TRAVELS WITH JOHN
Re-tracing Steinbecks Travels with Charley
As a non-stop traveler (and travel planner), Ive always held a fascination for John Steinbecks book, Travels with Charley, and the three-month cross-country journey that inspired it--as well as how I might someday retrace his steps. That someday took place over 90 days last fall. In 1960, Steinbeck set out in search of America, and so did I, 47 years later.
A Quick Trip Summary
For those not familiar with Steinbecks trip and resulting book, the brief summary goes something like this: Steinbeck left his home in Sag Harbor, Long Island, New York, proceeded up to Maine, and then headed across the northern U.S. to Seattle. From there, he went down the Pacific coast, making a stop in Salinas, California, where he was born and raised. Steinbeck then raced across the southern states before heading back to New York, basically circling the nation in a counter-clockwise route.
Although my journey followed his path, it did have several differences. I didnt take a dog, like Steinbeck, for two big reasons: I dont own a dog and I much prefer the companionship of my wife of 15 years, Cele. We would later learn that Steinbeck grew quite lonely during his trip and his wife, Elaine, flew west to meet him three times (and Charley was actually her dog).
Also, we chose a medium-sized RV instead of a custom-designed truck camper, like Steinbeck's, which he named Rocinante. To keep our travel journalism business afloat (and to keep our sanity), we needed the space and modern amenities a 28-foot Winnebago Outlook could provide (including a wi-fi system, two TVs, a home entertainment system, and full cooking and bathroom facilities). Many times we wondered what Steinbeck would have thought of our Winnebago (and many other things he couldnt possibly imagine finding in America almost 50 years later).
A Sag Harbor Start
After heading to Sag Harbor from our home in coastal North Carolina, Cele and I basically followed Steinbecks route (and timing) whenever there were enough details. Our occasional diversions came when we had the opportunity to go somewhere he mentioned wishing hed gone (like a quick detour through Ontario, Canada).
After dealing with low underpasses in Brooklyn (Steinbeck had a similar experience when he returned to his other home in Manhattan), our trip began in earnest right at Steinbecks Sag Harbor home, which we found with the help of a friendly local bookseller. The small house, surrounded by giant oaks and a thousand Japanese black pines evidently planted by Steinbeck, was just as Id pictured.
We were able to drive the RV down the exact roads Steinbeck must have driven to get to the first of three ferries that would eventually take him to New London, Connecticut. These ferries would help him (and us) avoid New York traffic.
Once in Connecticut, we continued on to Eaglebrook, a prep school in Deerhurst, Massachusetts. Steinbeck had gone there to visit his son and ended up having as many as 15 students at a time come inside his truck camper for a peek.
Maine-ly Steinbeck & More of the Northeast
We then re-traced Steinbecks route through eastern Vermont and New Hampshire's White Mountains, and into Maine. We even pursued many of Steinbecks stops during this stretch, including buying just-picked crisp Cortland apples and freshly pressed apple cider along the way.
After visiting Deer Isle, we followed Steinbecks apparent route up the coast, enjoying the Maine scenery all along the way. We then went north on U.S. 1, following Steinbecks route into Aroostook (The County). Steinbeck was drawn there by potatoes and people--we found both delightful as well.
Our first stop was an organic potato farm wed read about outside Bridgewater called Wood Prairie Farm. Jim and Megan Gerritsen, the friendly owners, told us all about their operation and sold us a sample box with three different varieties. Although they were pretty pricey for potatoes, Steinbeck would have enjoyed the local bounty.
Once we got to the top of Maine, we headed west and generally didn't stop until we got to Seattle. The plan was to drive up to the Canadian border, following Steinbecks stated route through Rouses Point at the northern tip of Lake Champlain.
Canada without Charley
We then did what Steinbeck couldnt--went into Canada to cut across to Michigan. That was his plan, but he was turned back at the border because he didnt have a rabies vaccination certificate for Charley (Celes passport and other papers were in order). He had to take busy I-90 around Erie and Cleveland, whereas we were able to cross into Canada, enjoy Niagara Falls on that side, and then cut through Ontario along Lake Erie.
We thoroughly enjoyed our first visit to Niagara Falls and were glad we did it on the less commercial Canadian side. After leaving, we found a provincial park near Lake Erie and followed the coastline all the way to Windsor and back into the U.S. at Detroit (Steinbecks original plan).
Back in the U.S.
After another peaceful state park experience, this one in Michigan, we cut down into Indiana because we wanted to check out a brand new RV museum in the long-time RV capital. Were not big museum people, but this place would keep our attention for hours.
