Trying Really, Really Hard to Think of a Good Title: Salinas, Woody Guthrie, and San Simeon


American Flag, Best Western parking lot, Salinas, CA.

July 11 & 12th: Trying Really, Really Hard to Think of a Good Title: Salinas, Woody Guthrie, and San Simeon

Disclaimer: This is a long and discursive story that you may want to skip if reading rambling writing trying to figure out what the writer means is not your thing. I am writing this, and even I am not sure what I mean. The trip updates and earlier, funnier films will come at the end.

I have always imagined Salinas through John Steinbeck’s eyes, and when I have passed through, especially on the train, I have tried to identify the mountains he describes. The farm fields and route to Monterey are part of his writing, too, as are the old houses in Salinas proper. When I imagined staying here tonight, I was imagining the Salinas of Steinbeck’s time, a farming town with a few airs of civilization, I suppose. What we actually found when we escaped from the terrible roads was not at all what I expected, and I don’t even know how to write about it, but I feel I should. Ships and captains of ships are wary of shoals, but I am not the captain of this ship or this trip. It seems the trip is the captain of us, taking us where we are supposed to go, but not necessarily because it will be fun or relaxing. Still, there are lessons to learn here, and I have always thought the worst of my bad trips taught me the most important lessons, so that is worth bearing in mind. This is not a bad trip, but it is less relaxing than I might have imagined, and that is fine. I feel like we’ve been gone for months instead of days and weeks, and we are farther out than we have been before.

That’s why I shouldn’t have been surprised when we pulled into Salinas. We were looking for a refuge, a place that was not The Park With No Entrance, but instead we took the turn marked “Historic Downtown Salinas/Steinbeck Center” and found ourselves in a place I did not recognize. I don’t mean that it had changed so much since I had been there last as I had never been there, but it was so different from what I expected. I was expecting a glossy center and some tasteful hotels, hopefully with a pool for me to do laps, and a lovely restaurant for dinner. Instead, we drove into a town center that was like the town had died years ago, and only a husk of Victorian houses, municipal buildings, and historical markers remained.

As I try to describe this, I will need to navigate some shoals, for there were things I saw that I do not understand, and I do not want to misunderstand and make myself sound anymore racist or classist or prejudiced than I already am. I want to tell the thing precisely, just like it was, but even as I rehearse the words in my mind I worry that they can be taken out of context, or make me sound like I am sitting here casting judgment on the people I saw or the town. “That is not what I meant at all,” I can cry, so it is best to tread carefully here, and to begin with the caveat that I realize we all use stereotypes and make snap judgments not based on experience but onperceived “truths.” I was an anthropology major, like Kurt Vonnegut, and I learned that culture by nature is ethnocentric, and we all secretly believe we are the only real or normal people, and only education and experience can combat this. And we did not get out and talk to the people we saw, as Steinbeck might have. Seeing the homeless man slowly wheeling his cart when we got lost in a suburban neighborhood, we did not stop to talk to him, much less park our Rocinante in the nearby park for the night as Steinbeck would have. We are not those people, however much we would like to be, and while we loved reading Cannery Row on our honeymoon and laughing with Mack and the boys, when we encounter Mack and the boys in real life, we tend to give money and move on.

I could go on here, but these posts seem to get too long too easily, and I do think what we saw is worth relating. As with our attempt to stay in Lodi, we had no way of knowing where anything in Salinas was, so we drove in circles. We passed boarded up houses, fancy Victorians in various states of disrepair, although a few were restored, and one even had a lending library box in front of it. There was a curious absence of chain stores in the downtown area, and of hotel or motels. Then we saw an older style Motor Lodge kind of a place, The John Steinbeck Inn, or some name like that. I was immediately elated, gratified that my decision to push on to Salinas was being justified by the universe. Robert rolled the bus into a turn, and we headed in, me already imagining a place like where we stayed in the Delta with a pool and perhaps even some cool Steinbeck stationary. It looked like that sort of place. But when we pulled in, we noticed something strange: there were groups of men standing on the balconies and in the courtyard or lounging in front of the rooms. There was something else, too, piles of work boots and clothing outside of the rooms, dusty even at a glance. I quickly realized what we were seeing, “People are living here,” I said. We made a slow turn through the courtyard and everyone stared. What was this hippie bus doing here? Both of us agreed almost without words: this place wasn’t going to work.

But why? Why did we feel so uncomfortable, and what does it say about us? I find it hard to explain, but when we discussed it later, we both felt like the day turned sour in that moment, the dashed expectations of finding easy and safe harbor here in Salinas but also coming face to face with our own privilege. Robert said that night that it was the fact that they were all men that made him uncomfortable. “I know nothing would have happened there, and we would have probably been fine,” he told me, but he was uncomfortable. “I just didn’t want to deal with it.” In that word “it” is a volume. What was the it that spooked us? Did we not want to share our space with farm workers? Are we racists? Classists? Sexists? Normally, I would say we work hard not to be, but this brief experience makes me question that. I know I thought that we would make everyone uncomfortable, that it would be strange for us to stay there, but I also know that what we saw was part of America we rarely see, how our food makes it to the table, the folks living crowded in motel rooms because they don’t have housing not being art of our lived experience, and yet we take the fruits of this labor for granted.

