When I was growing up in Monterey, it was like traveling abroad to go to the adjacent towns of Seaside, Pacific Grove, Carmel or Pebble Beach, the other towns on the peninsula. Each town has its own high school except for Pebble Beach (probably the snootiest of the lot) and this no doubt added to the rivalry between the places.
The peninsula is shaped sort of like a cat with an arched back that is looking west out to sea with the arch of its neck and reverse arch of its back forming the southern mouth and beach of the bay as it sweeps north for nearly forty miles to Santa Cruz. If you can picture this cat’s head jutting out into the water, Pacific Grove would be the top of the head with its ears the rocks at the furthest point out to sea, Pebble Beach has the cat’s eyes and the chin is right about at the Lone Cypress, and Carmel sits on the southernmost tip at the throat. Monterey is at the nape of the neck and makes up most of the central part of the peninsula.
Carmel and Pebble Beach are probably the most famous of all the towns and the most popular tourist destinations; Pebble Beach for its four golf courses though golfing at any one of them costs a small fortune. And Carmel-By-Sea has a beautiful beach and all the shoppes you could ever hope for: art galleries, cheese stores, wine bars, and restaurants including the Hog’s Breath Inn owned by former Mayor Clint Eastwood.
Seaside the one town of the four with no beach or oceanfront to speak of, was always the poorest of all the towns. It had the largest non white population and was also shaped by its history of being adjacent to Fort Ord which, while it had beaches, was using them for artillery practice. Closed in 1994, the fort, for most of its history, served as the Army’s largest basic training facility. Thanks in large part to former Congressman and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s influence, it was reborn recently as California State University at Monterey Bay. I suspect he also had a hand in cleaning up the Superfund site as it had been designated because of the unexploded ordnance on the training fields. It has now been converted into a park though when I go there, I’m going to be especially careful to stay on the designated walkways.
In between all these towns is Monterey, my home town, the largest of the four in terms of area and population and probably the most diverse as well. It is the site of the only harbor on the peninsula with two wharves because fishing remains a primary business. Recently I found a new mural that Pacific Grove had installed by their sea walk. It was dedicated to the Chinese community that had come here to build a railroad extension from Salinas to Monterey in the 19th Century and then stayed on to make their livings by fishing in a shantytown wharf they built on the water that burned in 1906 killing many and wiping out the community. But the mural also referenced the other communities on the peninsula. They said they were known as Carmel-By-the-Sea, Pacific Grove by God (because it was started as a Methodist summer camp), and Monterey by the smell—no doubt for the fishing—still it made me wish for Friday night football where we always trounced PG.
Monterey is also the site of the Naval Post Graduate School where Annapolis graduates go for advanced degrees and the Defense Language Institute which employs 1,700 instructors to teach two dozen languages to 3,500 military personnel from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps who are housed there at the Presidio.
Now I’m living in Pacific Grove, also known as Butterfly Town, because the monarch butterflies winter here on their annual migrations from the north. All of the monarchs west of the Rocky Mountains come through here because it is the home of the Monterey pine which is where they rest after their long trek stirring only to feed on nearby Eucalyptus trees which are at the same height as the pine and in bloom at the time the butterflies migrate. They need to eat because they must do one last thing before they expire—procreate. It’s a fascinating story about these insects.
Right now I feel a special affinity with the monarch because of my return migration to the peninsula. And here I too feel like I am hanging upside down, exhausted from the long migration, trying to regain my strength. I feel very strange. At first I thought I might even have caught something on the journey out, but all the tests have come back negative. Oddly I feel sort of nothing, drained, in suspended animation. I’m short of emotional energy too: not as quick to cry, to laugh, even to smile. Perhaps it is because I have so rarely been alone? Now all of the time leading up to this moment, when I feared being by myself, I find it’s just the opposite and that I want to hibernate. Maybe it’s because I have been too busy for too long? Though I am not completely idle now. I am still working to finish a website, keeping the books for a nonprofit, meeting with builders on the house. So, it’s not a vacation, or even a retreat. But now when I have callers, or visitors, or friends reaching out to talk I have strangely little patience.Pacific Grove, in addition to being the foggiest place on the peninsula, shrouded in mist most days, is also the quietest place I have ever been. There are cars in front of most of the houses, but they are parked. You rarely see one driving around. I suspect most of the inhabitants are retired, like me, and they go out mainly to walk their dogs. I take Charlie on long walks several times a day. We walk to Asilomar and the beach and to Pacific Grove’s cute little downtown where they let dogs go shopping at the hardware store, our favorite place. We rarely even meet other walkers though. It’s like the streets are deserted.
When I arrived Chinese lanterns were hanging everywhere in the town, with golden tassels glittering in the breeze, these folded creations were paper windows to a different world. They are hung in anticipation of the Feast of Lanterns, Butterfly Town’s annual celebration of an ancient Chinese myth in which a beautiful princess is in love with a poor young scholar who her father, the emperor, has forbidden her to see. He has arranged instead for her to marry a wealthy old potentate who could enrich his realm. The princess is driven to despair and suicide. She leaves the palace confines and walks toward the sea at dusk. The emperor calls for the people to light lanterns on their boats and go out to search for her. They find her and her lover reunited, but in a final burst of light the two are transformed into monarch butterflies who fly off together into the night sky.
I finally bought a lantern and it is hanging outside my house, dancing in the fog, waiting for me to get busy and start my creative challenge, building our retirement house. Demolition of the old house starts today!