Why you, RV Traveler, must read Travels With Charley In Search of America!
If you’re a Book Lover, like me, you are constantly on the lookout for your next great reading adventure. When it’s relevant to our lives as RV travelers, it is, hands down: FTW – For The Win.
Well, here you go, dear reader…
#1 Travels With Charley: In Search of America
Travels With Charley In Search of America available in paperback, Kindle & Audible audiobook!
You know John Steinbeck, right?
John Steinbeck (1902 – 1968) was one of our greatest American authors. Most of us had to read (or watch the movies) Of Mice And Men (1937) and/or The Grapes Of Wrath (1939), in high school.
(Some of us actually LOVED reading both! 🤓❤️📚)
In addition to gripping social commentary on the plight of migrant farm workers in the 1930s (and some of the first epic books about road trips in America), Steinbeck’s career spanned more than three decades on a wide variety of subjects and formats. He wrote more than 30 books, both fiction and nonfiction. Seventeen of Steinbeck’s works were made into TV and/or film productions.
👀 RELATED ARTICLE: Steinbeck in Salinas: Literary Day Trip & 10 Fascinating Facts
Travels With Charley: In Search Of America
By 1960, Steinbeck had seen, done, and written about a lifetime of adventure and social commentary. He was 58 years old, late in his career, and suffering declining health.
Still, he was restless and felt he had things to prove to himself and the world.
After having traveled all over the globe, Steinbeck felt it was time to re-connect with ‘regular’ Americans here at home. He decided to set out, literally, in search of America.
What better way to do that than on an epic road trip in an RV?
Steinbeck bought and outfitted one of the earliest Recreational Vehicles available — a customized camper on the back of a 1960 GMC pickup truck.
He described it as “self-contained, a kind of casual turtle carrying his house on his back.”
By some of our modern-day standards, it was pretty basic:
Introducing Rocinante (Naming the RV)
Steinbeck named his RV Rocinante, after the hero’s horse in Cervantes’s legendary tale: Don Quixote. (Remember the story about the old Spanish knight battling windmills in a romantic quest for chivalry and true love?)
RV Travel Prep
As far as getting Rocinante ready for the journey… some of Steinbeck’s realizations will sound oh-so-familiar to RV Travelers. 😉
Quotes from Travels With Charley about RV Travel Prep:
- “Equipping Rocinante was a long and pleasant process. I took far too many things, but I didn’t know what I would find…”
- “Also I laid in a hundred and fifty pounds of those books one hasn’t got around to reading– and of course those are the books one isn’t ever going to get around to reading.”
- “I judge now that I carried about four times too much of everything.”
- “In the morning I would have to reorganize my cargo. No one can tell how to do it. The technique must be learned the way I learned it, by failure.”
RV Travel With Pets
Although Steinbeck felt he had to take this journey on his own, his wife was worried about his health and safety. He happily agreed to take one companion along:
“An old French gentleman poodle known as Charley.”
Charley is a wonderful and engaging character in the book. He is a mirror to his master in many ways: more outgoing and personable. But also sensitive, and suffering his own age and health problems.
Steinbeck lovingly describes Charley:
- “He prefers negotiation to fighting, and properly so, since he is very bad at fighting.”
- “A dog, particularly an exotic like Charley, is a bond between strangers.”
- “In establishing contact with strange people, Charley is my ambassador…”
Charley the Bear Ambassador
One of my favorite stories from Travels With Charley is about a quick side trip to Yellowstone National Park, in which the Park Ranger advises Steinbeck at entry that dogs must be kept on leash– “because of the bears.”
Steinbeck assures the Ranger:
“Sir…this is a unique dog. He does not live by tooth or fang. He respects the right of cats to be cats although he doesn’t admire them… His greatest fear is that someone will point out a rabbit and suggest that he chase it. This is a dog of peace and tranquility. I suggest that the greatest danger to your bears will be pique at being ignored by Charley.”
Sure enough, Charley sees a bear (fortunately, safely from the cab of the truck) and goes Stark. Raving. Mad:
“He screeched insults at the bear… raved and ranted beside me, describing in detail what he would do to that bear if he could get at him. I was never so astonished in my life. To the best of my knowledge Charley had never seen a bear, and in his whole history had showed great tolerance for every living thing…”
It gets even better, laugh-out-loud hysterical, but you’ll have to read it for yourself…
Enjoy Travels With Charley In Search of America
We’ve loved all three versions, as we’ve crossed country.
#1 Best Audiobook For Road Trips!
The Audible version is read by actor Gary Sinise, who played George in the 1992 movie version Of Mice and Men.
