Steinbeck's Monterey a 'Lifetime' Later

  Some places you remember for life. When I was seven, an uncle took my mother, sister and me to a beach lot he’d recently purchased near Monterey, Calif. There for only a few minutes, I made what must have struck him as a ridiculous request.

  “I know I’m just a kid, Uncle Bill, but please don’t ever sell this place to anybody but me.”

  That’s how beautiful it was. A cliff with a wooden stairway overlooked the blue Pacific and Uncle Bill’s 200 feet of beach. He sold it a few years later for $10,000 and thought he’d made a killing. Today, it would be worth millions.

  We spent several hours in Monterey that day, walking around town and looking at marine life from a glass-bottomed boat. It’s unlikely but possible that we bumped into one of the true-life inspirations for a character in John Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row,” which was set there and would later become one of my favorite books by one of my favorite authors.

  Fast forward a lifetime. It took decades, but I recently returned to Monterey and realized, not for the first time, that few things in life remain the same.

  The Monterey remembered was a relatively quiet place. Monterey Bay at the time of our visit with Uncle Bill was in its fading days as one of the most productive fisheries in the world. The fish were sardines. Fishing boats unloaded tons of them at the foot of a street lined with packing plants. In honor of the book, the street later was named Cannery Row.

  Overfishing and other factors ended Monterey’s run as the sardine capital of the West Coast.  Asked what had become of the once plentiful fish, late Marine biologist Ed “Doc” Ricketts, a town fixture, ruefully observed that “they’re all in cans.”

  Ricketts was Steinbeck’s friend and the inspiration for one of “Cannery Row’s” characters. Monterey in their time was smaller than Kuna. I remember it as a quaint, quiet little town. Now it’s a magnet for tourists. It’s neither quaint nor quiet.

  It’s done a first-rate job, however, of paying homage to its past – particularly to Steinbeck and Ricketts. Banners with their images and quotes from Steinbeck’s writing fly from poles lining the streets. Busts of them seem to be everywhere. Overlooking the harbor is a statue of Steinbeck and characters from the novel. His image and quotes from his writing are ubiquitous. You can’t visit Monterey and not be impressed by its tributes to him. 

  It’s not the Monterey I remembered. It’s changed so much as to be almost unrecognizable.

  But how many towns don’t change?

  The visit recalled one three years ago to another city unseen in many years. In my early twenties, I spent a year in Bremerhaven, Germany, courtesy of the U.S. Navy. Those of us the Navy sent there considered ourselves lucky. The Navy was sending almost everyone else to Vietnam.

  It didn’t take long to fall in love with Bremerhaven. Like the Monterey of Steinbeck’s time, it was quaint. Quaint as in spires and turrets, winding, cobblestone streets, picturesque shops. You could buy a bratwurst and French fries for the equivalent of a quarter at vendors’ stands that dotted the downtown sidewalks and wash them down with a bottle of German beer, also a quarter.

  Bremerhaven today is a different place altogether. The train station, formerly graced by a spacious lobby with walls and a ceiling of hand-crafted, age-darkened wood, has been subdivided into small, faceless shops. A few of the cobblestone streets remain, but they’re  outnumbered by paved streets lined with characterless businesses.  

  The quaint downtown with its uniquely German shops has given way to a mall. Trendy stores, designer brands, hardly any shoppers. It was modern, efficient, sterile. Almost everything I remembered and loved about Bremerhaven was gone.

  Closer to home, change has been equally dramatic. Nampa and Caldwell have grown, developed and redeveloped significantly since my days as a Canyon County bureau reporter. Eagle and Meridian, once sleepy farm towns, have become bustling cities.

  And Boise? My father, who died in the 1980s, wouldn’t recognize it. Its downtown has been almost completely made over. The rubble and weedy parking lots he knew from the urban renewal era have given way to glittering new shops and buildings. New developments continue to pop up  everywhere.

  The alternative, of course, is stagnation. Some towns grow and change. Others die on the vine.

  But as we grow and change, we should make an effort to honor what is noteworthy about our state and its cities. Few places have done a better job of that than Monterey with its tributes to Steinbeck.

  Idaho could do a better job of honoring its literary heritage. Idaho authors have won Pulitzer Prizes, the National Book Award, and currently have the number-one fiction and non-fiction books on the New York Times bestseller list. A tasteful tribute to them would be a great addition to our capital city.


  As you know if you follow the legislative news, a bill has been proposed  to make standard time year-round in Idaho. As a lifelong Idahoan, I’m guessing that a majority of Idahoans would be opposed to that because they like Daylight Savings’ long summer evenings for outdoor activities. 

  What’s your preference? Do you favor A) Changing to Standard Time year-round, B) Making Daylight Savings Time year-round, or C) Keeping both Daylight Savings and Standard Time as they are now? Please email your preference to the address below. The results will be in my next column.

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Press and is posted on the following Mondays. Contact him at

3 thoughts on “Steinbeck's Monterey a 'Lifetime' Later

  1. Cannery Row. I am giggling as I recall some of it. Wasn’t that the book that had “hoopty-do’s” in it (Chapters that had nothing to do with the plot)? Things like why Mrs. Somebody’s toilet played Stormy Weather, when she had the trots. Or the annual Butterfly Grove festival.
    Lordy, the whole thing was great fun! Now I have to go find the book and read it again, even though I know how it all ended.
    Saw a movie based on it. I was amazed that the film crew came up with so many thousands of frogs, just as was required by the script. How could they have done that? I mean, keeping a jillion frogs together and alive during the filming, which probably took days.
    I’m glad you brought it up!


  2. We’re as far west as L.A. let’s move to Pacific time and daylight. Propose it to the idaho legislative oligarchy, stand back as the old white heads explode, it’s socialism…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s