Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck
2002 by Penguin (first published 1962)
Finished on July 23, 2018
Rating: 2/5 (Fair)
A quest across America, from the northernmost tip of Maine to California’s Monterey Peninsula.
To hear the speech of the real America, to smell the grass and the trees, to see the colors and the light—these were John Steinbeck's goals as he set out, at the age of fifty-eight, to rediscover the country he had been writing about for so many years.
With Charley, his French poodle, Steinbeck drives the interstates and the country roads, dines with truckers, encounters bears at Yellowstone and old friends in San Francisco. Along the way he reflects on the American character, racial hostility, the particular form of American loneliness he finds almost everywhere, and the unexpected kindness of strangers.
It has been many, many years since I first read Travels with Charley. My memory of that first reading, while vague (and perhaps romanticized), is very positive. A dear friend sent me a copy several years ago and after Rod & I bought our travel trailer, I decided it was time to give the book a second reading. I began reading on July 30, 2017 and didn't finished until July 23rd - almost exactly a year later! Now, to clarify, I only read it while traveling in our RV, so it isn't as if it were a 1,000 page tome! Sadly, the book didn't live up to my expectations. I found it very dated and pedantic, which led to some skimming, which is not my style, but I was eager to finish and move on to something else. I'm sad that I didn't love it as much as I did that first time I read it, but I was looking more for inspiration about future destinations than for his message about mankind. So, with that said, I wonder if I should re-read The Grapes of Wrath, which I read and loved in high school (40 years ago!). I recently read East of Eden (reviewed here) and thought it was exceptionally good, so maybe there's a chance I'll still love The Grapes of Wrath.
When the virus of restlessness begins to take possession of a wayward man, and the road away from Here seems broad and straight and sweet, the victim must first find in himself a good and sufficient reason for going. This to the practical bum is not difficult. He has a built-in garden of reasons to choose from. Next he must plan his trip in time and space, choose a direction and a destination. And last he must implement the journey. How to go, what to take, how long to stay. This part of the process is invariable and immortal. I set it down only so that newcomers to bumdom, like teen-agers in new-hatched sin, will not think they invented it.and
Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process; a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. Tour masters, schedules, reservations, brass-bound and inevitable, dash themselves to wreckage on the personality of the trip. Only when this is recognized can the blown-in-the-glass bum relax and go along with it. Only then do the frustrations fall away. In this a journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it. I feel better now, having said this, although only those who have experienced it will understand it.and
Under the big oak trees of my place at Sag Harbor sat Rocinante, handsome and self-contained, and neighbors came to visit, some neighbors we didn't even know we had. I saw in their eyes something I was to see over and over in every part of the nation--a burning desire to go, to move, to get under way, anyplace, away from any Here. They spoke quietly of how they wanted to go someday, to move about, free and unanchored, not toward something but away from something. I saw this look and heard this yearning everywhere in every state I visited. Nearly every American hungers to move.and
The Pacific is my home ocean; I knew if first, grew up on its shore, collected marine animals along the coast. I know its moods, its color, its nature. It was very far inland that I caught the first smell of the Pacific. When one has been long at sea, the smell of land reaches far out to greet one. And the same is true when one has been long inland. I believe I smelled the sea rocks and the kelp and the excitement of churning sea water, the sharpness of iodine and the under odor of washed and ground calcareous shells. Such a far-off and remembered odor comes subtly so that one does not consciously smell it, but rather an electric excitement is released--a kind of boisterous joy. I found myself plunging over the roads of Washington, as dedicated to the sea as any migrating lemming.
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