Chasing Steinbeck ... with children

Andromeda Romano-Lax set out to retrace the writer's path to the Sea of Cortez. But while Steinbeck's book bears little mention of his wife, Romano-Lax's is driven by the presence of her own family.

By Rachel F. Elson

Published August 30, 2002 7:57PM (EDT)

Andromeda Romano-Lax's first reaction to the explosion of life in the sparkling Sea of Cortez -- what she calls "a glittering soup" -- was to fall in love. On a heart-healing visit with her sister, she waded into the seemingly hallucinatory waters that separate Baja California from the rest of mainland Mexico and was, as she puts it, smitten. On her next trip, she brought along the man who would become her husband -- and over the next decade, Romano-Lax returned again and again: writing a guidebook ("Adventure Kayaking Baja"), doing research and paddling for miles along Baja's shores.

The desert landscapes and intense blue waters of Baja's midsection are remote and compelling, with a magnetic pull for adventurers and escapists. The peninsula also held a particular allure for John Steinbeck: In 1940, he and close friend Ed Ricketts, the biologist immortalized as "Doc" in Steinbeck's "Cannery Row," fled the success of "Grapes of Wrath" and the looming threat of war to go collect marine organisms in the Sea of Cortez.

Steinbeck, already celebrated as a writer, didn't keep a journal of the odyssey -- the resulting book, "The Log From the Sea of Cortez," borrowed heavily from Ricketts' notebook -- and he never returned. But the trip wound up coloring much of the writer's later work, from the Hitchcock thriller "Lifeboat," whose story Steinbeck wrote, to "The Pearl," based on a folk tale the writer heard during his journey.

In 2000, Romano-Lax packed up her husband, Brian, and two children -- Aryeh, 5, and Tziporah, 2 -- and set off to retrace the voyage made by Steinbeck and Ricketts. It was Romano-Lax's fifth trip; she and Brian have logged close to a year traveling there. This time, however, they set out to revisit Steinbeck and Ricketts' journey, and to assess the state of Baja's marine life.

In just over two months, the family traveled by undersize sailboat and oversize sea kayak, as well as by foot and by thumb. They tangled with questionable conservationists and biting scorpions; Doug, the captain of their tiny sailboat -- who also happened to be Romano-Lax's brother-in-law -- developed a nasty, passive-aggressive case of cabin fever.

Romano-Lax's book about the trip, "Searching for Steinbeck's Sea of Cortez," comes out in September. By phone from her home in Anchorage, she spoke about travels with children, Steinbeck's personality shift and the questionable health of the Sea of Cortez.

At one point you quote Aldo Leopold: "To return not only spoils a trip, but tarnishes a memory." But you've returned over and over again. What is it about the Sea of Cortez that keeps pulling you back?

It's the incredible life there. When I first went, in '89, I was amazed enough -- I knew nothing about the ocean, had never kayaked, and I walked into the water and saw all this alien, glittering life. I hadn't traveled enough to know that was unique in the world. Now I've traveled enough that I know how rich the Baja water is, how miraculously startling it is.

What was the impetus for this trip?

We really were going to re-create John Steinbeck's trip. Brian and I had read aloud to each other from "The Log From the Sea of Cortez" before our first trip. Back then I wasn't a Steinbeck fan at all, but "The Log" is really an incredible book. It's everything mixed together: philosophy and science and travel. For 10 years we dreamed of re-creating that trip. I got off on a tangent writing guidebooks, doing the turn-right, turn-left stuff -- but all along what I really wanted to do was connect to this place that Steinbeck had written about.

There's always that fear with Baja; there's an urgency to get down there and see what's there before it's gone.

Aryeh was 5 at the time of the trip, and Tziporah was 2. Weren't you worried about traveling with them?

Actually, I wasn't worried about the Sea of Cortez. The stuff we'd done in Alaska had been a lot worse. I did the toughest mountain bike trip I've ever done when Aryeh was 2, with him strapped in the back seat on my bike on a really rough trail. It was an 11-hour ride, I was falling off the bike and getting bruised and cut up and swearing, and he kept saying, "That's OK, Mommy; good job, good job."

