John Steinbeck at Lake Tahoe

By: David Woodruff

Lake Tahoe has drawn creative souls to its tranquil and inspiring shores for millenniums. Washoe peoples considered the lake sacred and the center of their world, providing abundant resources and spiritual fulfillment. A young John Muir wrote reverently of the Lake “as if this {Tahoe} were a kind of water heaven to which all lakes had come.” And legendary American author John Steinbeck, was heartened by Lake Tahoe’s essence, when he spent the better part of two years there after dropping out of Stanford in the late 1920s.

John Steinbeck in 1962 | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Alternately, Steinbeck drove a bus for the Fallen Leaf Lodge, tutored the children of the original owner of Cascade Lake, Charles Brigham, and worked as what he referred to as a piscatorial obstetrician at the State Fish Hatchery in Tahoe City.

Tahoe City UC Davis Field Station Hatchery | Photo: David Woodruff

Circa 1925, Mrs. William Wightman Price, the exacting proprietor of Fallen Leaf Lodge came to the off-campus cottage of Steinbecks near Stanford University in Palo Alto. She demanded to know what endorsements he could provide to the character of a one, Toby Street. Street was Steinbeck’s roommate and had recently proposed marriage to one of Price’s female employees. With the passion of a mother hen, Price had come to Palo Alto to investigate Street’s moral character and worthiness as a husband.

The amused Steinbeck knew his hard drinking and fun-loving roommate as well as anyone. The two shared these passions with equal vigor as well an interest in writing. But Steinbeck engaged his already well-honed creative skills and articulated the lamblike and honorable traits of Street to Price so eloquently, she offered him a position at the Lake Tahoe resort.

Cascade Lake | Photo: UNR

Steinbeck quit Stanford and accepted Price’s offer of employment. For the next two or three years (records are unclear), Steinbeck worked for Mrs. Price at Fallen Leaf Lodge, shuttling tourists, and performing a myriad of maintenance duties. He supplemented this work with tutoring the children of the Charles Brigham family, and caretaking their estate in the winter and later, the year around. Steinbeck became more than a caretaker to the Brighams, but a companion, hiking partner and family friend as well. And when not carousing and reveling, he found time to continue to develop his skills as a writer there along the shores of Lake Tahoe.

In the late 1920s, most of Lake Tahoe was completely isolated during the winter months. It was during his winter isolation that Steinbeck completed his first published novel, Cup of Gold.  He certainly put his “creative writing” talents to work during this time writing later he would be “snowed in for eight months of the year at the Lake.”

Before he left the Lake Tahoe area, Steinbeck spent some time working at the State Fish Hatchery in Tahoe City as a tour guide. It is thought it was here he met his first wife Carol Henning. After a whirlwind romance, the two married and moved to San Francisco, ending Steinbeck’s time at Lake Tahoe. At the height of his career, Steinbeck said, “We find that after years of struggle, we do not take trips; a trip takes us…Many a trip continues long after movement in time and space have ceased.” Perhaps it was the influence and reflection of his time at Lake Tahoe and the Sierra Nevada, that laid the foundation for this literary giant to become one of the finest literary talents of the 20th century.

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