Stop 10: Monterey and Carmel Valley, California

As we left the Shochat’s house in Berkeley on Sunday morning, there was a dingy miasma of ash falling from the sky, remnants of the brush fire that burned in the Concord area, northeast of Berkeley. The smoke, combined with the fog and the ash, made the morning feel like a dystopian version of itself.

We drove to the city, across the Bay Bridge and towards Golden Gate. After having been in the area for the last couple of nights (and after spending an entire day in San Francisco), we still hadn’t seen the Golden Gate Bridge. Well, we crossed it twice this morning and I still have only seen the roadway and the lower portions of the cables. The air was too hazy to see much else. But we managed to get onto Highway 1 and headed south toward Monterey. We stopped for some coffee in Pacifica, and the morning fog slowly began to lift.

The coastline in this part of California is beautiful and rugged, lined with eroding cliffs, and jagged rocks. Waves hurl themselves at the coast here. Shorebirds congregate along with harbor seals and sea lions. The surf was filled with surfers and the few sandy strands of beaches were dotted with walkers and beachcombers, enjoying the last day of their weekend. We stopped repeatedly to take in views and snap photos. The further south we drove and the higher the sun got, the clearer the day became.

We finally made it to Monterey. John Steinbeck, one of my favorite writers, wrote of Monterey in his novel, Cannery Row:

“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses.”

It is not like this anymore, of course. As Steinbeck later acknowledges, now Cannery Row fishes for tourists. It is clean, orderly, welcoming, and pretty. Our main reason for visiting Monterey was to visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium. On the way to the aquarium, we stopped at the bust of Steinbeck on the waterfront and beheld the Pacific Biological Laboratories, workplace of the marine biologist Ed Ricketts, basis for Steinbeck’s character, Doc, in Cannery Row. We also saw the Bear Flag Restaurant that features prominently in the book.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is an amazing place. We entered about 40 minutes after it had opened, and while it was still crowded, we were able to see exhibits comfortably and at a reasonable pace. The aquarium sits right on the edge of the bay, so visitors can venture out the back of the facility to view the bay and spot seals, sea otters, and other marine creatures. The aquarium has two incredibly impressive exhibits. The first is a kelp forest with natural sunlight, currents, and diverse species of fish. It was like looking into the ocean through a thick plate of glass. The second is called The Open Sea. It is a massive tank with a viewing wall stretching 90 feet wide. The room is dark and soft, ambient music quietly plays in the background. The tank features a massive school of sardines, some yellowfin tuna, Pacific mackerel, hammerhead sharks, giant green sea turtles, a few huge stingrays, dolphin (the fish), a mola (sunfish), and more. It was mesmerizing to watch. Another of the other highlights of the aquarium is the sea otter exhibit. Otters are a favorite animal of mine, and these were adorable—they floated on their backs and groomed themselves with great care. I think they enjoyed being so popular. To make the day even more fun, I ran into a young woman who will be in my AP Literature class next year. Small world.

We left the aquarium and embarked on the 17-Mile Drive, a scenic tour of the Pebble Beach area. We got to stand a few feet from the 18th green of the iconic Pebble Beach golf course and watch a man flail wildly at his ball in the bunker. I think it took him three shots to get the ball out. He paid about $500 to play the course, so maybe he was just getting his money’s worth and staying on the course as long as possible.

Our next stop was to get some lunch, so we went to the In-N-Out Burger, a place I’ve wanted to visit because of its reputation for great burgers, but also because of The Big Lebowski. The burgers and fries were top notch, among the best fast food hamburgers I’ve ever eaten. It’s hard for me to rank food because I like all of it, but In-N-Out is in an elite category.

Then it was off to Carmel Valley to our Airbnb for the night. We have a private apartment attached to a house with outstanding views of the valley and a warm saltwater pool for relaxing. A couple of bottles of local Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, and you’ve got a near perfect evening. Also, the bed is a TempurPedic.

This marks the end of our journey westward. Tomorrow, we’re headed back east. Thanks for reading.

Next stop: Las Vegas, Nevada.

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