The Land of Steinbeck

Trip Start May 15, 2004
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Trip End Aug 09, 2004


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Flag of United States  , California
Sunday, July 18, 2004

We left L.A. and headed north. Ed is a huge Steinbeck fan and wanted to see the Salinas Valley, the setting for Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden. At this point we had driven our rental car over 6,000 miles in a week and a half. It sounded and smelled like it needed an oil change. So we called Hertz and told them they should swap our car out. They pointed us toward a little airport on the coast and we traded our smoking car in for a nice, clean Grand Am. The guy in California didn't seem thrilled about the exchange.

So we strolled through the Salinas Valley and made our way into the town of Salinas early that afternoon. We had seen some signs for camping outside of town, but we had decided we needed some free camping. Ed had managed to camp for free in some towns while biking through the midwest. He was sure the cops would let us camp in a park or something.

First we drove over to the Steinbeck museum. It's a beautiful building in downtown Salinas. We walked in and were informed that it was $9 to get into the museum. We explained that Steinbeck championed the poor and that $9 was a ridiculous amount to pay. The 16-year-old girl responded to this brilliant argument with an uncomfortable smile and vacant eyes. We told her we thought it should be free for us because we were poor. Ed used the word destitute and we lost her. So I asked her if anyone ever simply walked into the museum without paying. She said no, that had never happened. I told her I thought that this was something she needed to see. And we walked in.

After a few minutes we realized that the police were not coming. So we enjoyed a stroll around the museum. Not worth nine bucks, but totally worth zero.

From there we decided we needed some free camping. We saw a cop in a grocery store parking lot so we pulled up next to him, gave him the international "roll down your window" sign, and asked him if we could camp in a park or something. He said there was camping outside of town. We said no, we really preferred some free camping, like a town park. He told us to go to the police station and ask the chief. So we found the police station, went inside, and asked if we could camp in a park or a school playground or something. They too looked at us as if we were from a world other than their own, and said, no...no you can't do that. We were a little disappointed...but not out.

We tried a couple of other suggestions and found nothing. So I suggested we try a church. They have grass, they're supposed to be charitable, and people are less likely to beat and rob you on church grounds. Plus, we had to ask. Only two things could happen:
1) They say yes and we get a free place to stay. 2) The church turns us away and we have a great story. So we walked into the church and found some people in an office. We asked where the priest was. We were told he was at home, but - Would we like to call him? Sure!!!! They dialed the priests home number for us, he answered, and we chatted. I told him we just needed a little land to throw our tent on. He pondered and said that their insurance wouldn't allow them to help us out. Of course, I remember the bible story about how possible litigation forced the good Samaritan to turn the poor away. I told him that California must be different because we camped at churches in Texas all the time. Well, he came through. He said they owned an abandoned chapel a couple of miles away that had an old cemetery on it that we could camp on. Jackpot.

So we drove out and found the dilapidated chapel, its shuttered windows falling off their hinges and the steeple slightly askew.  White paint was peeling away from what was once obviously a beautiful little building. The small plot of land around it was covered with tall grass and leaning headstones.  It was lined with a sagging fence, which separated it from miles and miles of vineyards.  Of course, anything with headstones whose letters have faded and occupants been forgotten creates a somber atmosphere, but it was actually quite lovely. We set up camp between graves, cooked some food as we gazed out at dusk on the Salinas valley, and then slept like champs.
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