The Settings for the Stories: John Steinbeck’s Valley of the World
“I think that 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]
Writing to his friend George Albee in 1933 John Steinbeck described the landscape of Monterey County, California that would inform his most familiar and enduring work. Steinbeck’s “valley of the world” yielded characters, scenes, and stories derived from his intimate knowledge and careful observation of “all the little towns and all the farms and the ranches in the wilder hills.”
This article describes a 200-mile circular tour of Monterey County beginning in Salinas, jogging west on Highway 68 to Corral de Tierra, then heading back south through the Salinas Valley towards King City, over the steep wilderness of the Santa Lucias to the Big Sur Coast and Highway One, then turning north to the Monterey Peninsula and culminating at the summit of Fremont Peak. Although much has changed physically and socially since that time, visitors can still recognize many of the features that helped to shape the writer’s creative vision.
“The Salinas Valley is in Northern California. It is a long narrow swale between two ranges of mountains and the Salinas River twists up the center until it falls at last into Monterey Bay”. [East of Eden]
In these opening words of East of Eden, Steinbeck locates the bountiful agricultural valley carved by the 150-mile long Salinas River that today we celebrate as “Steinbeck Country.” The flanking mountain ranges rise steeply up open grass and chaparral-covered slopes to over 3,000 feet in altitude.
“I remember that the Gabilan Mountains to the east of the valley were light gay mountains full of sun and loveliness … The Santa Lucias stood up against the sky to the west and kept the valley from the open sea and they were dark and brooding — unfriendly and dangerous”. [East of Eden]
Beyond Steinbeck Country the Gabilans descend to the east into the great Central Valley featured in the Grapes of Wrath. Forming the rugged terrain of “Flight” in the west, the Santa Lucia Mountains plunge into the “hissing white waters of the ocean.”
In Steinbeck’s time, and still today, Salinas was the largest community in the county and the business center for one of the most prosperous agricultural regions in the nation.
“Salinas was the county seat and it was a fast growing town. Its population was due to cross the 2,000 mark at any time. … everyone felt that a brilliant future was in store for it”. [East of Eden]
Today the population exceeds 150,000, and sleek automobiles and powerful pick-up trucks have replaced the boxy, black Fords that lined Main Street early last century. Even though most of the 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.
Olive and Ernst 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 in 1919. In East of Eden, Adam Trask visits the residence when he:
“… turned off Main Street and walked up Central Avenue to number 130, (Note 2) the high white house of Ernest Steinbeck. It was an immaculate and friendly house, surrounded by its clipped lawn, and roses and cotoneasters lapped against its white walls”. [East of Eden]
As a teenager, Steinbeck composed stories in the front, gable-end attic bedroom. And where, while caring for his ailing parents in the mid-1930s, he also worked on chapters of The Red Pony and Tortilla Flat. The Valley Guild of Salinas has maintained the Steinbeck House since 1974 and operates a luncheon restaurant and boutique to raise money for local charities.
Many other buildings in Salinas also enjoy Steinbeck associations. He played basketball and attended his senior prom at West Alisal and Salinas Streets where:
“…in the old troop C armory the home Guard drilled, men over fifty . . . snapped orders at one another and wrangled eternally about who should be officers”. [East of Eden]
Around the corner at 242 Main, where in real life Mr. Bell kept a sharp eye on a sweet-toothed young Steinbeck, Cal and Abra:
“…went into Bell’s candy store and sat at a table. The rage was celery tonic that year. The year before it had been root-beer ice-cream sodas”. [East of Eden]
The power and wealth of the town was concentrated in four imposing bank structures at the intersection of Gavilan and Main Streets. In the Greek-porticoed former Monterey County Bank Kate deposited her money and Cal collected fifteen one-thousand dollar bills for his father. These buildings, now restaurants and antique stores, served the landowners and businessmen of the valley, many of whom were angered by the social commentary of The Grapes of Wrath. Although some families sustained their vendetta for many more years, in 1973 wider community anger began to mellow into civic pride with the unveiling of a bronze statue outside the renamed John Steinbeck Library at 350 Lincoln.
