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
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.