5 Things I Learned in Monterey

I just came back from a trip to Monterey.

Windy DayNominally vacation—but actually research—the trip was phenomenal. Monterey, made famous by Steinbeck and Stevenson and a magnate for artists and dreamers for more than a century; both rural and urban, town and city, land and water.  Smaller and slower than San Francisco, not as unforgiving, dominated by a sky that mirrors the sea and easily one of the most beautiful places in the world.

Travel is always educational—anything that plucks you out of your ubiquitous environment, your quotidian habits will, perforce, teach you something, if it’s only to take your sea sick pills one hour before boarding an ocean-going vessel.  In fact, it’s the learning—that fantastic popping of brain synapses, the inspiration, the understanding, the wisdom gained—that, for me, makes travel as crucial as air and water and food.

So, without further ado, and with tongue only partially in cheek, here are five things I learned in Monterey. To be fair, some of the list I’d already learned, on other days and in other ways, but retaining knowledge requires repetition … if not a few days spent in Monterey.

Portola View1. Patronize people, places and businesses that strive to be better than they must. Our hotel, the Portola Hotel and Spa, is one of the few conference hotels in town. The location is ideal: just steps away from Fisherman’s Wharf and the State Historic Plaza of buildings, including the Custom House. And yet … the Portola is an icon of customer service, beautifully and thoughtfully designed rooms, and delicious food prepared according to the Monterey Aquarium’s Seafood guide. The hotel is better than it needs to be—and will always earn my patronage because of it. As a writer, I try my damnedest to follow the same rule: don’t crest at the minimum of excellence. Exceed your own expectations, and you will exceed everyone else’s.

Kelp Forest2. The Earth likes balance. Balancing checkbooks, careers, family life, personal relationships, giving and taking and eating and sleeping and … yes. As 21st century adults, as global citizens, as human beings, we are pushed and prodded by the struggle for survival in an ocean full of predators. We act out that struggle on a daily basis, whether it’s managing a hostile work environment, trying to conquer feelings of anxiety or low self-esteem, or facing the dilemma of work demands vs. family needs. And through it all, we seek balance. Not too much of this, not too little of that.

Sea OtterThe magnificent undersea kelp forests thrive on maintaining a balance, too. Like the redwood or saguaro cactus forests on land, they play host to a dynamic, intense and complex eco-system. Abalone and sea urchins eat kelp. Sea otters—a critically endangered species because they were once hunted to the very edge of extinction—eat abalone and sea urchins. Without the otters, the kelp forests will disappear. And with the kelp forests … oceanic life.

Balance. Yin and Yang. The secret to survival for us all.

3. You have choices. Make them count. The only unpleasantness I experienced on the trip was from a business that takes out whale watching cruises. Specifically, one man at that business. Their website lists “partners”, one of which was the glass bottom boat ride on Monterey Bay. My question was innocuous: because it was windy and the glass bottom boat booth was empty, I asked if they knew whether or not the boat was going out (their kiosk is within 50 feet of the glass bottom boat’s). His response was “Does this look like the glass bottom boat ride? Does this look like the same building?” etc. etc. Berating, abusive, bullying … because I was a tourist? Because I am a woman? As in all criminal behavior, the brain tries to find a rational reason for such ugliness, but, in truth, there is none. Criminality is all about the self—a profoundly anti-social attitude. When I told this man his behavior and attitude were unconscionably rude and that furthermore, his website suggested the businesses were connected, he demanded “Show me on the website where it says so.” Finally, he refused to give my anything but his first name.

I wanted to report him to his supervisor. And then I discovered that he owns the business … and that a close relative owns the glass bottom boat ride. Their family has been in Monterey for about fifty years, and apparently “give back” to the community. My response: So does Donald Sterling.

So, guess what? No patronizing his whale watching tour. No patronizing his family’s restaurants, which are in prominent locations on the Wharf and on Cannery Row. I exercised my right of choice and fervently hope others do, too.

Sea Wolf II4. R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Nature, the ocean, other people. Exercising that choice above, we set off on an amazing adventure through the Monterey Bay Whale Watch. The sea was windy and dark blue and the swells were not small, but, oh, what magnificence. We encountered a krill bed, so dense with these small creatures that they turned the water pink. Everything seems to eat krill, from whales to salmon to penguins. Thankfully, they populate quickly. And as a bonus, they look like sea monkeys. 😉

Whale TaleIf you’ve never experienced seeing a whale spout—or watching a blue whale, the world’s largest creature, execute a dive, its gray, massive body gliding effortlessly through the waters, about twice as long as your 70 foot long boat—then take a trip to Monterey. These massive, gentle animals eating and playing (we saw mother and calf humpback whales rolling over in the water in between dives) is what the word awe was made to define. And did you know that the Orca (Killer Whale) is a member of the dolphin family?

Cannery Row Sign5. Truth lingers. Cannery Row was once Ocean View Avenue. When overfishing killed the sardine and canning industries that gave the street its nickname, Steinbeck his title and a raison d’etre to Monterey, tourism moved in, and the city changed the name officially in 1958.

Cannery Row today—especially on a warm weekend in May—is overflowing with tourists who wander aimlessly into shoddy amusement halls, chasing something they couldn’t put into words. Most of the time, they are there to buy: food, souvenirs, shells, stuffed animals. They are surrounded by a wonder of the world, with sea spray and roar and nesting cormorants and barking sea lions and the occasional back-swimming otter within easy view, but most of them stalk wide-eyed through the streets, the history and beauty of the place serving as window dressing for a snack, a t-shirt, a drink.

AquariumMany of them, fortunately, wander into the Aquarium, which does an amazing and near-miraculous job of balancing education with entertainment and amusement with protection. In order to engage the average tourist, the amusement must be there, make no mistake; but they serve up lessons with the show, not lectures, and in so doing they are playing an instrumental role in saving the world’s oceans.

Ed's PlaceAlso in so doing, they are continuing the work of Steinbeck’s friend and pioneer ecologist Ed Ricketts, whose unassuming business and home stands at 800 Cannery Row, unnoticed by many of the snackers and shoppers, just as it stood in the middle of the giant canning factories and apron-wearing workers, whistles shrieking a call to can the latest catch.

Vacant LotSteinbeck’s Cannery Row was already gone when he wrote the book, but even it lingers in the morning and late afternoon, the shacks of the workers still preserved off the main street, the vacant lot, home to his idealized bums, still vacant. The book is not the best of Steinbeck, because he was trying to resuscitate something already gone and so he romanticized it, the Great Depression through the ash-covered windows of Hiroshima, the lost past of youth always more attractive than the presence of middle age. But here and there you still see it, the noise and the stink, both as it was and how Steinbeck portrayed it.

Truth lingers in places like San Francisco and Monterey, the truth of personal experience and even the emotional truth of memory.

Duke, intrepid sea dog belonging to the captain of the Sea Wolf II
Duke, intrepid sea dog belonging to the captain of the Sea Wolf II

I’m honored and happy to have witnessed it.