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The ‘Travels With Charley’ Timeline — Days 12-17

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


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.)


DSC_0052 (1)

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.


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 3

Sept. 25, 1960 — White Mountains, N.H.


The Spalding Inn is high in the woods of the White Mountains about 7 miles south of Lancaster in Whitefield. It describes itself – without doing its gloriously old-fashioned character enough justice – on its Web site: “Surrounded by manicured lawns, orchards, perennial gardens and a 360-degree view of the Presidential Mountain range, it offers you the perfect escape from city life.”

Steinbeck says in “Travels With Charley” that he drives east into the rugged White Mountains of New Hampshire on U.S. Route 2 near Lancaster, N.H., and camps on a farm.

He says in “Charley” that he talks to the farm owner about the Russians and the boorish behavior of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev at the United Nations.

In the book, Steinbeck and the  Yankee farmer talk about Khrushchev banging his shoe on his desk at the United Nations, but that conversation couldn’t have happened. That famous Cold War event  — if it actually happened that way — occurred Oct. 11, 1960.

But did Steinbeck really even camp on a farm?

Fifty years later, after searching in vain for the farm and the farmer near Lancaster, a local writer, Jeff Woodburn, learned that Steinbeck was seen in the fall of 1960 at the nearby Spalding Inn in Whitefield. Exactly when that was, Woodburn was not sure.

On March 30, 2010, a woman who worked for the Spalding Inn’s owner at the time said she was absolutely certain Steinbeck slept at the inn for one night. And Donald Spalding, the son of the original owners and operators of the inn, said on March 30, 2011, that there was no doubt that Steinbeck ate dinner and slept at the exclusive inn during “foliage season” of 1960.

America’s Death Roads

By 1960 cars had replaced trains as the country’s mass mode of transportation. Interstates, truck stops and national motel and restaurant chains barely existed. Wal-Mart did not. America’s fleet of cars had doubled since 1941 to 74 million. About 75 percent of homes owned a car and 15 percent owned two. Automobiles were 4,000-pound death wagons with metal dashboards, crummy tires and lights and no safety gear; 1 percent of drivers used seat belts. America’s highways were criminally lethal. About 36,000 of the country’s 180 million people were killed in or by cars in 1960. In 2010, when there were three times as many autos and trucks on the road and 310 million Americans riding around in them, the annual death toll had fallen to 32,708.

— Excerpted from “Dogging Steinbeck”

Five years ago I started down the road to dogging John Steinbeck. It’s been a tremendous trip and though my book hasn’t become as widely distributed — or profitable — as I hoped,  I don’t regret a day I spent pursuing Steinbeck’s ghost and the truth about his book. I’ve made many new friends, including fellow Dutch Steinbeck-chaser Geert Mak and master travel writer Paul Theroux. Theroux has been a loyal supporter. He tells me he mentions me and my “Dogging Steinbeck” project in his upcoming road book about the America South, “Deep South,” which was previewed last summer in Smithsonian magazine. Steinbeck’s love-blinded fans are another story. So are the academics who make their livings touting his works and protecting his reputation as a truth-teller. Despite what I proved — that “Travels With Charley” is largely fiction and riddled with literary dishonesty and deceit — the Steinbeck “scholars” at Steinbeck Review refuse to mention, review or even trash my book. But enough whining. I had a lot of fun digging into Steinbeck and his iconic travel tale. It all started in March of 2010, when I, a mere babe of 62, traveled to Central California to do some early research for what became “Dogging Steinbeck.”

A free excerpt:

2 — Stranger in Steinbeck Country

Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process, a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. – “Travels With Charley”

Alone on Fremont Peak

I was sitting alone and shivering on top of Fremont Peak, a spectacular little spike of marble overlooking the entire Monterey Peninsula. I couldn’t see Steinbeck’s grave or his ghost, but both of them were out there somewhere under the glare of the dying California sun as it fell toward Monterey Bay.

Everything Steinbeck was down there somewhere — the house he grew up in, the statues, the things named after him, the museum/shrine that glorifies him and his works, the places and characters he made famous for eternity in “The Red Pony,” “Of Mice and Men,” “Cannery Row” and “East of Eden.” It’s why they called it “Steinbeck Country.”

