I fell in love with Monterey.
Mission San Carlos Borromeo del rio Carmelo in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California. Or, for short, the Carmel Mission. Founded in the 1770s by Spanish missionaries to Alta California's indigenous peoples. This chapel dates to the early 1790s.
Interior of the 1790s Carmel Mission chapel
It was not just the eighteenth-century Spanish mission in Carmel-by-the Sea. (Can I just say "Carmel"? This reminds me of upstate New York towns like Croton-on-Hudson. Do we really need to know that it is "by the Sea" or "on [the] Hudson"? If it is a cool enough place, it would not have to so blatantly advertise its riparian/seaside qualities.)
I did not spend anytime in Carmel-by-the-Sea except to visit the eighteenth-century mission. But I have visited a number of Spanish missions by now—four by my count (so, about one mission every fifteen days for this research adventure!). The Carmel Mission was nice enough, but certainly the best interpretive experience I have had at any mission this year was at Mission San Juan Capistrano.
Inside the Carmel Mission chapel
Inside the Carmel Mission chapel
Apparently the first library in all of California, c. 1840s, in the Carmel Mission complex. Just like in Hawaiʻi, we have Christian missionaries to thank for the palapala (the written word).
I left Berkeley at 8am in a rental car. On the way out passed a young person on the side of the road with a cardboard sign reading "Modesto." I was not heading anywhere near Modesto, so there was little I could offer.
It was a little after 10am when I reached Carmel-by-the-Sea. The town itself is crap. What exists of "downtown" is just a conglomeration of trendy faux-old shops and lots of speed bumps and khaki pants. At least that is how it appeared to me when I, starving for something to eat for breakfast, drove around looking for "cheap eats"—which I only found further out of town at a diner at a shopping mall.
A Monterey Cypress tree in the courtyard of the Carmel Mission
My guidebook describes Monterey as "working class" compared to Carmel's "feel of a country club." That's about right. So it was great to leave the mission and leave Carmel behind by the sea and head north up the Monterey peninsula to its namesake, Monterey.
If Carmel was all about the eighteenth century, Monterey is all about the nineteenth century. Carmel was about Spanish empire in Alta California. Monterey is about the Mexican republic and the very early period of American rule. So, 1830s and 1840s are really our game here. Which is, to be true, part of what makes Monterey so romantic.
Monterey State Historic Park headquarters, in the 1840s-era Pacific House Museum
My walking tour began here, at the headquarters of the Monterey State Historic Park. I parked my rental car and went on foot. Apparently either Monterey or the State of California bought up a whole lot of Mexican-era properties in the city in the late twentieth century and then eventually turned them over and into this State Historic Park. It was a great idea. The downtown is just littered with these properties: more adobe buildings than you will probably find anywhere else this side of the border (discounting other former parts of Mexico, where perhaps even greater adobes reign). The headquarters is an 1840s-era two-story building right on the main plaza. Inside are exhibits on (mostly) the Mexican era in Monterey history, so about 1821 to 1848. Why such a focus on Mexico (besides the great wealth of architectural history from that period)? Perhaps because Monterey was the capital of Mexican California. All ships coming in and out of California during this period had to visit Monterey. It was the only sanctioned port for foreign commerce, immigration, et cetera, although of course ships visited many other California ports illegally during this time.
Inside the Pacific House Museum, a copy of The Polynesian, a Honolulu-based newspaper that happened to be the only newspaper worth reading in Mexican Alta California until the late 1840s. Evidence again of the influential Mexican-Hawaiian connection.
Inside the Pacific House Museum, upstairs is a museum dedicated to Native American history. Confusingly, exhibits such as this one on costumes lack identifying labels. Many a visitor might think this is how California Indians once dressed. They did not. These are Great Plains Indians artifacts. Very confusing!
Inside the Pacific House Museum, the always necessary exhibit on sea otters. Just as at Fort Ross, the "lure of fur" explains much of everything that happened on the Pacific Coast of North America in the early nineteenth century.
Next it was off to the Customs House museum. Remember, Monterey was the capital of Mexican California, so all ships in and out of the territory had to pass through customs in this building.
Old Monterey Customs House, built in stages from the 1820s to the 1840s
Inside the Customs House museum we can imagine what it was like when imports and exports piled up and clerks kept track of everything in big fat books. A Mexican flag hangs on the wall.
The Monterey State Historic Park has developed a self-guided walking tour that includes all the other properties within the park system. So off it was on this walking tour, which took me about two to three hours, since I, of course, had to read every single sign and listen to every single stop on the cellphone audio tour!
