John Steinbeck, the great American author of The Grapes of Wrath and several other books of great worth, decided late in his life he wanted to write a different sort of book.
He wanted to set off on a journey across the U.S. with only his poodle, Charley, by his side. As he started on his trip in September 1960, Steinbeck realized that the world was changing, and he also realized he may be nearing the end of his own life on this earth.
Alive. He wanted to feel alive out in the world, he said, and he wanted to write about the land in which he had grown old. He also was feeling disenchanted with his country and wanted to prove himself either right or wrong in this opinion.
Steinbeck purchased a pick-up truck that he named “Rocinante” after Don Quixote’s horse. He had the bed of the truck outfitted with a camper cap so that he could eat and sleep, read and write in his truck as he traveled across the country.
And although Steinbeck’s wife, Elaine, worried about him traveling alone, she also understood his need to make this journey with no other human companion along to “dilute the process” of seeing the world without interference.
Steinbeck looked forward to this trip like a kid running away to the circus. He felt a person does not take a trip, “the trip takes you.”
It stunned me to realize Steinbeck already saw himself as an old man in the waning years of his life. In 1960, he would have only been 58 years old.
He opens the tale of the trip by admitting that he was basically setting out on this journey as a way of out-running old age and infirmity after a serious health scare.
Packing. Another point of interest is the list of items Steinbeck packed for his journey. Aside from the obvious, such as clothing, Steinbeck packed a typewriter, typewriter ribbon, reams and reams of paper, dozens of books, a food supply with a four-burner cooking stove because restaurants could be far apart or almost impossible to find out on the open road.
It is hard to imagine not seeing a McDonald’s or a Wendy’s every 20 miles or so, and today’s authors would simply pack a laptop computer with battery packs.
Steinbeck completed his travels, from Massachusetts to California, completely unrecognized. His writings had brought him incredible success, including the Nobel Prize for literature, and while people were all friendly to him throughout his journey, no one seemed to see him as anything more than a kind stranger passing through with a beautiful dog.
Today, the media blitz of a Nobel Prize author would make an anonymous trip nearly impossible for someone of Steinbeck’s stature.
Steinbeck writes that he studied many maps, both before the trip and during the journey, but found directions given by people who lived on the land to be more helpful, much more informative and refreshing. Human nature responds quite nicely to those who are lost, and directions were given with great kindness, every single time.
He was amazed how many times people would come up with the very same reaction when he explained he was just simply setting off to travel for travel’s sake.
Envy. Time after time, a person would express envy, saying they would give anything to tag along. Steinbeck was not surprised, as he had spent his entire life wishing to jump aboard a passing ship or rail car and he could relate to all of the people who expressed that same desire to go absolutely anywhere.
He tells of a conversation with a 13-year-old boy who did not attempt to hide his longing to tag along. Steinbeck could truly empathize, writing he could almost feel the deep desire and disappointment this boy was feeling at being left behind.
He found almost every single person he encountered envied him this journey. All, that is, except for one solitary man.
While driving through the mountains of Massachusetts, he found a dairy farm and stopped to buy some milk, asking permission to camp under an apple tree. The dairy man held a Ph.D. in mathematics and had some training in philosophy.
Content. “He liked what he was doing and he didn’t want to be somewhere else – one of the very few contented people I met in my whole journey.”
Steinbeck notes that traveling with a striking looking dog, a large Standard poodle, proved to be a wonderful idea. People would strike up a conversation simply by first making a fuss over the friendly pet.
Considering that trying to get back in touch with just who made up this country, Charley offered a wonderful conversation starter.
Steinbeck notes there were no strangers out on the open road, and he credits Charley for the friendliness of almost everyone he encountered. Steinbeck found the waste and disregard for all of the excesses of U.S. citizens to be incredibly appalling.
He found Americans to be a spoiled bunch of adults who held little respect for how much they had, how much they used, how much they threw away every single day. He was a man who believed in recycling long before it had been given a name.
Steinbeck was most appalled and disappointed in the civil unrest that he witnessed, mostly in Texas and California. Even when blacks were friendly to him, Steinbeck said he felt them trying to keep their distance, as though he personally had wronged them.
He found himself almost relieved to be nearing the end of his life, as he felt the racial pressure building and had no idea what could possibly be done to change it.
In the end, the journey was not nearly as exciting and satisfying as he had felt certain it would be. He returned home with great weariness and great relief, as he longed for his own home, his wife’s company, his own bed.
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