“We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.” – John Steinbeck, Travels With Charley
Somehow having managed to skip any Steinbeck in high school, I had always imagined his work to be somber, serious and dry. But on a recent road trip from Pittsburgh to Memphis, friends brought along the audio version of his road story, Travels with Charley: In Search of America DB 16094. The book follows his 1960 cross-country trip with his Standard Poodle, Charley, and his tricked-out camper truck, which he named Rosenante after Don Quixote’s horse.
I was right in what I had anticipated of Steinbeck’s style, but it turns out the dryness doesn’t have to parch you, the serious subjects don’t have to bore you, and the somber tone can be a welcome match for the slow and steady pace of a cross country road trip. He offers details of both mundane day to day life, such as the interior of a country store or hotel lobby, as well as the grandeur of the country, with stops on the trip such as Badlands National Park and the Redwood Forests of Northern California.
He conducts interviews from the back of his camper truck, which he has calculatedly stocked with the age-old lip-looser of all varieties and strengths (whiskey seems to his most popular stock) on his quest to meet his countrymen. The story follows his conversations from place to place with this loose theme of finding America, and it’s the kind of book you can nod off to in the passenger seat and pick right back up after hitting a pothole jars you awake.
There are now many skeptics and investigators of the trip who shed light on an impossibility of Steinbeck’s timeline, conversations and encounters. There was even a Pittsburgh Post Gazette writer, John Steigerwald, who set out to follow this trail, only to write a book decrying the stories credibility. You can read about his journey more on his website: www.truthaboutcharley.com
Fiction or non, listening to this story of an American Journey was the right choice for my trip, and if you give it a try, I think you might agree.