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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. Day 1 of Steinbeck’s trip was Sept. 23, 1960.


‘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 — Day 21

Thursday, Oct. 13, 1960 – Livingston, Montana

Steinbeck rides U.S. Highway 10 from Beach, N.D., into eastern Montana. He passes through Miles City, drops down to the Custer Battlefield site briefly and continues on old U.S. 10 west through Billings to Livingston. At the end of his fourth long day of driving since he left Chicago, he says in a letter to his wife that he was parked in a trailer court. He arrived in Livingston in time to watch the third Nixon-Kennedy debate. Day 1 of Steinbeck’s trip was Sept. 23, 1960.


Falling for the beauty of Montana

He had never visited Montana before, but Steinbeck chose the right place for the first of his two sleepovers in the state. After leaving the Custer battlefield site, he worked his way west to Livingston, which is stretched along Old Highway 10 on the bank of the Yellowstone River. He had covered about 400 miles on Day 4 of his Seattle Sprint. Crossing the sweeping plains of eastern Montana and slowly climbing into the shadow of the Rockies, he fell in love with Montana at first sight, as most normal people can’t help but do. Montana’s spectacular natural beauty put a spell on him. As he would famously write in “Charley,” “Of all the states it is my favorite and my love.”

Steinbeck confessed his new love to his wife Elaine in a letter from Livingston that night. Though he told her he was at a trailer park “outside of Bozeman,” he was almost certainly in Livingston. It’s only 27 miles east of Bozeman and the towns are separated by the desolate and motel-less Bozeman Pass, which nears 6,000 feet as it cuts through the Gallatin and Bridger mountains.

Adding the long day’s events to the letter he had written the night before but had not mailed yet, Steinbeck gushed over Montana’s “grandeur.” He described “the little square burnt-up men” he saw in the bars, mentioned his Little Big Horn side trip and told his wife about the old-fashioned stockman’s hat he bought in Billings to replace his naval cap, which he said was attracting too much attention so far from the sea. It was very cold and Steinbeck said there was snow in the Rockies and on the “great snowy mountain beside me.” He was heading toward Idaho in the morning, he said, but didn’t think he’d make it. Montana was not only huge. It was so beautiful he drove slower than usual so he could gawk at it.

— excerpted from “Dogging Steinbeck”

The ‘Travels With Charley’ Timeline — Day 23

Saturday, Oct. 15, 1960 – On the road to Seattle

Steinbeck left his overnight camping spot near Tarkio midway between Missoula and the Idaho border and rode through little Saltese, Mt., on U.S. 10 into the top of Idaho. It is here where things again get vague and confusing. In “Charley,” Steinbeck says he stopped overnight at an isolated, rundown motel/gas station in the mountains near the Idaho-Washington border and rushed sick Charley to a vet in Spokane the following morning. If Steinbeck did stop in northwest Idaho Saturday night, however, it means he drove only 136 miles that entire day. It’s possible Charley’s sickness really did slow Steinbeck’s pace, as he says in the book. Maybe Charley really did have to see a vet. But given his haste to meet his wife in Seattle, Steinbeck probably spent the night somewhere farther into Washington or drove to Seattle in one 400-mile gulp. Whatever he did on this date, it’s another mystery night with no clues. Day 1 of Steinbeck’s trip was Sept. 23, 1960.


Metropolitan Saltese

In the thick forests of northwest Montana I pulled off I-90 at the Saltese exit to inspect a well-preserved stretch of Old Highway 10. About half a mile long between its two dead ends, the main street of “The Recreational Capital of the Northwest” was a compact 1960s time warp with about 20 buildings.

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Saltese, Montana, and its 20 buildings still looks a lot like it did when Steinbeck and Charley drove down its main street on the morning of Oct. 15, 1960.

