On Sept. 23, 1960,  John Steinbeck set out alone on the cross-country road trip that he would turn into his best-selling 1962 nonfiction book “Travels With Charley in Search of America.”

Exactly 50 years later, on Sept. 23, 2010, I left Steinbeck’s summer house on the eastern end of Long Island and followed his cold trail as faithfully as possible as a journalist.

Steinbeck’s journey was much tougher and braver than mine.  In 1960 America’s cars were like tanks and its two-lane highways were narrow, thick with traffic and deadly.

The world famous writer drove 10,000 hard and furious miles in his uncomfortable and primitive 1960 GMC pickup truck/camper.

Touching the top of Maine and speeding across the top of the USA to Seattle, he drove back to New York City by way of California, Texas and New Orleans. His trip, which included long layovers on the West Coast and in Texas, took about 75 days. He took no notes or photos.

I had originally set out to retrace Steinbeck’s tire tracks as faithfully as possible as a serious act of journalism. I simply hoped to write a book comparing the America of 1960 he saw on “The Steinbeck Highway” with the America of 2010 I saw.

My adventure with Steinbeck began exactly half a century after his did, on Sept. 23, 2010. As I traveled doglessly for 11,276 miles, I blogged to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette web site, interviewed dozens of Americans and took thousands of photos.

I got lucky and during my research on and off the road I discovered new or “forgotten” information about Steinbeck, his actual trip and the editing and publishing of his iconic book.

My discoveries about the major discrepancies between Steinbeck’s actual trip and the one he described in “Charley” got me written up in the New York Times and ultimately changed the way Steinbeck’s classic will be read forever.

I didn’t get a New York publishing deal — or a Hollywood movie deal. But I have no regrets. As I detail in my book “Dogging Steinbeck,” chasing Steinbeck’s ghost around the USA for 43 days at age 63 was a trip of a lifetime.


A Steinbeck & Charley Timeline


This fine illustration by Stacey Innerst accurately shows where Steinbeck and Charley were on various dates in the fall of 1960.

Below are excerpts from my book “Dogging Steinbeck” and a timeline of where I believe John Steinbeck was each day during his trip in the fall of 1960.

It’s based on “Travels With Charley,” the unedited  first draft of the book, letters Steinbeck wrote from the road to his wife Elaine and others, biographies of Steinbeck, newspaper articles, interviews and best-guesses.

It’s as accurate as I could make it. To start at Day 1 of Steinbeck’s trip, go here.

The ‘Travels With Charley’ Timeline — Day 18

Monday, Oct. 10, 1960 – Chicago

As his wife Elaine flies back to New York, John Steinbeck and Charley set out from Chicago in Rocinante, bound for Seattle by way of Minneapolis, Fargo, Missoula and Spokane. He drives about 220 miles north and sleeps Monday night in his camper at a truck stop on busy U.S. Highway 12 in Mauston, Wisconsin, a town of about  2,100.

Steinbeck wrote a letter that night to his wife, saying, “I am camped in a cornfield behind a truckers service area and coffee shop.” (In “Charley” Steinbeck mentions Charley’s delight in finding piles of manure that had been cleaned out of cattle trucks. Steinbeck also writes that he walked to a valley and looked down at a sea of turkeys being raised for America’s thanksgiving dinners. But both of those events actually happened the next night at a truck stop in Frazee, Minnesota.)

U.S. 12 carried all the truck traffic from Minneapolis to Chicago in 1960. Bob Rose, a retired truck driver, and his wife Dona lived in Mauston in 1960. They said it was almost certain that Steinbeck stopped at Ernie’s Truck Stop and coffee shop, a mile south of town. Ernie’s is now the site of the offices and parking lots of Brenner Tank Services.


‘Like an old lady stuck in the Indianapolis 500′


Somewhere in Upstate New York, 2010.

On his way to Chicago, John Steinbeck describes using interstates for the first time on his trip, or possibly his life. Sounding like an old lady stuck in the Indianapolis 500, he was tortured by the speed and flow of the intense truck traffic on “this wide, eventless way called U.S. 90,” aka the New York Thruway, which he took from Buffalo to where it ended at Madison, Ohio.

The thruway and the Indiana Toll Road, which he also used, were some of the earliest pieces of the Interstate Highway System, which in 1960 was 16 percent complete and barely existed outside major population centers. Steinbeck also had a practical reason for wanting to avoid interstates. His journey was “designed for observation,” he said, not self-reflection or daydreaming. He wanted to stay “as much as possible on secondary roads where there was much to see and hear and smell.”