The Route: Travels With Charley In Search of America
Steinbeck and Charley set off in Rocinante from home in Sag Harbor, New York on September 23, 1960.
They headed up through New England to “the rooftree of Maine” on the Canadian border, and then southwest through the Great Lakes region.
In Chicago, Steinbeck took a few days off the road to rendezvous with his wife, Elaine, in a luxury hotel. He parked Rocinante safely in a garage. Charley went to a kennel for doggy spa days and grooming.
After that respite, the journey continued west, through Wisconsin and Minnesota, including Sauk Centre, MN: “Birthplace of Sinclair Lewis.”
On to Fargo, North Dakota, which was not what he expected, but enjoyed anyway… to Montana:
“The next passage in my journey is a love affair. I am in love with Montana.”
(And that brief stop at Yellowstone, encountering bears for the first time with Charley, the Bear Maniac.)
Next, on to Spokane and Seattle, Washington, which he could hardly recognize from previous visits to the area:
“I remembered Seattle as a town sitting on hills beside a matchless harborage–a little city of space and trees and gardens, its houses matched to such a background. It is no longer so…”
Down the coast to Steinbeck’s own native country of Salinas, California. Visiting his old stomping grounds of Monterey and San Francisco. Stories and reminisces with family and friends. He was hesitant about going home to Northern California, and described his departure from California as “flight.”
By the end of his visit, referencing another author’s famous book about homecomings:
“Tom Wolfe was right. You can’t go home again because home has ceased to exist except in the mothballs of memory.”
From there, it was east to Texas, and another rendezvous with his wife for an upscale, yet “Texas casual” Thanksgiving at a friend’s elaborate ranch.
“While I was still in Texas, late in 1960, the incident most reported and pictured in the newspapers was the matriculation of a couple of tiny Negro children in a New Orleans school…”
So then it was on to New Orleans, Louisiana, where he witnessed first hand integration and the vile racism of a group of protestors called the “Cheerleaders” as “the littlest Negro girl you ever saw” was accompanied into school by U.S. Marshals.
After that… Steinbeck somewhat abruptly heads toward home.
In Search of America
Steinbeck enjoyed meeting people all along the way, and shares many engaging anecdotes of conversations and time spent with other travelers, property owners and caretakers, shop owners and restaurant workers. The “regular people” with whom he was hoping to re-connect.
After an evening spent with an entire family of migrant farm workers from Canada — The Canucks – crowded into Rocinante to enjoy conversation and brandy, Steinbeck wrote:
“There are times that one treasures for all one’s life, and such times are burned clearly and sharply on the material of total recall. I felt very fortunate…”
As he traveled, Steinbeck also made note of his concerns about a changing America:
- “Big towns are getting bigger and the villages smaller.”
- Avoiding “the great high-speed slashes of concrete and tar called ‘thruways,’ or ‘super-highways.'”
- Fierce critique of consumerism and waste: “American cities are like badger holes, ringed with trash–all of them–surrounded by piles of wrecked and rusting automobiles, and almost smothered with rubbish.”
- “I wonder why progress looks so much like destruction.”
- Political apathy, environmental degradation, strident racism in the South.
Steinbeck was not immune to blow-outs and breakdowns during his three-month journey:
–> In Oregon on a rainy Sunday: a right rear tire blew out with a “damp explosion”
“And that ancient law went into effect which says that when you need towns they are very far apart.”
–> In Texas:
“A passing car on a gravel road had thrown up pebbles and broken out the large front window of Rocinante and it had to be replaced.”
–> Charley’s health problem and emergency veterinarians in Washington State, and again in Texas:
“In the middle of the night Charley awakened me with a soft apologetic whining, and since he is not a whining dog I got up immediately. He was in trouble, his abdomen distended and his nose and ears hot. I took him out and stayed with him, but he could not relieve the pressure.”
RV Life Challenges
Steinbeck’s other challenges with RV Life will also sound familiar to many RV Travelers. Along with his unique perspective and approach to solving them:
– For love of a good bath
Every few days or so, Steinbeck would stop at a motel, what he called “auto courts,” not for the bed (in fact, he would often sleep in Rocinante in the parking lot), but for “the sake of hot, luxurious bathing.”
(Believe me, as a full-time RV Traveler, I understand this particular challenge very well — I miss my bathtub! 🛁)
Steinbeck was a complicated, shy, introvert all his life, plagued by fame when it finally burst upon him. With the anonymity of his journey, he was able to reach out to people he met on the trip, assisted by Charley as his ambassador. (Who could resist a dog like Charley?)