Steinbeck drove down Saltese’s main street on Saturday morning, Oct. 15, 1960. Mangold’s General Store & Motel had a different name then. But the grocery, six pine-paneled motel rooms and the big “M-o-t-e-l” sign were all there by the edge of the road when Steinbeck and Charley motored past. So were the decommissioned state highway maintenance shed, most of the homes and the building housing the Old Montana Bar & Grill.

Terri Mangold has owned and operated the grocery store/motel complex on the bank of the Clark Fork River since 1995. She played local historian for me. When I-90 was poured on top of U.S. 10’s right-of-way in the early 1960s, Saltese’s only street – U.S. 10 – was frozen in time and the town got its own interstate exit.

Saltese, which Mangold said was in the middle of “a winter play land,” had about 60 permanent residents. It gets 20 feet of snow a year and sits under a steep, rugged forest at the foot of the Lookout Run ski resort. Mangold’s all-pine motel rooms were absurdly reasonable – $30 a day and up depending on the size. She said they were usually full year round, thanks to the hunters, fishermen and snowmobilers who stay for a week at a time and spend their days killing big things in the woods.

— Excerpted from “Dogging Steinbeck”



The ‘Travels With Charley’ Timeline — Day 24

Sunday, Oct. 16, 1960 – Seattle

After leaving the Tarkio, Montana, area on Saturday morning and passing through Saltese,  Steinbeck may or may not have stayed somewhere in eastern Washington that night.  There’s no evidence of where he stopped Saturday night. But since the distance from Tarkio to Seattle on U.S. Highway 10 is only about 430 miles, he almost certainly made it to Seattle by Sunday evening, Oct. 16. Day 1 of Steinbeck’s trip was Sept. 23, 1960.

DSC_2013 7Steinbeck busts ass to Seattle

Steinbeck came the same way on old U.S. 10 to get to Seattle – and he traveled just as fast. In the first draft of his book, in a paragraph that would be deleted, he wrote, “As before reaching Chicago, I found myself packing on the mileage and for the same reason. My lady wife was to fly out to meet me in Seattle and to travel with me down the West Coast for she had never seen the great real woods. I drove farther and faster than I intended. Increasingly I chose the wider and faster roads.”

This was one of several instances where Steinbeck admits he was rushing almost blindly to meet his wife Elaine – and where he betrays how little time he actually spent studying the country or meeting its people. When he was alone on the road – whether he was on his Chicago-Seattle sprint, his California-Amarillo dash or his New Orleans-New York City final kick – he was busting ass, not searching for the heart and soul of America.


As he approached Seattle on U.S. Highway 10, Steinbeck barely recognized the “little city of space and trees and gardens” he knew as a skirt-chasing young man. He had read about the West Coast’s post-war population explosion, but he couldn’t believe the changes. More with sadness than anger, he wrote, “Everywhere frantic growth, a carcinomatous growth. Bulldozers rolled up the green forests and heaped the resulting trash for burning. The torn white lumber from concrete forms was piled beside gray walls. I wonder why progress looks so much like destruction.”

That out-the-car-window observation of suburban sprawl on the march forever endeared Steinbeck to future generations of the no-growth crowd as a Nostradamus. But it only proved how out of touch he was with 1960 America and the needs of middle-class Americans. With his extra house and two acres by the sea, he didn’t need an affordable new home with a little yard in the suburbs. But millions of ordinary urban American families did – and in 1960 they were getting them.

— excerpted from “Dogging Steinbeck”

The ‘Travels With Charley’ Timeline — Days 25 – 28

Monday, Oct. 17 to Oct. 20, 1960 – Seattle

Steinbeck stayed in Seattle longer than he intended. Based on a handful of detailed scenes he wrote in the first draft of his book that were cut entirely from the published version, he checked into a modern motel near the Seattle-Tacoma Airport. He waited three days for his wife Elaine to fly out from New York. He then showed her his old haunts in downtown Seattle before heading south. There’s no way to tell when he left Seattle, but based on when he arrived in San Francisco and what he wrote in the first draft, a good guess is that it was Thursday, Oct. 20. Day 1 of Steinbeck’s trip was Sept. 23, 1960.