“What fun! Twenty years ago they were burning my books”. [Steinbeck: A Life in Letters]
By 1998, when the National Steinbeck Center opened at the head of Main Street, to celebrate all things Steinbeck in a series of galleries based on the themes of his major works, all was forgiven. The prodigal son had become the favorite son and his name and face now grace businesses and landmarks throughout the city.
But there are still areas of town that the Chamber of Commerce does not promote.
“Over across the tracks down by Chinatown there’s a row of whorehouses”. [East of Eden]
The Chinese population long ago moved on to a better life and the former gambling parlors and houses of ill repute around Soledad Street that fascinated the young Steinbeck and was the haunt of Cal in East of Eden have been replaced by tent encampments of the homeless.
South of Salinas in the fields bordering the Salinas River white concrete silos tower over orderly rows of produce. The silos mark the site of the former Spreckels sugar factory whose demand for beets stimulated a shift in the agricultural pattern of the valley from dry farming to the irrigation culture that dominates today.
“Claus Spreckles came from Holland and built a Sugar Factory and the flatlands of the valley around Salinas were planted to sugar beets and the Sugar People prospered”. [America and Americans]
This societal shift contributed to the demise of Ernst Steinbeck’s feed and grain store in Salinas and to his subsequent employment at the factory.
“Our father was working at the Spreckles Sugar Factory 5 miles from town”. [East of Eden]
Steinbeck senior arranged for part time work for his son in the company fields and as a night shift lab chemist in the sugar plant where he collected anecdotes related in Tortilla Flat and Of Mice and Men.
Corral de Tierra (The Pastures of Heaven)
“In a few minutes he arrived at the top of the ridge, and there he stopped, stricken with wonder at what he saw — a long valley floored with green pasturage on which a herd of deer browsed. Perfect live oaks grew in the meadow of the lovely place, and the hills hugged it jealously against the fog and the wind”. [The Pastures of Heaven]
The Spanish corporal’s image of the Pastures of Heaven remains along stretchs Corral de Tierra Road off Highway 68 a few miles west of Spreckels. While much of the valley floor is now lined with modern trophy houses it retains touches of the bucolic character described by Steinbeck in his first California novel.
“At the head of the canyon there stands a tremendous stone castle . . . like those strongholds the Crusaders put up. Only a close visit to the castle shows it to be a strange accident of time and water and erosion working on soft, stratified sandstone”. [“The Murder” from The Long Valley]
Looking east across the golf course a medieval castle appears to crown a distant bluff. Described as “a most extraordinary mountain” by British explorer George Vancouver in 1793, the Camelot-like towers and turrets fascinated a young Steinbeck who had been captivated by the tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table since he was nine years old. Even though the illusion evaporated when Steinbeck and his sister Beth approached the ramparts on their horses, his fascination with the setting remained. It forms the backdrop for several stories, including “The Murder” from The Long Valley.
“The floor of the Salinas Valley, between the ranges and below the foothills is level because this valley used to be the bottom of a hundred-mile inlet from the sea”. [East of Eden]
Continuing the journey south down the Salinas Valley, the view from River Road reveals scenes from the “The Chrysanthemums” and other stories from The Long Valley. Deep rich soil, year-round irrigation water from the Salinas River, and a temperate climate make this an extraordinarily productive agricultural region. Promoted as “The Salad Bowl of the World,” it grows much of the nation’s lettuce together with numerous varieties of produce, from asparagus to zucchini. Wine grapes, one of the first European crops cultivated by the Spanish mission fathers, support an increasingly important premium wine business.