A monument to settler colonialism: the first brick house in California, c. 1847. Why brick? Because the builders of this house were overland migrants from Missouri and Missourians don't like adobe. Haha. No clearer sign of the transition from Mexican to American rule than this: this old brick home so out of place among Monterey's adobes.
The old whaling station, also circa 1840s. Built as a residence, I believe, but then it became associated with the whaling industry in the 1850s. The white "stones" in the sidewalk are actually whalebone, or so they say.
The oldest theater in all of California. American actors performing English-language plays, I believe. Again, a monument to settler colonialism. So interesting: in this one day I saw the oldest library, the oldest brick house, and the oldest theater in all of California, as if the people that came before—Mexican creoles and indigenous peoples—had no culture worth memorializing (although the library was Spanish...).
An American-run store from the Mexican era. You know, this walking tour seems to be less about Mexican California and more about American settlers in Mexican California! Perhaps this is the romance of Monterey: not that it has so much beautiful Mexican heritage, but that it has so much heritage of Euro-American outsiders enjoying themselves in an "exotic" Spanish-tinged land. That seems to be the romance of Monterey. (And once we read these guys' writings from this period, all about dark-haired, dark-eyed Mexican beauties, then you know for sure that Monterey's romance is all about the exoticization of the "other," something that Americans are historically pretty good at!)
A romantic courtyard behind the 1840s-era Pacific House Museum
A romantic alleyway in downtown Monterey
An early American jail from the 1850s. Even the jail is romantic!
The mayor's office, in an 1840s-era adobe home, of course!
Colton Hall, site of the drafting of California's first constitution as an American territory
Inside Colton Hall. Feels like Independence Hall in Philadelphia, except here the independence was won by just a small rabble of American settlers unhappy with Mexican republican rule. Of course they were helped by the American army then at war with Mexico (1846-48). Another monument to settler colonialism and the long arm of American empire.
All right. What else?
How about this 1830s-era double-storied adobe built by Thomas Larkin, first and only U.S. Consul in Mexican California?
How about this little bunker occupied by William Sherman (of U.S. Civil War fame) during or right after the Mexican-American War?
How about these old wooden carriage houses / barns?
How about this old adobe with bright blue trim! And how about that pomegranate tree?
How about this boarding house where writer Robert Louis Stevenson lived—maybe—for a few months—in the 1870s. He found Monterey romantic. He wrote about its old Mexican era while here. That was before he went to live and die in Samoa.
And how about this 1790s-era chapel? You think Monterey has enough pre-U.S. heritage yet?!
The whole enterprise of walking around Monterey's historic streets was simply overwhelmingly. Like I said, it took me many hours. Adobe after adobe after adobe. I want to romantically live in one of these Mexican adobes, and yet there are warning signs on the front doors of each one saying, "in the event of seismic activity this structure may collapse," or something to that effect. Caveat emptor. Buyer beware.
But as romantic as Mexican-era Monterey is, something is also missing. And that's the ocean. Because when people really think about Monterey, they think of the sea. They think of the wharfs and the fishing boats and the old canneries. They think of John Steinbeck, not Robert Louis Stevenson. So where's the ocean in all this?
Well, it is just a few blocks downhill from Monterey's preserved Mexican past. But, caveat emptor...again, because while there are romantic coasts in Monterey, there are also decidedly not romantic ones. Of course I just had to see the latter, and so I was off to Cannery Row. The history perhaps is romantic—if you are into tough times for immigrant workers—but the outer shell of this area today is disgustingly unromantic. Think Times Square on the Pacific.
Steinbeck Plaza. Yes, this is how Steinbeck wanted to be remembered. Johnny Rockets, Billiards, a glass elevator, and lots of touristy-looking tourists.
Well here we go: a historic cannery building. I can dig that. But look closer. Starbucks? Dippin Dots? No!!
Oh, here we are: a museum. Wait? A John Steinbeck-themed Wax Museum? What the...? "As Seen on TV"? I'm so confused!
To be fair, Steinbeck's legacy has not totally been annihilated by this hulking mass of crass consumerism (that hopefully the next earthquake will send drifting off into the ocean).
There is still a beach here, oh just beside the Fish Hopper! The beach reminds us that it is the ocean that once mattered here: fishermen fished, and that fish came ashore and was canned in these old cannery buildings. But now the ocean doesn't matter at all. Sure, you can go to Bubba Gump's (yes, they've got that here, too), but I'm pretty sure that the jumbo shrimp you will eat there is not from Monterey Bay.
