top of page

He Loved True Things

Crossing over a forest service road I met an Indian man and his daughter out picking berries.

"Are you finding any medicinal plants?" he asked me. "You doing any plant identification?"

"Well, all I'm really paying attention to right now are the berries!" I answered.

He seemed to know almost nothing about the PCT.

"Why are you out here doing this?" he asked me.

I paused before answering and then gave my facetious response. "I like the pain and suffering."

"No, that's not pain and suffering," he said matter-of-factly, a rather serious look on his face. "I know why you're out here."

I waited for him to explain but he never did. He simply returned to his task of plucking berries.


Once when Doc was at the University of Chicago he had love trouble and he had worked too hard. He thought it would be nice to take a very long walk. He put on a little knapsack and he walked through Indiana and Kentucky and North Carolina and Georgia clear to Florida. He walked among farmers and mountains people, among the swamp people and fishermen. And everywhere people asked him why he was walking through the country.

Because he loved true things, he tried to explain. He said he was nervous and besides he wanted to see the country, smell the ground and look at grass and birds and trees, to savor the country, and there was no other way to do it save on foot. And people didn't like him for telling the truth. They scowled, or shook and tapped their heads, they laughed as though they knew it was a lie and they appreciated a liar. And some, afraid for their daughters or their pigs, told him to move on, to get going, just not to stop near their place if he knew what was good for him.

And so he stopped trying to tell the truth. He said he was doing it on a bet - that he stood to win a hundred dollars. Everyone liked him then and believed him. They asked him in to dinner and gave him a bed and they put lunches up for him and wished him good luck and thought he was a hell of a fine fellow. Doc still loved true things but he knew it was not a general love and it could be a very dangerous mistress.

Steinbeck, Cannery Row

Ed Ricketts was the real-life basis for the character of Doc in Cannery Row, who was a kind of poetic "metaphor for the spirit of Ed as Steinbeck perceived it." He was one of Steinbeck's closest friends and like Doc he was a marine biologist who lived and worked out of his lab on the Row. And also like Doc, Ricketts had walked from Indiana to Florida, a journey he chronicled in a 1925 article for Travel magazine entitled Vagabonding Through Dixie. While some portions of his travels must have traced the route of what would eventually become the Appalachian Trail, it was, as Steinbeck describes it, not a wilderness walk but rather one that took him through the towns, farms and rural countryside of the South. In Savannah he mentions happening upon John Muir's A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf in a local library, though its not hard to imagine that Ricketts was already familiar with Muir's travelogue and that it perhaps played some part in inspiring his journey in the first place.

In his brief article for Travel, Ricketts writes of the South in the way an explorer would write of an exotic, foreign land - and in many ways it was just that to a Yankee from Illinois. In the early twentieth century, before the homogenization of speech and culture that ensued with the proliferation of television, the Deep South must have seemed a world apart from Chicago. As he entered Georgia and became more exposed to African-Americans and their culture, the differences must have seemed infinitely more pronounced. He romanticizes the country, making no reference to racism and Jim Crow, describing it as "the Dixieland of the story books. Here are the moss-hung oaks, the green glistening magnolias and the long-leaf pine giants. Where the road dips down past a swamp bordered stream are thickets where the mocking-birds hide and in the cornfields and cotton fields, kindly old-fashioned negroes hunt Brer Rabbit." While Ricketts likely knew no more about the African-American experience than I did about the life of the Indian man I met alongside that forest road, he nonetheless paints an evocative scene as the outsider looking in:

Later, during the night, there came a terrible storm, so vibrant that the very trees seemed to shake. When I awoke, these same colored folk were singing religious tunes at the top of their voices. What a picture it made! Rain beating down on my tent, trees swaying and swishing in the wind, crashes of thunder that seemed to rock the earth, and a weird, wailing song dimly heard above the clatter of the rain.

Doc's explanation for his long distance walk - that he loved true things - is a bit vague, but from Steinbeck we learn that "to Ed a thing that was true was beautiful." As Benson points out "Steinbeck uses the trip in Cannery Row to describe Doc's love of true things and to contrast this love of true things with the resistance most people have toward the true, the unusual, or the purely aesthetic."

