Steinbeck - Part 2

Updated: Jul 27, 2019

“Steinbeck (con't)”

By Brian Brecht & Tom Dietz

(*If you missed Part-1, you can find it here.)

***Our Story continues***

After paying the ubiquitous entry fee, we were stopped by what appeared to be a kindly grandmotherly docent who asked if we’d been to the Museum before. We politely said no, we were first-timers; did she have any tips for approaching the exhibits? After a brief overview, she took a breath, we thanked her, and then, well, then she told us to hold our horses, as she was not done with us. It’s always fun to feel like you’re a kid again, being told to sit still and stop interrupting.  Based on her frown, I suspect our in-unison outburst chuckle did not help matters. She finally released us after several more minutes of lecturing. I’ll note that the folks waiting behind us were allowed to pass unmolested. Must have been our good looks.

Once over the threshold, we were immersed in everything Steinbeck, his early years and family, to key displays capturing the essence of many of his masterpieces. Each display attempted to bring a story to life with key objects recreated or scenes played from movies based upon his stories. We both felt more connected to the writer, the museum doing fine justice to this talented man. Around every corner though we kept expecting Rocinante but had to continually temper our excitement and get back to the exhibit in front of us.

B. – The museum was, I’m happy to say, not what I expected. The exhibits, instead of following “the man” in some chronological order, actually followed his books, and did so in the timeline that he wrote them. So though it wasn’t specifically following Steinbeck’s journey, as each book unfolded, the exhibit pointed out and accentuated what Steinbeck was doing, where he lived, the towns he was immersed in, and how those people and places influenced his words. It was eye-opening for me to better understand how he took people and events in his life and brought them to life with the fictional characters.

There was a somewhat comical and perhaps even embarrassing moment right at first when

we entered into one of the first exhibits devoted to “East of Eden”. There, along with quotes from the book and images of life in that era, was a poster from the TV adaptation of the book.

There, Jane Seymour stared out from under her stunning dark hair, wearing a white corset, beckoning any man to “join her in Eden”.

I confessed to Tom, I remembered that image as a young teen and that she helped me through puberty. We both just shook our heads, laughed and moved on, but not without both looking back over our shoulders.

A great quote we came across as the displays highlighted his youth, was from Steinbeck himself which read “I guess there are never enough books,” and in a letter to a friend he described books as “one of the few authentic magics our species has created”.

For me, having never been a reader when I was young, this seemed to hit home as I realized what I love about books is the escape, the transformation of inhabiting a character in a book when I read it. If that isn’t magic, I don’t know what is.

We continued, now in possession of that small piece of magic. Having read “Travels with Charley,” we had become Steinbeck in those words. But, still, for us, we needed to see that truck to make it real. And, at each corner, it eluded us.

T. – Finally, and the last stop in the museum, we came to the object that immediately brought substance to Travels With Charley, Rocinante. It was exactly as we imagined it, and Brian said as much. Beautifully restored, and with a not-so-realistic-looking Charley impersonator peering from the front cab, “Rocinante” looked so inviting, ready to hit the road again and conjure up new adventures and stories from America. It was actually hard to pull ourselves away from the damned truck, like looking forlornly at a place that captures your imagination but you know in your heart you’ll likely never see again.  Peering from all angles we discussed all of Rocinante’s attributes and even today, could see how inviting an adventure would be in such a vehicle.

B. – It was somewhat strange to finally come across the object of our quest. As Tom and I passed all the various exhibits, we were genuinely interested in all of the displays we found. But it was tangible, our desire to keep moving, to look at Of Mice and Men and say, “Oh, yes, I see, very interesting…” all while knowing inside we were saying “Keep going!” Now here it was, and we were transfixed.

Why should a pick-up truck hold so much fascination? Why did we stand and stare for almost as long as we had been in the entire museum? It was the magic, that transportation. It wasn’t the truck itself, but it was the realization that those experiences had centered around it. From the front seat, getting lost in an early winter on the east coast, to the back of the camper where Steinbeck entertained friends, guests, himself, and, not to be forgotten, Charley. Where, in Steinbeck’s own words, he would find “…a reknowledge of my own country, of its speeches, its views, its attitudes and its changes…” It was through this truck that those words had somehow helped me through that troubling time. It was now all very real.

Sadly, at some point, we realized there was nothing more to see. We would each take away with us what Rocinante had brought to us, and now we each had something more.

T. – Once outside, we persuaded a cute British tourist to snap our photo in front of the Museum, and then headed down the main thoroughfare to admire the Art Deco period buildings and find chow.

But first a distracting antiques shop lured us in to peruse old straight razors, typewriters, and all forms of old Americana.  It was another way, like the museum, to take a look back in time. Nothing chose us to bring it home, even though we could have fit up to a small piano in the plane.

An inviting local brewery beckoned, but only for the food, as a good beer was out of the question (8 hours bottle to throttle).  When we asked the friendly laid-back waitress what was good, she smiled and said her job was to make sure everything was good.  Everything was. I’m sure it didn’t hurt her attitude that there was barely a soul to serve on a Sunday afternoon.

A brief walk to town center brought us to the only taxi in sight. Like in a Norman Rockwell painting, the driver and two buddies were leaning on the taxi, presumably solving the world’s problems, or at least complaining about them. As soon as we got within 10 feet the buddies evaporated without a word, and the driver said, “Where to?”  Well at least this time we all understood where we were headed. As soon as we’d said “Salinas airport please”, our driver, wielding choice explicatives, launched into what his town had become – how it would never recapture its glory days and why does everything have to change. We vehemently agreed, and that seemed to calm him.