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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 — Days 12-17

Tuesday, Oct. 4 to Oct. 9, 1960 – Chicago

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The Ambassador East Hotel’s famed Pump Room was done up in dark wood and leather and plastered to the ceiling with glossy photos of the celebrities who stayed there.

Steinbeck traveled fast from Buffalo to Chicago, a distance of about 550 miles. He left Buffalo on Monday morning and arrived at Chicago’s famous Ambassador East Hotel sometime Tuesday or Wednesday. His wife Elaine jetted out from New York.

Steinbeck describes this leg of his road trip in “Charley,” but given his haste to see his wife, his account is not plausible. He writes that he camped Monday night on private land by a lake along U.S. 20 in northern Ohio or southern Michigan and went fishing the next morning with the young man who had let him stay there. He writes that at noon (on what would have been Tuesday, Oct. 4), “growing increasingly anxious” to meet Elaine, he climbed on the Indiana Toll Road and drove almost all night, arriving at the Ambassador East early the next morning before his room was ready.

No one will ever know what Steinbeck really did between Buffalo and Chicago or what he made up. He could have covered the entire distance in one hellish day/night drive, or rented a motel room somewhere or, least likely of all, really camped overnight by a private lake and gone fishing. Steinbeck and his wife were together in Chicago until Monday, Oct. 10, and stayed at least one night with Adlai Stevenson at his farm in nearby Libertyville, Ill. (Day 1 of Steinbeck’s trip.)

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The lobby of the Ambassador East, as it looked in October 2010.

In my quixotic travels with Charley about America I paused five times, in Chicago, in Seattle, in California and twice in Texas. Then I saw and felt beloved people who knew me as I knew them. It would be quite easy to recount every moment of these steps but it would be out of drawing with the rest. A book has to be one thing, just as a poem does or a chair or a table.

– Cut from first draft of “Travels With Charley”

 

 

Sleeping over at Adlai’s Farm

Steinbeck and Adlai Stevenson were more than contemporaries and pen pals. They had several interests in common – liberal/New Deal politics, agriculture, dogs and the legend of King Arthur and the Round Table. Politically, Steinbeck was a Stevenson Man, 110 percent. He helped the former Illinois governor during the 1950s with some speeches and desperately wanted him to become the president in ’52 and ’56 and to win the Democrat nomination again in 1960. He was still pulling for Stevenson long after it was clear that his days as the Democrats’ standard-bearer were over.

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Adlai Stevenson, former Illinois governor and Democratic presidential candidate in 1952 and 1956, was Steinbeck’s political hero, friend and pen pal. Stevenson lived on a 70 acre farm outside Chicago in Libertyville. Steinbeck and his wife Elaine spent a night their during his layover in Chicago.

Stevenson’s white, squared-off house at “The Farm” was simple, practical and smartly designed, with airy rooms, huge windows, a wild Art Deco bathroom and a long back deck looking out at the lawn and blazing oak trees that stretched to the Des Plaines River. The house (owned by the Lake County Forest Preserve), had been restored for tours in 2008 and was used for meetings but still needed several rooms of furniture. Only Stevenson’s study – the most important room in the house, said my guide Nicole Stocker – was completely furnished. It had his old desk, his books and his address book – which happened to be opened to “S.” Steinbeck’s name and Sag Harbor phone number were there.

In 1960 Stevenson’s place was still a working farm. He grew corn and soybeans, and had horses, sheep and a pack of Dalmatians, all named after characters from King Arthur’s Court. He, like Steinbeck, lived relatively frugally for a wealthy man, but Nicole said a housekeeper and a caretaker were on the premises.

DSC_0095One of Stevenson’s near neighbors was Marshall Field, who owned a little department store in Chicago. Many historic figures of the era came to talk politics with Adlai in his ample living room – from Senator Robert “Mr. Republican” Taft of Ohio to a young, ambitious rogue with the initials JFK. Nicole said the three Steinbecks probably slept in the guest suite, where Eleanor Roosevelt would crash whenever she dropped by.

Steinbeck says nothing in “Travels With Charley” or his road letters about his visit to Stevenson’s farm, which is 35 miles north of downtown Chicago. Biographer Jackson Benson mentions Steinbeck’s visit in “John Steinbeck, Writer.” And a Steinbeck letter to Stevenson that I read at Princeton alludes to their walk together in Stevenson’s “blazing” woods in the fall of 1960. Exactly when the Steinbeck family stayed in Libertyville is not known and doesn’t matter.

— Excerpted 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 20

Wednesday, Oct. 12, 1960 – Beach, North Dakota

The Westgate Motel in Beach, where Steinbeck had a bath on Oct. 12, 1960.

The Westgate Motel in Beach, N.D., where Steinbeck had a bath.

Sticking to U.S. Highway 10, Steinbeck moves almost straight west from Frazee, Minnesota, through Fargo and Bismarck to Beach, North Dakota, a small agricultural town near the Montana border. He drives about 425 miles. In Beach before dark he checks into a small motel, the Westgate, and has a bath and writes his wife Elaine a letter.

In “Travels With Charley” he describes stopping near Alice, N.D., about an hour west of Fargo, where he met an itinerant Shakespearean actor and slept overnight under the stars in his camper by the Maple River. It was a fictional encounter and camp out, since that night he was actually 312 miles west in Beach. Day 1 of Steinbeck’s trip was Sept. 23, 1960.

 

Steinbeck didn’t camp out in the Badlands, either

Alice wasn’t the only overnight campout in North Dakota that Steinbeck invented. The next night he didn’t sleep under the stars in the spooky Badlands, either. In “Charley” Steinbeck beautifully describes how the slanting evening sunlight warmed the strange and harsh landscape of the Badlands, how he built a fire, how the starry night was filled with sounds of hunting screech owls and barking coyotes, and how the “night was so cold that I put on my insulated underwear for pajamas.”

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The cornfields near little Alice, N.D., where Steinbeck said he camped overnight by a river on Oct. 12, 1960, but didn’t.

It was total fiction. On Thursday night, Oct. 13 – Day 4 of his Chicago-Seattle sprint – he was actually already 400 miles west of Beach and the Badlands. He was in Livingston, Montana, watching the third Nixon-Kennedy TV debate at a trailer court. Because he was moving so quickly from Chicago to Seattle, Steinbeck was forced to make up two overnight camping adventures in North Dakota and stick them in between his actual stays in Frazee and Beach.

Steinbeck’s two flights of “creative nonfiction” under the stars in North Dakota are important, but not just because they are such bald-faced fabrications. Along with his non-meeting with the Yankee farmer in New Hampshire, they are the scenes in the book that created the myth that he was traveling slowly, camping out and roughing it alone in the American outback.

— 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.

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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”