As RV owners and big fans of the lifestyle, we enjoyed RV/MH Hall of Fame. However, museum officials are finding that even non-RVers (especially those considering a purchase) are visiting, thanks to the display of various new models with all of the bells and whistles, as well as dozens of historical models dating from 1913. We couldnt resist spending time at each of the older models, comparing them to our modern Winnebago.
Chicago was our next stop, where we hoped to store our RV and stay at the legendary Ambassador East. Steinbeck stayed here with his wife Elaine, when she flew in from New York for a four-day visit. Alas, it wasnt meant to be. The hotel was sold out due to the Cubs playoff game and the thousands of runners jogging into town for the Chicago Marathon.
We were able to re-create at least part of Steinbecks visit at the beautiful historic hotel, dining at The Pump Room restaurant. The walls are lined with hundreds of black-and-white celebrity pictures, but we couldnt find Steinbeck, perhaps because he often registered under an alias.
We Loved Wisconsin
Like Steinbeck, we loved Wisconsin. Steinbeck also loved cheese. We stopped at several places when passing through the cheese mecca of Green County and stocked up on a variety.
Then we headed for Wisconsin Dells in Steinbecks wake. His prose made it apparent that he really enjoyed his time here, raving about the countryside and waxing poetically about the area's beauty. Among many Wisconsin highlights, we had one of our best meals at Del-Bar. This Wisconsin Dells landmark was established in 1939, making us wonder if Steinbeck (who obviously enjoyed food) didnt also partake of their perfectly prepared steak.
After a slight diversion down into Iowa to visit Winnebagos headquarters in Forest City, we re-joined Steinbecks route through Minnesota. Steinbeck gave an account of his getting lost in Minneapolis-St. Paul (we didnt) and visiting Sauk Centre, the hometown of fellow writer, Sinclair Lewis (of Main Street fame). We loved this friendly little town, including its bustling Main Street, and even stayed at Sinclair Lewis Campground.
Into the Wild West
Steinbeck wanted to go to Fargo because its often the center point of the United States along the crease of a map when you fold it. We did the same, then, like Steinbeck, headed to Theodore Roosevelt National Park and the Badlands.
In Travels with Charley, Steinbeck said he knew hed arrived in the west when he crossed the Missouri River from Bismarck to Mandan. We definitely noticed the landscape change when we crossed the river. However, we really knew wed arrived in the west when we got to the Badlands.
Its hard to describe the landscape at this great national park. The rock formations are definitely a highlight, but memories of the wildlife will remain with us long after the trip. On our first night, a pair of bison passed within 25 feet of our campsite. During a loop drive and several hikes, we also spotted wild horses, deer, a porcupine, prairie dogs, and a flock of pheasant.
Steinbeck loved Montana and we did as well. He said hed move there if Montana had a sea, and we felt the same. Superlatives have to include: sheer beauty; friendly people; a slower-paced way of life; and some incredible food.
Steinbeck bought a hat in Billings, a jacket in Livingston, and a rifle in Butte. I wouldnt look good in what I assume was a large cowboy hat, neither of us needed a jacket, and Ive sworn off guns since my military college and Army days. However, we did stop in all three friendly Montana towns.
Steinbeck diverted to Yellowstone to say he had been there when people inevitably asked, but he didnt get far. After being warned at the entrance gate about bears interacting with Charley, Steinbeck and the dog soon encountered some and the normally mild-mannered Charley went berserk. Steinbeck even put him in the rear of his truck camper, but Charley still went crazy every time a bear was nearby. Rocinante finally reversed course and headed back to Livingston--having been in Yellowstone for a very brief period.
Like our crossing into Canada when Steinbeck had failed, we decided to explore Yellowstone more thoroughly. As we often do at state and national parks, we dry camped (no water or electric hookups). We found a great campsite at Mammoth Hot Springs, where there were only a few other campers; we even had the natural riverside hot springs to ourselves the next morning).
A Short Time to (and in) Seattle
To keep on Steinbecks relatively rushed timing, we had to pick up the pace a bit to reach Seattle on schedule. This was our first visit to Seattle and we both loved the city, including Pike Place Market (Steinbeck had clam juice, we tried the clam-chocked chowder), the iconic Space Needle, and a great little Chinatown where we enjoyed a dim sum lunch with lots of locals.
Steinbecks descriptions of redwoods in southern Oregon and northern California are classic, with lines like ambassadors from another time. Once in northern California, we stayed in an excellent state park amidst the huge redwoods (the big tree has a 24-foot diameter). Steinbeck spent two days close to the bodies of the giants, so we did the same.
