You know you’re in for an underwhelming museum experience when the docent at the entrance greets you with “We don’t have a lot of exhibits right now.”
There’s a lot to read and very little to see at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California, where Nobel Prize-winning novelist John Steinbeck…I dunno. Was born? Grew up? Went to school? I was unable to differentiate, assimilate and process what I wanted from the barrage of words and pictures and plastic dioramas that make up the permanent collection, all competing for attention.
Since the exhibit hall is essentially set up for children to enjoy, it seems like this should have been easier. Every section is based on one of Steinbeck’s famous novels: Cannery Row, Grapes of Wrath, The Red Pony, Of Mice and Men. (27 books in all. The man was prolific.) Within the first five minutes I wondered if his original manuscripts could be found in there, and glanced around, already feeling drained. As I’m as much a victim of our bullet-point-’n-soundbyte culture as the next person, I decided that it was just too much work to find out on my own. I ventured back out to the lobby.
“Hi,” I said to the startled young lady at the front desk. “Is there one artifact here that’s the cherished go-to?” She replied with a blank stare. “You know,” I said, feeling increasingly shallow and stupid. “Something famous.” The girl looked helplessly at the guard standing nearby, a young man. “Um,” he said. “I guess the truck.” (More on that later.)
“That’s ALL?” I cried. The older I get, the less I apparently care about protecting the feelings of museum employees. This is a good time to mention that the Steinbeck Center is crazy expensive: $15 per ticket. This buys a look at a lot of things to read on a wall about Steinbeck’s convoluted life and the inspiration for his stories. The rest of the Center is dedicated to celebrating the exhilarating agriculture of Monterey County.
The interactive exhibits try to engage—who? children I guess—in the world of Steinbeck: help Jody do his Red Pony chores by braiding cords for a rope, then clean a plastic horse hoof; guess which hat on the wall belongs to which Mice and Men character; “imagine you live in a migrant camp…” Only the most hopelessly nerdy kid would want to do this.
Flatscreens are mounted here and there showing various people describing the making of the movie of The Grapes of Wrath, D-list celebrities reading passages from Steinbeck novels, and literary reviewers (I think) going on about something.
Alas, the National Steinbeck Center is two pounds of crap in a ten pound bag. And I love Steinbeck. I was that nerdy kid. (I read The Pearl too early and it disturbed me for years.)
The one money shot is near the exit: Steinbeck’s truck, with which he toured America and within which he wrote Travels with Charley. Peering through the door at the little banquette table set up with a typewriter and lantern I thought of author and buddy Gregory Zeigler, who embarked on a mission in 2009 to recreate Steinbeck’s famous journey with his own dog Max, and Winnie—his Airstream Bambi trailer—in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Travels with Charley. (In “Travels With Max: In Search of Steinbeck’s America Fifty Years Later” he tells the tale of their 15,000 mile, nine week odyssey.)
Oh, and FURTHERmore, except for Walmart, there’s nowhere to camp in Salinas. The closest place I could find was at the Mazda Raceway at the Laguna Seca Recreation Area (an odd zoning pairing), 13 miles away at the top of a steep, winding hill. I docked the Airstream on the edge of the cliff to maximize my enjoyment of the peaceful views of farmland and greenery—then laid awake at night after realizing I was in California, home to 10,000 earthquakes per year, wondering if the little red plastic chockablocks behind the wheels would keep me from rolling off the edge if one should come.