On Sept. 23, 2010, I hit the road to follow the 10,000-mile trail blazed by John Steinbeck in the fall of 1960 for his bestseller “Travels With Charley.” I traveled without a dog and did not camp under the stars, but I used the “Charley” book, research from Steinbeck archives and my best drive-by journalism skills to compare the author’s actual journey with the one he depicted in his iconic road book. My 11,276-mile road trip, which also documented some of the ways the America Steinbeck saw has – or has not – changed, took 43 days and ended Nov. 7, 2010.
This is an edited repeat of the “Travels Without Charley” blog I wrote for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette as I traveled from Sag Harbor to California and back.
My Mad Plan
The book “Travels With Charley” is my map, timeline and guide to where John Steinbeck was, when he was there and what he was thinking about during his spin around America in the fall of 1960.
But Steinbeck’s book is often vague and confusing about time and place. And it doesn’t include a number of places Steinbeck went but did not include in his book.
Since Steinbeck took few notes and left no maps, itinerary or expense vouchers among the tons of written material and memorabilia he left us, I have had to rely on other sources to follow his cold trail.
I’ve used clues from letters he sent from the road, newspaper articles written in 1960 (and later) and TV-detective logic to make the best guesses I can.
Steinbeck carefully planned his trip for months. He studied maps to choose routes that dodged big cities but circled the edge of the country from Maine to Seattle and back.
He also packed his Spartan camper shell Rocinante with everything he thought he’d ever need.
He had a pile of books like William Shirer’s “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” that he hoped to read but never did. He had tools, spare truck parts and several rifles.
He also had a propane stove, a table that converted to a bed, closets and a toilet, as you can see if you use a camera to light up the interior of his camper at its eternal parking place in the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, Ca.
It was Steinbeck’s idea to carry his little house around with him so he could invite people he met in for a friendly drink.
His truck cab was nothing like the luxuriously appointed pickups today. He had no AC and only an AM radio — not even push-button.
No wonder he was always talking to Charley.
I am going everywhere Steinbeck actually went on his 10,000-mile trip across 34 states, I think. I’m taking the same U.S. highways he took – except where they’ve been buried under interstates.
I’m leaving from Sag Harbor, Long Island, on Thursday, Sept. 23 — 50 years to the day after Steinbeck and Charley set out in their overloaded pickup-truck/camper hybrid.
I won’t take nearly three months to circumnavigate the country, as he did, however, because I won’t be spending nearly five weeks off-road staying at posh hotels or visiting friends and family — as he did.
I’ll be moving quickly in my red Toyota RAV4, practicing drive-by journalism at its finest or worst. I’ll report and opine on what I see along the Old Steinbeck Highway in 2010 and try to discover, document — or imagine — what Steinbeck saw on his journey in 1960.
I’ll also try to find out how the simpler, less prosperous and less lovely America that he observed, critiqued and worried about has changed or not changed in half a century. And whether those changes have turned out for the better or the worse.
Oh, yeah. About the dog.
I’m not taking one.
Not because I don’t like dogs. My big joke — which I won’t repeat again — is that I just couldn’t find a dog that knows how to read Google maps and Twitter at the same time.
But even if I had our family dog, the late, great Alex, I wouldn’t subject him to the long and crazy road ahead.
First stop is Sag Harbor, where Steinbeck loafed when he wasn’t living in his Manhattan brownstone and where his backyard ended at the ocean’s edge.
Hello Sag Harbor
Wednesday, 22 September 2010 20:59
SAG HARBOR, N.Y.
Before I came here I joked that Sag Harbor probably hasn’t changed as much in the last 50 years as Cuba has.
Today the Main Street of this village of about 2,500 is busy and thriving with commerce and well-preserved character and charm.
Lots of flapping American flags, handsome old brick buildings, time-warped storefronts, a five-and-dime variety store, a hardware emporium, book store, art galleries, coffee shops, pizza joints, nice restaurants.
They are mixed in with real-estate offices whose windows look like they’re advertising presidential palaces of Third World despots; the old barber shop where Steinbeck got his hair cut; the neony Sag Harbor Theater and the impossibly expensive American Hotel and restaurant/bar.
The American Hotel smells old and rich and has one of the scariest menus I’ve ever seen. I didn’t know what the day’s featured entree was, but before I averted my eyes I noticed it cost $110. Maybe it was for 14 people.
At 4 p.m., the sidewalks were jumping with little old ladies, moms and tots, a kid patrolling on a skateboard, dog-walkers, Latino men with cell phones waiting on benches for the bus and locals like Donnie.
Donnie — maybe he was 50 — was leaning against the wall of Illusions, an artsy jewlery store. He and his brother ran an auto repair shop whose customers once included Elaine Steinbeck, Steinbeck’s third and last wife.
When Donnie and his mother moved to Sag Harbor in the 1970s, he said there were plenty of boarded up storefronts on Main Street. In the ’60s, there were “30 bars” on Main Street like the Black Buoy, John Steinbeck’s regular haunt.
Sag Harbor was never on the Long Island RR line and apparently it was the last Hamptons town to be colonized by the rich and famous.
Steinbeck was a pioneer, moving here in the 1950s. But Donnie said it was Peter Jennings of ABC who moved to Sag Harbor and made it acceptable for Hamptonians to live north of the highway, whatever that meant.
When I mentioned the z-word — “zoning” — as a possible explanation for the town’s frozen-in-time character, I thought Donnie was going to explode. He once tried to open a car wash and was quashed by the zoning police.