After the redwoods, we kept course along the craggy California coast. Steinbeck didnt detail the route he took, but were betting he hugged the incredible coastline on the way down to San Francisco. As we headed south, we hit heavy traffic and fog. We could see wed never match Steinbecks sunny crossing over the Golden Gate Bridge, so, due to the conditions, and being a bit behind schedule, we skirted around San Francisco and headed straight south into the heart of Steinbeck country.
In the Heart of Steinbeck Country
Our visit to Steinbeck country included a stop at Montereys famed Cannery Row. Its commercialized now (including condos, hotels, restaurants, shops, and the excellent Monterey Bay Aquarium), but theres still the somewhat downtrodden sea-drenched feel that Steinbeck described so well in his novel of that name.
The next morning, we headed to Steinbecks hometown of Salinas, easily finding Steinbecks gravesite, specific Main Street buildings mentioned in East of Eden (including an old department store thats now a very modern internet café), and his boyhood home (where we would later have lunch).
The sprawling National Steinbeck Center right in the heart of his hometown was certainly a high point of the trip. After immersing ourselves in Steinbeck in general and Travels with Charley specifically, both before and during this trip, we were simply in Steinbeck heaven. The highlight had to be seeing Rocinante. Seeing the tiny truck camper somehow put the big trip (both Steinbecks and ours) in perspective.
To keep on schedule, we rushed out of Salinas just as Steinbeck had in 1960. He left after a short stay because (with apologies to Thomas Wolfe) he felt you cant go home again. We left because we wanted to get home again (in time for Christmas).
Through the Southwest
Steinbeck quickly made his way east into Arizona and New Mexico. The beautiful landscapes of the southwest kept us to a slower pace, with lots of memorable stops in Arizona and New Mexico on our way to Amarillo.
We passed through the Mohave Desert and spent the night in Needles (we think Steinbeck must have done the same). We then crossed into Arizona and used both I-40 and Route 66 to pass through this beautiful state. We were pleasantly surprised how much of Route 66 remains (including lots of classic diners) and took it whenever possible. Of course, we couldnt resist standing on a corner in Winslow!
Next, New Mexico, brought more of Mother Nature at her finest. We camped under the red rocks near Gallup, got totally lost in the Cibola National Forest, and then headed up the Turquoise Road to Santa Fe before heading into Texas.
The Lone Star State
Just like Steinbeck, we passed into Texas at Glenrio, making our way to Amarillo, where he had his truck campers windshield replaced and then met his wife at a nearby ranch for Thanksgiving. Unlike Steinbeck, we didnt have friends who owned a ranch. We did, however, find a phenomenal place in Amarillo called Big Texan Steak Ranch. It was hard to miss, thanks to all of the billboards along I-40 heading into town (mostly advertising the 72-ounce steak that's free--if you can finish it in an hour). Ironically, this icon opened in 1960 just before Steinbeck would pass through town with Charley. Its definitely his kind of place--very Americal. And thats what he was in search of on this trip.
We enjoyed Amarillo, but a cold front had moved in (this actually happened to Steinbeck at the same time back in 1960) and it was time to move on. We followed his route from Amarillo to Lubbock and then through Sweetwater on his and our way to Austin. Cajun country was next.
We loved the city Steinbeck called La-Fayette, thanks to its very French Acadian food and atmosphere. Before heading to our bayou campground just outside town, we stopped in several food emporiums for seafood- and pork-stuffed boudin.
Next, we took the back way to New Orleans through Morgan City--including a swing through Houma. Steinbeck called Houma (pronounced "Homer") one of the pleasantest places in the world; we found the architecture quite charming.
One of Steinbecks goals in visiting New Orleans was to see the cheerleaders in action at William Frantz Elementary School. In December, 1960, the cheerleaders stationed themselves outside this school to scream racial slurs at six-year old Ruby Bridges as the school was being integrated. Steinbeck was sickened by what he saw and left town in disgust.
But we wanted to get back to the city he (and we) knew and loved. We spent an afternoon walking the streets of the French Quarter, which are coming back to life for locals and visitors in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The next morning, we followed Steinbeck to William Frantz.
You Can Go Home Again
Like Steinbeck, we then headed to Montgomery and the ghosts of Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. Steinbeck had spent much of the book after New Orleans lamenting the state and fate of African Americans in the south, so this visit was appropriate.
Our time in Montgomery and the rest of the south made us feel that Steinbeck would be pleased with the progress so painfully pursued by the likes of King, Parks, and even little Ruby Bridges. However, we know hed still be using his pen to work for equality and tolerance.
It happened to Steinbeck in Abingdon, Virginia. It happened to us in Montgomery. It was time to go home. We left Steinbecks route in Montgomery, heading for the North Carolina coast. He had headed north to New York (a route wed roughly replicated at the beginning of the trip). Unlike Steinbeck in Salinas, we most definitely found we could go home again.