“A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and clean. The water is warm too because it has slipped twinkling over the yellow sands in the sunlight before reaching the narrow pool”. [Of Mice and Men]
During college breaks Steinbeck worked Spreckels’ fields bordering the river banks near Mission Soledad. Here he met characters and recorded incidents that inspired Of Mice and Men. Generations of immigrants have toiled on this land. Mexicans succeeded the Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and Okie workers portrayed in The Grapes of Wrath. Today Hispanic culture is evident throughout the valley, from colorful street murals to mercados stocked with Mexican produce. With his portrayal of Pepe in “Flight” and later Mexican stories, Steinbeck was one of the first American writers to portray sympathetic Hispanic characters.
Carl Tifflin’s Red Pony ranch is a composite of features from his grandfather’s Hamilton Ranch in the foothills east of King City together with the barn and bunkhouse from his friend Max Wagner’s uncle’s ranch on San Juan Grade Road north of Salinas. The Monterey County Agricultural & Rural Life Museum in King City’s San Lorenzo Regional Park displays other structures and artifacts from those pioneering days.
San Antonio Valley
“Two flanks of the coast range held the valley of Nuestra Senora close, on one side guarding it against the sea, and on the other against the blasting winds of the great Salinas Valley”. [To A God Unknown]
South of King City, Jolon Road rises through the flanks of the coast range into the San Antonio Valley where the U. S. Army’s Fort Hunter Liggett has preserved open oak savanna country in a state of suspended animation. Described in To A God Unknown, this landscape appears little changed since Joseph Wayne arrived to claim his homestead.
“At the far southern end a pass opened in the hills to let out the river, and near this pass lay the church and the little town of Our Lady. . . . the church was often vacant now and its saints were worn”. [To A God Unknown]
The adobe walls and tiled roof of Mission San Antonio de Padua at Jolon have been rebuilt since Joseph Wayne’s time in one of the most historically unchanged settings in the California mission chain. Much of the funding for the restoration was provided by newspaper magnate W. R. Hearst, who commissioned architect Julia Morgan to design a Mission Revival-style ranch house overlooking the mission. Hearst sold the ranch to the army in 1941 and The Hacienda became a hotel for army brass. Steinbeck explored the area while recuperating from pneumonia at a nearby ranch.
Big Sur Coastline
Nacimento-Fergusson Road winds 24 miles west from Jolon over the razorback ridges of the Santa Lucias to the coast at Big Sur. Joseph Wayne traversed this rugged wilderness on his journey to join “the last man in the western world to see the sun” on the cliffs above Lucia. Steinbeck was familiar with the steep canyons, thick brush, and rattlesnakes of this country from a summer surveying job for the construction of Highway One in 1920. He used this experience to craft his description of the forbidding terrain where Pepe flees from his pursuers in “Flight.”
“About fifteen miles below Monterey, on the wild coast, the Torres family had their farm, a few sloping acres above a cliff that that dropped down to hissing white waters of the ocean. Behind the farm the stone mountains stood up against the sky”. [The Long Valley]
Traveling north along Highway One towards Carmel, the wild ocean vistas of the Big Sur mellow into a more gentle beauty at Point Lobos State Reserve.
“Treasure Island certainly has the topography and the coastal plain of Point Lobos”. [Cannery Row]
Here, on family outings with his sisters, Steinbeck loved to explore the rocky promontory that is said to have inspired features in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. After his death in 1968, Steinbeck’s family held a memorial service overlooking Whaler’s Cove.
Carmel and Carmel Valley
“And Carmel, begun by starveling writers and unwanted painters, is now a community of the well-to-do and the retired. If Carmel’s founders should return, they could not afford to live there, but it wouldn’t go that far. They would be instantly picked up as suspicious characters and deported over the city line”. [Travels with Charley]
In the mid-1930’s Steinbeck visited radical journalist Lincoln Steffens’s cottage in Carmel-by-the-Sea. His wife Ella Winter introduced him to labor activists who inspired In Dubious Battle. He also met George West, of the San Francisco News, who commissioned “The Harvest Gypsies” series of articles that led to The Grapes of Wrath. Although Robinson Jeffers was a favorite poet of both Steinbeck and his mother, and lived just a short distance from Steffens’s cottage, they did not meet until many years later.