Steinbeck’s very ‘modern’ motel room


While Steinbeck waited for his wife Elaine to fly out from New York, did he cool his heels at this “modern” Holiday Inn at Sea-Tac, Seattle’s airport?

Before I left Seattle for Oregon, I made a brief attempt to find the motel Steinbeck stayed in at SeaTac, the Seattle-Tacoma airport. I went around to several older motels. But there had been too many changes in 50 years and he provided no helpful clues in the West Coast scenes cut from the first draft of “Travels With Charley.”

There were interesting details in those lost scenes, however. For example, Steinbeck said he waited for three days in a “modern” glass and Plexiglas motel room while wife Elaine struggled to book a direct jet flight from New York to Seattle. He rattled on about luxuriating in its bathtub and soft bed. He played with modern push-button gizmos. He listed – and mocked – the TV shows he watched.

“The beauty and culture of our time,” he wrote sarcastically: “Gunsmoke. Have Gun Will Travel. I Love Lucy. I love Dinah Shore. I love Barbara Stanwick. The greatest engineering minds in the history of the world had made these marvels available to me. Just looking at all those buttons brought home to me what a primitive life I had been leading.”

— excerpted from “Dogging Steinbeck”


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The ‘Travels With Charley’ Timeline — Days 29 – 34

Friday, Oct. 21 to Oct. 26, 1960 – The Pacific Coast Highway

There are virtually no hard clues to determine where the Steinbecks stopped as they came down the Pacific Coast through redwood country to San Francisco. Based on scenes deleted from the book’s original manuscript, once they crossed the California line they stayed for at least two days at a large, nearly empty resort in the shade of redwoods. The only reliable clue is a postcard Steinbeck mailed on Monday, Oct. 24, 1960, to his editor Pascal Covici from Trinidad, California, where he said he and Elaine were staying the night in a motel by a redwood grove on U.S. 101, about 300 miles north of San Francisco. They arrived in downtown San Francisco Wednesday, Oct. 26. Day 1 of Steinbeck’s trip was Sept. 23, 1960.

Not ‘Travels With Elaine’

It was on the West Coast that “Travels With Charley” reached its height of deception. In the real world, John, Elaine and Charley made their slow trip down to San Francisco in their overloaded pickup truck. But in the book Elaine is not there. It is only the author and his faithful poodle who visit Seattle, fix a flat tire on a rainy Sunday in Oregon and commune with the great bodies of the redwoods.

It wasn’t that way at all in the original manuscript, which co-stars Elaine and reads like the travel log of the Duke and Duchess of Sag Harbor. As soon as she made it to Seattle, Elaine – aka “my wife” – is in about six straight scenes at the waterfront and on the road. Some of those scenes were dropped completely and some were retained, but her presence was stripped out.

One scene completely dropped from the first draft mentions “the several days” Mr. and Mrs. Steinbeck stayed “at a partially closed resort in a big redwood grove.” Holed up in “a cottage at the base of a cluster of monster trees,” he wrote that he was sore and scraped up after having to flounder in “thick yellow muck” while fixing Rocinante’s flat tire, which he said he did as Elaine sat in the cab reading a book.

Steinbeck wrote that the cottage in the redwoods seemed like “the perfect place to rest and refurbish our souls.” Apparently, he was halfway to heaven. As he soaked in “a tub of near boiling water,” he wrote, “My lady wife slipped in and set a scotch and soda on the edge of the tub. And the world and the people there of, the grasses and the trees became very beautiful.”


Elaine and John Steinbeck circa 1960.

Another completely dropped scene does not reflect well on Steinbeck’s vaunted love for the common man. After he and Elaine hear about a good restaurant nearby, they decide to get dolled up and do the “town.” They were disappointed to find that the eatery in the sticks of Northern California was not a Trader Vic’s franchise but a neon hellhole. Sounding like an old fogey, Steinbeck wrote that the restaurant possessed “every damnable feature of our civilization – cold glaring light, despondent roaring music from a cathedral juke box, batteries of coin machines, Formica counters and tables. One wall was a cemetery of ugly … pies.”

