Friday, April 1, 2011

Scholarship in the Rain

As I looked around the dining hall that first evening, I felt like a freshman at orientation week. This time, though, I wasn't wondering how high the others had scored on their SATs; the far more pressing question was: could my face possibly be as wrinkled as those around me? A subsequent check in the bathroom mirror confirmed that I had not signed up for this Elderhostel under false pretenses.

I had just arrived with Diane and about two dozen other graying travelers in California's Carmel Valley, for what our booklet promised would be a week of "Magical Monterey." It also reminded us that the name Elderhostel had been jettisoned recently in favor of Road Scholar, a rebranding probably aimed at Boomers spooked by the two syllables at the front of the old name, though the scary five letters appear to have done the organization no harm. Since Elderhostel's founding in 1975, it has grown to offer nearly 8,000 educational sessions in all 50 states and in 90 countries. Here in the valley alone, thousands of ripening adults had come before us to immerse themselves in the area's natural beauty.

We were billeted on the sylvan campus of the Hidden Valley Music Seminars, in a dorm room made cozy by a space heater, the efficiency of which was primarily due to the fact that there was so little space to heat. Drop your dental floss on the bathroom floor and the skill of a contortionist was required to retrieve it. The aisle between the two bunk beds against either wall was an obstacle course that provided excellent practice for squeezing by the food trolley at 35,000 feet.

Temporary home of the Hidden Valley Hidden Talents

Peter Meckel, the congenial director of the music seminars and also coordinator of the Road Scholar sessions, apologized for our Spartan quarters when he greeted us. He needn't have. The room may not have been commodious, but the reading lamps over each bed more than compensated; they were klieg lights compared to the wan bulbs under which we had squinted in a half-dozen swankier inns up to now.

Besides, Peter had more serious problems. The rain and chill that enveloped the Monterey Peninsula on our first day stayed around all week, like a gloomy house guest plopped in front of your TV for the duration. Worse, the natural history lecture and tour of the peninsula, the linchpin of the session for many of us, had to be canceled because the leader, a coastal biologist and science educator named David Shonman, was injured in an automobile accident, as were his son and wife, the latter seriously.

Peter scrambled nimbly, enlisting on a few hours notice the brilliant saxophonist George Young and the pianist Bob Phillips to give us a morning of impromptu and very mellow jazz–"Always," "The Nearness of You," "Harlem Nocturne," "A Train"–in Hidden Valley's spacious theater. Peter also pressed his assistant, Laura Anderson, into service. An engaging soprano, she gave a recital of classical arias and songs, including one by Rachmaninov, who, she said with a laugh, asked singers to stand with their backs to the audience while the pianist, often the composer himself, played his characteristically long introductions and postludes; only when they sang were they permitted to face the audience. Anderson's pianist, Rick Yramategui, seemed more than happy to have her face front throughout.

Before singing the dramatic aria that ends Carlisle Floyd's opera Susannah, Anderson described how, when playing the title role in one production, she had rehearsed the scene holding a stuffed bunny, as the director instructed. She was assured that the live rabbit to be substituted at the actual performance would be docile, but the high notes proved too much for the furry novice, which bit Anderson, sending blood trickling down her neck as the opera came to a close.

Among the scheduled speakers was Rich Tanguay, the enthusiastic overseer of winemaking at the valley's Heller Estate Organic Vineyards, which offers "Magical Wines That Dance on Your Palate," a slogan that suggests Terpsichore and Bacchus dancing a gigue. Tanguay proved one part expert, one part stand-up comic. I wished my friends who regard themselves as Feinschmeckers had been on hand to hear him admonish us to stop fretting so much about about vintages, labels, aromas and all the other vinoniceties. "If you like the way a wine tastes, enjoy it," he urged. "Don't be so verklempt."

Also scheduled were appearances by John Steinbeck, Jack London and Ogden Nash. These literary lights, all with links to the area, were portrayed by Taelen Thomas, who came before us in a corduroy sheepskin coat (Steinbeck), a duster (London) and a morning coat (Nash). The verisimilitude of these getups quickly proved beside the point, so thoroughly did Thomas, an actor with two degrees in philosophy, inhabit his subjects' work and lives, e.g., London recalling how he discovered Treasure Island at the library and "carried that book home like a warm puppy," or periodically swigging from a silver flask as he recounted his adventures in the Klondike and how he came to write Call of the Wild.

Steinbeck grew nostalgic as he talked of the specially outfitted camper in which he and his poodle explored the country for Travels With Charley, his final book. This prepared us well for our visit to the Steinbeck Center in Salinas, where the camper, an adapted 1961 GMC truck named Rocinate, after Don Quixote's noble steed, is enshrined along with much else. This well-curated museum is devoted to the accomplishments of a local boy, whose The Grapes of Wrath was banned and burned nearby in 1939, an act that doubtless satisfied his anti-migrant neighbors but likely helped encourage juries to award him both a Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Clell Pruett, who had not read The Grapes of Wrath, burns a copy in 1939,
 as two leaders of the the fiercely anti-labor Associated Farmers stand by.
Steinbeck's best seller also was banned in the schools and libraries of Kern County,
 to which many of the Dust Bowl victims the author portrayed migrated.
 Photo courtesy of the Kern County Museum.
As the rains continued, we piled into buses that took us, on different days, to the Monterey Bay Aquarium and to the house where California's constitution was signed in 1849, a visit that moved one road scholar to ask what the document had to say about budget deficits. As our windows alternately fogged up and cleared, depending on the amount of air conditioning applied by the driver, we rolled along 17-Mile Drive, which even in the bleak weather lived up to its reputation as a scenic wonder.

After passing through the sheltering Del Monte Forest, we emerged out of the wings onto one of nature's greatest sets. On one side, the Pacific lashed with Wagnerian drama, on the other cypresses spread along the road as it ran beside one damp golf course after another, including Pebble Beach, where the greens fee for a foursome, our guide advised us, was almost $2,000. She also explained that the resort is owned in part by Clint Eastwood, as is the 250-year-old Lone Cypress, which sits on a rocky perch overlooking the ocean and, according to the resort's website, "is revered as the eternal symbol of the Pebble Beach Company."

The week's program was always fun and often instructive, but the high point for me and Diane came each evening at dinner, when we sat down with a group of birders who had spent the day separate from the main group braving the wet to spot, by the end of their stay, 95 species. Despite this achievement, they didn't dwell at table on Townsend warblers or dark-eyed Junkos, but eagerly discussed politics and culture, topics that loosed both serious debate and much laughter and soon banished our misguided notion that we'd encounter no simpatico spirits among our fellow campers.

And we danced. Each day before breakfast a dozen of us had reported to the theater for E-Stretch (another dodge of the bothersome syllables). Deanna Ross, a cheerful dancer-choreographer, led us in a few breathing exercises, bends and the requisite creaks, then created a three-minute routine involving the box step, the grapevine and the penguin. "Good job," she cried after each run-through, sounding like my daughter and all the other mothers in the playground encouraging their children on the monkey bars.

On the final morning, Deanna press-ganged the kitchen staff and anyone else she could corral to come and watch our corps de E-ballet, which Diane had dubbed, to unanimous approval, the Hidden Valley Hidden Talents. To the boombox beat of a lively foxtrot, out we stepped, making most of our practiced moves, and finishing, if not like Fred and Ginger, at least together (almost). After a flourish of outstretched arms, we took our bow.

The onlookers cheered and threw roses. That they probably had done so many times before didn't seem to matter.