And finally, something real: a few old immigrant workers' shacks. Interpretive panels describe the ethnic diversity of the immigrants who came to Monterey to work in the canneries and in the fishery.
I guess the early twentieth-century history of Steinbeck's world—the fisheries, the canneries, and the working class—is pretty much lost here. It doesn't possess the same romance as that of one century earlier: the Mexican republican period.
It was now about 5pm. I had hoped to find a good seafood restaurant along the bay, but the likes of Fish Hopper and Bubba Gump's scared me away. So I headed back inland a few blocks and found a Hawaiian-themed tiki bar. Well, why not? I am studying Hawaiʻi, right?
It was happy hour and I ordered a rum-infused drink and a big bowl of ahi poke. It was served with rice, black beans, and lettuce, so kind of a mix of Mexi-Cali and Hawaiian cuisines? Strange, but tasty. And the drink was killer. I mean, perhaps it was because I had not eaten very much all day at that time, but the drink sent me spinning. When I turned my head from side to side, my eyes struggled to keep up with my head. You know the feeling. It is a sure sign that you are drunk. But I only had one drink.
This is where the romance of Monterey entered its final phase. My plan had been to hit the road around sunset, to be back in Berkeley by no later than 8pm. I had not planned to get drunk on one drink. But now I was stuck here until I sobered up. So what was my plan? Well, I found a movie theater, and in my romantic state I decided to see a very, very sad love story, the award-winning Blue is the Warmest Color. But the next screening was in three hours, so what would I do in the meantime? How about wander along the shore, gazing longingly at the full moon? A romantic pastime!
The moon rising at dusk over Monterey Bay
As I wandered, it became completely dark. When I had to urinate, I found a portable toilet, which, after locking myself inside I realized it is completely pitch black inside a portable toilet at night. Thankfully it worked out okay and I was able to get free!
Moon over Monterey
It was cold. Maybe in the 50s. I could not just wander for three straight hours, although I wanted to. So I wandered myself to a cafe and got a mocha latte and a small piece of carrot cake and sat outside on the sidewalk. Romance! Sitting on the sidewalk drinking coffee and eating cake while watching people walk by. That's romantic.
Moon over Monterey
But that only lasted for so long. I finished my coffee and I got really cold again. So then I wandered to another cafe and I got a hot cider. Then I sat for another hour sipping my cider and just thinking, and sitting, and waiting...
Moon over Monterey
And then, finally, it was 8:30pm and time for my movie. I didn't realize however that the film is three hours long! haha... Well, it was a great film. I won't review it here, but I highly recommend it. I cried. It was tremendously depressing, which is a sort of romance in its own way, I think. And then I left the theater. It was nearly midnight, and I was still in Monterey, over one hundred miles from my bed at the YMCA!
But, my drunkenness was now long gone. I was pumped up with caffeine. I had just sat through a depressing three-hour movie. I had watched the moon rise over Monterey Bay. It was just about the most romantic evening I have spent in a very long time.
At midnight the city of Monterey was eerie, still, quiet, serene. I walked softly so as not to make a sound. I tried to remember where my rental car was parked. The moon was now directly overhead. It reminded me of home in Schenectady, New York, where in my younger days I would sometimes go out for walks at midnight and look at the moon overhead and there was not a sound to be heard. The night really does sound beautiful—the sound of silence. It is a beautiful kind of music. Something that is totally absent in Manhattan and in my life there.
Then the challenge was, of course, to drive back to Berkeley from 12am to 2am. But I did it. I listened to jazz and let the cold wind blow into my face along the highway. When I got off at the exit for Berkeley, that same kid that had wanted a ride to Modesto was still sitting along the street. I gave this person ten dollars to get something to eat or drink at the nearby gas station. It was so cold out. And being awake at 2am made homelessness seem really real to me... and it made me wonder whether the romance of my wasteful spree in Monterey was all worth it. What if I had just given this kid a ride to Modesto and called it a day?
I don't know. I do think that there is a role for romance in our lives. It doesn't have to cost a lot of money, and it doesn't need to entail traveling to some "exotic" place like Monterey. I think it is just an attitude—a way of life. Spontaneous and carefree and attentive: slowly enjoying a warm drink; watching the moon rise up above the clouds; indulging in a long film; driving on a dark highway at midnight.