Alcohol also helped him break the ice, so to speak. Steinbeck did not like to drink alone, but he certainly enjoyed enticing his guests with a spot of brandy or a hot coffee with his favorite applejack liquor “to give it authority.”
“I’m tired from driving, I’d like a spot myself.”
– Depression / Homesickness
After the disturbing scenes of racism and hatred in New Orleans, and subsequent encounters with “regular Americans” in the South, Steinbeck seemed to lose his enthusiasm for the journey.
Conversation with Charley:
“Come on up on the bed, Charley. Let’s be miserable together.”
He complied but without enthusiasm and I riffled my fingers in his topknot and behind his ears the way he likes it.
He shifted his head. “A little more to the left. There. That’s the place.”
“We’d be lousy explorers. A few days out and we get the mullygrubs…”
Steinbeck’s solution: Time to go home.
“The way was a gray, timeless, eventless tunnel, but at the end of it was the one shining reality–my own wife, my own house in my own street, my own bed.”
Home Again, Home Again
It is, admittedly, a strange ending to Travels With Charley, as Steinbeck analyzes and questions his trip:
“Who has not known a journey to be over and dead before the traveler returns?”
“My own journey started long before I left, and was over before I returned.”
And his summary:
“It would be pleasant to be able to say of my travels with Charley, ‘I went out to find the truth about my country and I found it.’ And then it would be such a simple matter to set down my findings and lean back comfortably with a fine sense of having discovered truths and taught them to my readers. I wish it were that easy.”
“I do know this–the big and mysterious America is bigger than I thought. And more mysterious.”
In 2010, approaching the 50th anniversary of Steinbeck’s epic road trip, a reporter set out to follow the route and itinerary, as loosely described in Travels With Charley In Search of America.
The reporter claimed to discover what he described as many discrepancies, omissions, and lies regarding the route, schedule, and reality of Steinbeck’s trip, fifty years earlier.
He challenged almost everything about the book: the places Steinbeck traveled and parked, the people he met, his stories and anecdotes. He disparaged and questioned Steinbeck’s stays in luxury hotels, meeting up with his wife, Elaine (which, I would point out, Steinbeck made no attempt to hide or cover up).
The reporter published a book in 2013: Dogging Steinbeck: Discovering America and Exposing The Truth About ‘Travels With Charley.’
Displayed on the front cover, all caps: “TRUE NONFICTION.”
Inside the book, subtitled: “How I went looking for John Steinbeck’s America, found my own America, and exposed the truth about Travels With Charley.”
After reading the book, I found the reporter’s angry exposé mean-spirited, vindictive, and self-serving. I would also note, he published his challenge 45 years after John Steinbeck’s death in 1968.
(I was not impressed — can you tell?)
In Defense of Travels With Charley In Search of America
- John Steinbeck won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1940 for The Grapes of Wrath.
- He was awarded the National Book Award for Fiction in 1940 as well.
- Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize in Literature for his body of work in 1962.
The point I’m making, is that John Steinbeck was one of America’s greatest novelists — a fiction writer, who might be expected to embellish his story a bit here and there. That was, after all, his craft. His genius and expertise.
Also, as a well-known best-selling author and literary celebrity in 1960, Steinbeck may have needed to be vague on the real-life details of his trip for his own privacy, and that of the people he met and places he visited. Overall, his characters and anecdotes were likely drawn from observations and experience of a lifetime, to make for a more entertaining story.
In the Introduction to Travels With Charley In Search of America (2010), Steinbeck biographer Jay Parini wrote:
“The fictional aspects of Travels With Charley are noticeable on most pages, the chief of these being the use of dialogue — perhaps the most obvious of fictional techniques employed by this master novelist. Steinbeck offers a sequence of human encounters, creating characters and dialogue as a true novelist would.”
Steinbeck himself admits in Travels With Charley:
“I’ve always admired those reporters who can descend on an area, talk to key people, ask key questions, take samplings of opinions, and then set down an orderly report very like a road map. I envy this technique and at the same time do not trust it as a mirror of reality. I feel that there are too many realities. What I set down here is true until someone else passes that way and rearranges the world in his own style.”
Why you, RV Traveler, must read Travels With Charley In Search of America!
In Travels With Charley, John Steinbeck presented the world in his own unique and thoroughly enjoyable, readable style.
As RV Travelers, re-discovering America 60 years later, connecting with Steinbeck’s route at many places across the country, we found Travels With Charley captivating, insightful and funny– a truly unique glimpse of RV travel in 1960s America, good and bad.
From the road!
👀 RELATED ARTICLE: Steinbeck in Salinas: Literary Day Trip & 10 Fascinating Facts
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