A Breath of Fresh Air

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North America » United States » California » Monterey
July 17th 2007
Published: March 24th 2008EDIT THIS ENTRY

Highway 101Highway 101Highway 101

It truly is a scenic drive, although a bit dangerous at time. Looking north towards Bixby Bridge.
Like pioneers traveling westward on wagon train, we too are thrilled to finally see the Pacific Ocean. It's been a long time coming. The salty sea-breeze, the familiar wail of sea-gulls, the methodical crashing of waves up against the rocky shores below. In many ways the trip seems somehow complete even though we remain hundreds of miles away from our destination. It's almost too familiar. Where are the white sandy beaches, the sun-bronzed Californians hitting the surf? Outside the wind is whipping and it is cold. After pulling off the road at a public beach, we pull out our fleeces, head down to the surf and snap a few obligatory photos as if to say "Hurray! We made it! Here's proof! Now lets get back in the car before we freeze!" and high-tail it back to the parking lot, slam the car doors and turn on the heat. California, you are full of surprises.

Nothing about the drive across the state would suggest we'd need to bundle up today. I know, I know, the Pacific Ocean is cold. You don't need to tell me twice. I grew up far north of here where children could, through the power of youth,
Monterey BayMonterey BayMonterey Bay

Harbor seals sunning themselves just a few feet away from the docks.
splash around in the water all day, teenagers could survive long enough to win a dare, and where if, and only if, adults were feeling adventurous they would dip their toes in the water while walking along the shore line. Still, that doesn't apply to this part of the Pacific right? I mean California is like it's own separate country where the ocean just magically becomes warm and inviting, with turquoise waves and ... alright fine. Too many tourist brochures for this gal. That is apparently Southern California where we are apparently not, but you could have fooled me (actually, California, you did!).

Eating Up Political Nonsense

We just spent the past several hours driving past acres and acres of sunshine and agriculture. You name it, they grow it, and it isn't your middle-class white American out there working the fields either. I didn't stop to ask, but I have a feeling I would have encountered a lot more Jose's and Rodriguez's than I would have Smith's and Jones'.

There's been a lot of fuss in this country about immigration and job security (thankfully we've been far away from television and newpapers and have let the pundits rattle
Monterey PlazaMonterey PlazaMonterey Plaza

Just because we're not guests at this hotel doesn't mean we can't enjoy the views from the boardwalk.
on without us), but somehow Mexico always takes the blame. Not to digress into the political, but I just have this to say about that. Yes, there are fewer jobs but the ones being taken by foreigners are the ones being contracted out overseas, not the ones here on the homefront. I challenge all those nay-sayers fighting to build a giant wall across our country's border to go out and pick grapes or strawberries or lettuce out in the hot California sun for minimum wage day-in day-out. Oh? Not the type of job you were looking for? Then I guess we ought to be a little thankful for immigrant labor as it provides us with food in-season and year-round. As the number of American farmers dwindles steadily each year, I really can't believe that there's a whole stack of unanswered farm laborer applications from blue-collar workers collecting dust somewhere.

This region of California, this is where America's food comes from. The Midwest may provide the population with endless fields of corn, but most of that goes towards animal feed or processing. For fresh produce, California is the place to be. I've perused the produce section at my grocery store
Cannery RowCannery RowCannery Row

No longer active, but full of history.
many times, so I knew a lot of what I'd eaten came from this state, but I never realized just how much of California was devoted to agriculture. We drive an hour past orange groves hidden behind tall impenetrable fences before passing stands of almonds. Then there are the grapes, the strawberries, the artichokes. Just when I thought a field lay fallow, I looked across the way and saw four large trucks filled with carrots. It's incredible. Incidentally, most of this food won't be consumed within 200 miles of here, but will be packed up and shipped cross-country. There is really no telling whose plate those carrots will end up. If nothing else, we've learned to appreciate our local food supply a little bit more.

Big Sur at Last

And that brings us up to the moment we saw ocean, where the sight of sun-beaten work-weary farm hands was replaced by manicured picnickers and middle-aged RVer's leaning out their drivers side windows to take a picture. And us, layered in long-sleeves and fleeces condemning the desert for de-acclimatizing us to coastal weather so quickly!

This is a particularly rugged stretch of coastline, the road flanked on one side by the San Lucia Mountains and the Pacific Ocean on the other. The name "Big Sur" is derived from the Spanish designation el pais grande del sur, or big country to the south, which referred to this stretch of predominately unexplored and unnavigable land south of Monterey. It wasn't until the construction of Highway 1 and the Bixby Bridge that outsiders began frequenting this isolated area, providing inspiration for American writers like Hunter S. Thompson, Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller (who has a library named after him in the town of Big Sur). Even today building regulations ensure that the wild beauty of the area remains as undeveloped as possible.

Once we were here, there was no reason to do anything more. As all the recreational guides suggest, the best activity to partake of in Big Sur is to "Do Nothing." So we threw our camp chairs up under a tree and ate a cold dinner of forgettable food while soaking in the unforgettable view. Silence is the best conversation in an area like this, with the vast body of water stretching out towards the horizon and only the occasional cry of a gull breaking through evening air.

