Thursday, April 6, 2017

Climbing Fremont Peak

View of Fremont Peak
In early 1846, John Charles Fremont arrived in the Sacramento Valley and set about stirring up American patriotism among settlers there.  When he camped near the highest summit of a mountain range bordering the valley, now called the Gabilan Range, at what is now known as Fremont Peak, he nearly provoked a battle with Mexican General Jose Castro, who had thousands of troups in the Monterey region.  Had the conflict occurred, Fremont's troops would likely have been annihilated.  It was judgments such as this near mistake that have left Fremont with a mixed reputation among historians, some saying his impetuous actions over-shadowed his military accomplishments, which other historians judge more highly.

Steinbeck Retreat Climbers
The same mixed assessment of 23 climbers who scrambled to the topmost point of Fremont Peak might be made as to whether their assault on the jagged peak was brave or foolish.  The oldest climber was 80 years young, and she, like all the rest of us, would not have missed the experience.

We did not climb the peak to start a war but rather to experience the emotions John Steinbeck shared in his account of Travels with Charley.  We were led not by Fremont but rather by historian, author, and host of The Thomas Jefferson Hour, Clay Jenkinson.  We had come together for a week to discuss John Steinbeck and his books, and to visit sites relevant to the man and his work.  It was our last day of hiking to places Steinbeck had visited and written about, and it was an especially awesome site.

Preserving the view
When Steinbeck wrote Travels with Charley, In Search of America, he was no longer young.  He had not visited his beloved California in several years, and living on the East Coast he sensed that he could no longer feel the pulse of the nation.  He decided to set out with his beloved standard poodle Charley 'in search of America.'  He had a camper custom-made atop a pickup, and he headed north to Maine and traveled across the upper states before reaching Monterey.

His return to the California coast of his youth was a disappointment, for the places he remembered were not the same, nor were the old friends who were still there.  "In my memory it stood as it once did and its outward appearance confused and angered me."  He realized that Thomas Wolfe had been right.  Steinbeck wrote:  "You can't go home again because home has ceased to exist except in the mothballs of memory."  However, he allowed himself one last sentimental thing.  He drove to Fremont's Peak, now Fremont Peak State Park,  and with his dog Charley, "...climbed the last spiky rocks to the top."

Reading from Travels with Charley
On March 8, 2017, 23 Steinbeck enthusiasts found foot and hand holds in the craggy rocks and helping hands to grasp as they summitted this rocky peak.  At the top, they listened as Steinbeck scholar Russ Eagle read the passage in which Steinbeck reclaimed his affection for this place from his youth.  "Here on these high rocks my memory myth repaired itself.  Charley, having explored the area, sat at my feet, his fringed ears blowing like laundry on a line." Charley had not been a part of Steinbeck's life in that region when he was a young man, so Steinbeck described for his canine companion his memories of the place,  relating what his heart saw rather than the changes which had so disturbed him.

When Steinbeck finished sharing his memories with the dog, he wrote, "I printed it once more on my eyes, south, west, and north, and then we hurried away from the permanent and changeless past where my mother is always shooting a wildcat and my father is always burning his name with his love."

My husband & I atop Fremont Peak
It was to hear Russ Eagle read those words in this place that all of us had risked personal safety to make the climb.  The sky was clear and the breeze was slight--the most perfect day of the trip, and we savored the experience a while longer before reversing our path.  It was a great day.

Isaac B. Werner was only a toddler when Fremont nearly started a war, but John C. Fremont became the 5th Territorial Governor of Arizona in 1878, the same year Isaac came to stake his claims in Kansas.  Although Fremont was born 3 decades before Isaac, he outlived Isaac by 5 years.  Both men are now a part of my experiences with history, but especially, my afternoon on Fremont Peak gave me a feeling of Steinbeck the man, beyond Steinbeck the writer.

Our Steinbeck Retreat was wonderful, and I will continue to share some of our experiences in future blogs.

1 comment:

The Blog Fodder said...

What a wonderful and poignant post. No, you can't go home again. My son has read all or almost all of Steinbeck's work. I started The Grapes of Wrath many years ago and could not finish. Someday maybe I will try again. Like The Gulag Archipelago which I also could not finish. Man's inhumanity to man.