I just got back from a trip where everything seemed to go awry.
On my recent trip to San Francisco for a friend’s wedding, I had big plans to visit John Steinbeck’s Monterey, where Cannery Row is set, and Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur, where he spent time in his friend poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s cabin and the title of one of his books. This idea, mind you, came after plans had already gone awry when I discovered none of my other friends were able to make it to the wedding or were flying in just in time for the wedding, leaving me with a few days to myself. I’d been to San Francisco a few times and already done the big touristy things and the Beat literary things in the city (minus the Beat Museum, which wasn’t around the last time I was there–and which will have its own post coming up soon!), so I figured I’d take my literary wanderings a bit further south.
Steinbeck’s Cannery Row came out in 1945, two years before Kerouac made that first big trip out West. Post-World War II, both Steinbeck and Kerouac spent time in the same area of California—Monterey, Big Sur, Salinas—and wrote about migrant workers, the working class, the down and out, absurd heroes. Steinbeck writes of Cannery Row:
Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gamblers and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,” and he would have meant the same thing.
Steinbeck’s message is very much Kerouac’s as well. Kerouac writes about “the holy con-man with the shining mind” and other Beat characters whom society might consider derelicts but whom he considers saint-like.
I planned to do a close study of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and to reread Kerouac’s Big Sur to compare and contrast the places, characters, themes, and language. Visiting a place can sometimes be the best form of research. You see and hear things that aren’t in books, get a sense of proportion and distance, and see how the landscape has changed. I wanted to see the land, to feel the sand between my toes, to have the salty ocean breeze whip through my hair, to smell the sardines. I wanted to experience the rough terrain that so embodied Kerouac’s mind frame in Big Sur.
Unfortunately, a trip to Big Sur would not happen for me. My plans went awry when I discovered that after Labor Day public transportation to Big Sur stopped running during the week and that the only tour that stops at Big Sur was sold out before I got to book it. Discovering this two days before I was supposed to leave—okay, so they weren’t exactly “the best-laid plans…”—put a wrench in my itinerary.
Well, here’s my Pinterest inspiration board for Big Sur.
Here’s an article called “Steinbeck vs. Kerouac: Gentlemen, Start Your Engines!” from Big Think.
And here’s an article from Monterey County Weekly on the film adaptation of Kerouac’s Big Sur.
I was, however, able to book a different tour that at least went to Monterey. I had to get up super early–did I mention there were several conferences going on in San Francisco so the only hotel I could find within my budget was an hour away?–to get to the 9am bus. I got there right on time, getting one of the few remaining seats in the very back of the bus, on the side that wouldn’t have a good view. …Two hours later, we were still in San Francisco. The bus was blowing hot air through the vents and overheating–not great for all the senior citizens on the trip (oh, did I not mention the demographic was ever-so-slightly older?). They brought in mechanics, and when they failed to fix it, we eventually got a new bus. About half the people on the tour were so mad that their precious vacation time was wasted that they refused to get on and left the tour completely. The good news: I got a better seat.
Here are a few pictures from Salinas and Monterey.
John Steinbeck references the aphorism “the best-laid plans of mice and men often goes awry” in the title of one of his other books, Of Mice and Men. The phrase can be traced back to Robert Burns’ poem “To a Mouse”:
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley
Don’t you love that eighteenth-century Scottish English? (One day I will have to describe my misadventures in Scotland too….)
One of the things I love best about On the Road is Jack Kerouac’s candor that trips often do go awry. When Sal Paradise, the narrator based on Kerouac, starts his first big road trip from the East Coast to the West, he has grand plans of traveling one great highway all the way there. That doesn’t work out—nor does he even get out of state before having to turn back and come home again. He’d been trying to hitchhike his way out of New York City and ended up stranded in a torrential downpour in Bear Mountain, one of the places my own family frequented when I was growing up. Not one to let problems rain on his parade, Paradise/Kerouac heads back to New York City and buys fare for public transportation that will take him to the first leg of his destination.
Sometimes you just gotta keep on truckin’! It’s a good lesson for traveling and for life.
What’s the worst that has ever happened to you on your vacation?
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I’m reading tonight at 7pm at The Penny Farthing (103 3rd Ave., downstairs in the speakeasy) here in New York City! This is a Storytellers event, hosted by C3. I’ll be reading from Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, coauthored with Paul Maher Jr.