Saturday, April 15th, 2017
I head north from Paso Robles, where I dropped off a troupe of long-distance cyclists this morning, via the 101 back towards the San Francisco Bay Area. My route takes me through Salinas and other old stomping grounds of John Steinbeck. I want to visit one site I missed when I was here last time on a cultural tour following his life and writings, and to revisit another site more thoroughly. On the way, I stop for gas in a little agricultural town called San Ardo, having forgotten to fill up in Paso Robles. I’m glad I have to stop here, because this little town reminds me of happy times visiting so many other small towns rather like this on road trips. I stop into the cafe to fill my thermos with coffee and buy some cookies for the road, and have a chat with the friendly young man who works here, in English and in Spanish.
The town’s appearance, too, is probably not unrecognizable from Steinbeck’s time. Who knows, he may have passed through here, it’s not far from his old home territory. The people who live and work here are in many ways Steinbeck’s people, those who work the soil so that we can eat but who we have often long neglected and abused. He made it his business for much of his career to illustrate the lives, circumstances, and sometimes desperate plights of these people, often immigrants and refugees fleeing hard times in their places of origin, for the often oblivious American public.
I continue an hour north to Salinas, where I visit Steinbeck’s grave in the Garden of Memories at Abbott St and East Romie Ln. Here he lies surrounded by his family. His headstone is the one decorated with tributes: coins, pens, and one pine cone (artfully placed by nature or a fan, I don’t know). You may recognize some of the names from his novel East of Eden: Hamilton, the family name of his mother; John Ernst, the first and middle name of the author and his father; and Olive Hamilton, the schoolteacher daughter of Samuel Hamilton and the author’s mother. It’s pretty here today, very green, with tiny white daisies and various kinds of yellow flowers blooming everywhere.
East of Eden is a double Cain-and-Abel story about two pairs of brothers in which one brother enjoys the love of his father with seeming little effort, and the other is jealous and driven to despair when his strenuous efforts to win that same love are rejected. Steinbeck wrote this novel for his sons and in hopes of creating the Great American Novel. It is an excellent novel, great in parts, but not the Novel. If any of his works are contenders for this mythical status, he had already written it as The Grapes of Wrath.
Then I return to Fremont Peak, which Steinbeck ascended during his Travels with Charley to take in the broad view of his homeland from above. I plan to climb it from the bottom or as near as I can get to it, but find that Fremont Peak State Park is surrounded on all sides by private property until you’re well up the mountain. It was hard to tell this from Google Maps and from my print California maps. The park brochure, which is available free for visitors at the main parking lot near the center of the park and online, contains the map showing the entire trail system. I decide to walk them all, in an order which will take me winding counter-clockwise all around the park, leaving the loop about two-thirds of the way around for an out-and-back to the peak. I’m guessing Steinbeck would likely not have walked this long way up and around. His health was not great: he had long-term heart problems and was a lifelong heavy smoker, which seems to have aged him more than necessary for his years.
I backtrack to Doe Flat Day Camp near the park entrance and park my car there. As you’re entering the park on Juan Bautista Road, Doe Flat is to the left of the Fremont State Park entrance sign. The trailhead to Cold Springs Trail, on which I commence my hike, is across the street from the campground and through the gate, unmarked except on the park map. I had missed it when I first entered the park since it lacks a sign and because it’s so overgrown. Only a little, narrow, blurred strip of dirt marks the way that evidently few hikers take. It’s green and lush here, a gift of the winter and early spring heavy rains that ended our drought of the last few years. Miner’s lettuce, wood fern, thistle, various grasses, and maidenhair proliferate and revel in the joy of living. The trail is obliterated in many places by fallen trees, the less fortunate recipients of the storms. At one point, I use my head as a battering ram to get through the branches that my hands are already too full to push aside. I’m grateful for my new red sun hat, broad-brimmed and made of a not too heavy but very sturdy synthetic material. It keeps my hair free from the tangling twigs and my shoulders free from scratches. Its bright color will also serve to mark the site of my remains if I am one of those few Californians that make a meal for a mountain lion every two decades or so, if such an enterprising feline takes advantage of my aloneness on this solitary trail. My shins and ankles, however, are shit out of luck.