After we exited the Motor Lodge, we drove in circles through the downtown. It was, as I said, a place that felt beat down. There were people walking around, true, but they were mostly women carrying cell phones and smoking, white women, generally. They were just ordinary women, but the smoking alone made them stand out. As we turned corner after corner in our fruitless hunt for the Salinas we had imagined, palpable poverty was everywhere, from Social Services offices to one area of people living in tents next to a row of boarded up houses. I realized that scene at least was familiar: we see that in LA, too, but here it reminded me more of what I’ve seen in Mexico, people living in makeshift shacks, under tarps.

We all live in bubbles, and one thing we have noticed on this trip is how much of a bubble LA is. We live surrounded by diversity, but in general people seem to agree, and we rarely encounter folks who are very different from us, so all the long way down from the north our various encounters with people outside of our normal sphere have been interesting. All the Trump supporters in Northern California continually surprised Robert. “It’s like there are only two kinds of people here, “ he said, “MAGA people and Bernieheads.” This did not surprise me, as Oregon is like that, hippies and rednecks, sometimes mixing the two strains together. I reminded Robert that we don’t know these people, that they could believe anything, that we are making snap judgments based on bumper stickers, but in the dirt spattered cars of Nor Cal, there is a pattern: Bernie stickers on the Prius with Coexist or Trump stickers on the pick up trucks. Yet these people do coexist, and whenever I am up there, I know I am not a local.

But now our bubble was punctured further. I felt an inchoate anger at myself for not being comfortable and at this country. Many years ago Woody Guthrie wrote a song about a plane crash not far from here, in Los Gatos canyon, where the migrant farm workers who died were only reported as “deportees.” “Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards? Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit? To fall like dry leaves and rot on my topsoil, and be known by no name except deportee.” It’s interesting that Woody says “my” topsoil, and I’ve thought about that quite a bit. In the end, it is my topsoil, I guess, just as this country is my country, too, and whenever someone says we should just leave because of what is happening politically, I am always quick to respond: “This is my country, too, and I love it, and I am not leaving.” But Woody’s question remains, and it is worth asking: Is this the best way?

One way to get to know a town is to get lost in it, which is what we did. In any direction the town edges out and then ends abruptly in farm fields where there are crops being planted, growing, or being harvested. We criss-crossed the town from one side to another, getting stuck in an endless series of circles on the aptly named Circle drive, which actually was a circle and took us through an aging housing tract with neat bungalows and ranch homes. Children stopped to watch the bus pass, unsure what to make of us, and two women were particularly pleased to see us, smiling and waving as we rolled past. Every house seemed to have an enormous pick up truck and a neat garden, and if it wasn’t luxurious, it wasn’t the poverty we’d seen in the downtown, but there was still no place to stay.

We were about to head towards Monterey when we came across a string of hotels by the highway, the kind of places I usually avoid. There was a Super 8, Comfort Inn, Holiday Inn Express, and where I am now, the Best Western Suites. This is an anonymous place, interchangeable, and right next to the highway, but it seemed like a good place to land, and it was. We got cleaned up, and slept in a bed, although we both agreed that the Bus is even more comfortable. The sun is rising now, and soon we will join the cars on the road, heading south again. I don’t know why I felt I needed to write about all of this or what it means, but it did feel like the trip was trying to say something even if I don’t know what it is. I also know I would like to come back here, to really get to go to the Steinbeck center, which we missed by driving in circles for so long. The moments of driving through Salinas will stay with me, though, for a long, long time.


Garage in Salinas, CA.

And yet I keep thinking: that is not what I meant at all. All the way out driving through the long, fertile Valley, through King City and Ardo and beyond, looking at the fields, I wondered about Woody’s words: Is this the best way? And if it is not, what then of our personal responsibility? I like to buy my produce in the grocery store because like everyone else I know, I suffer from busy-ness (please see excellent essay by Tim Krieder on this topic The Busy Trap).  I want to take responsibility for the plight of farm workers, for the immigration nightmare in this country, hell, for the country itself, and for the entire Earth, for that matter, but I feel so impotent. I have marched around more in the last few years—one of the reasons LA feels like a bubble—but I’ve been marching for years—what good does it do? I know there are things I can do, but I do give money and I do try, yet still in that motel parking lot and driving around Salinas, all I felt I could really do was bear witness and try to understand it. I try as an educator to make the issues I care about part of my curriculum, to actually make caring about issues part of the curriculum, never mind the issues in particular, but I am still filled with a stabbing anger and pain when I think about what we could have, what we should have, and in the we of me I would include all of my students with undocumented cousins, friends, parents, and those who are undocumented themselves, and all of the people who have been made to feel less than or to experience poverty, and that’s not to mention the dogs in the animal shelter and the sea turtles and the oak bark beetles and the….you see, it just gets exhausting, and I understand that (hence the disclaimer), but I do think we should try to pay attention, bear witness, and consider Woody’s question: is this the best way? (And yes, I know he was a Commie and that doesn’t work). If those Space X rockets could land like that, why can’t we make sure people have homes if we want to eat the fruits of their labor?