Except for the pushy wind and the chirpings of a few invisible birds, I had Fremont Peak to myself. No tourists. No park rangers. No other ex-journalists with or without dogs doing books about “Travels With Charley.” Just lucky me, my notebook, my cameras and a head full of conflicting thoughts about my famous new sidekick.

It was March 11, 2010. Day 4 of my extreme West Coast research tour. I had learned a ton of new stuff about the man, his last major book and his highway travels. I’d gone to Stanford’s Green Library, where 300 letters from Steinbeck to his agent Elizabeth Otis are kept. I’d been to San Jose State University’s Steinbeck Center. I’d been to San Francisco to meet a writer who interviewed Steinbeck on his “Charley” trip. I’d checked out Cannery Row, downtown Monterey, Steinbeck’s family cottage in Pacific Grove, plus his gravesite and the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas.

The only reason I was up on Fremont Peak was because Steinbeck said he climbed to that exact spot during his “Travels With Charley” trip. I was glad to be there. It was an awesome, rugged place, the star attraction of Fremont Peak State Park’s collection of grassy round mountains and steep wooded canyons.

The pile of gray boulders is only 3,169 feet above Monterey Bay, but its distinctive little tooth is visible from almost anywhere in the Salinas Valley. It was lonely, peaceful, beautiful, a little dangerous and a little scary. No wonder young Johnny, who played on its slopes, hoped to be buried up there someday. It was the closest you could get to a heavenly view of Steinbeck Country without putting on wings.

Though it was the end of a hazy day, I could see more than 20 miles in every direction. In the shadows behind me, dry valleys and barely green mountain ranges stretched eastward to the Sierra Nevada. The San Andreas Fault was down there somewhere too, which explains why Fremont Peak — not to mention the Monterey Peninsula, Los Angeles and the rest of the northbound Pacific Plate — had inched 8.33 feet closer to San Francisco since Steinbeck visited the area in 1960.

Twenty-five miles southwest across the valley floor, hugging chilly Monterey Bay, was the historic city of Monterey. To be honest, I couldn’t see it, even with the zoom of my video camera. I only knew it was out there somewhere in the growing darkness, hidden by a strip of low coastal mountains, because that morning I had gone to Cannery Row to watch the sun come up over Monterey Bay.

At my feet, sprawled on the valley floor, lay Salinas, the capital of Steinbeck Country and the barely fictionalized setting for “East of Eden.” The city was an island in a shallow sea of strawberries, lettuce, tomatoes, spinach and other crops — the “green gold” that made Salinas rich 100 years ago and earned it the nickname “The Salad Bowl of the World.” The valley’s fertile black soil and sunny, ocean-cooled climate, combined with the labor of busloads of Latino farm workers, produced 80 percent of the lettuce Americans eat every year.

Salinas’ population was 160,000. That was twice what it was in 1960 and 40 times larger than when Steinbeck was born there in 1902. The city was wracked by deadly Latino gang violence and, like most California governments in the spring of 2010, was in deep budgetary trouble.

The Great Recession had slammed Steinbeck Country hard. The unemployment rate was 13 percent and going higher. Foreclosures were running twice as high as in 2006. Poverty rates were up, property tax revenues were down. But from high atop Fremont Peak, California was as golden as ever and everything in the Salinas Valley looked fine and healthy.

Earlier that day in the old downtown of Salinas I had toured the main Steinbeck stops. I took a few photos of the restored Queen Anne-style Victorian house he grew up in. It was closed, so I didn’t see the gift shop or gourmet restaurant that features local produce and $13 entrees like Asparagus & Ham Timbale with choice of Tomato Leek Soup or Green Salad. The corner house is on the National Register of Historic Places and Oprah Winfrey taped one of her shows in the front yard when her book club was touting “East of Eden.”

Two blocks away was the National Steinbeck Center, one of the few reasons for tourists to divert from the sun and surf of the Pacific Coast to the scorched flats of Salinas. The largest museum in the country devoted to a single writer, it’s smartly designed and visitor friendly. Steinbeck’s life story and books co-star in a dozen well-staged exhibits that include loops of clips from movies like “East of Eden” and “Of Mice and Men.” Recordings of his deep voice are never out of earshot.

The enduring popularity of “Travels With Charley” was evident at the center. The bookstore sold various editions of the entire Steinbeck canon — 16 novels, six non-fiction and five short-story collections. “Travels With Charley” had been the No. 1 seller since 2003 and the center’s most popular attraction and holiest relic was the 1960 GMC pickup truck/camper combo Steinbeck rode in on his search for America.

