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January 8, 2019

Travels with Charley: In Search of America



Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck
Classic/Travel Memoir
2002 by Penguin (first published 1962)
Finished on July 23, 2018
Rating: 2/5 (Fair)



Publisher's Blurb:

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.

Favorite Passages:
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.
"Rocinante"
Steinbeck's Truck & Camper


Steinbeck's Route


"Sweetpea"
Our first RV

In Search of Inspiration

14 comments:

  1. This is another book that I just loved on audio, then wondered at the time how it would play in print. It's definitely dated, but I've always thought I might listen again one day. Great photos!

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    1. JoAnn, having read it now twice, I doubt I'll give it a try on audio. Now I wish I had done that for my re-read.

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  2. I love how you only allowed yourself to read this book when you were traveling.

    I read Travels With Charley some years ago, and, like you, I found myself disappointed. I'm a huge fan of Grapes of Wrath, and I was surprised to find the writing in Travels wasn't as elevated as GW. It felt dated to me, too.

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    1. Deb, it sort of evolved into my "travel read," which was fun and helped me get a little reading in while out on the road. I have a couple of other travel books that I'll put in the RV for our next outing.

      I'm glad to know that I wasn't the only one disappointed with a second reading of TWC. I do still plan to re-read Grapes of Wrath, though.

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  3. It sounds like I'll be safe to skip this one.

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    1. Kathy, I think so. I would recommend East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath, if you really want to read Steinbeck. Those are outstanding!

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  4. I have Travels with Charley and Cannery Row on my tbr list.

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    1. Vicki, I'll be interested to hear your thoughts on these. I've also read Cannery Row, but didn't care for it.

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  5. Did I send you an article years ago about how some of it was made up? And am I the one who gave this to you? I read Steinbeck in high school but have no desire to read him again. Funny how that can happen. Like my beloved Faulkner who I still think it one of the greats, but I just can't read his subject matter anymore.

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    1. Nan, yes, you are the kind friend who sent me the book (for my 42nd birthday!) and yes, I think I did read that article about the validity of Steinbeck's story. I still might re-read The Grapes of Wrath someday, but twice for this one was enough. Never cared for Faulkner! I had to read him in high school and it was a chore.

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  6. I've never read any Steinbeck so when I finally get around to him, I think I'll try Grapes of Wrath (which has been sitting on my shelves forever!). By the way, Rocinante... That's the name of Don Quixote's horse. Love it.

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    1. Iliana, I think The Grapes of Wrath or East of Eden would be good choices. Isn't that a great name for his camper?!

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  7. Love the pics but not your lackluster thoughts on the book. It's on my classics list I need to finish this year!

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    1. Stacy, you might enjoy it, if this will be your first time reading it. I just had such high expectations because I remembered loving it the first time around. Good luck with that classics list!

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