The Interstate Highway System was only about 16 percent finished in 1960.

The Interstate Highway System was only about 16 percent finished in 1960.

Steinbeck preferred two-lane highways to interstates. He said he missed being able to stop at fruit stands or local diners. He didn’t mention the small towns, traffic lights, deadly intersections, stop signs, blind turns, business districts, schools, farm tractors, stray dogs and 1,001 other hazards to life and obstacles to efficient car travel. Interstates eliminated 99 percent of them. Steinbeck didn’t realize it, but statistically he was much safer dueling with “trucks as long as freighters” on those four-lane “gashes of concrete and tar” than he had been when he was touring the two-lane roads of New England. But he understood that the quickest way to his wife’s embrace in Chicago was via the Indiana Toll Road, which he was happy to use.

— Excerpted from “Dogging Steinbeck”

The ‘Travels With Charley’ Timeline — Days 12-17

Tuesday, Oct. 4 to Oct. 9, 1960 – Chicago


The Ambassador East Hotel’s famed Pump Room was done up in dark wood and leather and plastered to the ceiling with glossy photos of the celebrities who stayed there.

Steinbeck traveled fast from Buffalo to Chicago, a distance of about 550 miles. He left Buffalo on Monday morning and arrived at Chicago’s famous Ambassador East Hotel sometime Tuesday or Wednesday. His wife Elaine jetted out from New York.

Steinbeck describes this leg of his road trip in “Charley,” but given his haste to see his wife, his account is not plausible. He writes that he camped Monday night on private land by a lake along U.S. 20 in northern Ohio or southern Michigan and went fishing the next morning with the young man who had let him stay there. He writes that at noon (on what would have been Tuesday, Oct. 4), “growing increasingly anxious” to meet Elaine, he climbed on the Indiana Toll Road and drove almost all night, arriving at the Ambassador East early the next morning before his room was ready.

No one will ever know what Steinbeck really did between Buffalo and Chicago or what he made up. He could have covered the entire distance in one hellish day/night drive, or rented a motel room somewhere or, least likely of all, really camped overnight by a private lake and gone fishing. Steinbeck and his wife were together in Chicago until Monday, Oct. 10, and stayed at least one night with Adlai Stevenson at his farm in nearby Libertyville, Ill. (Day 1 of Steinbeck’s trip.)


DSC_0052 (1)

The lobby of the Ambassador East, as it looked in October 2010.

In my quixotic travels with Charley about America I paused five times, in Chicago, in Seattle, in California and twice in Texas. Then I saw and felt beloved people who knew me as I knew them. It would be quite easy to recount every moment of these steps but it would be out of drawing with the rest. A book has to be one thing, just as a poem does or a chair or a table.

– Cut from first draft of “Travels With Charley”



Sleeping over at Adlai’s Farm

Steinbeck and Adlai Stevenson were more than contemporaries and pen pals. They had several interests in common – liberal/New Deal politics, agriculture, dogs and the legend of King Arthur and the Round Table. Politically, Steinbeck was a Stevenson Man, 110 percent. He helped the former Illinois governor during the 1950s with some speeches and desperately wanted him to become the president in ’52 and ’56 and to win the Democrat nomination again in 1960. He was still pulling for Stevenson long after it was clear that his days as the Democrats’ standard-bearer were over.


Adlai Stevenson, former Illinois governor and Democratic presidential candidate in 1952 and 1956, was Steinbeck’s political hero, friend and pen pal. Stevenson lived on a 70 acre farm outside Chicago in Libertyville. Steinbeck and his wife Elaine spent a night their during his layover in Chicago.

Stevenson’s white, squared-off house at “The Farm” was simple, practical and smartly designed, with airy rooms, huge windows, a wild Art Deco bathroom and a long back deck looking out at the lawn and blazing oak trees that stretched to the Des Plaines River. The house had been restored for tours in 2008 and was used for meetings but still needed several rooms of furniture. Only Stevenson’s study – the most important room in the house, Nicole said – was completely furnished. It had his old desk, his books and his address book – which happened to be opened to “S.” Steinbeck’s name and Sag Harbor phone number were there.

