Travels without Charley

A journalist sets out to retrace John Steinbeck's 1960 trek across America

John Steinbeck has a 50-year head start on me, so I don't ever expect to catch up with him or his ghost.

But on Thursday I begin my great and mad adventure -- retracing the 10,000-mile road trip around the United States that Steinbeck took in the fall of 1960 and turned into his best-seller "Travels With Charley."

Perhaps you've forgotten the details of Steinbeck's iconic American road book. A mix of observations, musings and gently cranky criticism of a country and people he loved but had lost touch with, it stars the world-famous author of "The Grapes of Wrath," his lovable poodle companion Charley and "Rocinante," a 1960 GMC pickup truck/camper shell combo Steinbeck named after Don Quixote's horse.

'Travels Without Charley: Then and Now'

Steinbeck's journey began on Sept. 23, 1960, when he and Charley left his home in Sag Harbor, N.Y., took three ferries to Connecticut, drove to the top of Maine and then turned west.

Deliberately dodging big cities and major highways, the former California ranch hand, future Nobel Prize-winner and author of "Of Mice and Men" crossed the top of the country from Vermont to Chicago to Fargo, N.D., to Seattle.

Then he hugged the Pacific coast through redwood country to San Francisco and his native Monterey Peninsula (aka "Steinbeck Country"). Before sprinting home to New York in early December, he stopped in Texas for Thanksgiving and in New Orleans to observe an ugly racial scene at a recently integrated public school.

Steinbeck spent nearly 11 weeks on the road. As the Pirates and Yankees slugged it out in the World Series and Kennedy and Nixon debated on TV to see who was tough enough to be the next boss of the Free World, he and Charley saw 34 states -- some only through their windshield at 50 mph.

With virtually no notes to work from, Steinbeck spent almost a year writing "Charley." Published by Viking Press in July 1962, it became an instant best-seller and got generally favorable reviews. It still sells well and has become a fixture on high school reading lists and in our culture.

My trip and Steinbeck's will be similar only in geography and season of the year. I won't have a dog with me to talk to or provide comic relief -- I checked the rescue homes but couldn't find one that could read maps or drive and post to Twitter at the same time.

I plan to follow Steinbeck's trail as faithfully as possible, but I'll do it faster, cheaper and less comfortably.

I figure to drive my 10,000 miles in six weeks or less, mainly because, unlike Steinbeck, I won't be able to spend almost five weeks rest-stopping at expensive big-city hotels or celebrating Thanksgiving at a fancy ranch in Texas.

Steinbeck camped out under the stars a bunch of times. I won't. He drove a clunky uncomfortable truck with a Spartan camper shell on its back. I'll stay at pre-1960 motels when I can and drive a 2010 Rav4 I can sleep in when I must. When Steinbeck was on the road he had only an AM radio and pay phones to keep him tethered to the world. I'll have enough communication gear for a trip to the moon.

The book "Travels With Charley" will be my map/guide/timeline to the places Steinbeck went and the things he mused, complained or fretted about. Unfortunately, "Charley" is not a travelogue and wasn't meant to be. It's often vague and confusing about where Steinbeck actually was on any given date, and Steinbeck, who died in 1968, left no notes, no journal, no expense records.

To accurately chart his real journey around America, I've had to become part history-detective, part cartographer, part travel writer, part library researcher, part Steinbeck expert. But don't ask me about Steinbeck's alleged weakness for practicing "sentimentalism" in his writing, whatever that is. Ask me what motel he stayed in on Oct. 12, 1960, or where he slept in Seattle.

So that's my mad plan.

No one needs to tell me I'm about to start on an interesting and amazing all-American adventure. Whenever I tell anyone my plan -- especially aging boomers chained to their desks and mortgages -- their faces light up with envy until reality slaps them to their senses. As Steinbeck knew, the idea of hitting the highway to somewhere/anywhere else but where we are is embedded in our national DNA.

My initial innocent idea to follow Steinbeck's tire tracks 50 years later as a professional drive-by journalist has become my destiny, my obsession. There's no turning around. I was mentally and financially all-in months ago. I know I'll get my kicks. But I am also committing a serious act of entrepreneurial journalism. I hope to use my "Charley" as the frame for a book that compares simple, poor, square 1960 America with 2010 America.

Obviously, I don't know what twists and turns I'll find on the road or how my trip will unfold or end. I do know I'll be doing a lot of driving, a lot of interviewing, a lot of observing and a lot of opining until at least Election Day.

As Steinbeck would know because he said it first, my trip really started months ago, and I'm not taking it. It's taking me. It's already been a lot of work and fun and I haven't driven a mile yet. So far I haven't heard anything from the Department of Homeland Security that my trip would be a threat to national security. So starting Thursday, I'll hit the Old Steinbeck Highway and see what happens.

Bill Steigerwald, a Post-Gazette feature writer in the 1990s and a Tribune-Review columnist from 2000-09, quit daily journalism in 2009. You can reach him at . First Published September 19, 2010 4:00 AM


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