Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley

Book reports – you remember those from elementary school, right? Well, guess what, you’ve found the one person who loved those damn things. In preparation for our next adventure, I’ll be boning up on my travel reading and sharing my “insights” with you. This is the first in a series of book reports on my path to enlightenment by way of obsessive preparation. Though, paraphrasing the great Yvon Chouinard, there’s really no substitute for just getting out there.

One of the first books I attacked was John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. In his late 50s, in the early 1960s, John Steinbeck decided that he needed to reacquaint himself with America and Americans, “to rediscover this monster land.” He had become successful writing about Americans, but he now felt out of touch with his subject matter. So he spent a ton of money and outfitted himself and Charley, his dog, with an overbuilt, turtle shell of a custom camper truck named Rocinante and headed across the country.

Steinbeck was not a very good traveler. He had great theories on travel (his theory on Americans as natural vagabonds is especially brilliant), and the book is an interesting read, but he missed the point. Here’s what I learned not to do from his adventure.

He goes it alone
Steinbeck decides he needs to go on his own to have an authentic experience – because “two or more people disturb the ecological complex of an area.” This sounds great in theory, but he ends up spending half the time missing his wife and the rest of the time talking to Charley. He begins the journey with “a feeling of gray desolation.” At many points he is thrown into a “deep, despairing loneliness.” Wallowing in loneliness and self pity closes you off from your surroundings much more quickly than the presence of a travel companion does.

By the end of the journey, he ends up going hundreds of miles without speaking to a single person. Most of his conversations are those based on necessity. He finds that Americans in general are quite taciturn, unwilling to speak their minds to strangers. When’s the last time you’ve had a meaningful conversation with a stranger (outside a bar, that is)?

I’d be the same lonely ball of despair and self absorption if I went it alone. Sure, Paul and I will get sick of each other at times, but it’s easier to spend a day or two alone than to spend a journey missing the one you love.

He has a time limit
Steinbeck sets a three month time limit. Well before the three months are up, partially due to the previous point, his journey leaves him – it ends before he returns. He forces himself to keep going but ends up hitting the travel wall and blindly rushing home.

Sure, we have a limit too – but it’s more of a suggestion than a rule. If we aren’t ready to stop after a year, and we’re in a position to keep going, we’ll keep going. If we get sick of this project two months into it, we’ll give up and settle down. As my dad says, “I’d love the opportunity to travel until I was sick of it.”

He doesn’t take risks
While Steinbeck took a few big risks (he saves his boat from a hurricane and throws himself into racial conflict in the deep south), overall Steinbeck traveled like a turtle, snug in the shell of Rocinante. He stuck to the main roads and highways, he ate in truck stops, and when he happened to venture into a city, it was all he could do to get out again as quickly as possible. He avoided the parks, calling them “the freaks of our nation and of our civilization.”

Maybe – if you read a lot into it – he really found the sterile, anonymous heart of America, but I take away a different lesson. The most interesting things happen when you force yourself into conflict, when you make yourself uncomfortable. Comfort means different things to different people, but in general, you’ve got to take a risk to have an authentic, interesting experience. Otherwise you’ll roll along in a comfortable, generic fashion.

Overall, John sums it up for me very nicely: “So much there is to see, but our morning eyes describe a different world than do our afternoon eyes, and surely our wearied evening eyes can report only a weary evening world.” Steinbeck inspires me to go with late-morning eyes.