“We are those yuppies,” Robert said today as we were setting up camp. “What was your first clue?” I asked sarcastically. “Was it driving the Prius to the Whole Foods?” He just gave me that look. I told him as long as we didn’t build in shelves for our vinyl and get a solar record player, we might be OK, but I knew exactly what he meant. I realize all the ridiculousness of my privilege and this trip, and I think that was what Salinas was trying to say to me. And it was also to remind me of that other valley, the San Joaquin, and my father’s family. They were white, yes, but my father likes to tell his tales that his first words were in Spanish from growing up in the fields. I know my Aunt Janet picked cotton to buy my grandmother a pair of shoes she wanted, a story I can still hear her telling me. We may be those yuppies, but my father was not, and this is and always will be his bus in some way, so that means no solar record players.



Update: July 12th, San Simeon State Park, Washburn (you can’t reserve site specific here—arrive early. We like 201 and 202 up on the hill, but if you want a shower (and raccoons) and an easy walk to the beach, choose Creekside.

For those looking to avoid the long, rambling post, the short version starts here:


The Bus in San Simeon State Park, Washburn Campground, site 201 (the honeymoon site)

We started the day with a bit of fear and anxiety, topics I could write about at length, because we were a little afraid of the 101 and trucks and the cut to the coast. We have gone back and forth over the coastal range on this trip, and I get scared on the long downhill runs. But we were rolling, wheels under our butts, checklists completed, no parking brake on, and it was all good. We made good time—50 miles in 55 minutes, and the sheriff circling the gas station didn’t see a reason to stop us, although he passed by more than a time or two. Perhaps he was a Volkswagen enthusiast. Our count of VW vans stands at 35, so far, for those counting.

We were on the coast road cut, Highway 46, when it happened. Robert used a turn out to let the faster cars pass, high on the ridge, and there they were: motorcycles, a long rumbling line of them. “Are those?” Robert asked, and then I saw the red flag and the battered stuffed animal tied to one bike’s back, and the Penske moving truck to haul their gear. Yes, it was the Swedish Motorcycle Gang, and they had also detoured around the Big Sur slide. I fully imagine we will run into them again, that they may pull up at our house when we get home, and I only hope we can channel Joe’s nonchalance in dealing with them.

Rolling into San Simeon was like it always is, easy. This is a place of refuge for us, this fairly shitty campground with beautiful views, great hikes, and the beach with Turtle Head Rock, just as it has been for so many ears, ever since we landed here after being blown out of the desert in a wind storm and finding every campground full or closed until we arrived here. We went to Cambria to do some laundry, shopped for groceries, and got the bus set up. He’s running so well now (knocking wood), his engine almost purring but never losing his distinctive VW sound. Robert is finally not thinking about shifting and the clutch so much, the work of driving this old bus becoming muscle memory, and we are looking forward to relaxing here,going to Hearst beach, maybe Morro Bay, getting cookies in Cayucos, wandering the trails we know so well they fit into us like our own home.


Turtle Head Rock (we named it) in the fog

Now we are looking forward to home, but not because we aren’t having fun, or because we are uncomfortable. It is more that we are ready for the trip to be over because our cups runneth over. We have been blessed in so many ways on this trip, and for all the worry and anxiety, it has brought us to who we most want to be. I may not post again until we return because I don’t want to waste time on the beach looking for wifi, but rest assured that we are rolling safely, steadily, and always slowly towards the next trip.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Bonnie Uffman says:

    wow jenny!!!!!!!! what an amazing person you have become.
    sending my love.


  2. theswad says:

    Thank you, Jen, for bearing witness and asking the tough questions. Bearing witness. We’re all doing what we can (ya’ know), but it seems that many people in this country can’t even do this. I think you hit the nail on the head. If we bear witness and we are people of integrity, then we are called upon to not only take responsibility for the condition, but do something about it. Our government is designed to be representative, so, technically, we could all do something with our voices and votes. This still seems to work relatively well in California and other progressive states, but on a national level it has become completely meaningless. When the percentage of people for or against [insert national issue here] is the diametric opposite of the action taken by Congress, the White House, and, more and more, the Supreme Court, we are no longer a representative government. We are so far from “the best way” at this point I think even Woody Guthrie would be at a loss for words.

    Liked by 1 person

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