Currently viewing the category: "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.

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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 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

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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 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 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’

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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 19

Tuesday, Oct. 11, 1960 – Frazee, Minnesota

Steinbeck and Charley leave Mauston, Wisconsin, and drive northwest to Minnesota. They crawl slowly through the traffic of Minneapolis-St. Paul, cross the Mississippi River and pass through Sinclair Lewis’ hometown of Sauk Centre, Minnesota.

After about 430 miles, they stop  for the night and sleep in Rocinante at a truck stop Steinbeck says was “not far” from Detroit Lakes, Minnesota.  In 1960 that truck stop was the home base of Daggett Truck Line in Frazee, Minn., and it still is.

After hearing what Steinbeck wrote in “Charley” about cattle manure and a small valley carpeted with turkeys, company executive Chris Daggett said in 2010, “This was the place he’s talking about. Absolutely, it was. It was the only place around Detroit Lakes that handled cattle.”

For his book Steinbeck combined his sleepovers at the truck stops in Mauston and Frazee into one night.   Day 1 of Steinbeck’s trip was Sept. 23, 1960.

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Daggett Truck Line in Frazee, Minn., circa 1960.

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Daggett Truck Line in 2010.

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Daggett Truck Line no longer handles cattle, but did then.

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Frazee’s doomed turkeys, 2010.

 

  

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.

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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 22

Friday, Oct. 14, 1960 – Somewhere west of Missoula

Before heading west from Livingston, Steinbeck says in the book that he abruptly decides to drive about 55 miles south on U.S. 89 to Yellowstone Park. When Charley goes nuts every time he sees a grizzly bear, Steinbeck quickly leaves and retraces his path to Livingston. He turns west on U.S. 10, buys a rifle in Butte and drives past Missoula before stopping. In an undated letter to his wife Friday night he mentions his Yellowstone detour that morning and says he was camped on the property of an old woman west of Missoula about 60 miles from the Idaho line. That would have been near Tarkio, but local old-timers there could not provide any further clues about Steinbeck’s second night in Montana. Day 1 of Steinbeck’s trip was Sept. 23, 1960.

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Steinbeck nailed Montana and its natives

Steinbeck fell hard for Montana. As he mooned in “Travels With Charley,” “Montana has a spell on me. It is grandeur and warmth. If Montana had a seacoast, or if I could live away from the sea, I would instantly move there and petition for admission. Of all the states it is my favorite and my love.”

He can’t be blamed for being smitten. But his relationship was more like a two-night stand than a serious love affair. He drove down the main streets of Billings, Bozeman, Butte and Missoula and other smaller U.S. 10 towns. He stopped in bars, a clothing shop and a gun store. He stayed one night in a trailer court near Livingston and a second on private land west of Missoula along the Clark Fork River.

Montana-born Trudi Logan Steigerwald and daughter Lucy enjoying an anonymous mountain top in 2007.

But other than gawking out his windshield for hours at the state’s natural grandeur, that was pretty much it for Steinbeck’s fling with lovely Montana: Two days, two nights, two sunsets. Fifty total hours and about 850 miles of driving. All packed into 2.5 pages of “Travels With Charley.” Steinbeck obviously missed a lot of Montana. Curving from southeast to northwest on old U.S. Highway 10, he saw just a sliver of the country’s fourth biggest state.

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The corner in Uptown Butte where Steinbeck says he stopped on Oct. 14, 1960 to buy a rifle and a scope at a sporting goods store that, like its owner, is long gone.

He didn’t see Glacier National Park, Flathead Lake or the Missouri Breaks. He didn’t have time to do the signature outdoor Montana things –- fly fishing in the Yellowstone River, hiking up creeks to the toxic but cool ruins of silver mines, driving 10 miles into a pine forest on a dirt road for a picnic in a meadow at 7,000 feet or conquering your own nameless mountain.

Yet after only 50 hours in Montana, Steinbeck got it. He nailed her and its people. In “Travels With Charley,” he writes “… It seemed to me that the frantic bustle of America was not in Montana. Its people did not seem afraid of shadows in a John Birch Society sense. The calm of the mountains and the rolling grassland had got into the inhabitants…. Again my attitude may be informed by love, but it seems to me that the towns were places to live in  than nervous hives. People had time to pause in their occupations to undertake the passing art of neighborliness.”

How he figured out Montana so quickly testifies to Steinbeck’s superior powers of observation.

— Excerpted from “Dogging Steinbeck”