From the monthly archives: "September 2013"

On Sept. 29, 1960, John Steinbeck slept in camper under a bridge in the rain somewhere along Maine’s Route 11, which probably has more moose living along it than people.

We know Steinbeck actually did sleep in his truck that night, because he told his wife Elaine he did in a letter to her from the road the next night.

Steinbeck’s lonely night may have been the only time on his 75 day trip he slept in his camper in the middle of nowhere. Most of the time he was in a motel or shacked up with his wife in a fancy hotel, resort or family vacation home.

Three falls ago, exactly 50 years after John Steinbeck took his “Travels With Charley” trip, I chased Steinbeck’s ghost around the USA.

Here’s an excerpt from my book that recounts what I did when he drove down motel-less Route 11 — and where I had to sleep.

 

Destination Milo

The Aroostook County line finally appeared, but Route 11 refused to end. I watched a protracted sunset from a hilltop and small-talked to two overly serious photographers from Montreal who had set up their tripods in the tall grass to capture the glorious panorama.

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.

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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.

I passed through downtown Milo, a town of 2,400 in the dead center of Maine. Once a thriving railroad repair facility for all of New England, Milo earned its Wiki-immortality in 1923 when 75 members of the Ku Klux Klan sullied the town’s Labor Day parade by holding its first daylight march in the United States. South of town I stopped for gas at the C&J Variety store. A true variety store, it carried booze, paperback books, pizza, live bait and Milo hoodies. Out front it even had a public pay phone, something Steinbeck would have appreciated if C&J Variety hadn’t been a Studebaker dealership or whatever it was in 1960.

“Did you ever hear of John Steinbeck?” I asked the 20-something girl behind the counter when she came outside for a smoke.

“I don’t think he lives around here,” she said.

Too tired to laugh, I held my smart-ass tongue. I provided her with some context.

“He’s the author of ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ and ‘Of Mice and Men.’ Did you ever have to read them in high school?”

Her face brightened. “Now that you say it, I’ve heard the name. I thought you were asking me if he lived around here.” She wasn’t the last person, young and old, who would not recognize John Steinbeck’s name until I also mentioned his two most famous books, which most high school kids in America still read – or at least are still assigned.

I’ll never know how close I was to a motel when I gave up. I drove another 70 or 80 miles south of Milo, trusting my GPS Person to figure out the best way to get from endless state Route 11 to U.S. Highway 2. My notebook from that night faded into scribbles and went blank. “Dover has a McDonald’s …. Guilford, no business district….” For an hour I looked for a decent turnout or rest stop. On a long grade on U.S. Route 2, somewhere east of Farmington, Maine, I flew past a poorly lighted used car dealership sitting by itself. I hit the brakes hard, backed onto the grassy lot and parked at the end of a row of vehicles. With the nose of my RAV4 pointed at the road, I locked myself in, cracked my sunroof, installed my blackout curtains and instantly fell asleep.

Impersonating a used car worked flawlessly. Even with its cargo carrier, my RAV4 blended in with the 30 or 40 other vehicles parked on the lot. Trucks and cars and the local law hurrying by in the night took no notice. Here is an extremely over-exposed photo I took of my car in the used car lot.

 

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Up at 4:50, by 5:15 I was in the Farmington McDonald’s sipping coffee, reading my email, writing a blog item and eavesdropping on four Republican geezers saying kind things about Sarah Palin that would offend and frighten most of my ex-colleagues in journalism.

It was there that I discovered two reliable things about McDonald’s that benefitted me for the next 10,000 miles: You can count on every McDonald’s to have strong, free Wi-Fi that you can use for as long as you want any time of day. And you can count on finding a local gang of 4 to 6 wise old guys in bad hats who will be thrilled to answer a stranger’s questions about what their world was like in 1960.

Just when I start to think everyone who reads and writes has finally gotten the word that “Travels With Charley” is not nonfiction but fiction, I stumble upon something like “Books Professors Made Me Read: Travels with Charley” on TheBigSlice.org web site.

Tragically, its author, Angelo Pizzullo, wrote an essay about how John Steinbeck’s great travel book captured the reality of 1960 America and its denizens — most of whom, of course, Steinbeck actually made up.

Here’s the last paragraph of Pizzullo’s piece:

From a historical perspective, Travels with Charley is an artistic recital of a first-hand perspective into America at the dawn of a decade rife with radical social change.  Social historians, who look at life of everyday people from a particular era, can find a valuable source in the conversations and create a well-defined understanding of what makes Americans, well, American.  Casual readers will enjoy the masterful wordsmith that was John Steinbeck.  His style was a simplistic complexity; a down-to-Earth approach that reflected sophisticated intelligence mixed with the social conscience of a writer who was quite comfortable in jeans, flannel, and an old British sailor’s cap.

 

Ever helpful, ever vigilant, I wrote this comment:

A nice piece. But please. Nearly everything you think you know about Steinbeck’s book, what you think he saw on his trip, who you think he met and what you think he thought or taught us about 1960 America is wrong. You tragically assume that “Charley” is a work of nonfiction and that it is an accurate and honest account of Steinbeck’s trip, where he went, who he met, etc. It isn’t. It’s mostly fiction. He never met 90 percent of those Americans he talked to in his book — certainly not on his road trip. Please read — or at least check out — the synopsis and opening chapters of my book “Dogging Steinbeck” on Amazon.com to find out the cruel truth about the depths of Steinbeck’s fabrication. You might not like my tone or my libertarian politics. But I bet you’ll want to edit your essay.

