Writers and dogs in RVs drinking coffee (AKA Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck)

travels with charley

My dog-eared copy of Travels with Charley. (Cue groans.)

Recently I saw the book Travels with Casey by Benoit Denizet-Lewis was published and I thought it might be a good fit to read and discuss during the dog days of summer. But, as I read the reviews of the book, I was reminded that John Steinbeck published Travels with Charley in the 1960s. Since Steinbeck is considered a Great American Writer, I decided to give his book a whirl instead (though I do plan to get to Travels with Casey at some point, too).

I must begin with a full confession: I have never read a John Steinbeck book, so I thought that Travels with Charley would be a fun book that simply covered Steinbeck’s travels across the States in a recreational vehicle with his trusty canine companion, the touristy things he saw and oddball folks he interacted with. I also didn’t read any summaries of the book’s content. Needless to say, I didn’t get the reading experience I expected.

Planning a road trip in the name of “research”

Steinbeck decides take the trip because he feels, as a writer, the “voice” of America he used in his writing is coming from old memories. He needs to get out of his writing room, interact with Americans and get their modern-day perspective (Steinbeck’s family has said that he knew his health was declining–Steinbeck died 6 years later–and that the main reason for the trip was for him to have one last grand experience traveling across the States).

The book begins with Steinbeck’s preparation for the trip: he acquires a custom-built camper truck and gathers the supplies he thinks he will need as he embarks on his tour of the States (he travels across 40 over the course of his trip). He has the experience most have when planning a trip: the thrill of an impending great adventure and the envy of his friends and neighbors. Quite a few would love to drop everything and see as much of the world as they can.

Not all those who wander are lost (but sometimes they are)

Steinbeck and Charley hit the road in the truck, christened Rocinante, in the fall of 1960. They head up through some of the northeastern U.S., getting lost in Maine, having a lively night with some Québécois migrant farm workers (whom he got to know due to an introduction via Charley–a phenomenon well-known to dog owners) and watching a fire-and-brimstone sermon in a Vermont church to balance out the revelry.

Steinbeck then heads west, gets hopelessly lost in New York State and is denied entry into Canada–because he does not have paperwork proving that Charley is properly vaccinated. Since he had planned a bypass through Canada to Detroit to avoid the new interstate highway, he is left with no choice but to the take the interstate. His feelings about the interstate still hold true today:

“From the beginning of my journey, I had avoided the great high-speed slashes of concrete and tar called ‘thruways’ or ‘super-highways’… These great roads are wonderful for moving goods, but not for inspection of the countryside…When we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing.”

As he trudges along the interstate, he is equally mesmerized and repulsed by the rest stops along the way. He ponders the efficiency of the self-serve restaurants that offer meals seemingly untouched by human hands–and they are sanitary, uniform and utterly bland. As I read this, I wondered what he would think of these rest stops now that fast food has become available. (My guess is he would still be repulsed.)

Better living though American ingenuity?

Eventually, as he travels along these roads–those designed for manufacturing plants and moving their goods–he encounters one measure of progress that he thinks will revolutionize the American way of living: the trailer park.

This is where Steinbeck’s observations may have missed the mark. Back in the ’60s, mobile home living was new and an affordable way for working- and middle-class families to afford modern luxuries (dishwashers! electric washers and dryers!) and own a home they could afford. As an added bonus, if the availability of work required them to relocate they could pull anchor and move their dwelling to another park. After reading Steinbeck’s poetic account of mobile home living, I almost want to look into the park living options available around here.

His experiences with new-fangled dining options in the rest areas, modern trailer parks and efficient means of transport leave Steinbeck to do some navel-gazing regarding the impact this will have on the country. He works through it with Charley: What have we seen that’s the same? The newspapers are the same. The food tastes the same. The radio sounds the same. He asks Charley, “Are the smells the same?” (But he refuses to answer.) He concludes the country is becoming a homogenized population. I think in many ways, Steinbeck was right. Sure, we have some local traditions and food options (you can still get a good pierogi in Cleveland, biscuits and grits in Knoxville, bagels in New York, deep dish pizza in Chicago), but you can also find McDonald’s, Starbucks and ranch dressing everywhere you travel in the States. Hopefully, the buy local, eat local movements will continue to grow and we’ll be a little more interesting for it.

The times, they are a-changin’

Up to this point, Steinbeck has met my expectations of hearing about the people and places he’s encountered. What I neglected to consider was that his trip took place in 1960, and the South was protesting desegregation, the Freedom Rides hadn’t happened yet and the Civil Rights Act hadn’t been passed. Steinbeck is keenly aware of this and did not look forward the final leg of his trip. He writes:

“I faced the South with dread. Here, I knew, were pain and confusion and all the manic results of bewilderment and fear. And the South being a limb of the nation, its pain spreads out to all America.”

Despite his dread, Steinbeck travels on toward Louisiana, where protests of a school desegregation have garnered quite a bit of media attention. He takes in the scene and is so sickened by the things the “caring mothers” shouted to the little children and their parents trying to enter the school that he refuses to put it into print. Steinbeck finds that everywhere he goes he is treated with suspicion because it is obvious he is an outsider. He finally meets a local who is willing to speak to him about the scene he observed at the school (and the general state of race relations in the South). The man tells Steinbeck he expects things will change; he says the means of getting to that point is unknown and will certainly be difficult, scary and take a long time to change attitudes.

After that experience, Steinbeck is spent and starts to head home. He makes it back to New York City, but quickly realizes he is lost and can’t find his way home. He stops to get his bearings and have a laugh at the absurdity of the situation. He started his trip to find the voice of America he had lost, spent it getting lost and returned lost; it was an appropriate end to his trip, since the nation was in a period of great change and still trying to find its way through it.

So, is Travels with Charley the perfect beach read? Probably not. But it is an excellent work that forces the reader to ponder where America’s been, where it’s going and how the culture has changed (or not changed) along the way. Additionally, Steinbeck’s words are exquisitely written–so much so, that sometimes I had to read it aloud so I could hear the sound of them floating in the air.

Now that I’ve read my “thinking” piece for the summer, what do you recommend I read next? Please leave your suggestions in the comments!