Inland from the ocean, Carmel Valley was invaded by Mack and the Boys from Cannery Row to hunt for frogs in the riparian undergrowth of the Carmel River banks.
“The Carmel is a lovely little river. It isn’t very long but in its course it has every thing a river should have. It rises in the mountains, and tumbles down a while, runs through shallows, is dammed to make a lake, spills over the dam, crackles among round boulders, wanders lazily under sycamores, spills into pools where trout live, drops against banks where crayfish live. In the winter it becomes a torrent, a mean little fierce river, and in the summer it is a place for children to wade in and for fishermen to wander in. . . . It’s everything a river should be”. [Cannery Row]
By the time of Steinbeck’s visit in Rocinante, the valley was already showing signs of its future as a manicured golf and country club resort destination
“I went to Carmel Valley where once we could shoot a thirty-thirty in any direction. Now you couldn’t shoot a marble knuckles down without hitting a foreigner”. [Travels with Charley]
Garland Ranch Park in the heart of the valley is one of few stretches preserved in a state that might be familiar to the intrepid frog hunters.
“Pacific Grove and Monterey sit side by side on a hill bordering the bay. The two towns touch shoulders but they are not alike”. [Sweet Thursday]
North from Carmel, over the spine of the Monterey Peninsula, lie the towns of Pacific Grove and Monterey. Steinbeck and his friend Ed Ricketts shared important years in Pacific Grove. As Steinbeck notes, while the two towns sit side by side, they are polar opposites in character. In contrast to secular, bustling Monterey and its Spanish heritage, the city of Pacific Grove began as summer retreat for devout Methodists and evolved into an upright Victorian residential community. Many of these characteristics lingered into Steinbeck’s time.
While he poked fun at the town’s traditions, Pacific Grove played a significant role in his life. As a child he loved to explore the rocky coastline from a family vacation cottage on 11th Avenue. It was also home to Steinbeck and his first wife Carol from 1930 to 36 as they existed near to poverty while he learned his craft on the early books, including The Pastures of Heaven, To A God Unknown, Tortilla Flat, and The Red Pony.
“Probably nothing in the way of promotion Holman’s Department Store ever did attract so much favorable comment as the engagement of the flag-pole skater”. [Cannery Row]
The four story bulk of Holman’s towers over retail stores and restaurants along Lighthouse Avenue. Steinbeck purchased ink and many of his friends and characters also conducted business there. A stained glass window over the entrance features the Monarch butterflies satirized in Sweet Thursday. The flagpole skater’s platform was directly overhead. The building is being converted into residential condominiums.
“The Great Tide Pool on the tip of the Peninsula . . . is a fabulous place: when the tide is in, a wave-churned basin, creamy with foam, whipped by the combers that roll in from the whistling buoy on the reef. But when the tide goes out the little water world becomes quiet and lovely”. [Cannery Row]
The rocky headland protecting the Great Tide Pool below Point Pinos Lighthouse on the western tip of the peninsula was a place of sanctuary for Suzy and other characters from Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday. Here both Doc and Ed Ricketts collected specimens for their respective marine biology ventures. A squid donated by Ricketts is exhibited in the Pacific Grove Natural History Museum.
“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement, and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whorehouses and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses”. [Cannery Row]
Ocean View Boulevard between Monterey and Pacific Grove hosted the fish canneries that dominated Monterey commerce for 50 years. Epic tales of the lives and loves of the denizens of the area fill the pages of Cannery Row. After the canning industry collapsed with the disappearance of sardines in the early 1950s, business owners began fishing for tourist dollars instead. Hovdens, the last operating cannery, was converted into the popular Monterey Bay Aquarium in 1984 and is perhaps one gentrification that the writer and marine biologist Ed Ricketts would applaud.
