coast and had a couple days for me to instruct him in the finer points of how to swing a golf club. Then they opened a new NHL size and quality ice skating rink down at the new visitors center in San Francisco, where, for about the second time in four decades, since leaving Martling's Pond behind me, I donned a pair of hockey skates (rented) and made my way out onto the ice. You know what they say about how you never forget how to ride a bicycle? It doesn't apply to ice skating. You forget. You have to remember all over again, but it comes back pretty fast. At least you can't fall through, so there's a worry you don't have to worry about. Remember that old guy on Martling's who could skate? And you wondered what an old guy was doing out there at his age since everyone else was about sixteen? Well, there I was.
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