You couldn’t get inside the cab of the truck or the camper shell, or even touch them, because “Rocinante” was corralled behind a tall fence of Plexiglas. Squared-off and primitive, the cab’s hard utilitarian interior was uncomfortable just to look at. It was proof of the punishment Steinbeck endured for 10,000 miles with only an old French dog, an AM radio and his imagination for company. Unfortunately, the $11 million Steinbeck Center was not doing well. Its annual attendance was running about 30,000, which doesn’t sound so bad but works out to about 82 people a day. Chronically short of funds, it was dependent on subsidies from a city government that itself was in serious fiscal trouble.

Across the street from the Steinbeck Center, suckered in by the permanent sidewalk sign boasting that “Steinbeck Ate Here,” I ate lunch at Sang’s Café. Under my withering questioning the owner broke down and confessed the truth. The sign should more accurately say “Steinbeck Drank Here,” because that’s what young John did too much of there in the ‘20s and ‘30s when he was a struggling writer and the place was a bar. It wasn’t the first or last time I’d bump up against a Steinbeck myth. A lot of what we know about him — good and bad — is either truer or less false than we think.

Until I began “investigating” him for my book idea, I didn’t know much about him at all. “John Steinbeck” had been reduced to a famous literary name — a “Jeopardy!” question to the answer “This Californian was the sixth American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962.” Whatever I had learned about him I’d forgotten. During high school in the 1960s I was forced to read the usual Steinbeck classics, but they had no more impact on my life than “Beowulf.”

I liked “Of Mice and Men” then and appreciated it much more after re-reading it as an adult. But my social conscience wasn’t aroused by “The Grapes of Wrath’s” expose of the cruelty of capitalism and the sufferings of the migrant working class. I was a Baby Boomer from another political planet, a red one. When I was 17, in 1964, I was watching William F. Buckley Jr.’s “Firing Line” and sneaking Barry Goldwater stickers onto the bumper of my neighbor’s Country Squire station wagon.

By today’s definitions, Steinbeck was a ball of political contradictions. He was a highly partisan FDR big-government Democrat who went ape for Adlai Stevenson in the 1950s and became a White House-sleepover friend of LBJ and frequent weekend guest at Camp David. Like most of his New Deal generation, he had a naïve trust in the federal government to solve massive social and economic problems.

But Steinbeck was never close to being the true-believing commie or socialist both his rightwing enemies and leftwing friends liked to claim he was. He was what we call today “a Cold War liberal.” He supported labor unions, the civil rights movement and LBJ’s war on poverty. He was also a staunch anti-communist who believed in containing the Soviet Union and what then was so impolitely called “Red China.”

He was a sincere patriot, which, along with becoming too friendly with LBJ, may have blinded him to the folly of Vietnam and the fallacy of the Domino Theory. He was a loud public hawk on Vietnam in its early stages, but became a quiet dove when he realized the war was unwinnable. Intolerant of anti-war protestors, whom he thought were stupid and cowardly, he despised hippies and the ‘60s youth culture.

Steinbeck the man had personal issues that didn’t appeal to me. He was a parochial New York City snob by the time he took his long road trip. He was an enthusiastic and daily boozer. And in the 1960s he forgot his earlier wise warning to artists to stay away from political power and cozied up to JFK and especially LBJ. His biographer Jackson Benson pointed out in his 1984 epic “The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer” that Steinbeck’s darker side included a quarrelsome nature and a “striking lack of charity and understanding.”

His sons John Steinbeck IV, who died from complications during surgery in 1991, and Thom, who is a California writer, felt their father neglected them after he divorced their mother and married Elaine, his third and final wife, in 1950. Yet whatever his faults as a father and husband, personally and politically Steinbeck was a living saint compared to many celebrities and famous writers of his era.

Despite our differences, I had grown to like the grouchy, contradictory guy. Underneath his New Yorker magazine limousine liberalism, he hid an admirable libertarian streak. He wrote fine paeans to individualism, understood the importance of private property rights and hated bureaucrats and government bullying. Plus he didn’t moralize about things like prostitution. He treated prostitutes kindly in his books and thought they provided a service to the community, which of course they do.

