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 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 circumnavigation of the USA was even more fast and furious than his. 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. As I drove I wrote about 10 travel stories for the PG’s Sunday paper.

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 devious 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 country for 43 days at age 63 was a trip of a lifetime. Here are two great reviews of “DS” from Robert Dean Laurie in The Daily Caller and Shawn Macomber in  the Weekly Standard.


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. Many photos have video links.

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.

The ‘Travels With Charley’ Timeline — Day 1

Sept. 23, 1960 — Sag Harbor, N.Y.


On Sept. 23, 2010, I left John Steinbeck’s summer home in Sag Harbor on Long Island and hit the Steinbeck Highway. (video)

Early Friday morning John Steinbeck and his poodle Charley leave his summer home in Sag Harbor, Long Island, in the pickup truck-camper hybrid he named Rocinante after Don Quixote’s horse.

To get back in touch with America and regular Americans after living in ”the island” of New York, he plans to circle the country counterclockwise and stick to two-lane highways.

He takes three ferries across Long Island Sound to New London, Conn., 36 miles away, then heads for his son’s boarding school in Deerfield, Massachusetts.


Steinbeck’s ambitious plans went awry

While doing research on Steinbeck’s exact 10,000-mile route around the USA I found a letter he wrote to an aide of Adlai Stevenson’s in the summer of 1960 describing how he hoped to travel on his upcoming trip.

In the summer of 1960 Steinbeck wrote a letter to an aide to Adlai Stevenson describing what he hoped to do on his coming road trip around the USA.

Steinbeck’s ambitious plans quickly fell apart. He actually did little of what he said he’d do on his journey, including traveling alone, but he had the right idea and it really didn’t matter. His beloved 1962 road book “Travels With Charley” was his only Number 1 New York Times best-seller (on the nonfiction list) and still sells around the world today.

The ‘Travels With Charley’ Timeline — Day 2

Sept. 23-24, 1960 — Deerfield, Mass.


The apple orchard on a dairy farm in Deerfield, Mass., where Steinbeck camped while visiting his son. (video)

Steinbeck and Charley camp Friday and Saturday nights in Rocinante in an apple orchard on a farm on top of the mountain above his son John’s exclusive boarding school, the Eaglebrook School.

In “Travels With Charley” he doesn’t say much about his visit or how many nights he spent at Eaglebrook. But in a letter to his wife Elaine, he makes it clear that he was there until Sunday morning, when he woke up late and almost missed church. Later that day he headed north on U.S. Highway 5 into Vermont and New Hampshire.


Steinbeck’s ‘Act of Courage’

John Steinbeck was especially brave to embark on his solo road trek in 1960 – and it had nothing to do with not having radial tires, GPS or air bags. Given his lousy health, his biographer Jackson Benson said the “Travels With Charley” trip could be best appreciated “as an act of courage.” As Steinbeck’s son Thom told the New York Times, “The book was his farewell. My dad knew he was dying, and he had been accused of having lost touch with the rest of the country. ‘Travels With Charley’ was his attempt to rediscover America.”

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The primitive, uncomfortable 1960 GMC pickup truck/camper combo Rocinante is parked in a place of honor at the National Steinbeck Center in Steinbeck’s hometown of Salinas, Calif.

Steinbeck’s agent, doctor and everyone who loved him tried to talk him out of his trip, which he had been thinking about taking for at least six years. What if he had a heart attack and collapsed in the middle of nowhere? He’d die for sure and he might never be found. He refused to hear such cautionary crap. He was the contemporary rival and equal of Hemingway. He was the World War II correspondent who went on daring midnight raids in PT boats off the Italian coast with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. He was a future Nobel Prize-winner. He may have been born with a heart too small for his big body, as a European doctor once told him. But he was not a famous dead author yet, literally or figuratively. He was still a man – and not an old man. He still had balls. He still had stuff to say and write and prove.

Steinbeck wrote in letters to his agent and others that he was tired of being fussed over like a sick baby or an invalid who had to be “protected” and “hospitalized.”  He had to go on his great land-voyage of rediscovery – and go by himself, even though at the last minute he would ask his wife if he could take her 10-year-old standard French poodle Charley with him for company. Defending his solo project in a letter to his agent Elizabeth Otis, he said what he was proposing was not “a little trip of reporting, but a frantic last attempt to save my life and the integrity of my creative pulse.”