After 100 years we know Hollywood can’t be trusted with reality. Whatever real or true story screenwriters like Oliver Stone (the imaginative “JFK”) or Danny Strong (the hilariously phony and  awkwardly titled “Lee Michaels’ the Butler”) tell, it’s invariably awful. From “Tortilla Flat” to multiple versions of “Of Mice and Men,” John Steinbeck’s fictional works have supplied the empty idea shops of Hollywood with dramatic fodder for …  78 years!!!!! Steven Spielberg apparently is going through with his threat to remake/ruin “The Grapes of Wrath” in time for the book’s 75th birthday next year. But so far no one in Tinseltown has turned “Travels With Charley” into a road movie. In this excerpt from my boffo literary expose “Dogging Steinbeck,”  I show that Hollywood’s disinterest in dramatizing Steinbeck’s book is a good thing.

‘Charley’ Doesn’t Go Hollywood, Thank God

Despite its flaws, “Travels With Charley’s” romantic version of searching for America by car has never fallen from the culture’s consciousness. Along with Kerouac’s “On the Road” – its hipper, edgier, happier and openly fictional older brother – it has become a classic American road book. It gave Charles Kuralt his idea for his popular “On the Road” segments for “The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.” But so far, despite a lot of interest, it’s never been turned into a dumb sitcom or bad movie.

Not that Hollywood hasn’t tried. In 1963 no less than Sam Peckinpah wrote an unintentionally hilarious TV script for Warner Brothers’ television division dramatizing “Travels With Charley.” Not surprisingly, it included Steinbeck having two knockdown fistfights. Too horrible even for network TV’s standards, it was never made.

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In the early 1990s, Kevin Costner’s production company had an option on “Travels With Charley” with plans to shoot an eight-part miniseries. It died a deserved death. Knowing Hollywood, it wasn’t because Costner’s project was an incredibly stupid idea. It was probably because they couldn’t get Sam Peckinpah to direct.

Finally, somewhere in a file cabinet at HBO sits a less-tortured screenplay of “Travels With Charley.” Written in the early 2000s by Steinbeck’s son Thom, it’s not likely to include any fistfights but it apparently was written as if the book was true.

Unfortunately, in 1968, shortly before John Steinbeck died, “Travels With Charley” did travel to TV Land. Producer Lee Mendelson of “Peanuts” fame turned it into an hour-long “documentary” for NBC. Narrated by Steinbeck’s buddy Hank Fonda, who played an unseen but amply quoted Steinbeck, it was watched by tens of millions of Americans who didn’t want to watch what was on CBS or ABC that night.

An early example of the “docudrama” genre at its worst, it was presented by Mendelson as the true story of Steinbeck’s lonely journey. Skipping the southern leg of Steinbeck’s trip, Mendelson sent out a Rocinante-lookalike to retrace the “Charley” route from Sag Harbor to the top of Fremont Peak.

The dumbest mistake Mendelson made was hiring 15 actors to look into the camera and pretend to be the characters Steinbeck pretended he had met on his trip. Many of the performances are painful, but arguably the worst fictional character was our friend the mythical itinerant Shakespearean actor of Alice, North Dakota.

To heap hokum on top of hokum, Mendelson threw in a few silly cartoon segments and a hideous Rod McCuen song, “Me & Charley,” which was sung over and over by Glen Yarbrough whenever Charley streaked across the grassy fields of America. Mendelson paid $1,000 to rent a stand-in for the dead poodle, who, in a rare and merciful concession to reality, wasn’t made to talk.

The show’s last stop was high atop Fremont Peak, where Fonda delivered Steinbeck’s great lines from the book as the camera swept up the spectacular view. The program ended with Fonda standing next to Rocinante, as Charley sat in the cab. Fonda explains that Steinbeck’s trip didn’t end on Fremont Peak, but continued on through the South where he saw the agony of school integration in New Orleans and talked with Negroes and whites about the violent changes that were occurring.

After Fonda mistakenly says the 11-week trip was “over four months long,” he asks what it was that Steinbeck had learned about America. In a tight close-up, the man who played Tom Joad in the movie of “The Grapes of Wrath” reads two spliced-together passages from “Travels With Charley”:

It would be pleasant to be able to say of my travels with Charley, “I went out to find the truth about my country and I found it.” And then it would be such a simple matter to set down my findings and lean back comfortably with a fine sense of having discovered truths and taught them to my readers. I wish it were that easy …. What I have set down here is true until someone else passes that way and rearranges the world in his own style.

Fonda then looks into the camera and says, “John Steinbeck saw it one way. Charley saw it another way. And now it’s your turn if you so choose to pass that way and rearrange the world as you see it. Goodnight.” Millions of viewers had no reason to doubt that they had just watched the true story of Steinbeck’s journey, which, if Mendelson and NBC were to be believed, was a lonely “four-month” ride around America with a dog in a truck.

Shortly before Steinbeck’s death in late 1968, Mendelson screened his awful rendition of “Travels With Charley” for Steinbeck and Elaine in New York City. “Steinbeck was crying when the lights came on,” Mendelson remembered in a 2003 interview. “I didn’t know if he was crying because he hated it, but he turned to me and said, ‘That’s just the way the trip was.’” Poor Steinbeck. He was probably crying from guilt.