Traveling along Steinbeck's roads
Fifty years ago this fall, John Steinbeck sallied through Seattle in his ¾-ton GMC pickup and camper. Steinbeck was midway on his 10,000-mile...
Special to The Seattle Times
Steinbeck on SeattleThis is how John Steinbeck described Seattle in "Travels With Charley," based on his 1960 visit:
"I remembered Seattle as a town sitting on hills beside a matchless harborage — a little city of space and trees and gardens, its houses matched to such a background. It is no longer so. ... This Seattle was not something changed that I once knew. It was a new thing. Set down there not knowing it was Seattle, I could not have told where I was. Everywhere frantic growth, a carcinomatous growth. Bulldozers rolled up the green forests and heaped the resulting trash for burning. The torn white lumber from concrete forms was piled beside gray walls. I wonder why progress looks so much like destruction."
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Fifty years ago this fall, John Steinbeck sallied through Seattle in his ¾-ton GMC pickup and camper. Steinbeck was midway on his 10,000-mile trek that led to his best-selling book, "Travels With Charley: In Search of America."
Steinbeck's friends had told him he was writing books about a country he no longer knew. Born and raised in Salinas, Calif., Steinbeck spent much of his adulthood in New York City or globe-trotting.
Steinbeck believed his friends, bought a truck and left his summer house in Sag Harbor, Long Island, in September 1960 for an 11-week trek through 34 states. Riding shotgun was his dignified French Standard poodle, Charley.
When Steinbeck began his road trip, he was 58 and had been sideswiped by a stroke and heart condition. When I was 58, in the fall of 2009, my health also was shaky after two years of cardiologists and neurologists that left me saddled with a pacemaker.
Staring into the same maw of mortality, I made the decision to fight back and travel Steinbeck's roads in my own camper truck, writing my own book.
The journey begins
Outfitting for my road trip was bliss. I found a copy of Steinbeck's route painstakingly re-created by a volunteer at the National Steinbeck Center (www.steinbeck.org) in Salinas. At the museum I also saw Steinbeck's original truck and camper, named Rocinante — after Don Quixote's fictional horse.
Steinbeck carried road maps in 1960 but was perpetually lost. Not my problem, as I sheepishly snapped a GPS to my windshield.
Steinbeck traveled heavy-laden; convenience stores were not yet invented. He packed his specially made camper rig like a mechanic's Noah's Ark — two of everything. I intended to travel lightly and cook onboard. Sadly, my trusty black Labrador retriever, Zorro, was left behind, unable to conquer his travel anxiety.
Steinbeck drove counterclockwise around the U.S. Leaving my Poulsbo home in September 2009, I traveled the opposite way: Idaho, Montana, the Dakotas, south around the Great Lakes and on to Maine, down the Middle Atlantic States and southward to New Orleans, the dramatic epicenter of Steinbeck's trip, before a jaunt through Texas, the Southwest, again to Salinas, and finally home to Puget Sound.
I drove 12,751 miles and burned one quart of oil in my 80-day journey.
Midnight at Walmarts
In "Travels with Charley," Steinbeck writes of the American landscape and the people he meets. On my trip, people were my focus as well.
At midnight in a Walmart at Billings, Mont., a state whose wilderness captured Steinbeck's heart, I met a homeless couple I nicknamed Bonnie and Clyde. He was an ex-con, she a mental patient, living in a 1984 Ford van on love and cases of Top Ramen bought with food stamps.
Another memorable midnight came in Groton, Conn. Handsome, winsome Dave waltzed through the Walmart parking lot (where I parked to stay overnight), whistling and pushing a shopping cart with all his earthly possessions. He was intelligent, homeless, a savant on sports trivia, but borderline schizophrenic.
Dave: "Some things you just gotta do. Like you. You're taking a journey about John Steinmen."
Me: "No, Steinbeck. You know, he wrote 'The Grapes of Wrath' and 'Of Mice and Men.' "
Dave: "I gotta admit, I never read them. I'll have to look him up at the library. That's another place to stay warm. It's all about staying warm."
We chatted about Babe Ruth and Barack Obama. He hopped a bus to a men's shelter. I checked his abandoned shopping cart for signs of his life. It was empty. I knew Dave for just 10 minutes, but still he haunts me.
Steinbeck's old friend
Arriving in Sag Harbor, I was reading a New York Times article about Steinbeck posted in a barbershop.
"Something I can help you with?" a stranger asked.
"I'm interested in this article about Steinbeck. I'm in town researching him."
"I can help you. I knew him well. He loved Sag Harbor. He loved the people of Sag Harbor. In turn, the people of Sag Harbor loved and protected him. When people would ask where he was or lived, we'd all say, 'Oh sure, we know where he lives.' Then we'd send them over the bridge the wrong way."
The stranger was Artie Moore, a Canadian who lived in Sag Harbor and whom Steinbeck nicknamed "The Alien."
Ruby in a white dress
Journeying south, I headed to New Orleans, where Steinbeck, during his travels, was appalled by the racism.
A cabbie took me to William Frantz Public School in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward, damaged in Hurricane Katrina and under renovation.
In 1960, Steinbeck witnessed the warbling "Cheerleaders" — a vile lineup of white women screaming racist venom at Ruby Bridges, the black first-grade student who was the first to integrate the school. Due to death threats, Ruby, in her starched white dress, was escorted daily by U.S. Marshals.
After my trip ended, I heard Bridges talk about her experience at the annual Steinbeck Festival in Salinas.
"They were screaming a chant, '2,4,6,8, we don't want to integrate.' I remember that because it rhymed. When I got home, my sister and I jumped rope to it. I didn't even know what integrate meant."
Steinbeck was often asked, and asked himself, of his 1960 trek: "Did you find the real America?"
He wrote: "It would be pleasant to be able to say of my travels with Charley, 'I went out to find the truth about my country and I found it.' ... I wish it were that easy. ... This monster of a land, this mightiest of nations, this spawn of the future, turns out to be the macrocosm of the microcosm me. If an Englishman or a Frenchman or an Italian should travel my route, see what I saw, hear what I heard, their stored pictures would be not only different from mine but equally different from one another. If other Americans reading this account should feel it true, that agreement would only mean that we are alike in our Americanness."
Now, there are 310 million real Americas — the population of the country. We all carry bias, race, religion and economic status as we travel.
As my trip wound up, driving home from California on Interstate 5, I unknowingly created a Steinbeck-type microcosm. I had:
• Eaten in a Mexican restaurant in Arcata, Calif.
• Chatted with Japanese Americans in the redwood forests.
• Got gas pumped in Oregon by a Hispanic man.
• Stopped at a deli in Lakewood for Bavarian goods at a shop run by German expatriates.
• Near Steilacoom, bought doughnuts in a Vietnamese bakery.
Embedded in those final miles was what America has always been — the greatest melting pot the world has ever known. And, as in Steinbeck's seminal "Travels with Charley" statement: "We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us."
John Olson is a freelance writer from Poulsbo. His book "Down John's Road" will chronicle his Steinbeck journey. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.