Great descriptive writing, as usual. But when Steinbeck – who rarely let a commoner he meets on his journey escape without uttering a “he don’t” or a “them people” – made fun of the waitress for saying “fried tatters” and “We ain’t got no (liquor) license,” he doesn’t sound like a friend of the working class. Later he was happy to report that while he and Elaine slept close to the redwoods, there were “no trippers, no chattering troupes with cameras” to spoil their stay. The entire restaurant tragedy was easily snipped from the final version of “Charley.” But excising Elaine from the other scenes posed a larger editorial problem. On the West Coast, whenever he writes “we” in the book he was originally referring to himself and Elaine, not himself and Charley.

Speaking of poor Charley, he all but disappears from the first draft once Elaine takes over the passenger seat. It became so obvious to some folks (i.e., the editors or Steinbeck’s agent) that the poodle was missing that Steinbeck felt obligated to explain to the reader where Charley went. He handwrote a short chapter – obviously never published – answering the criticism that Charley was being ignored and assuring everyone he was feeling fine. He explained that with the missus onboard, the standard Steinbeck family pecking order had reasserted itself: “When Charley and I traveled alone together, the dog was indeed man’s best friend. But Charley knows better than anyone when the wife is present, he is man’s second best friend, and he finds this a normal relationship and perhaps a better one.”

In the end, Charley was restored to top billing and Elaine’s presence on the West Coast for four weeks was completely eliminated. It was editorially smart – and necessary – to dump the duchess. First of all, the scenes focusing on her were boring as hell. But most important, she seriously undermined the book’s romantic conceit. With her by his side every night, Steinbeck was no longer the man alone. He was a love-struck honeymooner.

— Excerpted from “Dogging Steinbeck”

The ‘Travels With Charley’ Timeline — Days 35 – 38

Thursday, Oct. 27 to Oct. 30, 1960 – San Francisco

According to famed city columnist Herb Caen, the Steinbecks arrived in San Francisco on Wednesday evening, Oct. 26. They socialized with John’s friends and stayed at the posh St. Francis Hotel downtown through Oct. 30. He was interviewed in his suite on Oct. 28 by Curt Gentry, a freelancer for the San Francisco Chronicle’s book section. On Sunday Oct. 30, John, Elaine and Charley move down the coast to the Steinbeck family cottage in Pacific Grove. Day 1 of Steinbeck’s trip was Sept. 23, 1960.


The ‘pure grandeur’ of the St. Francis

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The Westin St. Francis in 2010.

Steinbeck had no intention of zipping past his favorite city without partaking of its pleasures. He spent four busy days downtown, staying at the handsome St. Francis Hotel in Union Square.

Apparently, booking a room in San Francisco had been difficult even for him because of conventions. If scenes cut from the book’s first draft can be believed, Elaine made several fruitless calls ahead to hotels from roadside pay phones before they landed a suite at the St. Francis, where Caruso, Fatty Arbuckle and Hemingway had once been regulars and Steinbeck was a familiar face.

In the deleted scenes, Steinbeck described arriving with Elaine via U.S. Route 101 and the Golden Gate Bridge. After getting lost for a while, he found his way to the St. Francis downtown. Now the Westin St. Francis, it has undergone many cosmetic changes since 1960. But in 2010, when I prowled its halls and stairways, it still had dark wood, heavy rugs, mirrored ceilings, monstrous chandeliers and a two-ton shoeshine stand. Everything else – the floors, the back steps, walls – was made of marble.


Curt Gentry wrote a long article for the San Francisco Chronicle after his meeting with Steinbeck at the St. Francis during his five-day rest stop.

Steinbeck wrote that he parked Rocinante at the luxury hotel’s entrance – and just left it there, where it was in the way and attracting the wrong class of attention. He went straight to his hotel room and jumped in the bathtub with a whisky and soda at his side. He really enjoyed sitting in bathtubs with whiskies and sodas.

