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”

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”

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.

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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”