I took the day to go visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium on Cannery Row, between the historic old town of Monterey and that of Pacific Grove. Cannery Row, first made famous in John Steinbeck’s novel of the same name, no longer has rows of buildings where sardines are canned. The sardines were fished out of the Monterey Bay some forty years ago. Many of the original buildings from the Steinbeck era still stand, but most have been renovated, which is a euphemism meaning that they were turned into restaurants, hotels, and gift shops. At the end of the row, one of the old canneries was torn out and replaced with the aquarium.
Visiting the aquarium is a little pricey, well, thirty-five dollars, but plenty worth it for someone who has never been. I go about once every second or third year, but this year have managed to go twice. My sister recently purchased a club membership, which allowed me to get in for free. Once a year is enough for me. It’s much fun watching the fish in these big tanks, some of the largest tanks in the world.
My favorite tank is the kelp forest. The tank is perhaps thirty or forty feet tall, and I can view it from the first or second floor of the building. It is connected to the open sea and seems to breathe in and out with the movement of the waves and tides. The long stalks of kelp sparkle in the salty water as the many varieties of fish weave through this underwater forest.
It doesn’t take me too long to say to myself that I’ve seen enough. I snap a few photos, listen to the squeals of the youngsters who have never seen a hammerhead shark up close, read a few comments from the various displays, and within a couple of hours the darkness of the rooms that house the tanks makes me want to be outside and breathing the fresh ocean air.
My great grandmother worked here in the canneries on Cannery Row some sixty or seventy years ago, and I can remember when the long, narrow street was busy with preserving the catch. The row is still quite lively and thriving, primarily because of the aquarium. As I walk down the sidewalk I can see in my mind’s eye what these old buildings once looked like. The opening paragraph in Steinbeck’s novel describes the peculiar wonder of this place:
“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.”
After looking at fish yesterday, we wandered out on the end of the Monterey Wharf to get a bite of lunch, only to find that the place we had in mind was closed. We walked the length of the main street in downtown Monterey, Alvarado Street, to a taqueria where I have made it a habit to visit from time to time. Much of Monterey is so old and so well preserved. Many of the buildings constructed before the California gold rush of 1849 still stand. They were made of adobe during the Spanish era and have not been tumbled down by California earthquakes because Monterey sits on top of a bed of granite, which does not sway so easily as most of the state. When gold was discovered, not many Americanos lived in California, but those who did left behind their homes and lives and headed for the Sierras to fetch for themselves a piece of the vast treasure that lay there on the surface of the earth. Monterey became a ghost town over night. Much of what stood before the gold discovery still stands, so walking the streets is a step back in time.
We headed over to Colton Hall after eating at the taqueria, and visited the display upstairs in this rather famous old building. My aunt and uncle, who were the founders of the town in which I live, were married in this building in about 1850. California’s state constitution was written and ratified in this building, and when I stepped in yesterday I could see that the curator has arranged the main room to look like it did when the six-week constitutional convention was held.
In the late afternoon, the sun low on the bay and turning large cloud masses bright orange to our west, we drove home through miles of artichoke fields, filled with thoughts of this day’s little discoveries. It won’t be long before I come back.