If I wasn’t captured by Steinbeck’s New Deal politics or his social conscience, I sure was impressed by his writing skills. When I re-read “Of Mice and Men” and “Cannery Row,” I was blown away by his spare style, beautiful descriptive powers, sense of place and storytelling. Just the first 500 words of “Cannery Row” should make any journalist envious or throw her laptop away and become a plumber. I didn’t have the casual attitude about facts that Steinbeck did, which was why I’d ultimately get pissed at him. But I totally agreed with what he said about the impossibility of objectivity and the inherent and unavoidable subjectivity of journalism and all writing — fiction or nonfiction.

My last stop in Salinas that morning before climbing Fremont Peak had been his gravesite in Garden of Memories Memorial Park. Though a colorful “Steinbeck” sign pointed right at it, his small flat marker was hard to find among the weathered grey slabs and spiky old stone monuments. Seeking anonymity, simplicity and privacy even in death, Steinbeck’s ashes are interred with his parents, wife Elaine and sister Mary in the Hamilton plot, the plot of his mother’s family.

A pot of bright yellow mums, wilted slightly and knocked over by the valley’s unrelenting wind, gave away his final whereabouts: “John Steinbeck: 1902–1968.” A 2-inch white ceramic poodle with a pink heart for its collar guarded the simple marker. I stood on Steinbeck’s grave as respectfully as possible and took a few close-ups of the tiny dog, which had been left by a “Travels With Charley” fan. Was that chintzy totem of Charley a warning to let his master’s reputation rest in peace? I had no clue. I was a journalist looking for facts, not symbols.

Anyway, it didn’t matter. In the spring of 2010 I was a guy with no job, a melting 401(k), a fat mortgage and too many leased cars. I had already invested too much of my life in Mr. Steinbeck, his travels around the USA and what I already suspected was his blatant fudging of the truth in “Travels With Charley.” Chasing his ghost across America had become my destiny, my mission, my mad obsession, my brilliant act of entrepreneurial journalism, my big waste of money and time — I wasn’t sure which. I only knew I was too many miles down the Steinbeck Highway to turn back.

Geert Mak’s Steinbeck book, “In America,” was reviewed in the Spectator magazine by a guy with a great British name, Lewis Jones.

Unfortunately, though Jones manages to give me credit for discovering the literary fraudulence of “Travels With Charley,” he screws up my politics.

Jones doesn’t know what a libertarian is, obviously, or he wouldn’t have said that libertarianism is the same as being stridently Republican.

Go to the Spectator to read the review, which is of the typical lefty variety. Or just stay here and read my comment, which gave me the opportunity to plug my book to the good people of the UK.


Steinbeck (with wife Elaine) as he really looked a month after completing his “Charley” trip — not as he is pictured in the Spectator.

Thanks much to Lewis Jones for mentioning me, my book ‘Dogging Steinbeck’ and my role in exposing the fictions and fibs in Steinbeck’s iconic work of non-nonfiction, ‘Travels With Charley’.

As my new friend Geert Mak knows, for 50 years ‘Travels’ was marketed, reviewed and taught as work of nonfiction — until I came along, did some basic snooping in libraries and on the road, got lucky, proved it was mostly made up and occasionally outright deceptive and declared it a ‘literary fraud’.

(Not that I haven’t said it somewhere in a blog or interview, but the phrase ‘a very flawed load of fictional crap and deception’ does not appear in my book, which, while full of jokes, void of footnotes and liberally sprinkled with my libertarian politics, is a serious work of journalism that has changed the way ‘Travels’ will be read forever. Anyone interested in learning more is urged to buy my ‘literary expose’ at or go to

I especially urge Mr. Lewis to read my book — or at least skim it — before jumping to any more conclusions or launching any more of his ‘surmises’ (i.e., wild and uninformed guesses) about my politics, my affection for the Republican Party or my adherence to Fox News’ historical interpretations.

He’d find evidence in ‘Dogging Steinbeck’ that I dislike (i.e., hate) both major parties for their bipartisan plundering and wrecking of our land, which is still great in spite of them:

“It was Nov. 2 – Election Day. The historic date the Tea Party was going
to seize America from the Democrats and give it back to the Republicans,
the party that had taken us to a foolish war in Iraq, copiloted the
economy into a mountainside and squandered federal money it didn’t have
like drunken Democrats.”

