Steinbeck’s last visit to Fremont Peak

Steinbeck's last visit to Fremont Peak

When the pressures of life get a bit overwhelming, Fremont Peak
is one of my favorite places to escape for an overnight camping
trip. Sometimes when I climb the craggy rocks at the summit, I
think about how it was here that John Steinbeck made his final
farewell to his Salinas Valley birthplace.
When the pressures of life get a bit overwhelming, Fremont Peak is one of my favorite places to escape for an overnight camping trip. Sometimes when I climb the craggy rocks at the summit, I think about how it was here that John Steinbeck made his final farewell to his Salinas Valley birthplace.

In his non-fiction book “Travels with Charley,” Steinbeck described how after visiting old friends in the Monterey Bay region, he needed to do “one formal and sentimental thing” before he started heading across the continent back to his home in New York state. “I drove up to Fremont’s Peak, the highest point for many miles around,” he wrote nearly half a century ago. “I climbed the last spiky rocks to the top. Here among these blackened granite outcrops General Fremont made his stand against a Mexican army, and defeated it.”

Accompanied by Charley his French poodle friend, Steinbeck certainly knew this would be his last visit to that mountain top point looming along the Gabilan range. In the chapter describing that visit, the author recalled how as a child he had trekked with other boys up the mountain slopes. Occasionally, he claimed, they found cannon balls and rusted bayonets.

“This solitary stone peak,” he wrote, “overlooks the whole of my childhood and youth, the great Salinas Valley stretching south for nearly a hundred miles, the town of Salinas where I was born now spreading like crab grass toward the foothills.”

Across the valley from Fremont Peak, Steinbeck observed Mount Toro standing like a stoic sentinel. The Monterey Bay shined “like a blue platter.” Memories must have engulfed his mind. “I felt and smelled and heard the wind blow up from the long valley,” he wrote. “It smelled of brown hills of wild oats.”

I read those words in a well-worn paperback version of “Travels with Charley” while relaxing one spring afternoon last year in the campground at the state park on Fremont Peak. They haunted my mind as I followed Steinbeck’s footsteps to the top of the castle-like crag. The golden ball of the sun rested along the far west horizon of the Pacific as I reached the pinnacle. Here, an iron flag pole stood next to a bronze monument plaque describing John C. Fremont’s presence on the peak for a few days in March 1846.

Sitting on the plaque, I opened up Steinbeck’s book and continued reading his melancholy memories: “I remembered how once, in that part of youth that is deeply concerned with death, I wanted to be buried on this peak where without eyes I could see everything I knew and loved, for in those days there was no world beyond the mountains. And I remembered how intensely I felt about my internment. It is strange and perhaps fortunate that when one’s time grows nearer one’s interest in it flags as death becomes a fact rather than a pageantry. Here on these high rocks my memory myth repaired itself. Charley, having explored the area, sat at my feet, his fringed ears blowing like laundry on a line. His nose, moist with curiosity, sniffed the windborne pattern of a hundred miles.”

Alone on the peak, I closed the book and looked at the sun starting to submerge into the sea horizon. A breeze began to blow stiff against my face, and I sniffed the soft perfume of dry grass while watching the streetlights of Salinas slowly begin their burn to battle the oncoming night.

In that hushed moment, I wondered what memories must have haunted Steinbeck’s mind as he gazed down from Fremont Peak on the valley land he knew and loved so much. His brow must have furrowed at the emotions that cascaded through him. Perhaps a tear or two filled his eyes at some long ago sorrow. Perhaps a hearty laugh burst from him at some ridiculous remembrance. The poodle Charley might have tilted his head at the sound.

As the sky darkened and the stars appeared, I made my way down the peak back to my campsite. Steinbeck, I imagined, had also spent the night up here sleeping in his camper. I hope he had a good night’s rest.

I opened a bottle of merlot and poured some of the wine into a plastic cup and sat down at the campsite’s picnic table. I imagined that Steinbeck and his beloved French poodle might somehow be there in spirit. He had once wanted to be buried here, he had said. Maybe his soul had found its haven in this spot.

Playing with the notion of unseen ghosts accompanying me, I lifted the wine in a toast. “Here’s to you, John,” I whispered as the wind began to sweep through the campground oaks.

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