In 1960 Stevenson’s place was still a working farm. He grew corn and soybeans, and had horses, sheep and a pack of Dalmatians, all named after characters from King Arthur’s Court. He, like Steinbeck, lived relatively frugally for a wealthy man, but Nicole said a housekeeper and a caretaker were on the premises.

DSC_0095One of Stevenson’s near neighbors was Marshall Field, who owned a little department store in Chicago. Many historic figures of the era came to talk politics with Adlai in his ample living room – from Senator Robert “Mr. Republican” Taft of Ohio to a young, ambitious rogue with the initials JFK. Nicole said the three Steinbecks probably slept in the guest suite, where Eleanor Roosevelt would crash whenever she dropped by.

Steinbeck says nothing in “Travels With Charley” or his road letters about his visit to Stevenson’s farm, which is 35 miles north of downtown Chicago. Biographer Jackson Benson mentions Steinbeck’s visit in “John Steinbeck, Writer.” And a Steinbeck letter to Stevenson that I read at Princeton alludes to their walk together in Stevenson’s “blazing” woods in the fall of 1960. Exactly when the Steinbeck family stayed in Libertyville is not known and doesn’t matter.

— Excerpted from “Dogging Steinbeck”

The ‘Travels With Charley’ Timeline — Day 11

Monday, Oct. 3, 1960 – Somewhere west of Ohio

Leaving his motel in Buffalo, Steinbeck takes his maiden interstate trip, driving 150 miles on I-90 to Erie and into Ohio, where the interstate then ended at Madison. In “Travels With Charley” he says he picked up “the equally wide fast U.S. 20” at Madison and it carried him across northern Ohio “past Cleveland and Toledo, and so into Michigan.”

s-l225 In “Charley” he describes camping that night (Monday) on private land somewhere between Toledo and South Bend, Indiana. U.S. 20 almost touches the southern border of Michigan, where there are some lakes that might have attracted Steinbeck. No one knows where he actually stopped, or if. It’s a mystery night, one of four in the book. But Steinbeck was definitely not “sitting alone beside a lake in northern Michigan,” as he writes in the book. “Northern Michigan” was clearly a geographic mistake his publisher’s copy editors missed. (Day 1.)


First Impressions of the USA

Back home in Pittsburgh on my pit stop, I waited for Steinbeck to get to Chicago. I had retraced the New England leg of his trip in 10 days. That was almost exactly how long it took him. I saw part of the country that on average was whiter, less obese, more Democrat, richer and more likely to be employed than the rest of America was in the fall of 2010. I had already learned some generalities about America and Americans, at least the America and Americans along the Old Steinbeck Highway.

Speeding somewhere in Upstate New York I wrote in the notebook that was always on my knee that “America looks pretty good on U.S. 5, 2, 1 and 11. Richness and wealth predominate. People have tons of stuff – much of it for sale on the roadside. People take care of their houses – most of them. People cling to the water, like Steinbeck did, in their RVs, mobile homes, tiny cottages and mansions. … People drive safely and sanely. People don’t like to throw things away or tear down old houses or barns, no matter how slumped and sagging they are. People are inside their houses. People are friendly, clean and don’t seem to litter much.”

Those were my early drive-by impressions of the USA, but I could have written them at any time on my trip. What was true of the Eastern Time Zone would be true for the rest of the country. So far, I had driven virtually the exact highways Steinbeck did.  But even with the help of dates and locations provided by his letters from the road, I often couldn’t sort out what he actually did from the account he gave us in “Charley.” Much of his New England trip remained a mystery.

We know he drove fast and furiously. We know he never really camped on a farm in the White Mountains. We’ll never know if he really stayed at an over-sanitized motel in Bangor, really entertained a family of Canuck potato pickers in Aroostook County or really had a run in with American border guards in Niagara Falls. We have only his nonfiction book to rely on and it was unreliable, to say the least. The more I learned about Steinbeck’s journey, the more obvious it was becoming that nothing in it could be believed.

— Excerpt from “Dogging Steinbeck”

The ‘Travels With Charley’ Timeline — Day 10

Sunday, Oct. 2, 1960 – Niagara Falls

Steinbeck writes in “Travels With Charley” that he planned to cross into Canada at Niagara Falls and cut across southern Ontario to Detroit. But a Canadian border guard at the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge warns him U.S. officials might not allow him back in at Detroit because Charley didn’t have the proper inoculations. Steinbeck says he changed his mind and decided to go to Chicago by way of Erie and Toledo. First, he says, he checked into “the grandest auto court” he could find in Buffalo. (Day 1.)