— Excerpted from “Dogging Steinbeck”


The ‘Travels With Charley’ Timeline — Day 3

Sept. 25, 1960 — White Mountains, N.H.


The Spalding Inn is high in the woods of the White Mountains about 7 miles south of Lancaster in Whitefield. It describes itself – without doing its gloriously old-fashioned character enough justice – on its Web site: “Surrounded by manicured lawns, orchards, perennial gardens and a 360-degree view of the Presidential Mountain range, it offers you the perfect escape from city life.” (video)

Steinbeck says in “Travels With Charley” that he drives east into the rugged White Mountains of New Hampshire on U.S. Route 2 near Lancaster, N.H., and camps on a farm.

He says in “Charley” that he talks to the farm owner about the Russians and the boorish behavior of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev at the United Nations.

In the book, Steinbeck and the  Yankee farmer talk about Khrushchev banging his shoe on his desk at the United Nations, but that conversation couldn’t have happened. That famous Cold War event  — if it actually happened that way — occurred Oct. 11, 1960.

But did Steinbeck really even camp on a farm?

Fifty years later, after searching in vain for the farm and the farmer near Lancaster, a local writer, Jeff Woodburn, learned that Steinbeck was seen in the fall of 1960 at the nearby Spalding Inn in Whitefield. Exactly when that was, Woodburn was not sure.

On March 30, 2010, a woman who worked for the Spalding Inn’s owner at the time said she was absolutely certain Steinbeck slept at the inn for one night. And Donald Spalding, the son of the original owners and operators of the inn, said on March 30, 2011, that there was no doubt that Steinbeck ate dinner and slept at the exclusive inn during “foliage season” of 1960.

America’s Death Roads

By 1960 cars had replaced trains as the country’s mass mode of transportation. Interstates, truck stops and national motel and restaurant chains barely existed. Wal-Mart did not. America’s fleet of cars had doubled since 1941 to 74 million. About 75 percent of homes owned a car and 15 percent owned two. Automobiles were 4,000-pound death wagons with metal dashboards, crummy tires and lights and no safety gear; 1 percent of drivers used seat belts. America’s highways were criminally lethal. About 36,000 of the country’s 180 million people were killed in or by cars in 1960. In 2010, when there were three times as many autos and trucks on the road and 310 million Americans riding around in them, the annual death toll had fallen to 32,708.

— Excerpted from “Dogging Steinbeck”

The ‘Travels With Charley’ Timeline — Day 4

Sept. 26, 1960 — Deer Isle, Maine


Rocinante’s interior was compact but contained a stove, a refrigerator and a table, like the cabin of a small boat.

Steinbeck writes that he left New Hampshire on what would have been Monday, Sept. 26, and drove east across the neck of Maine. He says he stopped at a motel near Bangor but that he was so put off by the sterile and plastic environment in his room that he went out and slept in the back of his truck.

In fact, on Sept. 26 he drove 250 miles from Lancaster, New Hampshire, to Deer Isle, Maine, a beautiful little island south of Bangor. He was expected at the seaside home of Eleanor Brace, a friend of his agent Elizabeth Otis.

On the Monday night that 70 million Americans watched the first televised Nixon-JFK debate from Chicago, he slept on Brace’s property by the sea in the back of Rocinante.


South of Bangor

I wanted only to do what Steinbeck did in 1960 – cut through the city of Bangor quickly on my way to the seacoast paradise of Deer Isle, where he spent two days at a gorgeous old house I hoped to find.  Driving into the suburbs on state Route 15, the 55-mile trip to Deer Isle became a highlight reel of Maine’s L.L. Bean culture. Boats and RVs of every size, truck caps, kayaks, logs, shingles and gigantic piles of firewood lined the roadside or adorned front lawns. Gas was $2.62 a gallon. The billboard “Guns, Ammo and Camo” pretty much said it all. The closer I got to Deer Isle, the farther back in time I went and the more upscale and artsy-crafty things got.

— Excerpt from “Dogging Steinbeck”

The ‘Travels With Charley’ Timeline — Day 5

Sept. 27, 1960 Deer Isle, Maine


Steinbeck spent two nights at Eleanor Brace’s spectacular house on Deer Isle, Maine, where his agent Elizabeth Otis rented a cottage each year.