Aryeh was always gifted and challenging, and he was the most challenging when he was at home -- when he was not challenged enough. The shock to me was finding out that when we were on a sea kayaking trip in Alaska -- in frighteningly cold water -- or hiking or camping in bear territory, or mountain biking, his behavior was always better.

Why do you think that was?

He knew we were a team, and he was excited by that, and he was enchanted by the animals and plants around him. Those were really good family times -- there were no tantrums in the wilderness.

Then Tziporah came along, and I thought, "We can't keep this up much longer." But I had signed on to do another book just before we learned we were pregnant. I tried to back out, because I knew we were going to have to do 50 pretty difficult trips, but the publisher wouldn't let me out of the contract. So we proceeded. Tziporah was born in April, and that whole summer we were visiting remote public cabins in Alaska.

I was mostly terrified when we were portaging a kayak in Kodiak bear country; she was just a tiny little bean in a front carrier. But as a woman, I haven't wanted my life to end with each pregnancy. And you find out that you can do it, and it's more fun with the kids, because they notice more, and they really get into it.

Do you do anything special to prepare them?

Our preparation for this trip was considerable. We did a biographical research trip down to Monterey [Calif.], and we were poring through marine invertebrate textbooks for months. But children don't need any special preparation. They're infinitely more flexible and adaptable than we are -- they just dive right in and start noticing things.

As any parent knows, when you have little kids, it's really hard to leave the house. That's a real challenge. But getting from preparing the diaper bag to get out of the house, to going halfway around the world to go kayaking really isn't that big a jump. It's just more stuff.

What do you think they got out of it?

They live in the present. So they got one phenomenal day after another. Part of what the book was about was all of us trying to appreciate this place, and trying to have a purer sense of wonder. They had it from the beginning. Most of the trip was Brian and I trying to catch up with them.

They're very much a part of the book.

I had actually thought that I'd have to downplay my family. Most of the famous travel writers today are men -- they're traveling alone, and doing physical tasks, and you don't read about their spouses or their children. Even Steinbeck was very opinionated about it: He wrote his own wife, Carol, out of the book. I thought I'd have to make the same choice, so I wasn't distracting the reader with annoying, potentially cute anecdotes about my children. But I found their reactions to things were an essential part of my story.

You went to find out how the Sea of Cortez had changed over the years. What did you expect to find?

I expected the typical plot -- you go back to a place, it's ruined, everyone laments it, and you write something that hopefully draws people's attention to the fact that it's all dead. But of course what we found was way more complicated.

I found out that I didn't want to write the environmental book. I don't think there are simple answers, and I don't respect much of what's been written about the area so far; I think it's given a false impression. People go down there with an agenda and they never learn to see what's in front of their eyes. It's never black and white.

John Steinbeck, writing on his trip, shed some of his own personality. He was an activist; he'd just written "The Grapes of Wrath." Nowadays, people assume "The Log" is really Steinbeck's book, but it was really Steinbeck and Ricketts together, and even more, it's Steinbeck trying on his friend's philosophies and personality and writing through Ricketts -- and using a lot of Ricketts' own words. What he was trying on was, "What is it like not to be judgmental, to be scientific and not judge and not prescribe?" And that was the hardest thing we struggled with, too -- because we wanted to judge and prescribe and come back with a book about what is wrong with Sea of Cortez.

We found out it wasn't that simple -- that if we kept thinking that way, weren't going to see what was there, and we certainly weren't going to understand Steinbeck and Ricketts' trip, which was about not judging and about seeing the world in a different way.

So what did you see?

We came back with a mixed picture. Regardless of what people say about it being a dead sea or a dying sea, there is still more life there than 99 percent of people realize. It's mostly because they're looking at more charismatic species, the top predators, and they're not looking at the whole foundation for all that -- the invertebrates.

