All’s forgiven in Salinas, Steinbeck’s old hometown

 Salinas, Calif. — While he was alive, this rural town reviled its most famous native son, author John Steinbeck. Townspeople hated his unflattering accounts of Salinas and its treatment of migrant workers. They burned his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Grapes of Wrath,” on Main Street. They shuddered when he nosed around the Salinas Valley to get material for “East of Eden,” his best-selling novel about the region.

“This isn’t my country anymore. And it won’t be until I am dead,” the author wrote when such personal attacks prompted him to move east to New York City.

It was a prophetic statement. Today, Steinbeck, who died in 1968, is a revered figure here. A major museum, the National Steinbeck Center, brings many thousands of visitors to this agricultural hub 17 miles inland from Monterey and the Pacific Ocean. His one-time family home has become a restaurant that proudly displays his artifacts and bears his name — The Steinbeck House.

At the Steinbeck Center, the author’s life and works are celebrated in many ways. Visitors can journey through seven themed galleries with attractions that include listening to stories on period telephones and viewing episodes of films made from Steinbeck’s works — “The Grapes of Wrath,” “East of Eden,” “Cannery Row,” “Tortilla Flat,” “Of Mice and Men” and others. Inside a boxcar, they can look at crates of lettuce, the region’s prime product. They can crank up the engine of a real Model T truck, peer inside the pickup camper in which Steinbeck toured the country with his poodle Charley, and listen to excepts from the book he wrote about that saga, “Travels With Charley.” Admission is $10.95 for adults, $8.95 seniors/students/military, $7.95 ages 13 to 17, $5.95 ages 6 to 12.

Also part of the center is the Rabobank Agriculture Museum, showcasing Monterey County’s people, history and growth as one of America’s greatest food-producing regions.

Known as the “Salad Bowl of the World,” the Salinas Valley grows more than 80 percent of all the lettuce consumed in the nation. It also has become a major producer of wines and wine grapes, as well as dozens of truck crops.

That agricultural bounty also brings visitors to this 100-mile-long valley sandwiched between two mountain ranges. Some of them come to buy fresh vegetables, some to taste wines at valley wineries. And some come simply to enjoy the panorama of endless acres of lettuce, artichokes, broccoli, celery, strawberries, squash, tomatoes, asparagus and dozens of other crops.

A good way to get a compact sense of this agricultural region is to stop at The Farm, which is both an agricultural education facility and demonstration farm. Visitors can take a tour, do a bit of farm work themselves, and buy fresh organic fruits and vegetables picked the same day. The tour costs $8 ages 16-up, $6 ages 2-15. More comprehensive custom tours also are offered.

Salinas Valley also is home to a number of large vineyards and excellent wineries, most with tasting rooms. A little-known fact is that a substantial amount of wine grapes grown in the valley are shipped to Napa Valley so that wineries there can label their wine “Bottled in Napa.”

Standouts among wineries I have visited are Estancia, Jekel, Scheid, Chalone and Hahn (Smith & Hook). The latter offers a wonderful view of the valley. Kendall-Jackson has a huge winery in the valley, but does not allow visitation.

Aside from the Steinbeck Center, Salinas’ festivals are major attractions for visitors. The biggest event is its annual California Rodeo in July. “Next year we hope to draw more than 50,000,” Mayor Dennis Donohue said.

Other major annual events include the Air Show and the Steinbeck Festival, both held in August. And every Saturday year-around, visitors can poke around a diverse Farmers Market across the street from the Steinbeck Center.

Old Town Salinas, the downtown district, is little changed in appearance from the days when Steinbeck lived there. Most of the buildings along Main Street date to the turn of the century; a walking tour brochure is available. Art Walks with music, art, and stores open late are held on the first Fridays of the month.

New in the past year in Old Town is the Bankers Casino, where gamblers can play such card games as poker, blackjack and Texas Hold ’em (no slots or table games). Also new is a visitor center, Destination Salinas, which offers a “self-guided walking tour you can take using your cell phone.”

And finally, a really unique overnight stay is offered by Salinas’ Vision Quest Ranch, home of Wild Things, which trains and houses lions, bears, tigers, baboons, birds and other animals. The animals appear in movies and commercials. One-hour day tours are offered ($10 adult, $8 ages 14-under), but overnight visitors stay in safari-style canvas-walled suites, perhaps lulled to sleep by the growls and roars of beasts in the nearby compounds ($225-$255 in summer, $195-$225 in winter). And in the morning, their breakfast is delivered by one of the four-legged residents..

Information: The City of Salinas, Calif., Click on the Visitors link.