It's a funny thing about California: everyone who lives there sooner or later experiences the feeling of having arrived too late. The man who tired of shoveling snow in Albany and settled six months ago in Arid Acres to water his lawn and tend his barbecue looks around one day and wonders what his valley was like before that freeway ran through the middle of it. And his neighbor down the street, who moved West in the '50s, muses idly on what the air might have smelled like before the big war. And even the native son, as they used to call him, who has lived with unrelenting change for more of his life than any other kind of American, is overcome at one point or another with a fleeting sense of a time he never knew. For a moment he wonders, what was it like before the turn of the century, before gold, before the Spanish?
In a way, the tourist, unencumbered by thoughts of what might have been, has a better eye for what is—and what is is still a magnificent bounty. And nowhere in California is that truer than in Monterey County. Yet the visitor traveling the Disneyland-Golden Gate Bridge route with a stopover at the golfers" Valhalla on the Monterey Peninsula, where the U.S. Open will be played next week, is likely to miss most of it. There is wild, uninhabited coastline alongside the hypercultivated resorts of the very rich: there are two ranges of mountains, the warm, brown, comfortable inland Gabilans and the fogbound, pine-covered Santa Lucias of the coast: there are arid valleys where cattle stand during the heat of the day in the black shadows of live oaks; and there are plains where rows of spiky artichokes, thriving on damp salt air, march off to the horizon. There are exploding cities like Salinas and rehabilitated cities like Monterey and sleepy farm towns like Castroville. There are lettuce fields delineated by eucalyptus windbreaks, and at noon in the quiet courtyard of a 200-year-old Spanish mission there are poppies—matilija or Santa Barbara, they are called. They have floppy petals, like crumpled white silk gauze around a starched golden pompon center, and they move slightly on their long slender stems in the soft breeze while a fountain splashes nearby.
This month, though, golf is what matters, and the golf that matters is on the Monterey Peninsula, a small neck of land that juts into the Pacific at the south end of Monterey Bay. The road that approaches the peninsula from the south, along the coast, is State Highway 1 or the Big Sur highway. If you were to take France's Grande Corniche and Italy's Amalfi Drive, add another 50 miles or so and remove virtually all evidence of human habitation, you would have an approximation of the Big Sur highway. One drives it slowly, hugging the edge of the continent, stealing nervous glances, whenever the twisting road allows, at a shoreline that is over the shoulder and sometimes a thousand feet straight down. Streams cascade down abrupt canyons to the sea and eagles float over bald mountain ridges, while through mile after mile of grandeur only a hitchhiker here and there serves to remind the bedazzled eye of things measured to a human scale.
Determinedly picturesque Carmel-by-the-Sea, at the northern end of the highway, is not only built to human scale, it is even slightly miniaturized. Conceived as a Catholic vacation retreat before the turn of the century, it is now a year-round resort of the well-off and the retired. Architecturally, Carmel owes a lot to the old woman who lived in a shoe, but in temperature and temperament it resembles an English seaside resort. Taking walks, wearing tweeds and sitting by fires are a large part of what there is to do.
California is much better at displaying its natural treasures than its man-made ones. Point Lobos, a 1,250-acre state preserve of cypress and rocks, crashing surf and quiet tide pools, lies just a few artichoke fields south of Carmel on a small headland best known to scientists and photographers. An unusual convergence of cold and warmer waters makes Point Lobos hospitable to 300 plant and 250 bird and animal species; and California sea otters, once nearly extinct because of worldwide trade in their skins now dive for food in the offshore kelp beds or float on their backs, only their small, pretty faces showing above the water, sucking on crabs and doing barrel rolls to wash away the shells. The patterns of erosion in the boulders and the hundred-foot-long tendrils of kelp that snake their way in and out of tiny coves with the surge and wash of each swell have drawn the cameras of Edward Weston and Ansel Adams, yet of all California's natural attractions Point Lobos is among the least celebrated.
Across the peninsula from Carmel, or, figured another way, seven golf courses and a couple of states of mind north, is the city of Monterey. Historically, and still today, Monterey is the center of life on the coast of the county. It is a small city divided by an ancient Army installation, the Presidio. On one side is Old Monterey, where antique Spanish colonial and American territorial government buildings serenely endure the pounding of thousands of sneakered tourist feet, where the two-century-old adobe Custom House faces out to sea alongside Fisherman's Wharf with its boiled crabs and its shellacked slices of redwood burl that say things like "Kwicherbelyakin." Not long ago Alvarado Street in Old Monterey was a rowdy, neon-lighted place crowded with long narrow bars where fishermen, laborers and soldiers from Fort Ord did their drinking, where Spanish was spoken as often as English and Mexican songs wailed from the jukeboxes. Today energetic urban renewal has turned Alvarado into a rather elegant shopping area with sedate little trees in concrete tubs and off-street parking and all those things that swell the bosoms of Downtown Merchant Associations.