“Western Biological . . . is a low building facing the street. There is a stairway going up the front of the building and a door that opens into an office where there is a desk piled high with unopened mail”. [Cannery Row]
Ricketts, with whom Steinbeck collaborated on the Sea of Cortez, was the model for sympathetic characters in several of the writer’s works. His Pacific Biological Lab, a simple two-story, weather-beaten building at 800 Cannery Row, was the setting for “Doc’s” Western Biological of Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday and the site of legendary parties and intense philosophical discussions.
“Lee Chong’s grocery, while not a model of neatness was a miracle of supply. It was small, and crowded but within its single room a man could find everything he needed or wanted to live and be happy — clothes, food, both fresh and canned, liquor, tobacco, fishing equipment, machinery, boats, cordage, caps, pork chops”. [Cannery Row]
There is little to interest Mac and the Boys across the street at today’s Wing Chong Market, the inspiration for Lee Chong’s Heavenly Flower Grocery. T-shirts and souvenir mugs just don’t deliver the punch of a quarter pint of “Old Tennis Shoes” whisky. And the strongest brew now offered at the former La Ida Café, now Austino’s Patisserie, next door is a rich cup of morning coffee.
“Monterey sits on the slope of a hill, with a blue bay below it and with a forest of tall dark pine trees at the back”. [Tortilla Flat]
Monterey occupies the shoreline where the Santa Lucia Mountains meet the ocean. Steinbeck paints his most colorful images of Monterey in Tortilla Flat where Danny and his gang of paisanos lived in idyllic poverty in pine-shaded canyons on the edge of town. Their high-spirited revels, recalling the exploits of King Arthur’s knights, appealed to readers seeking to escape from the realities of the Depression and gave Steinbeck his first popular success in 1935.
“Monterey is a city with a long and brilliant literary tradition. It remembers with pleasure and some glory that Robert Louis Stevenson lived there”. [Cannery Row]
The Spanish capital of California, Monterey has evolved from its role as a sleepy fishing port into today’s tourist Mecca. A benign climate attracted tourists as early as 1879 when Robert Louis Stevenson arrived in pursuit of his future wife Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne. A childhood meeting between Stevenson and Steinbeck’s neighbor Edith Wagner at the French Hotel inspired the story of “How Edith McGillcuddy Met RLS.”
While some scholars dispute the area just north of the county line around Watsonville as the location of the orchard strike of In Dubious Battle, the acres of heavy-laden apple trees that line Riverside Road every summer certainly fit the description.
The garden of the dignified white Victorian home of the author’s sister Esther Steinbeck Rodgers at the entrance to the Santa Cruz County Fairground on East Lake Road carries a plaque with a curious inscription. It proclaims that restoration was supported in honor of “John Steinbeck, Author and Graniterock Team Member.” On researching this claim, historian Carol Robles learned that as a youth Steinbeck worked on one of the company dredges featured in “Johnny Bear.”
“Fremont’s Peak, the highest point for many miles around. This solitary stone peak overlooks the whole of my childhood and youth, the great Salinas Valley stretching south for nearly a hundred miles…”. [Travels with Charley]
The final stop on our tour of Steinbeck Country leads up the eleven-mile winding road from San Juan Bautista to the top of 3169-foot sentinel Fremont Peak. From the summit Charley and his master bade farewell to Steinbeck Country before returning East and recalled how as a youth:
“I wanted to be buried on this peak where without eyes I could see everything I knew and loved. … And I remembered how intensely I felt about my internment”. [Travels with Charley]
Steinbeck’s ashes are buried in sight of the peak and beside his parents in the Hamilton Family plot in the Garden of Memories cemetery in Salinas. His grandparents Samuel and Elizabeth Hamilton and their children, all portrayed in East of Eden, rest nearby. Many of the writer’s detractors are buried here also, but while they have long been silent, Steinbeck’s voice lives on.
This article was previously published, in The Steinbeck Review, Volume 6, Number 1 (Spring 2009). It received a Gold Award in the BATW Best 2010 competition in the “Travel-Related Essay/Article in an Anthology” category.