It is well after dark by the time I make it to Port Townsend. The clock on the dash of my car glows 8:03. Pulling up to the city’s south-side boatyard, no gate or guard station bars my entry into the maze of gleaming sailboats and rugged tugs, all dry-docked, dark, and quiet.
I navigate among their hulls toward the back of the lot, looking for a boat I know but have never seen. Then, around the corner of an imposing warehouse, bathed in the artificial glow of industrial lights, sits the boat they call the Western Flyer, held up on all sides by stout steel supports and looking as if it had just washed ashore after a natural disaster. It looks like a boat that has been through hell and back twice, ready for the junkyard. Unless there were a reason and a person to save it.
If I were approaching the Western Flyer 75 years ago, the boat would have been bobbing leisurely in the Sea of Cortez. Instead of pulling up in a station wagon, I would have been gliding across the water in a dinghy driven by Ed Ricketts and his good friend, John Steinbeck.
In 1940, amid the chaos of fame that followed the publication of The Grapes of Wrath, the celebrated author needed a break. Luckily, his best friend Ricketts needed one too, embroiled in his own relationship difficulties and, reportedly, a bout with depression. They decided to take a voyage—to rent a boat with crew and travel, starting in Monterey, Calif., down around the Baja peninsula. The official reason for their trip was to collect marine specimens for Ricketts, a biologist who operated a lab in Monterey that sold the specimens to various educational institutions. But the spirit of the journey was one of adventure and escape. Along with them was a small crew—a captain, an engineer, and a couple of deck hands, plus Steinbeck’s wife at the time, Carol. For six weeks they sweltered in the Mexican heat, spending endless days upturning rocks, searching for all manner of marine life, and visiting with locals in tiny beach towns and fishing villages. Each night, they would return to their boat, the Western Flyer.
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