I informally interviewed many Mexican fishermen who said the fishing hadn't necessarily gotten worse; and we were seeing a lot of life, especially invertebrate life. I was also hearing stories from researchers and fishermen that certain fish species were coming back or that the birds had not taken a hit.

It's not that there hasn't been damage. There are places like the northern gulf where there's been incredible habitat change. But I guess I take exception with the environmentalists who think they'll get more attention by saying the sea is already dead. It's dead in some places, but there's incredible richness elsewhere. And mostly we don't know.

You were shadowing Steinbeck and Ricketts for the whole trip. Did it ever feel constraining?

We never felt frustrated. We entered into this story and it gave us a structure and a focus. I think if we hadn't been following in someone's footsteps, then halfway through the trip, when the sailing part stopped working and our captain lost it, we might have said, "Shall we just go home?" But we had a path to follow, and the longer we followed it, the better the trip got.

It gave us a framework in what was otherwise a confusing trip. What we were seeing was so different from what we'd expected.

How did following Steinbeck and Ricketts' path change your own perceptions of the Sea of Cortez?

We'd spent so much time kayaking there before this trip and had seen the things other people notice -- the birds and dolphins and whales. But we'd camped on same beaches and not seen all these invertebrate species. Once you know what to look for, the more you look and the more you find.

It's not just "The Log"; this trip seems connected to several of Steinbeck's later projects. And I didn't expect that crossover. I thought this trip was separate for him; I didn't realize how it inspired other things he did, or how you could see echoes or mirrors of his other work. But the longer we were down there, the more we saw the other plots and other characters there. It felt like his whole life in microcosm.

There's a famous line that appears at the beginning of "Travels with Charley," a book he wrote long after "The Log": "We do not take a trip; a trip takes us." How did that sentiment color your trip?

I think it was there from very beginning. We were trying to take the trip, to do exactly what John Steinbeck had done. But every time we tried to do exactly what he did, it didn't work -- and when we were more flexible and let the trip take us, it worked much better. Still, you have to have a structure, to start with something. I can't just wander around, or else I end up just sitting around drinking margaritas.

You mentioned that he edited his wife, Carol, out of the book. Why? Was it because of spite, or because of literary considerations?

I don't think anyone knows. He dropped clues as to her presence. He explains in his book that there were seven people onboard, and then there's one mention of her in an appendix [a reference to "the fish that bit Carol"].

His marriage was falling apart, and travel had helped them feel closer before; this was their last try. But I think there was a lot of flirting, a lot of drunken spells, temper tantrums. All that stuff isn't in his book, either. He makes it seem like fun with the boys, a drinking and fishing trip, but when you dig a little deeper into the biographical stuff you find out that it was darker. There was a lot of depression, and there was the fear of war hanging over their heads.

Also, he'd already started the affair with woman who'd be his second wife, Gwyndolyn Conger. And by time he was writing the manuscript he was living with Gwyn. So the whole question of why Carol was written out of it -- he pretended it was because it was a better story, but he was living with his new girlfriend when writing it, so that must have helped a little bit.

It seems as though things got pretty scary when Doug started to lose control on the boat; later, however, the trip became much more peaceful. Did you feel that you had to overdramatize the story -- to be part of that boys' club of adventure travel writers?

I never overdramatized; but I may have under-dramatized it a little. I don't think it was really clear how afraid I was at times on the sailboat, how threatened I felt. I didn't want the story with the captain to take over the book, because it wasn't the whole book. But we were on a small boat, so when Doug would spaz out or lose his temper, I felt completely helpless.

It was first time in my whole life I've tried to appease a man -- to feed him when he was hungry, to bring him water. I so wanted him to be physically well, because I wanted us to be safe, and he was part of our safety.

While Captain Doug was there, it was hard to feel Steinbeck and Ricketts. But once he got out of the way, we felt more connected to the spirit of the trip.

Do you feel like you're done with the Sea of Cortez now?

I'd like to be done with it, because there are other places I'd like to go, but each time I go to another body of water, I'm disappointed. We never see that kind of life anywhere else.

Rachel F. Elson

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