In the cut scenes Steinbeck purred that the spacious suite was “pure grandeur.” He was pleased to find no Formica, no plastic, no cheap ashtrays in the St. Francis, which in 1960 was already old, prestigious and, as he admitted, “outmoded” and “trapped in an ancient and primitive way of doing things.” He wasn’t complaining about the hotel’s old ways. Eating in the living room on white linen, he was pleased in his first draft to report being attacked by an army of servants – “valet, waiters, maids, pressers, housekeeper.”

Apparently, after her punishing ride in Rocinante and a week’s worth of rustic resorts, Elaine was back in her idea of lodging heaven. She preferred well-staffed English country inns to the “do-it-yourself” style of the modern American motel, where you had to fetch your own ice at the end of the hall and lug your own luggage. “My lady wife was very pleased,” Steinbeck wrote.

As he sat in his bathtub “like a sunburned Buddha,” Steinbeck wrote, the phone rang. It was the doorman. Rocinante was blocking traffic and it didn’t fit in the underground parking garage across the street under Union Square. What should be done with it? The unsightly pickup truck was moved to a parking lot and the hotel scenes end with Elaine calling the hairdresser. It’s not hard to understand why this glimpse of the Steinbecks indulging themselves on the road was purged from the book. And where was faithful Charley in these dropped scenes? His presence at the St. Francis was never mentioned. Apparently he’d already been checked into a kennel.


Portrait of an Immortal


During his stay in San Francisco, Steinbeck was filmed along the Pacific Coast doing a brief stand-up introduction for a movie made from his short story “Flight.”

The great columnist Herb Caen, who in 1958 coined the word “beatnik” to describe the Beat Generation, also captured a sharp, mid-trip portrait of John Steinbeck. Caen’s breezy, literate daily column of insider gossip and smart-alecky opinion about the city he called “Baghdad by the Bay” was a must-read for decades until his death in 1997. In his Oct. 30 column he detailed the recent afternoon encounter he had with Steinbeck at Enrico’s sidewalk cafe, where Caen ate lunch nearly every day.

“John Steinbeck, well-nigh immortal writer, was there, looking distinguished, like/as a writer should. Pinstriped suit. Black hat. Silver-topped cane. And a handsome beard.” Caen quoted Steinbeck’s explanation for the beard: “‘Hemingway wears a beard because he has skin cancer. My reason is pure vanity. The cane? I broke my kneecap four times.’”

Steinbeck, pushing away his lunch and ordering a beer, told Caen what he was up to:

“‘I drove across the country in a campwagon. Alone. My wife met me in Seattle. I’ve been living in New York – that’s not America – and Europe. I hadn’t seen my own country in twenty years. I wanted to get to know the people again, hear how they talk and feel. You can’t live on memories.’ ”

Steinbeck also told Caen that the American people “‘are disturbed, plenty. They feel nobody in Washington has been telling them what’s going on. I think Kennedy will win. It’s like writing a play – you can’t fool people. You can get away with a sensational play, maybe, but not a bad one. Nixon is a bad play, the kind you don’t believe.’”

Caen said Steinbeck “lit a cigarette with a lighter strung around his neck on a black cord” and raved about the “magnificent” beauty of the country, especially Montana. Other topics included Steinbeck’s upcoming novel about America’s lack of morality and a few semi-humorous asides. Charley and Elaine were not mentioned, though they were probably there.

Caen’s brief detailed depiction of Steinbeck, like Gentry’s longer portrait, is telling. It also almost single-handedly destroys the “Travels With Charley” Myth. The “well-nigh immortal writer” Caen met – dressed flamboyantly for lunch in one of the hottest eateries in town – was not the grizzled romantic road warrior of “Travels With Charley.” Nor was he lonely, depressed or sickly. Nor was he roughing it, trying to lay low or searching very hard for America.

— Excerpted from “Dogging Steinbeck”