For several days this last week, I’ve been on a literary retreat hosted by Clay Jenkinson, Becky Cawley, and Russ Eagle. You may remember Clay and Becky from the account of my last retreat with them at Lochsa Lodge in the Bitterroot Mountains in January. Clay is a humanities scholar who has been very influential in my own study and thought for the last few years, Becky has worked with Clay for many more years than that co-creating historical, cultural, and literary tours throughout the United States, and Russ Eagle has made Steinbeck a special study for many years as well. At Lochsa Lodge this winter, we read and discussed Walden Pond and Henry David Thoreau’s concept of living deliberately, as well the history of the Native Americans of the Great Plains and the wars of the United States’ expansion into their territories through the 1800’s, and the echoes of those wars and that expansion in the DAPL fight today.
This tour took us to Monterey, Pacific Grove, the Salinas Valley, and the mountains and coastline of this beautiful region of California following the life and work of the great American writer John Steinbeck. It was a special joy for me that this retreat was all about history, literature, and gorgeous scenery from my home state of California. I had read and loved Steinbeck’s novels especially when I was in my late teens to mid-twenties but it had been far too long since I revisited his work. I re-read some of his novels for this occasion, and some were new to me. I found a rich source of beauty and wisdom much more revealing to me with the added benefit of a decade and more of life-years.
We read Travels with Charley, Tortilla Flat, Cannery Row, Of Mice and Men, and The Pearl; selections from The Red Pony, The Log from the Sea of Cortez, and East of Eden (though most of us read the latter in full since it’s a general favorite); and read and discussed most in depth what Clay, myself, and many others consider his greatest work, The Grapes of Wrath.
The Grapes of Wrath, as you may know, is the story of the epic journey of the Joad family as they flee the loss of their crops and their family home in the Dust Bowl disaster in Depression Era America. The Joads are a fictional family but their struggles are closely based on the struggles of actual immigrants as they face the life of much-maligned, much-neglected, and much-abused refugees from drought and debt in their own nation. Some members of the clan die in the course of their journey, some strike out on their own, a family friend who accompanied them is murdered by a vigilante trying to break up the worker’s rights movement that he had joined, and one becomes a fugitive after he kills his friend’s assassin. Throughout the novel, Ma Joad is transformed from mother to matriarch as she holds the family together through the terrible hardships they suffer in search of work and a new home. She’s one of my favorite female characters in all fiction in her strength, courage, integrity, wisdom, generosity, and great heart. Others in the family are ennobled and transformed as well: the ex-convict, fugitive son Tom joins the worker’s rights movement after his friend is martyred; the disillusioned, tortured loner and binge drinker Uncle John works until he nearly drops to help save the family from a flood and sends a stillborn infant downstream in a crate, Moses-on-the-Nile fashion, to alert others of the migrant’s wrongs; and narcissistic, immature daughter Rose of Sharon … well, I won’t spoil the powerful, disturbing, beautiful ending in case you haven’t read it yet.
Over the course of several days, we toured Monterey and the settings of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, centered around the character of Doc, modeled on his great friend the charismatic biologist Ed Ricketts, and visited one of Steinbeck’s homes in neighboring Pacific Grove, only several blocks away. We visited the aquarium, housing so much of the marine wildlife which fascinated Steinbeck and Ricketts; walked beautiful Point Lobos, well-loved by Steinbeck and where his family held a memorial service for him and spread some of his ashes; hiked in Pinnacles National Park, not directly associated with Steinbeck but linked to the Gabilan Mountain range which Steinbeck describes in such glowing terms in East of Eden; and, on perhaps my favorite outing of all, we climbed Fremont Peak, as Steinbeck did when on a visit to his old home town in Travels With Charley. Fremont Peak itself is beautiful, its chapparal terrain glowing green from the prolonged rains that rescued California from severe drought this winter and spring, scattered with cloud-gray rocks of the perfect size and grippy roughness to scramble around on, and the view from it is just spectacular: sprawling agricultural fields on one side, Monterey Bay on the other.
The rest of the retreat group spent their last day in Salinas at the Steinbeck Center, the Steinbeck House, and the Garden of Memories where Steinbeck and many of his family members are buried. I didn’t make it to Salinas with the group, having to return to work for the day, but I did visit the Steinbeck Center and House earlier on the first day of the trip since I was free. Unfortunately, I ran out of time to make it to the Garden of Memories before I was due to join the retreat.
I didn’t take many pictures during the trip; I was in retreat mode and in the mood to mostly leave my electronics put away so as to lose myself in the beauty and spirit of these places, unfiltered, unmediated. But I did chronicle my own visit to the Steinbeck Center and the Steinbeck House in Salinas and our day touring Monterey and Pacific Grove. Here are a few photos, below, in addition to the ones above.
It was such a lovely week, and I’m still enjoying the afterglow. Thank you, older, newish, and brand-new Odyssey Tour friends! ‘Til we meet again…
* See my profile of Julia Ward Howe, whose Battle Hymn of the Republic provided the title of The Grapes of Wrath, and which is printed in the opening pages of the novel
*Listen to the podcast version here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes
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