And the morning after the election, I write:

“Overnight America supposedly underwent a historic political change. Republican Tea Partiers had seized the U.S. House and a new Golden Age of limited government, lower taxes and personal freedom was allegedly on the way. It was the usual hype and hysteria. Nothing would be changing on the U.S.S. Big Government except a few deck chairs.”

Based on his review, I surmise Lewis won’t like my politics. Nor will he appreciate what I say about the political biases and cultural snobbery of liberal New Yorkers like Steinbeck (that’s what he was in 1960) who’ve made it a habit to sneer at the politics, culture and values of the Americans they encounter in Flyover Country when they dare to travel by car between Manhattan and the Hollywood Sign.

When Lewis wrote that I take “an ‘openly libertarian’ (i.e. stridently Republican) line against the Democrat Steinbeck” he demonstrated that he has absolutely no idea what a libertarian is. (A primer: it’s someone who favors, stridently, maximum individual freedom, a weak and limited state, a system of free market — not crony — capitalism and a non-interventionist foreign policy; Brits should think John Stuart Mill, Manchester Liberalism, Bright & Cobden, Lord Acton, Hayek, etc.).

Libertarians — especially this one — wouldn’t be caught dead being ‘stridently Republican’. And while Fox News does have good libertarians like John Stossel and Andrew Napolitano, its prime-time all-stars — O’Reilly, Kelly and Hannity — are awful conservatives and/or partisan Republicans.

The America I found along the Old Steinbeck Highway in 2010 was opposite from the gloomy one my esteemed Euro-socialist colleague Mak found. I described 11,276 miles of it as well as I could, as a veteran newspaper journalist, albeit through libertarian eyes, not socialist ones.

Where Mak saw islands of prosperity in a sea of poverty and anguish, I saw the opposite. Where Mak saw the failure of the federal government to make things right in the hinterland and cities, I saw evidence of the federal government’s century-old habit of doing things wrong. Etc. Etc. From a libertarian, not Republican, point of view.

Same country, same roads, same time; two people, two very different sets of opinions and conclusions. Steinbeck knew it would work that way and said in ‘Travels’ that the country he found would not be the same one others coming behind him would find 10 minutes later. He wasn’t lying about that, at least.

For the record: The missing Washington Post woman was/is Rachel Dry, who wrote a nice piece about her pursuit of Steinbeck’s ghost and her accidental encounter with me.… And your photo of Steinbeck is not what he looked like in 1960, but more like 20 years earlier.

Finally, I stridently apologize to all proper Brits who might be offended by my use of the slang term ‘dogging’ in my title. I had no idea.


About 54 years ago today, John Steinbeck finished his failed “Travels With Charley” road trip and dragged his tired and unhappy ass back home to New York City.

He had driven Rocinante about 10,000 miles in the fall of 1960 and spent the next 10 months, off and on, writing “Charley.”  As we now know, and as I put into “Dogging Steinbeck,” he had to make up a lot of stuff to fill his slim travel book — which was, quite deviously, edited and marketed as a true nonfiction account of his search for the America he had lost touch with.

When I followed Steinbeck’s trail faithfully in the fall of 2010, I didn’t know it but I was a few days ahead of famed Dutch historian/journalist Geert Mak. I only found out in 2012 that Mak too had had the idea of retracing Steinbeck’s journey as a way to compare the changes that have beset/improved America in the last 50 years.

The English edition of Mak’s “In America: Travels With John Steinbeck” — a fat and footnoted bestseller in Holland — has just come out.

Mak is a self-defined Euro-socialist. Therefore his view of the USA is more pessimistic than mine, which is libertarianly tilted and critical of the current media and the  snooty liberal East Coast view of Flyover Country that Steinbeck also held.

The Independent in London has reviewed  Mak’s book critically but fairly. There’s only one comment — mine.

Here’s how Stuart Evers’ review starts….

In America: Travels with John Steinbeck by Geert Mak, book review: A depiction of a country in decline, but was he looking in the right places?

The cultural life of America – film, music, literature – so important in founding and reasserting a national identity, is almost totally ignored by the author

Geert Mak’s retracing of John Steinbeck’s celebrated American journey, Travels with Charley, first appeared in the Netherlands in 2012 under the title Travels Without John: In Search of America.