Except when it comes to poison oak. I keep an eagle eye out for it; I still have scars from the last time I was here. It’s much easier to see now since the leaves have grown in thick and it’s already starting to redden in some places. I’m also alone this time, and hence undistracted.
Suddenly, the path changes. It’s broader and sandier, and the mossy oaks abruptly give way to manzanita, toyon, and coyote brush. Now I can look up and out at the view because the growth is lower and sparser here, and because the poison oak clearly doesn’t like this dry and sunny side of the hill. Soon after the change, I come to a clearing where a signpost marks the beginning of Valley View Trail where Cold Springs ends at a fire road crossing. There are two weathered picnic benches to my left and a beautiful stand of purple lupine to my right. I veer left on the fire road, then right to continue on to Valley View Trail. The oaks have reappeared, interior live, scrub, and poison. I pick my way with great care again, but the trail is so overgrown and the fallen branches so tangled with it that I’m not sure if I successfully avoid all danger. I’ll be sure to take a hot shower with a scrub brush and plenty of soap when I get home.
The wildflowers are not so thick now in most spots, though I can see the dried and shriveled evidence that they were not long ago. They may soon enjoy a second bloom from the straggler storm that passed through recently. Those still here are just beautiful, white, pink, yellow, purple, and blue. I see waxy yellow California buttercups, blue witch and blue-eyed grass, purple shooting stars and larkspur, golden poppies, white woodland stars, and many, many more. A woodpecker knocks overhead as other birds chatter, squawk, trill, and call with that ‘wheeeeeew’ sound that accompanies old-time comedy scenes.
I cross a little road and Valley View Campground, a sweet little spot. On the other side, Valley View Trail becomes a much wider and well-traveled one, and I start meeting hikers now and again. A pair of lovers frolic and laugh somewhere nearby, fitting in perfectly with the bird chorus. A barbed wire fence running along the right of the trail marks the park boundary.
I arrive at the parking lot near Oak Point Campground where the Peak Trail begins, which I ascended with the John Steinbeck Odyssey Tour group in March. There’s a large sign framed in stone which tells the story of Captain John Charles Fremont’s run-in with Prefect Manuel Castro and General Jose Castro in 1846. It tells it as if it’s a heroic tale on Fremont’s part, but it reads to me like an act of arrogance and a provocation to war, waltzing into another’s country with an army and without a by-your-leave then planting your nation’s flag in their soil. His flagpole blew down, however, and the superstitious general hightailed it out of there with his soldiers before any fighting started. The roof of this monument has likewise fallen and a shirtless beefcake is reflected in the sign as I take a picture. The circumstances of this moment make me chuckle.
In all seriousness, though, this is a beautiful spot, conducive to much loftier thoughts and feelings. I climb to the peak, and the view is incredible. It’s even greener than it was in March, and now it’s wildflower season. The Monterey Bay spreads out ahead and a little my left, and the crop fields grow to my right. The Salinas Valley region is one of the most productive agricultural areas of California. The sight of Fremont’s flagpole here at the top has been marked by another, much sturdier one, and a brass plaque set in concrete, which tells the tale even more heroicly. I chuckle again as my reflective mood is broken.
Then I remember my travel companions gathered with me on the last occasion which brought me here, and sigh. I miss them.
At the foot of the Peak Trail, I turn right onto Carmen’s Trail, which zigzags thinly through slopes thickly covered with softest greenery and more thistles, which gently sting my ankles. It’s lovely and cooler here in the shade of taller oaks, which need to reach higher for the sun in this little canyon. The narrow creek bed running along its bottom is already dry. On the other side, the trail ascends a grassy, open hillside, the green just barely beginning its Midas’ touch transformation into the gold of summer. It’s inset with jewel-bright lupine and poppies throughout.
Carmen’s Trail ends at a little pointy shingle-sided building of quality construction, handsomely finished in varnished wood and teal paint, perhaps a cabin. I turn right just before I reach it and take Tony’s Trail, which returns me in short order to Doe Flat. I dine on some leftover pizza which I had set to warm in its foil on the sunny dashboard. It’s more delicious than it was when it was fresh at last night’s dinner.
It’s been a delightful day.
* 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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