There is only one bar now, a tidy little place with a bowling machine, called My Attic. Buck Tomasello, the daytime bartender, says, "People from all over are always coming in here asking me, 'Where is the street with all the Mexican bars?' And I say, 'This is it. They're all gone.' See that bank down at the corner? That's where Johnny Garcia's was." Buck's shift ends at four o'clock, and he is off with his pals for a quick eight ("Number 4 is a par-3 that slows us up, so we skip it") at the Del Monte municipal golf course. He waves as he steps out onto Alvarado and the night man ties on his apron.
The history, the hotels, the banks and J.C. Penney's are Old Monterey. New Monterey, on the other side of the Presidio, is Cannery Row.
Between 1920 and 1945 this six-block-long street at the bottom of a hill on the very edge of Monterey Bay housed about 30 prosperous fish canneries and fertilizer plants, as well as assorted saloons, flophouses and restaurants. At the height of the sardine season the morning blasts of the cannery whistles drew thousands of people from their houses on the hill down to the huge corrugated-iron warehouses, where, in the midst of groaning, screeching machinery, they cleaned, cooked and canned billions of the little silver fish. Even in those days there was more than one way to look at Cannery Row. John Steinbeck, who observed its life from the windows of Ed Ricketts' Pacific Biological Laboratories, called it "a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream." On the other hand, a forward-thinking and probably downwind Montere√±o called it "an unsightly and ill-smelling marine abattoir."
On April 30, 1945 the sardine fleet arrived at Cannery Row with the biggest one-day catch on record—9,000 tons. After that the sardines were gone, for good. Gradually almost all the canneries closed down and the saloons and flophouses moved elsewhere. For the next few years nothing except a fire that destroyed several of the empty cannery buildings occurred to mar the quiet. In the late '50s, however, the first stirrings of a second life began. A couple of small art galleries, a coffee house or two, a Polynesian restaurant on the end of a wharf signaled the birth of Cannery Row as Tourist Mecca ("Find out what was fact, what was fiction in Steinbeck's writings...perhaps even go into a working cannery...").
There is no stink, no grating noise anymore, but the sea lions still lounge on the rocks of the breakwater near the Coast Guard station, weaving their fat brown necks from side to side and croaking hoarsely at the incoming tide, and there is still a strange quality to the morning light reflected from the gray-white walls of the empty canneries. The wires from weathered old telephone poles are crisscrossed against the pale sky, the air smells of salt and the seagulls perched on the ridgepoles screech, awaiting the day's first refuse from the restaurant kitchens.
The best way to dispel ghosts in Monterey County is to drive inland. Stop in Castroville (The Artichoke Center of the World) and have a fine, dollar breakfast at Bing's Diner, which until 1948 was a trolley car on Arlington Avenue in Berkeley and now has pink tieback curtains in its windows. Or dry the fog-chill from your bones in the sunbaked Salinas Valley. A hundred miles long and 10 miles across, the Salinas is the topographic and economic backbone of Monterey County. Its history can be read in its crops—first, grazing for cattle, then, with irrigation, alfalfa, barley and sugar beets, and, finally, with refrigerated transportation, lettuce, "the green gold of the Salinas," three crops of it a year. You remember the valley. It is where James Dean and Julie Harris cavorted in the ice house. The town of Salinas at the northern end of the valley was 4,000 souls in the days of East of Eden. Now it is a light industrial, subdivided and mobile-housed city of 60,000, and still growing.
When Steinbeck reached the Salinas, his birthplace, during his Travels with Charley, he found that "what it is is warped with memory of what it was," and so he did one last sentimental thing before fleeing eastward. He climbed to the top of Frémont Peak, the highest point in the gold-brown Gabilans. From there, looking south, he could see the length of his long valley and, looking north, the blue of Monterey Bay. From that height nothing had changed, or ever would.
As he remarked to his companion: "In the spring, Charley, when the valley is carpeted with blue lupines like a flowery sea, there's the smell of heaven up here, the smell of heaven."