I can't help but wonder what Steinbeck might have thought of long-distance hiking trails. Considering the fact that Ricketts, one of the most important people in his life both personally and intellectually, had made that long walk from Indiana to Florida, I'd like to think Steinbeck would at least have found the idea of a thru-hike intriguing. His appreciation of nature is clear and the landscape of California's Central Coast had made an indelible impact upon him, but as far as I know he wasn't much of a hiker, outside of his time living at Lake Tahoe. In his teenage years he had been somewhat of a recluse, spending most of his time holed up in his bedroom writing, but as Benson explains, "occasionally, he had to break away, and he took long walks into the countryside or, at night, through town." Benson also notes that after the publication of Cannery Row, "in order to try to pick up his life as it had been before, Steinbeck began taking long walks through the drizzle of the gray Monterey winter. He tracked the Bay, up and down, watched the seagulls, inspected the boats, and occasionally stopped for a cup of coffee or a beer along the way." Its a bit of a stretch for sure, but I like to think of those bayside walks as a microcosm of a thru-hike - a long walk broken up with occasional stops to indulge in food and drink.

Steinbeck did possess an adventurous spirit and had planned, but failed to actually execute, extensive trips into the Mexican back country. Benson writes that "he had planned a trip by horseback ... in his college days, and just a few months before writing Tortilla Flat, when he was living in Montrose, he had tried to arrange a trip to be financed by selling travel sketches along the way." In a letter to a friend, Steinbeck writes of "the days when they used to think of Mexico as something golden and how they thought they would never get there." Eventually, of course, he went on his maritime exploration of the Gulf of Mexico, collecting marine specimens with Ed Ricketts which he chronicled in The Log from the Sea of Cortez. At that time, after the publication of The Grapes of Wrath, he "needed to bring his life and work back into focus, to refurbish them through the cleansing agents of discipline and nature ... Although most of the trip was hard work for Steinbeck - his hands were cut, scraped, stung, and sore; his back ached from bending over rocks on shore and stooping over pans on deck ... despite all that, the experience for him was profound and moving. For a man who all his life had felt a part of nature and who thought of nature as All, collecting in the Gulf was a little like the sudden hearing for a time of the heartbeat of the universe." Whether Steinbeck would appreciate the idea of long-distance hiking, I do not know, but I doubt that any thru-hiker could read Benson's above description of Steinbeck's maritime journey and not be reminded of their own time on the trail.

And while there's no way to know what he would have thought about the concept of National Scenic Trails, Steinbeck did have this to say about the National Parks:

I must confess to a laxness in the matter of National Parks. I haven't visited many of them. Perhaps this is because they enclose the unique, the spectacular, the astounding - the greatest waterfall, the deepest canyon, the highest cliff, the most stupendous works of man or nature ... it is my opinion that we enclose and celebrate the freaks of our nation and of our civilization. Yellowstone National Park is no more representative of America than is Disneyland.

The Pacific Crest Trail of course does not adhere to those manmade enclosures and boundaries, it continues along all the same - into, through and beyond. Within the national parks, it takes the thru-hiker to places far from any roads, to places never seen by most visitors. The national parks are but a small part of a trail that threads together national monuments, state parks, national forest land, true wilderness, small towns, private land and most everything in between. It passes through not only the unique, the spectacular and the astounding, but the mundane, the lackluster and the easily forgotten. It travels areas no one but a thru-hiker would pass through and, in a way, that sets it apart from Steinbeck's critique of the national parks. There are plenty of uncelebrated parts of the trail. That's part of what makes it special - you have to struggle for your stupendous works of nature and therefore you don't take them for granted. Having walked every step of the way to reach them, you see each in relation to the landscape as a whole - the good, the bad and the ugly - and they take on a greater meaning because of it.

Steinbeck's glib remarks concerning the national parks must be taken in the context of what was truly a lifelong appreciation of nature. Benson writes that Steinbeck's "sense of man as part of nature remained constant. From time to time, his sense of man's place in nature received both instruction ... and reinforcement (as from his immersions in nature as a child, his outdoor work as a teenager and young man, and his years following college spent, often completely alone, at Lake Tahoe). He was conditioned throughout much of his early life to see nature and to regard it seriously."

Recent Posts
Search By Tags
No tags yet.
    bottom of page