The lush and verdant Salinas Valley is now forever intertwined with the legacy of John Steinbeck and his art. He consistently described his “place” with the language of love and comfort, yet he did not shy away from the less savory parts of his home. In works like East of Eden and The Long Valley he owned the violence and the beauty, both the human and the seed, and the constant, almost universal desire for community. Although the “Salad Bowl of the World” would initially reject his frank and unrefined portrayals of the town, now you cannot walk a block in downtown Salinas without seeing some sort of mural or statue dedicated to him, culminating in the National Steinbeck Center.
“The Salinas Valley is in Northern California. It is a long narrow swale between two ranges of mountains, and the Salinas River winds and twists up the center until it falls at last into the Monterey Bay.
I remember my childhood names for grasses and secret flowers. I remember where a toad may live and what time the birds awaken in the summer—and what trees and seasons smelled like—how people looked and walked and smelled even. The memory of odors is very rich.
I remember that the Gabilan Mountains to the east of the valley were light gay mountains full of sun and loveliness and a kind of invitation, so that you wanted to climb into their warm foothills almost as you want to climb in to the lap of a beloved mother. They were beckoning mountains with a brown grass love. 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. I always found in myself a dread of west and a love of east. Where I ever got such an idea I cannot say, unless it could be that the morning came over the peaks of the Gabilans and the night drifted back from the ridges of the Santa Lucias. It may be that the birth and death of the day had some part in my feeling about the two ranges of mountains.” East of Eden, 1
Rocinante, Steinbeck's faithful GMC truck with V6 engine and Camper
1 Main St, Salinas, CA 93901
Before Steinbeck the Salinas Valley was home to small tribes of Rumsen, Ohlone, and Salinans, whose lives and lands would be usurped with the influx of Spanish ranchers and missionaries. After Mexico gained their independence from Spain, small grants would be sold in the area that is now the Salinas Valley. Near the climax of the Mexican-American War after several years of combat in the Gabilan Mountains, John Fremont would lead the charge for Californian statehood after several years of combat in the Gabilan Range. Years later Steinbeck would reflect upon on his own treks up Fremont Peak. It was up on Fremont’s Peak, looking down at the Salinas Valley and the rest of Monterey County from afar, where John Steinbeck reflected on his place for the last time:
“I drove up to Fremont’s Peak, the highest point for many miles around. I climbed the last spiky rocks to the top. Here among these blackened granite outcrops General Fremont made his stand against a Mexican army, and defeated it. When I was a boy we occasionally found cannon balls and rusted bayonets in the area. This solitary stone peak overlooks the whole of my childhood and youth, the great Salinas Valley stretching south for nearly a hundred miles, the town of Salinas where I was born now spreading like crabgrass toward the foothills. Mount Toro, on the brother range to the west, was a rounded benign mountain, and to the north Monterey Bay shone like a blue platter. I felt and smelled and heard the wind blow up from the long valley. It smelled of the brown hills of wild oats.
I remembered how once, in that part of youth that is deeply concerned with death, I wanted to be buried on this peak where without eyes I could see everything I knew and loved, for in those days there was no world beyond the mountains. And I remembered how intensely I felt about my interment. It is strange and perhaps fortunate that when one’s time grows nearer one’s interest in it flags as death becomes a fact rather than a pageantry. Here on these high rocks my memory myth repaired itself. Charley, having explored the area, sat at my feet, his fringed ears blowing like laundry on a line. His nose, moist with curiosity, sniffed the wind-borne pattern of a hundred miles...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.”
Western view of the Salinas Valley from Fremont's Peak
Quotes about Salinas
“Salinas is eighteen miles from Monterey and inland. it lies in the mouth of a long and windy valley. It is a flat town built on a slough so that the whole town quakes and shivers when a train goes by.
One morning very early when the light was just beginning to come up behind Fremont’s Peak, there was a scratching and a scurrying and a snarling on the lawn of the courthouse. A snarling clot of animals was on the courthouse lawn. And then in the gray morning they moved sniffing timidly off the lawn. Then a leader established himself, a great gray world, and the other wolves followed him.”
excerpted From "The Time the Wolves Ate the Vice-Principal"
© The Magazine of the Year. 1 March 1947. Vol. 1, Number 1.
“In the gray a quiet morning when the land and the brush and the houses and the trees were silver-gray, and black like a photograph negative, he stole towards the barn, past the sleeping stones and the sleeping cypress tree. The turkeys, roosting in the tree out of coyotes’ reach, clicked drowsily. The fields glowed with a gray frost-like light and in the dew the tracks of rabbits and of field mice stood out sharply.” The Red Pony, 22
Salinas, 1910, eight years after Steinbeck's birth. For a magnifiable version of this map, click here