Of course it would only be too perfect if that's how we ended the day, but of course we still had to find a place to sleep and accommodation is far and few between on this stretch of road. The first two state parks we passed were full, and the third, Andrew Molera State Park, had campsites a 1/2 mile in. We drove as far as Salinas, hitting the 5-Star resort market before back-tracking and hoping that the walk-in site was still available. Sure, a 1/2 mile hike isn't anything, but we're not prepared for backcountry camping, so this meant about four separate trips carrying random necessities separately through the woods until we reached a grassy clearing a few minutes away from the beach. Lots of questionable looks were thrown our way by campers dutifully walking in with backpacks on their shoulders while we shifted and adjusted pillows and tent poles beneath our arms. But we did find a site, and that's what matters most.

The winds off the water were fierce and even though we were sheltered under a tree the tent was battered all night long. In the morning we packed everything back out to the car and strolled down to the beach for a while before heading up to town, buying a ridiculously priced cup of coffee, and heading out. It would perhaps have been nice to stay longer but we're starting to feel the pressure to move on. I'm not sure where it's coming from, but it's there--an almost imperceptible push forward that we can't shrug off.

Not Steinbecks Cannery Row

This is one of those times when I wish I'd read up on my literature a bit before we arrived as every other lamppost held a quote by John Steinbeck, and all I could think was "Steinbeck...I tried to read one of his books as a kid but there was so much swearing I felt naughty and never finished." Now those words evoke a forgotten era in America's past of tough-times and hard labor, an image that is completely asynchronous with this city today. Monterey is full of history, both literary and economic, but most importantly, Andras was born here and hadn't been back since he was a toddler, so this was a homecoming of sorts.

What was once a working-class town full of dead-fish is now a tourist filled boardwalk
Monetery BayMonetery BayMonetery Bay

Old canning facilities on Cannery Row
with up-scale boutiques, restaurants and souvenir shops. When the sardines were plentiful, mountains of fish would be brought up from the bay, shipped over the street in the elevated conveyors and gutted and canned by women.

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 whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses."
- John Steinbeck, Cannery Row

But overfishing and ecological forces led to a decline in the fish population and eventually the processing plants closed their doors for good, but many of the original facades and conveyors remain as testament to that time.

For us, visiting Monterey was a moment where we could turn our faces up towards the sun, close our eyes and breath in the scent of wild-fennel and seaweed before melting back down to earth in one of the landscaped city parks. I feel certain that of the many memories we have made thus far on our trip, today will be one of the more vivid, not because of anything in particular, just that we're happy. We dine on a terrace overlooking the bay and later walk hand-in-hand up and down the beach looking for mother-of-pearl. We joined the children and families gaping and pointing out to the rocks in the bay harboring sea-lions and pelicans. It still has that quality of light, the nostalgia and dream captured by Steinbeck over 50 years ago, but the only vacant lot left bore the fruits of wild blackberries and the weeds perfumed the air with the scent of anise.

Eventually we pulled ourselves away. Monetery no longer holds opportunities for penniless travelers to earn a decent wage so we, near penniless travelers, were forced to move on. The famous golf course on Pebble Beach was around the way, but the road along the shore required a toll which we weren't about to pay, so we instead went north to the Army housing base to try to find where Andras' parents were living back in the day. It's no longer an active base and many of the houses were boarded up and derelict so finding the right street and address proved impossible, but we were close enough that Andras recognized the telling architecture from childhood photos.

Our goal was to make it to San Francisco by tomorrow, but locating a campsite was also impossible. Apparently there is a large convention in town so every possible accommodation is booked for miles outside the city, but we were lucky in that a roadside motel had a last minute vacancy and we just happened to be walking into the office door minutes after the manager took the call (very good timing indeed and another car drove in behind us and were turned away). The door stuck, the lock required a bit of finessing and the internet was costly (so we didnt' bother) but we got a pretty good deal otherwise so settled in and watched a biography on California Governor Schwarzenegger and his wife (members of an American society we will never know), which was interesting to say the least, before taking full use of the power-outlets to recharge the laptop and upload some photos.

Tomorrow, we'll head into Frisco.

Additional photos below
Photos: 16, Displayed: 16


Say Cheese!Say Cheese!
Say Cheese!

Hmm...this photo looks familiar. Oh right, it's the same pose we always do.
Carrots by the TruckloadCarrots by the Truckload
Carrots by the Truckload

At first I thought we were passing fields that were fallow, then I realized they were full of carrots.
Commercial Grape HarvestCommercial Grape Harvest
Commercial Grape Harvest

Pay attention America. This is how food gets to you from the field.
California GrapesCalifornia Grapes
California Grapes

Maybe in a couple days, they'll be "California Raisins"
California AgricultureCalifornia Agriculture
California Agriculture

I think these are olives, but we also saw lots of almonds.
California CoastCalifornia Coast
California Coast

It might look nice, but it was a cold...

26th March 2008

I love your photos. the beaches look really nice and cold too. and the view from the clifs is really great.
8th April 2008

I just took the same drive up the PCH to San Francisco, and it was utterly incredible. You do it justice, Stephine. Oh, and did you happen to see any Elephant Seals? They were sprawled across the sand everywhere I went.

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