SANTA LUCIA MOUNTAINS, Calif. - When the writer was ready to create what he would consider his greatest work, not the one about the scrambling wind-blown Okies that helped wake up the world, but the sweeping saga of two brothers and their mother who ran a whorehouse, he began like this:
"The Salinas Valley is in Northern California. It is a long narrow swale between two ranges of mountains, and the Salinas River winds and twists up the center until it falls at last into Monterey Bay. . . .
"I remember that the Gabilan Mountains to the east of the valley were light gay mountains full of sun and loveliness and a kind of invitation, so that you wanted to climb into their warm foothills almost as you want to climb into the lap of a beloved mother. They were beckoning mountains with a brown grass love. The Santa Lucias stood up against the sky to the west and kept the valley from the open sea, and they were dark and brooding - unfriendly and dangerous."
The writer began the novel, to be called "East of Eden," with the valley and the mountains because he grew up here and spent years poking among the hillsides and canyons, working jobs in the fields, measuring the relationship between humans and nature. Later, he wrote stories about striking apple pickers, about Lennie killing the puppy and the wife and George killing Lennie, about Jody's red pony, alive and dead, and about farmers on the run.
The stories needed a setting, a context. And that was the land.
So it makes sense for a modern traveler tracing a real life and a fictional universe to begin by following John Steinbeck, a century after his birth, to the far end of the long Salinas Valley, to a meadow tucked behind a pass in the bad mountains.
It was here in this dry, rocky country, in the early 1930s, before one book earned the Pulitzer and all of them the Nobel, before Henry Fonda and James Dean put his characters on the screen, that Steinbeck set his second novel, "To a God Unknown."
When the novel's main character, Joseph Wayne, wandered over the pass to his 160-acre homestead in the mid-1800s, he found spiritual treachery and unspoiled tracts: "patches of blue lupins lay like shadows in a clear lucent night"; "clumps of live oaks stood like perpetual senates ruling over the land."
It is still like that today.
The US Army bought much of the land that Joseph and his fictional family inhabited and turned it into a military reservation, ensuring its remoteness. The nearby town of Jolon, never more than a one-street affair, was leveled years back.
A visitor armed only with valid car registration and proof of insurance can enter the base and even spend the night at a bizarre hotel: a ranch building designed by the architect Julia Morgan for William Randolph Hearst's estate. The Hacienda, as it's called, sits across from the Army fire hall. A "cowboy room," with bathroom four doors down, goes for $28 a night.
But leave this funky base-camp and drive past the Mission San Antonio, which, formerly abandoned, is again open to visitors for Sunday Mass and sells icons and Bibles. Follow the Del Venturi Road as it dips down across the shallow current of the San Antonio River and rises to one low pass, then another.
Hidden birds whistle, trill, and jingle. As the sun ducks behind the highest ridge, the air drops to the coolness of a meat locker. It tastes as though it has been scooped from above a clear blue ocean and dropped here, which it has.
Look out across the meadow, perhaps a half-mile wide. There are wickets of oak and a gentle spring-fed stream.
The land is deceptive. Up close it is intimate: boulders that reach shoulder high, bushes in the shape of pillows. But step back and there is awe: the unknown that lurks in open country. In late afternoon, Joseph's fear, the fear he felt leading his horse-drawn wagon up the narrow canyons, meadow after meadow, lingers.
In a place like this, playing literary detective is inevitable. Is this what Steinbeck saw when he wrote about Joseph's meadow? Is that the clump of giant madrones?
Maybe. But there is something better to find here and in all of Steinbeck Country: a sense of what shaped the man and helped him create characters and stories that have sold millions of copies and resonated with readers from Tokyo to Toulouse.
"The Grapes of Wrath" is the biggest, sparking political debate when it won the Pulitzer in 1940, marking history for readers today. "Of Mice and Men" was an experiment with the form of the novel, has been made into first-rate films (starring Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney in 1939; Gary Sinese and John Malkovich in 1992) and still is being performed on stage, somewhere in the world, nearly every day. "The Red Pony" has shown adults and children the hardness of nature and the passage of time.
But that is just the start. Over nearly four decades, Steinbeck produced more than 30 works: novels, short stories, collections of reportage, books of nonfiction, personal journals, plays, screenplays. All of it, in ways obvious and not, started here, in the mountains and the valley below.
So leave the quiet meadow, follow the Jolon Road back down to Highway 101 and turn north, traveling among the people on the valley floor.
The morning commute glides smoothly past brick sound walls framing new housing developments. The distant January hills are a patchwork of greens, and the miles of fields before them - sweet-smelling even in a speeding car - are a rich black. The earth is plowed in straight rows; the tops of strawberry plants show slumbering promise. Later in the year, roughly half of all the lettuce, cauliflower, broccoli, artichokes, and other veggies America produces will spring from this billion-dollar salad bowl.
Near the north end of the valley, amid neon beacons for In-
N-Out Burger, Best Western, and Shell, sits the town of Salinas, the center of this "long narrow swale" when it had 4,000 residents a century ago and with 144,000 today.
Drive to the old town, to the corner of Central and Stone. There sits the first irony: a sturdy, 4,000-square-foot Victorian, restored down to all its lathe-trimmed detail. Steinbeck, the man who made his biggest mark writing about outsiders, about the working class, was born the son of a flour company manager into a decidedly middle-class home set on a street where the bankers and lawyers walked to work.
Today, the house - where a group of women volunteers serve tasty home-cooked meals - is a tidy museum of Steinbeck domesticity. There is the photo of John, his parents, and two sisters, each holding a book. There is John's silver baby cup and, downstairs, in an extensive gift shop, the frame of the bed on which, on Feb. 27, 100 years ago, he was born.