In this fluid English translation by Liz Waters, the title has been transposed and refocused to In America: Travels with John Steinbeck. In purely commercial terms, one can see why the publisher would want to amplify the Steinbeck link, make him a part of the action. Yet this is a disparity that points to the problem at the heart of this book: it doesn’t quite know exactly what it wants to be.

Steinbeck, at least at first, had a clear idea of both what he was writing, and why he was writing it. In 1960, after an illness had forced him to take stock, he set off from Sag Harbour – with his dog, Charley – journeying through 33 of the 50 American states, to find the country he loved. It’s the last of Steinbeck’s major works, and one that begins in hope and macho endeavour, and ends in downbeat disappointment. It’s a journey riven with great writing, moments of drama and self-reflection; it is also hugely fictionalised, and most probably more imagination than fact.



My pal Michael Challik, the great veteran “shooter” at KDKA TV and a born Dutchman, did me a great favor the other day by translating part of a video interview with Steinbeck-chaser Geert Mak.

Mak, a famous and renowned Dutch journalist/historian/author,  also retraced Steinbeck’s “Charley” route in the fall of 2010 and wrote a big fat, footnoted book that became a best-seller in Holland. Mak’s book, “Travels Without John in Search of America,” is being translated into English. Mak kindly mentions me about a dozen times, favorably.

Unfortunately, the book, like the video interview, is in Dutch.

Here’s a link to the video — Geert Mak talks about the journalism & politics of “Bill Steigerwald.”

And here’s the translation of the 5-minute video, courtesy of the kind Michael Challik:

 Geert Mak is lying awake thinking of the competition.

You think you have designed a great plan, but one afternoon in a little town, Lancaster, we were looking for a place John Steinbeck had stayed.  The night, a motel, pouring down rain, got out at a gas station, asked where is the motel from the 1960’s.  I can still see him, a hat on turned backwards, “Oh Steinbeck! Right?”

(The service station attendant continues.) “Yesterday, there was also somebody here.” So you think you’re the only one.  Real quickly Googled, wondering who that could be, and got the answer in about three minutes.  Bill Steigerwald, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, retired journalist.  Did exactly the same, except took off half-an-hour sooner.  We left at at 8:30…he left at 8, so we just missed him on the ferry to the mainland.

Bill wrote in his blog on the ferry at 8:45 where he met a third journalist, a guy called  John Woesdijk (sp?), who was walking the route with a dog for a dog magazine.  Later we found out that there was a fourth.  She was with the Washington Post with her Mum.  The last two I didn’t hear anything from again.  All four wanted to follow Steinbeck’s route, but Bill S., I must be honest, tried to follow Steinbeck’s whole route.  I must say I couldn’t agree with his political views, to say the least, but he did describe the route very precisely, like where Steinbeck bought his gun, with all kinds of movies, including if you would like to follow the route through his eyes.  I really recommend his website.

QUESTION: You didn’t have any contact with him?

ANSWER: Oh yeah, later on we talked a lot about it.  I really did want to talk to him because I really did find – even though he had opinions on     Obama, etc. – he was very dedicated, and he did it by himself, and he was the only one who     was roughing it, because Steinbeck stayed in hotels mostly.  Bill really roughed it out.  I got a lot of respect for him, but I thought the only thing I can do is to use him in my book…and so it goes.

But as soon as my book was finished, I wrote him – and he had also heard of me. He heard about a book in Holland, and we talked openly and frequently, and we are planning in our lives absolutely to come together, and with a great glass of beer and talk about world problems and solve them by the end of the afternoon.

QUESTION: He is an arch-conservative, right-winger Republican?

ANSWER: No, no!  He would get real mad if you tell him that, because he really didn’t like George W. Bush.  He is a Libertarian thinker.  No, No I am a half-Socialistic, latte drinking, French loving, Volvo driving, European.

So I was really different, but Steigerwald found out that Steinbeck said things in his book that were absolutely not true, and I also discovered that too.  Because if you follow Steinbeck’s journey you find, for instance, he went fishing a whole afternoon with a companion, and talks about his marriage etc., but supposedly on the same day when you follow his iterinerary he drove 400-450 miles.  You can’t be fishing in the beginning of the afternoon – and then drive 450-miles. So you find a lot of discrepancies.

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.


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.



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.