John Steinbeck made me do it. During the mid-1950s, while a Junior at Campbell High School, I drove my ’40 Chevy all over the hills south and east of Salinas looking for the setting he might have envisioned for The Red Pony. Another high school buddy and I would go to Monterey and look for the whore houses from Cannery Row. All of those places where the lettuce was loaded onto iced rail cars in East of Eden and the migrant camps from Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath were out there somewhere and I was determined to find them.
Descriptions of places were part of what gave me the love of literature. Perhaps my desire to work in the unspoiled landscapes of the national parks had its genesis in those searches as well. There seemed a longing to get out from between four walls and to see.
In the 1960s in Alaska I was fortunate to know Jack Calvin, co-author of Between Pacific Tides. Jack had travelled with John Steinbeck and Ed Rickets, (the man who was the model for the character “Doc” in Cannery Row), on the voyage that inspired The Log from the Sea of Cortez. On a magical evening aboard the M.V. Nunatak, anchored in Sandy Cove in Glacier Bay, Jack told us wonderful stories of their trip through the Gulf of Baja California.
Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of Little House on the Prairie may have been responsible for the love affair we have with old farm houses. And how many over-the-hill men have pulled hamstring muscles running from Pamplona’s bulls because Ernest Hemingway wrote about it in The Sun Also Rises? Getting these things right is an important part of my writing. Some very good writers can make this stuff up from their vivid imaginations. Some of us need to actually be there. My writing buddy Suzanne Shaw has gone to London to research what people ate in the eighteenth century just so she can get it right in her new novel.
My first books, Kolea and Tales from the Parks are filled with descriptions of landscapes. I’ve tried to make the places real enough so some teenager or septuagenarian might want to seek out the places and give life to the words on the page. While writing history or pre-history in fiction, one must often reconstruct a landscape that has been built over or otherwise changed. Finding old journals in the library can return me to another time and place and the stack of atlases and gazetteers in my writing room are a big help but there is no substitute for walking or paddling across the places I want to portray.
At my age and physical condition I’m no longer scaling the cliffs and backpacking across the passes of the world. Memory, for better or for worse, has to suffice for much of it. But even John Steinbeck had to slow down. In Travels with Charley he drove a pickup and camper around the country with his dog and enraptured us with the story of his dog peeing with great admiration on a huge redwood tree. I think it’s time for another trip.