But it is upstairs, in a room closed to the public, reserved now as the bookkeeper's office, that the connection is greatest. In the far wall of what was once teenage Steinbeck's bedroom, there is a rectangular window, perhaps 4 feet long, 2 feet high, with a dark wood frame. Steinbeck did much of his earliest writing at a table by this window with its view to the street and the drama below.
Across the street and west a bit, sits the former home of Max Wagner, Steinbeck's childhood friend, thought to be the model for Jody, of "The Red Pony." Down another side street sits a simple, boxy home, the former residence of one Sheriff Nesbitt, thought to be an inspiration for Sheriff Quinn, in "East of Eden."
"John was using people that he knew, that he grew up with, that were part of the culture," said Carol Robles, a Steinbeck aficianada who leads tours of the town and countryside.
"It's all just right here."
Before Steinbeck even wrote his first novel, he left. He went off to New York and returned west to Lake Tahoe. He lived over the Santa Lucias in Pacific Grove and Monterey, where he made friendships that inspired "Tortilla Flat" and "Cannery Row," among others. Later, after travels in Mexico and Russia and points between, he made his longest adult home a nation away, splitting time between New York City and Long Island's Sag Harbor.
But here, near Central and Stone, his fiction caused the most intimate debate. Powerful growers felt stung by "The Grapes of Wrath," and copies of the book were burned in front of the town library. Other locals were no happier when they turned up none-too-discreetly in "East of Eden."
That is why the multimillion-dollar creation of brick, steel, and glass, located just a few blocks east of Steinbeck's childhood home, is the second great irony.
Today, the National Steinbeck Center, with its gallery and bookshop and exhibit wonderfully detailing the man's life, anchors an old town revival. A visitor can watch a video of Steinbeck's life, then take a detailed walk through a tribute to Steinbeck's works. Kids pile on a model "Red Pony," while adults pick up an old phone and listen to the grower-picker debate that shaped "In Dubious Battle." There are the Life magazine photos - deemed too vivid to publish before "The Grapes of Wrath," too relevant not to publish afterward - comparing the real and imagined. At the end sits the original Rocinante, the green, capped pickup that served as Steinbeck's rolling home during "Travels with Charley," his late-in-life road trip to get in touch with America.
There is all of this because, while locals were worrying about personal reputations and economic fallout, Steinbeck's books rose up, left the valley, and traveled around the world. There, they connected with readers who saw in them basic human struggles wrapped in good old storytelling. East Coast critics dogged much of his writing, but careful readers plumbed the layers he wove into works big and small.
"Clarity of surface was something he was striving for," said Susan Shillinglaw, a professor and director of the Center for Steinbeck Studies, at San Jose State University.
"He said he tried to see things with a child's vision. He saw what a child sees, but that doesn't mean there's not more in it."
And so, after the Pulitzer and the Nobel and the quiet funeral and the postage stamp parade, the hometown, seeing more in the books, and money in celebrating them, decided to welcome home its wandering son.
At times, while passing Steinbeck Travel, or the renamed John Steinbeck Library, it is hard to imagine what would intrigue the son, were he a young writer today. He could write about the refrigerated lettuce - that failed "East of Eden" experiment - that helped the farming boom. He could write about the Silicon stock option dreams, busted and not, in the valley one hour north.
Or, as Steinbeck was a journalist all his life, he could look around for the outsiders. His reporting about migrant camps in central California for the San Francisco News was the foundation for "The Grapes of Wrath."
Today, he could take a short drive along the Elkhorn Road, a bobbing, weaving track that connects Castroville to Pajaro, to the apartments on Salinas Road.
He could walk across the dirt parking lot and look at the cans falling from the trash barrel with the rusted-through bottom. He could watch a woman scrub the family wash on the hood of an old car. Or he could stop at a door to one of the low, blue-gray buildings built in another era, buildings that look like something out of, well, "The Grapes of Wrath."
He could step through the door and meet a woman named Rosario who, with her husband, four children, and two other relatives, lives in a two-room apartment of stacked bunks and leaking floorboards and moldy air that costs, thanks to the Silicon dreams up north and the environmentalists on the peninsula and the landlord who didn't seem much to care, $725 a month.
Rosario would tell Steinbeck that, while her husband has been able to work among the artichokes for the past six years, she and her oldest children do not have health care. Then she would tell Steinbeck that she has never heard of him.
This is among the worst Steinbeck would see, because after a lot of fights since Steinbeck's days, some workers get 401(k) plans and the chance to buy homes that are not priced for Internet experts and retired bankers.
On a drive toward one of these places, back on the other end of the Elkhorn Road, Sabino Lopez, a former farm worker who teamed with Cesar Chavez in the 1970s and now works for affordable housing with Salinas' Center for Community Advocacy, broke a pensive silence.
"The thing I like about Steinbeck," Lopez said, "is at least he had the courage to write about the things nobody wanted to talk about."
During his last visit to the Salinas Valley, in 1960, as he wandered America with Charley the poodle, Steinbeck turned again to the land. He drove the road that climbs past the cattle grazing the soft hillsides, up along the dry ridges and into the pines of Fremont Peak. There, he mounted the "last spiky rocks to the top," and surveyed the valley.
When he wrote about this moment in "Travels with Charley," Steinbeck did not mention the hot Dust Bowl days or the simmering sagas in the town below. He did not mention the criticism or the praise.
Instead, he gently told Charley about his mother handling a gun, about his father branding a tree, in what was once, before he wrote about it, before it caught up with the outside world, its own place.
Then, he wrote, he took a last look:
"I printed it once more on my eyes, south, west, and north, and then we hurried away from the permanent and changeless past where my mother is always shooting a wildcat and my father is always burning his name with his love."
Tom Haines can be reached by email at email@example.com.