Listening to Travels with Charley reminded me not only of how much I love John Steinbeck's writing, but how much I enjoy travel writing in general. In 1960, Steinbeck was living on the Long Island Sound, approaching his sixtieth birthday, and feeling out of touch with a country he'd been writing about for decades. That fall, he set out with his beloved dog, Charley, in a specially designed pickup truck/camper (named Rocinante after Don Quixote's horse) on a journey across the country. His goal was to rediscover America and reconnect with her people.
Steinbeck's journey took him along the back roads of New England, across the New York State Thruway and into the Midwest. He drove through the Badlands, basked in the majesty of the giant redwoods, and traversed the desert southwest. After a short break in Texas, Steinbeck was back on the road again and found himself in the midst of a civil rights demonstration in Mississippi. Figuring he'd seen enough, he turned Rocinante north and headed home.
Rocinante, fully restored, at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas
I have read many Steinbeck novels over the years, but in Travels with Charley, it felt like I was meeting 'the man' for the first time, instead of 'the writer'. While listening, it is easy to imagine Steinbeck speaking directly to you. I laughed at his subpar sense of direction and imagined how he would marvel at cars now equipped with built-in GPS systems. I enjoyed his musings on the sense of community among truckers, the 'mobile home' developments springing up across the country, and the impact of super-highway construction.
"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." (p.90)
Now I'd like to read more of Steinbeck's nonfiction and a good biography, too. Do you have any recommendations?
Travels with Charley in Search of America
by John Steinbeck
Narrated by Gary Sinise
Penguin Audiobooks, 2011
7 hours and 58 minutes