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Amber Paulen

Photograph of John Steinbeck's Travels With Charley.

John Steinbeck

Travels with Charley

9 October 2008


When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch.

Such is Steinbeck’s first line. It’s a first line that shouts out of its relaxed cadence; a first line that is able to blossom out into any number of petaled varieties—give me dusty lunar-pink of the Bad Lands, show me white to top the Rockies, pass me the majesty of redwoods along California’s northern coast. If the travelling bug is an itch and the itch swells and restlessness scratches, it’s as black-grey as the asphalt and as hypnotizing as the yellow line. Those who puss and scab with this infection. . . There’s no hope? One is bound to wayward, forever?

At the age of 58 John Steinbeck saddled up his own Rocinante and loaded it with a year’s worth of supplies; he patted his passenger seat with the palm of his hand and up jumped Charley, the French poodle; off he drove. The sun set and the sun rose and the roads of America in the 1960s streamed out from his tires before and behind him.

I wondered how in hell I’d got myself mixed up in a project that couldn’t be carried out. It was like starting to write a novel. When I face the desolate impossibility of writing five hundred pages a sick sense of failure falls upon me and I know I can never do it. Then gradually I write one page and then another. One day’s work is all I can permit myself to contemplate and I eliminate the possibility of ever finishing.

When the country is large and the trip is long, maps become intimidating and cause more confusion, as if one could plan out a novel. The best journey unfolds before your eyes, it reveals “personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness” as one goes along. One can never predict where the next turn will find you, to trust in maps is futile; the best trips are those that take you.

I have thrice driven and rode across the USA. We slept in tents, under stars, on the edge of a canyon, in the dead center of a plain. The country is vast. Steinbeck started out in Long Island, he headed north then made a straight course due west. He was “in search of America”; he asked “What are Americans like today?”. Through graceful observations and conversations the reader is left to construct their own impressions. I was very impressed by the steadiness of Steinbeck’s pen, perhaps I am so accustomed to the high-flying streaks of Henry Miller, that when Steinbeck drew my attention, my attention was drawn before I had time to know it. His point had been made and the point was just as telling.

It is life at a peak of some kind of civilization. The restaurant accommodations, great scallops of counters with simulated leather stools, are as spotless as and not unlike the lavatories. Everything that can be captured and held down is sealed in clear plastic. The food is oven-fresh, spotless and tasteless; untouched by human hands. I remembered with an ache certain dishes in France and Italy touched by innumerable human hands.

All this from a man who could remember passing through the Mojave desert “with a prayer”, remembering “white skeletons of horses and cattle”, remembering when Seattle was a small port town, remembering California without the ten-lane speedways. That the States had changed in his 25 years since last driving through the country; how has it changed now? If the economy drops out of the bottom they want us to be concerned, they want us convinced that it is the economy which makes us Americans and people with lives worth living on the earth; but I don’t believe it. Why not go to Montana?

Steinbeck wrote: “I am in love with Montana.” It is the middle of the country and not on the coastal fringes, where I think America can be found. It is wide open spaces, dramatic and banal landscapes, simplicity of life and people, where the beehive of commerce and the ant hill of cities are crushed. “The calm of the mountains and the rolling grasslands had got into the inhabitants.” “It is grandeur and warmth.”

When I think about the States—besides dominant memories from Michigan—I think about those forlorn places in between. I think about a canyon in Arizona where we heard the wings of a bird flap high above our heads in the early pink dawn, I think about a deserted town in North Dakota whose train line sign still hangs from a rusty iron post as if it too waits in its summons for life again, I think about the salt flats in Nevada, mountains and crags, I think of a bar on a road, to first glance, empty, whose bartender told stories about the year snow knocked hefty telephone posts down for fifty miles around. The country is vast.

By the time John Steinbeck began to drive north again he was tired. His efforts were commendable; his book read like a trip in itself, so fluid and easy, like thick talk from Montana. “This monster of a land, this mightiest of nations, this spawn of the future, turns out to be the macrocosm of microcosm me.” What one sees is what one wants to see. “External reality has a way of being not so external after all.” The States is a country of many things; it is what it is for each person during their own time.

I liked this book for its general non-preaching manner, John Steinbeck’s subtle ideas. Through the microcosm of him and the smaller microcosm of Travels with Charley I was given yet another view of a country which stirs me up with mixed feelings. My home, but do I belong there? What is the USA? Travels with Charley does not as much answer the questions for me but reveals another platform from which to ask.

To live in a country and not know it’s texture is a shame, just as much as a life in the world is shallow without an attempt at coming to some grasp with purpose among the masses. I’m not saying that those bitten by the travel bug are higher in purpose, but that we multiply the macrocosms of our own perception. One may travel without moving from one’s spot. To read and to muse on Steinbeck’s America from a sofa or lawn chair lends wheels to my feet and wings to my arms: I’m off!

Thanks to Kimberly and Ryan for sending this book albeit last Christmas.



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