For his trip around the country with Charley, Steinbeck special ordered a truck from GMC and outfitted it with a camper top. He was particular with the specifications, anticipating a need for durability to match the unknowns he would encounter. The camper top was no different and John, with the aid of my Grandfather, made it more comfortable and useful with modifications. He named it Rocinante after Don Quixote’s horse, a certain tongue in cheek reference to the futility of the trip.
Salinas, California is Steinbeck’s hometown and they have embraced his celebrity. I drove in on the John Steinbeck Highway and the local library bears his name. Salinas is home to the National Steinbeck Center which hosts a museum dedicated to his life and works. A nice turn around for a man whose books were burned by the town over 70 years ago. It is also the resting place of Rocinante.
The Center was a destination planned before I left as I wanted to see the camper and in some small way pay respects to the author who inspired this trip. I had initiated email contact with Lisa, one of the curators, earlier in the year asking for assistance on a letter John had sent my Grandfather. It notified him that plants of a certain type would be arriving in Sag Harbor from England after quarantine and that he was to store them at the house. Two of the plants were intended for President and Ladybird Johnson and I wondered if the plants made it to the White House. Lisa followed up with the LBJ library after finding no record in the Center’s archives and unfortunately, they also had no record of the gift. Maybe the plants are still growing somewhere in Sag Harbor.
Lisa met me at the Center and I asked her how she became involved as an archivist. When her husband took a job near Salinas, they are from Illinois, she needed a job and instead of continuing in retail, thought it more beneficial to volunteer her time at the museum. Her first assignments were tedious, reviewing reams of paper for possible relationships the Center should be aware of, but her Archeological background proved beneficial. Eventually a position opened and her qualifications and experience led to her hiring. We also talked about John’s trip and how it relates to mine, his stories, time in Sag Harbor and of course Rocinante. I wanted to see for myself how it compared to my tear drop camper; the Arabella. My camper is named after an 1820s Sag Harbor whaling ship as well as the lead character in a female version of Don Quixote by Charlotte Lennox.
The museum is a trip through John’s literary life starting with the Red Pony and ending with America and Americans, a series of essays. The displays are very well done and portray his works and the impact they had on American culture. The camper was at the very end, encased in plexiglass to protect from inquiring visitors. The plexiglass does allow for a peek in the back and I am surprised its compactness. The exterior is in very good shape. The green paint looks fresh and the tires ready to climb a mountain fire road. It doesn’t sag on the springs but instead sits upright and proud. Lisa explained that the Center received a call one day from a gentleman in Maine that “was through with it” and asked if they wanted Rocinante for display. Many favors were called in to transport it across the country and it sat in various places, the police impound lot included, before it could be made “museum ready”.
Entering the camper, one proceeds down a small aisle, stove on the right, cabinets on the left, ending at two cushioned benches with a table in between. On the table is a typewriter and the usual accoutrements related to eating and drinking. The interior is all wood, and provides a warm glow, a certain coziness to the inside. It reminds me of a 1950’s camping ad for LL Bean, the camper parked on a rustic hill in Maine, two hunters enjoying the shelter from an angry outside.
It would be interesting to measure the inside of Rocinante and compare it to the interior of Arabella. Before leaving Life Time I taped Arabella’s dimensions on the floor of my cube and was surprised to see that it didn’t equal half of the area I worked in. My cube was unique in its size and not the standard issue. Mabel and I have spent 51 nights in a space that is 76 inches long and 52 inches wide and surprisingly, it is comfortable. Now I can’t fully stand up inside it, but am able to comfortably dress. Mabel has enough room to stretch out after removing one of the twin mattresses and hasn’t complained about the accommodations. It helps with space and smell that the kitchen, in true teardrop design, is accessed from outside. The few times weather has chased us inside have not been a burden and I have found my little fort to provide adequate space. Arabella came equipped with an air conditioner, essential equipment for the timing of my travels, and we have used it quite often, at times cooling the cabin into the mid 60’s. But there isn’t heat and I am wondering how we will do as the Northwest soon approaches.
People were impressed with John’s setup as they are with mine. The 2017 T@G teardrop gets many looks and attention as we drive on the road or stop for gas. Sometimes I feel like a salesman as I tell an interested person, “it has a kitchen in it,” or “it comes with air conditioning.” It is fun to see the look on their face as they peek inside or I open the door to the kitchen. It is easy to trailer but not back up although I am happy to say I have gotten better, usually backing it into my spots. On flat road with no air and using cruise control returns about 19 mpg, so I can’t complain.
I enjoyed my trip to the Center and recommend it if you are in the area. It is in the older section of Salinas which hosts a number of shops and restaurants and has a neat California feel. Seeing Steinbeck’s body of work assembled in one place is humbling as it becomes evident the genius of the man. He is a Nobel Prize winner after all. It is also sobering to think that his subject matter was at one-time real life and not just fiction for so many.