When John Steinbeck and his good buddy marine scientist Ed Ricketts sailed into the bay at Cabo San Lucas in 1941, they found a “sad little town.” Seventy-five years later, some might consider the over-developed, tourist-crowded area still sad. For many others, it’s a paradise where they can whale watch, kayak to the famous arch, or don water-jet propelled boots for an uplifting experience. Or perhaps purchase drugs at discount prices or visit the Tequila Biblioteca.
What to read while relaxing by the pool or on the beach? Steinbeck’s classic Log of the Sea of Cortez certainly comes to mind, and I used a long weekend holiday in February to correct an oversight. I knew Ed Ricketts, the marine biologist from his fictional counterpart in Steinbeck’s Monterey Row, a novel I read some years ago when visiting coastal California for the Concours d’Elegance and vintage car races at Laguna Seca. By the way, the Steinbeck Museum in his hometown of Salinas is memorable—wonderfully showcasing the work that garnered a Nobel Prize in Literature (1962).
Steinbeck, Ricketts, and a host of sailor-collectors sail from Monterey around the southern tip of Baja California and up into the Sea of Cortez to collect fauna for study and preservation. Ricketts’s fame as a tidal pool expert still stands, and his book continues to be required reading for marine biologists. What is surprising about Steinbeck’s chronicle of the collecting voyage is how funny the book is. When they try to obtain a chicken in a Mexican village to vary their fish diet, he notes that the athletic ability of the bird is such that it would merit a collegiate scholarship for a track team. Their misadventures with camera equipment leads them to filming a blurry picture of crew member Shorty’s blue and white underwear. The tongue in cheek humor is a pleasant surprise.
More typical beach fare is a series by Robert Wisehart that features hard-boiled, but sometimes sensitive private detective Ethan Cruickshank. From Cabo, Cabo Revenge, Cabo Sunset, and others, I opted for Cabo Storm, which features the hurricane that hit the area in 2014. Cruickshank is hired to protect difficult to like or manage Rio LeDoux, who is working to make a comeback film, near the spot where Planet of the Apes was filmed. The thriller offers local color and an inside look at resorts that cater to celebrities; it also delves into the seedier side of town, a private sex club, supposedly near the popular bar, Cabo Wabo.
We chose to stay in San Jose del Cabo, a quieter village north of the tourist center, at a hotel adjacent to an estuary, which offered good bird watching. The pathway through the estuary from the sea to the village was missing a large chunk of boardwalk to the hurricane, and the horse corrals nearby were somewhat swamped. Still, it was an oasis away from the hustle of the “sad little town” to the south, where massive cruise ships disgorge passengers for dolphin encounters, camel rides in the outback, and zipline trips in the canyons.
San Jose also offered Thursday night art walks, horseback riding, and authentic cuisine such as the hot rock cooking in a Molcajete,typically used in a mortar and pestle but here used to finish a dish served at the table. It’s possible to find one in the local market, but the added weight to luggage may be prohibitive. The Saturday market, which primarily seems for snowbirds seeking relief from Northern climes, carries beautiful fruits and vegetables.
It’s also a fairly easy walk to Puerto Los Cabos, the entrance marked by a huge sculpture of a fisherman; other large scale sculptures are placed around the marina, which is about an hour away. Public buses–retired school buses–cost about 60 cents for a ride.
Los Cabos may be a bit light on literature, but soaking up the sun and local culture may leave little time for reading.
Postscript: John Steinbeck’s birthday on February 27 occurred shortly after our return, and as usual The Writer’s Almanac did a bang-up job on encapsulating his career:
It’s the birthday of novelist John Steinbeck (books by this author) born in Salinas, California (1902). In the 1930s, his most productive decade, he wrote several novels about his native California, including Tortilla Flat (1935), set in Monterey; In Dubious Battle (1936), about fruit-pickers on strike in a California valley; and Of Mice and Men (1937), set on a ranch in Soledad, southeast of Steinbeck’s birth town.
Of Mice and Men, the story of farmworker Lenny and his friend George, was a big commercial success, and it was also a highly banned book. In fact, it was among the American Library Association’s “most challenged books of the 20th century.” In support of the ban, people accused Steinbeck of having an “antibusiness attitude” and said that his “patriotism” was “questionable.” One person – in the 1990s – wrote that the book should be banned because Steinbeck took “God’s name in vain 15 times” and “[used] Jesus’ name lightly.”
In the 1940s, Steinbeck worked as a journalist – as a war correspondent. He sent dispatches from all around the Mediterranean and from North Africa during World War II. After the war was over, he started taking trips to the Soviet Union, going to Moscow, Kiev, Stalingrad, and also many out-of-the-way places in the Soviet republic where Western reporters had not traveled. He tried learning Russian but never really attained fluency. He once wrote home about how he proudly tried to order a breakfast of omelet, toast, and coffee, and was served in response a “tomato salad with onions, a dish of pickles, a big slice of watermelon, and two bottles of cream soda.”
In 1940, after the publication of The Grapes of Wrath, he won the Pulitzer Prize. He always professed to be leery and afraid of literary awards and their effect on writers. He said that after Faulkner won the Nobel Prize, hearing him talk so loftily about “writing” and “the Artist” made him (Steinbeck) want to “leave the profession.”
And then, in 1962, a decade after East of Eden (1952) and shortly after the publication of Travels with Charley (1962), Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize in literature for his “realistic and imaginative writing, combining as it does sympathetic humor and keen social perception.” When a reporter at a press conference asked if he thought he deserved it, he said, “Frankly, no.”
But he accepted the prize and gave a lofty acceptance speech, in which he said, “A writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature.”
Afterward, he was worried about the prize’s effect upon his future writing. He thought about other major prizewinners and confided to a friend: “For one thing I don’t remember anyone doing any work after getting it save maybe Shaw. This last book of Faulkner’s was written long ago. Hemingway went into a kind of hysterical haze. Red Lewis just collapsed into alcoholism and angers. It has in effect amounted to an epitaph. Maybe I’m being over-optimistic but I wouldn’t have accepted it if I hadn’t thought I could beat the rap.”
As it happens, he was doomed just as he feared – he died six years later, not having published a single novel since winning the prize. The Grapes of Wrath is generally considered his masterpiece. In it, he wrote: “The cars of the migrant people crawled out of the side roads onto the great cross-country highway, and they took the migrant way to the West. … And because they were lonely and perplexed, because they had all come from a place of sadness and worry and defeat, and because they were all going to a mysterious new place … a strange thing happened: the twenty families became one family, the children were the children of all. The loss of home became one loss, and the golden time in the West was one dream.”
John Steinbeck said: “The writer must believe that what he is doing is the most important thing in the world. And he must hold to this illusion even when he knows it is not true.”