I visited Monterey’s Cannery Row yesterday and was disheartened by the presence of a Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, a Steinbeck Jewelry Store, and more t-shirt, fudge, and novelty sock shops …there were two Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light Galleries.  It was no different from any aggressively terrible tourist trap experience — Times Square or Key West come to mind — except this one was founded on the basis of a fine book by a Nobel Prize winner in literature.

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John Steinbeck is one of my favorite American writers, a man who gave voice to a place (Cannery Row and Salinas) and its people with great heart and insight. While someone had the foresight to erect a bronze bust of the man on the dock near an overpriced seafood restaurant, and hang some street pole banners quoting his work, I shuffled down the sidewalks a bit ashamed of the dreck and materialism of a place made plastic from the shells of some old smelly sardine canneries. What would Doc Ricketts have made of the scene? He would have been pleased by the world renowned Aquarium (which I passed on due to the amazing crush of infants and toddlers and other ankle-biters) but little else.

It was with some irony that I read online that Steinbeck had turned his back on Monterey in disgust in 1945, a year after buying a home there:

1944 – Bought his childhood dream house in Monterey (Lara-Soto Adobe), first son Thom was born August 2; harassed by the local people because of his success and the books he wrote.

1945 – An unhappy Steinbeck leaves Monterey to help film “The Pearl”; moved to New York, never returning to the house he bought.”

Given that The Grapes of Wrath were burned in his hometown of Salinas, and Steinbeck’s books are consistently the most banned in America, it should be a surprise that Monterey turned on him as well. Still, the t-shirt sellers and fudge makers are doing well by dropping his good name.

In praise of a good bag

I marked the end of 2009 by retiring my blue backpack that has accompanied me through the last decade beginning with its first trip to London to McKinsey’s offices in January 2001 to its final brokendown trip to San Francisco two weeks ago.

It was a fine pack, one I purchased at the Hyannis Eastern Mountain Sports store along with a padded laptop sleeve. From McKinsey to and my Zurich days, to my ghostwriting days at Gartner through my eight months at IDG, and finally — for the past four years at Lenovo, that blue bag has carried the following cargo (give or take a few exceptions).

  • ThinkPad (usually an ultraportable like an X60 or an X200, but lately a big T500)
  • The aforementioned padded laptop sleeve with four mesh compartments (which is obsessively managed to provide me with the perfect “in-my-seat” experience from ChapStick to iPod and white cable, Shure headphones to mini-usb cables, wireless mouse, and 4gb “Clouds of Promise” commemorative 2008 Summer Olympics memory key from Lenovo Chairman Yangqing Yang.
  • Lenovo power adapter in zip up mesh bag with power tips, airplane plug, and 12v car charger adapter
  • A clear plastic folio for holding receipts and travel documents
  • Moleskine notebook
  • Pack of 3″x5″ index cards
  • Business cards
  • Laser pointer and LED flashlight from Qualcomm
  • Passport
  • Stamps
  • Four personal notecards and envelopes for real thank you’s, congratulations and condolences
  • Restoril (temazepam) for sleeping on jet lag intensive trips
  • Immodium and Pepto-Bismal tablets for dysentery
  • Advil gel-caps
  • Claritin
  • Blackberry and charger
  • FlipCam
  • Mifi wireless hotspot and charger
  • refills for my Lamy Swift
  • A mechanical pencil
  • A spare ballpoint
  • A few packages of spare contact lenses
  • Gum
  • Wad of foreign currencies held together with a paper clip
  • Handful of spare change tossed in willy-nilly whenever I approach the TSA metal detectors
  • Soylent Green protein bars
  • Wad of frequent flier cards held together with a paper clip
  • Checkbook
  • Office keys
  • Lenovo ID badge on a zing-it
  • Leather “pocket briefcase” with index cards,  business cards, and taxi receipts
  • spare American Airlines red checked baggage tags
  • Kindle

The faithful EMS bag has been heading downhill for a few years, beginning with an ill-conceived bottle of SuperGlue packed to Phoenix Arizona in 2001 for a McKinsey partner’s meeting at the Biltmore. I had the idiotic idea that I would tie saltwater flies while traveling by packing my Renzetti Traveler vise, and the feathers and others materials to make a series of Bob Popovics Shady Lady Squid patterns (one of the most deadly early season striper patterns on the South Cape). Somehow the Superglue  discharged prematurely inside of the pack’s front compartment and permanently welded shut half of the zipper and created an amazing frozen sculpture of junk inside. I did tie a dozen of the pattern and caught a gorgeous 36″ bass in the rip at Succonnesset Shoals with one in the spring of 2001.

The right shoulder strap adjustment buckle was caught between the tailgate of my car and shattered, necessitating a permanent figure-eight knot in the end of the strap. The very front key compartment simply lost its zipper and has been gaping open for the last year. The blue fabric is still fine, but a bit grimy, and I admit I feel like a bit of an overgrown schlub carrying around a big knapsack like a 12 year old boarding the school bus. I looked at various briefcases — from Coach to Glaser — but none had the infinite capacity of the EMS, and none could be fully shouldered and humped in times of forced marches through the endless concourses of the world’s airports (I refuse to use wheeled luggage or take moving sidewalks as part of a silent protest against the Wall-E vision of fatsos being carried to-and-fro in electric wheelbarrows).

My son and I started poking around San Francisco for a replacement during the interregnum between Xmas and New Year’s, starting at the REI south of Market Street. I told him as we entered that I would not purchase anything less than a perfect replacement for the dying EMS; that I couldn’t accept any compromise because  it had to last another decade, and that I would be very picky. The problem with pack shopping is that it can’t happen online. Sorry, but there is no way to fully experience the heft of the zippers, the utility of the compartments, and the possibility of fitting under an airplane seat unless one pulls it apart and ignores the salesman”s pitch.

REI had an impressive assortment of bags ranging from little day packs to hardcore backpacks with metal frames and enough capacity to handle a tent, sleeping bags, stoves, fuel, water bottles, and clothing to complete a passage of the Appalachian Trail. There was a couple contenders, but no winners, and for an hour I fretted and unzipped one bag after another. I came close to committing to an Eagle Creek pack, but came to my senses and walked away. Then we hit a Sports Basement in the Mission and there was even less of a choice. The old blue bag would have to do, and no, EMS doesn’t make it anymore, offering a great selection, but none so great as that original winner.

Yesterday, New Year’s Eve, found me on the road along the coastline to Santa Cruz and eventually Monterey. I stopped at the Patagonia outlet in Santa Cruz and found nothing in the way of a back pack. But I did find perfection and it’s name is MLC (Maximum Legal Carry-on)

This sucker is a briefcase/suitcase with a shoulder sling strap and two stowable shoulder straps — permitting me to convert it from a bag with a handle to a bag with straps. I might be able to do away with my duffel bag and fit my clothing into this bag for the usual two-night stand to Raleigh or New York City. Even without clothing it easily ate the list above and then some. The zippers aren’t as burly as the EMS, but I can feel myself falling in love already. Of such simple things is contentment built.

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