Steinbeck and Charley continue their stay on beautiful Deer Isle, Maine, at the fabulous home of Eleanor Brace. He wrote in a letter to his wife from Deer Isle that on Tuesday he “saw the island and talked to people.”

He visited the quaint fishing port of Stonington, where he buys a kerosene lamp at a nautical hardware store on Main Street. He ate a lobster dinner at Brace’s house with Brace and her woman friend and went to bed early, sleeping another night in his camper Rocinante.
In a letter he mailed from Deer Isle to his friend and political hero Adlai Stevenson, Steinbeck said he had heard part of the first televised presidential debate between Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy on Monday, Sept. 26. He was distressed that both candidates were so courteous toward each other.

Steinbeck’s Partisan Politics

By today’s definitions, Steinbeck was a ball of political contradictions. He was a highly partisan FDR big-government Democrat who went ape for Adlai Stevenson in the 1950s and became a White House-sleepover friend of LBJ and frequent weekend guest at Camp David. Like most of his New Deal generation, he had a naïve trust in the federal government to solve massive social and economic problems.

But Steinbeck was never close to being the true-believing commie or socialist both his rightwing enemies and leftwing friends liked to claim he was. He was what we call today “a Cold War liberal.” He supported labor unions, the civil rights movement and LBJ’s war on poverty. He was also a staunch anti-communist who believed in containing the Soviet Union and what then was so impolitely called “Red China.”

He was a sincere patriot, which, along with becoming too friendly with LBJ, may have blinded him to the folly of Vietnam and the fallacy of the Domino Theory. He was a loud public hawk on Vietnam in its early stages, but became a quiet dove when he realized the war was unwinnable. Intolerant of anti-war protesters, whom he thought were stupid and cowardly, he despised hippies and the ‘60s youth culture.

— Excerpted from “Dogging Steinbeck”

The ‘Travels With Charley’ Timeline — Day 6

Wednesday, Sept. 28, 1960 – Deer Isle, Maine

John Steinbeck left Eleanor Brace’s house on Deer Isle in on Wednesday afternoon and drove north along the coast on U.S. Highway 1 toward the top of Maine. He called his wife from a grocery store, but where he stopped for the night is not known. It was probably in or near Calais, in northeast Maine on the Canadian border.



Waitress Traci Brown takes care of some locals at Karen’s Diner in Calais, Maine.

Breakfast in Calais

We’ll never know if Steinbeck stopped at the border town of Calais for a bed or a cup of bad coffee, but he had to pass down its main street as he drove north on U.S. 1 toward the top of Maine. Pronounced callous despite or perhaps in spite of its French origins, Calais is in Washington County, the state’s poorest. Across the St. Croix River from New Brunswick, Calais was only 22 miles from my beach resort at Gleason Cove. Its economy was far healthier in 1960, according to one of the local “Down Easters”/”Up Easters” I met at the counter in Karen’s Main Street Diner.

The 60-something man, wearing a pristine gold and black United States Army baseball cap, told a familiar story of change and decline. Hundreds of good-paying jobs had disappeared at the paper mills. Young people were leaving and would never come back. The town had lost 25 percent of its population since 1990 and was now about 3,100. Local unemployment was 11 percent compared to the state average of 7.9 percent. If it weren’t for the fact that the department of homeland security beefed up the three border crossings with Canada after it learned one of the 9/11 hijackers entered the States at Calais, he said, there’d be even fewer jobs around.

Karen’s had to be the best diner in a hundred miles – maybe the only one. A friendly pit stop for anyone following Steinbeck’s trail into upper Maine, it’s one of those priceless family-run eateries where getting a perfect breakfast is routine, not a matter of chance. I ordered what would become my signature breakfast for the rest of my trip. It was a #2 at Karen’s – two eggs over medium, sausage, home fries, wheat toast and coffee. It cost $6.25 and became the standard against which I compared 25 others like it that followed. Steinbeck wrote that getting a bad breakfast on the road was almost impossible, and he was still right.

— Excerpted from “Dogging Steinbeck”


The ‘Travels With Charley’ Timeline — Day 7

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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”