The Old Steinbeck Highway — busy and deadly


America’s two-lane highways in the 1950s were unsafe and slow.

Steinbeck plotted a beautiful if eccentric route for his circumnavigation of America. He stayed close to rivers, lakes and oceans and as far away from big industrial cities as he could. And he deliberately avoided the nascent interstate system, choosing instead what we and William Least Heat-Moon today romantically call “Blue Highways.”

The roads on the Old Steinbeck Highway – U.S. Routes 5, 2, 1, 11, 20, 12, 10, 101 and 66 – were the two-lane interstates of their day. They were what tourists followed, trucks ran on and the early commerce of travel clung to. The highways cut straight through the downtown hearts of cities like Rochester and Buffalo and became the main streets of small towns from Calais to Amarillo.

Except maybe in the boondocks and deserts, in 1960 there was nothing lonely or quiet or safe about the Blue Highways. They were often worn, bumpy, high-traffic death traps – narrow, shoulder-free, poorly painted and lighted. And they didn’t have 24-hour rest stops every 13 miles where you knew you could fill up on gas, coffee and humanity when you ran low. Today the Blue Highways are much safer and smoother because most of their traffic has shifted to the interstates.

— Excerpt from “Dogging Steinbeck”

The ‘Travels With Charley’ Timeline — Day 9

Saturday, Oct. 1, 1960 – Vermont to Upstate New York

Steinbeck crossed the "iron bridge" over the Connecticut River twice -- going east to the top of Maine and less than a week later going west to Chicago.

Steinbeck crossed the “iron bridge” over the Connecticut River twice — going east to Maine and less than a week later going west to Chicago.

On Saturday morning Steinbeck leaves the Whip ‘o Will campground in Lancaster, N.H., crossing the iron bridge over the Connecticut River into Vermont on U.S. Highway 2.  He enters New York from northwest Vermont at Rouses Point and heads south on U.S. Route 11 to New York Route 104, where he turns toward Niagara Falls.

Bound for Chicago and a planned rendezvous with his wife Elaine, he wrote a letter to her late that night saying he had pulled into “this trailer park.” He doesn’t say what state he is in, but it most likely was somewhere along U.S. 11 in Upstate New York.

Steinbeck writes in “Charley” that on his last day in New England, which would have been Sunday, Oct. 2, he attended services at a white wooden John Knox (Methodist) church in Vermont and heard a rousing sermon.

He doesn’t name the town or church and today no one in the area seems to be able to figure out which church it was — or if his “mystery church” really existed.

New England is crawling with “blazing white” wood churches like “The White Church,”  which is in the village of Deerfield, Mass., where Steinbeck’s son John went to the Eaglebrook School.


The “White Church” in Deerfield, Mass, might have inspired the fictional fire-and-brimestone church service he described in “Travels With Charley.”

Eaglebrook students walked to the church on Sundays and Steinbeck probably attended services there the previous Sunday, Sept. 25, 1960, when he stopped in Deerfield to visit his son. Was that the white church? Probably not. Was it an inspiration? Maybe.


Steinbeck’s Mystery Church

My sprint through changeless beautiful New England left me with a religious mystery – where was that “blindingly” white wood church Steinbeck said he attended in Vermont? In the book he describes getting dolled up and going to a church service on his last day in New England. He called it a “John Knox church” and enthused about the minister’s fire-and-brimstone, God-is-going-to-kick-your-ass sermon.

The scolding made Steinbeck feel bad and guilty inside, like a first-rate sinner whose sins were his own fault, not, as the “psychiatric priesthood” of the day would have it, “accidents that are set in motion by forces beyond our control.” He was so “revived in spirit” by this booster shot of God-fearing guilt, he said, that he put $5 in the plate ($35 in 2010 money) and shook hands with the minister warmly at the church door.

Until I woke up and smelled the fiction in “Travels With Charley,” I thought it’d be a breeze finding that white church. I even hoped to dig up the scary sermon Steinbeck heard …. I assumed “John Knox” was Steinbeck’s indirect way of saying it was a Presbyterian church. So before I ever set tire in New England, and long before I realized every other one of its 1.3 million lovely old churches was white and made of wood, I called Presbyterian presbyteries in Vermont and northern New York to ask if they could help. The good Presbyterians of New England tried like hell but failed me.

