Foggy, cold, and grey.
Before Vegas the anti-Vegas
weather laxative, Monterey.
Often shrouded in fog, with the accompanying bark of seals late into the night, Monterey is one of those enchanting pocket areas of colonial haciendas and fragrant gardens that make California sing. Sheltered on a wide bay, Monterey was a strategically important harbor where goods could be bartered, shipped, offloaded in the early 19th century. It held the customs house and was provincial capital during an era of land grants and vast rancheros, when the Russian fur traders claimed the coast north of San Francisco.
This history still lingers in surprisingly fertile pockets - walking the streets of old Monterey you sense of why writers and artists were always drawn to the area. Despite the fog and overall propensity to settle into creaky-jointed ennui, John Steinbeck and Henry Miller felt invigorated here. Tom Killian synthesized ageless ukioue and Gary Snyder-serenity into knobby, wood-grained confluences. Even Kerouac settled uneasily into its subdued gravity, for no other reason than that the end of the earth appeared to him, Big Sur. Escape to boredom, call it Zen, from the oppressive pressure of being Alpha Beat.
Attending graduate school, I also fell into the rhythm of foggy days amid a street-choir of raucous seals. I grew to appreciate the damp, enveloping jazz of Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Ambrose Akinmusire. I came to feel a kinship with Steinbeck in my bones - the pastoral Pastures of Heaven yes but, infinitely more, the “ray of light among the darkness” vision of Doc Ricketts and his slice of hip brotherhood, nascent eco-consciousness in industrial canning town. Seagulls swooping and alighting on rusty relics of wrecks, past sins.
Walking Cannery Row, even now that it has become the picture-perfect incarnation of a tourist trap, I can envision what a behemoth of a town Monterey was, with a hulking industrial footprint far outstripping its nascent tourist potential (unlike Santa Cruz, the peninsula was too far away from Frisco, too foggy). Those industrial remnants, now presented as an atmospheric cautionary tale (sardines still give the Monterey Bay a pass, 60 years later) provide proof that yes, nature can outlast, as former marine wastelands become a gateway to kelp reserves in which Humpbacks, Great Whites, tuna, sunfish freely roam.
The Cannery Row remnants I treasure most are the weathered wood Pacific Biological Laboratories, still intact with specimen tubs behind; and the Wing Chong store, where Mack and the boys would buy beer and hang out, and which stayed open until “the last wandering vagrant dime had been spent.” Guarded by Dora Flood and her less-than-respectable choir of street corner muses (the early-70s Van Morrison song evoked is not entirely unintentional), this was an attempt at preserving community in the face of the sterile, inhospitable to life.
Monterey is intoxicating in the same way as sipping whisky can be. Not immediately palatable, with all-too-rough edges, it gets into your bones. Sometimes you sip a bit of Monterey, its achingly sharp edges (once the fog burns off) and think yeah, maybe I could settle for a bit of this wharf life. Then you think no, there is all too much sameness, a cotton smock spread out against a sky pulled tight at the edges, madhouse cloth.