Thursday, September 28, 2023

Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck


It is impossible to be in this high spinal country without giving thought to the first men who crossed it, the French explorers, the Lewis and Clark men. We fly it in five hours, drive it in a week, dawdle it is I was doing in a month or six weeks. But Lewis and Clark and their party started in Saint Louis in 1804 and returned in 1806. And if we get to thinking we are men, we might remember that in the two and half years of pushing through wild and unknown country to the Pacific Ocean and then back, only one man died and only one deserted. And we get sick if the milk delivery is late and nearly die of heart failure if there is an elevator strike. What must these men have thought as a really new world unrolled—or was the progress so slow that the impact was lost? I can't believe they were unimpressed. Certainly their report to the government is an excited and an exciting document. They were not confused. They knew what they had found.

The subtitle of this volume is In Search of America.

Tuska considers Steinbeck a Western genre author and I am grateful for that as it allows me to squeeze in this lolling perceptive work.

The premise of the “nonfiction” volume is the author sets off in his camper van Rocinante along with his poodle Charley, to drive across the nation. Take his time. See some sights. Talk to some people.

There is no clear plan, just a simple dictate of “Let’s hit the road.”

There are some literary “scholars” who quibble that some of the reported episodes didn’t happen or didn’t happen the way Steinbeck presents.

I care not a whit.

A fine observation, be it in a volume of Trollope, a factual report from the North Pole, or in between the covers of pulp fiction is a fine observation.

Jacques Barzun’s histories have sung to me, but so has Robert E. Howard’s Conan.

Fine fodder is fine fodder.

What resonates here, be it fact or not, vibrates with the facts of a life lived, of observation that strikes a chord with a reader who has seen, encountered and thought such things himself.

The observations that soar, at least to this reader, are not the nuts-and-bolts facts but the heart and soul statements.

I wonder why it is that that when I plan a route too carefully it goes to pieces, whereas if I blunder along in blissful ignorance aimed in a fancied direction I get through with no trouble.


On such a trip as mine, there is so much to see and to think about that event and thought set down as they occurred would roil and stir like a slow-cooking-minestrone. There are map people whose joy is to lavish more attention on the sheets of colored paper than on the colored land rolling by. I have listened to accounts by such travelers in which every road number was remembered, every mileage recalled, and every little countryside discovered. Another kind of traveler requires to know in terms of maps exactly where he was pinpointed every moment, as though there is some kind of safety in black and red lines, and dotted indications and squirming blue of lakes and the shadings that indicated mountains. It was not so with me. I was born lost and take no pleasure in being found.

I could quote on.

But the book deserves its own reading.

And we deserve our own journeys.

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