After my tour of New England, his mystery church remained a mystery. I still didn’t have any idea where it was – or if it ever was. That sly dog Steinbeck, I had come to realize, could have heard that sermon in a church anywhere and at anytime in his life. The only Sunday he could have attended a church service in Vermont was Oct. 2, 1960. But on that day he was already in Upstate New York motoring toward Niagara Falls and Chicago.

— Excerpted from “Dogging Steinbeck”

The ‘Travels with Charley’ Timeline — Day 8

Friday, Sept. 30, 1960 – Lancaster, N.H.


What’s left of one of the Whip ‘o Will cabins is still used as a shed.

After sleeping Thursday night in his truck in the middle of Maine’s woods, Steinbeck drives ”long and furiously” all day Friday. He goes south and then west on U.S. 2 to get back to Lancaster, New Hampshire, which he had passed through earlier in the week going east to Bangor. He sleeps in his camper at a ”ghost” motel/lunch counter by the Connecticut River because, though the office is open, no one is around to rent him a cabin. The motel was the Whip o’ Will, which is now trailer court and convenience store.


The dark, empty gut of Maine

The middle of Maine feels even emptier when the sun is gone. It was dark when I pulled into Millinocket, the lumber mill town where the Pelletier family of “American Loggers” fame lived. After a surprisingly good spinach salad and a beer at Pelletier’s crowded family restaurant/bar, I drove into the black night for the next major town, Milo. In the dark I covered a distance of 39 miles to Milo, but the road I traveled could have been a high-speed treadmill in a tunnel. As far I could tell, except for Brownville Junction, it was deep forest all the way. I took photos of the twisting road ahead as I chased its white lines at 60 mph, straddling the centerline through a narrow channel of trees.


A few mailboxes flashed by, a house with no lights, maybe a river. My Sirius XM radio, cranked up extra-loud with jazz, cut in and out because of the terrain or overhanging trees, I didn’t know which. I met my third car after 17 miles. In 45 minutes I counted 12. Steinbeck, who slept overnight in his camper shell by a bridge somewhere along Route 11, traveled the same lonely desolate way, but probably in daylight, when the local moose population would have been awake. Maine has 30,000 moose but I didn’t run into one.

— excerpted from “Dogging Steinbeck”

The ‘Travels With Charley’ Timeline — Day 7

ca 246

It’s not a very accurate representation of Steinbeck’s foray into New England, but it makes the point — he went north and east before heading west.

Thursday, Sept. 29, 1960 – To the top of Maine

From wherever he stopped Wednesday night in northeast Maine, Steinbeck drives north into Aroostook County on U.S. Highway 1. Tracing the U.S.-Canadian border on the south side of the St. Croix River, he reaches the top of Maine, turns south on state Route 11 and plunges deep into the pine wilderness of Maine’s interior. He has to park alone Thursday night somewhere on Route 11 under a concrete bridge in the rain.

Aroostook County

Aroostook County is famous for two things – potatoes and its enormous size. It’s one fifth of Maine and bigger than Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. No one traveling north from Calais along the pretty St. Croix River would challenge those facts. I was 929 miles from Steinbeck’s Sag Harbor driveway. Steinbeck drove the same stretch of U.S. Route 1 on Sept. 29, 1960, exactly 50 years ahead of me. He had a weird thing about wanting to touch the top of Maine before heading west, a weird thing he ultimately regretted as he realized how endless and empty the state was. Steinbeck also wanted to see the famed potato fields of Aroostook County, then the foremost spud-producing area of the country.



Maine’s State Route 11, which Steinbeck took south from Fort Kent, is beautiful, empty and devoid of motels, as Steinbeck learned.

After 2,400 miles tracing the edge of the East Coast all the way from Key West, U.S. Highway 1 evaporates without fanfare in the town of Fort Kent. As Steinbeck did, when Route 1 vanished I turned south on state Route 11 for the long haul back to New Hampshire and the way West.

Before I left Fort Kent, I suffered a shock that made me realize what a strange, atypical part of America I had been traveling through. It happened when I saw a black college student on the street. She was the first non-white person I could remember seeing since a pizza shop in downtown Northampton.

The 2010 Census tells the statistical tale. The previous three states I had been in – Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine – might be full of color in the fall, but year round their lilywhite populations don’t look like much of the rest of the country. Each had black populations of about 1 percent. The national percentage was 12.6 percent. The same lack of color would be true for other long stretches of the Steinbeck Highway.

— Excerpted from “Dogging Steinbeck”