When he told me about the historic/architectural review nazis who made getting a simple business sign a six-month ordeal, he reminded me of me. We quickly bonded like brothers, even though he was born in Australia.
When Donnie’s friend Mike walked by, he called him over and told him I was asking about Steinbeck. Mike, of course, happened to be from Pittsburgh’s North Side.
He first came here in 2000 to renovate a vacation house for a Pittsburgh couple. He liked it so much, he stayed and now lives in an apartment above a store on Main Street. I suspect he won’t be the last ex-patriated Pittsburgher I’ll meet.
Mike, who told me his last name but asked me not to use it, was full of local history/knowledge.
Sag Harbor is the “unHampton.” Unlike South-, North- and Bridgehampton, Sag Harbor is not ruined by chain stores and box stores.
By chain stores, Mike didn’t mean Walmarts and CVSes, he meant Gucci and Coach and Saks. He actually liked the architectural review board’s work and wished it had been started long before 1972 because it would have preserved more of the town’s authenticity.
Like Donnie, Mike explained that Sag Harbor has a core population of less than 3,000 that jumps to about 15,000 in summer.
A thousand boats swarm to the great harbor that once drew whaling ships. Ten will be mega-yachts — 200-footers — and dozens are 100-footers.
Mike, 54, makes his living building and designing homes in the Hamptons. Except for summer, he said it’s a nice quiet town. It’s also bitter cold and wet and pretty uncomfortable in the winter, when the sidewalks are as empty during the day as they are in September at 9:30 at night.
Steinbeck’s Summer House
Before the sun set on the last day of summer, and before the harvest moon rose, I drove out to Steinbeck’s seashore house on Bluff Point Lane. The GPS Girl had no trouble finding it, but the house hides at the end of a narrow private gravel road.I didn’t pull in the driveway because John Stefanik’s car was there. He’s been taking care of the house for 28 years — when widow Elaine hired him to do the job.
The wood-sided house and its outer buildings and thick shaggy grass were looking pretty good beneath the heavy shade of the lot’s tall and muscular oak trees.
The oaks are much bigger than they were when Steinbeck lived there, of course, and the house and other structures — dark green 50 years ago — have been painted slate-gray. But Steinbeck would have recognized it in its preserved state.
Stefanik said on Monday a New York Times reporter and photographer went with him to the house to do a story about the 50th anniversary of Steinbeck’s “Charley” trip.
Though he usually asks for appointments from pushy media-types like me, as soon as I explained why I was there he let me wander around and take pictures as the sun set over the waters of Morris Cove.
Stefanik couldn’t have been nicer. While he and his son ran noisy garden gadgets and did yard work, I did my best impression of a real photojournalist and tried to document the scene in the failing orange-red light.
When the Stefaniks drove off they left me in the driveway with my cameras and, I guess, Steinbeck’s ghost.
Launching from Steinbeck’s Driveway
September 23, 2010 07:00
Goodbye, Sag Harbor.
It’s 7 a.m. My RAV4 is in Steinbeck’s driveway, ready for launching.
I’m sure he wouldn’t mind my trespassing. The ferry to New London, Conn. — back to the continent — embarks at 10.
It hasn’t been easy getting this far inland.
I was up before dawn after sleeping in my RAV4 on the Sag Harbor pier, trying to blend in with all the yachts berthed nearby.
Let’s pretend I got five hours of actual sleep. A local told me it was a good and safe place — i.e., I wouldn’t be arrested or run out of town — and he was right.
The idea of any crime going on Sag Harbor — other than felonious BMW-envy — is absurd. I never saw a cop while I was there. Of course I was in town less than 18 hours.
I went back to Steinbeck’s house at dawn to see if anyone was there and to take a picture of my idling RAV4 in the driveway.
It was like visiting a quiet, perfectly landscaped museum at the end of a well-disguised private lane, which is exactly what it is.
An hour later I had to go back to Steinbeck’s for a photo shoot with a local photographer from the Southampton Express.
The paper is doing a little feature on me and my madness written by Mike White, a guy I talked to but never met (“Blogger will retrace Steinbeck’s travels 50 years later,” Sept. 28).
Ferrying to the Mainland:
I missed my first ferry from Sag Harbor to Shelter Island, so I never had a prayer of catching the big ferry from Orient Point to Connecticut at 10 a.m.
Steinbeck, like my co-voyagers, was no doubt a pro at the island-hopping and ferry-jumping it takes to escape the expensive end of Long Island, but I was a total rookie.
It was a pretty cool sea journey for a landlubber. Two silent but swift 10-minute crossings on and off Shelter Island with about 15 other vehicles. Then the 90-minute trip on the Cross Sound Ferry from Orient Point across Long Island Sound to Connecticut.
I had to drive about 16 miles between ferries. Virtually every home or berry farm I sped past on land was pre-1960-old, classy, rural and picture perfect.
It was a pricy escape from Long Island — $12 and $9 for the local trips on the small ferries and $49 for the long ride to New London, which 1,000 cars would be making today.
Those steep prices would tax even the average wealthy hamptonite. But commuters get a week’s worth of roundtrips for $22, a nice deal for rich people that’s probably subsidized by some government public transit agency somewhere.
On Steinbeck’s watery way to New London aboard “the clanking iron ferry boat,” he said he saw submarines surfacing nearby and met a sailor on leave — a nuclear submariner, to be exact. They talked about the nuclear subs that were then filling up the docks at the U.S. naval base in New London on the Thames River.
Like so many Americans in those scary Cold War days, Steinbeck was not fond of the U.S./Soviet strategy of mutual assured destruction, part of which involved building a fleet of Polaris-firing nuclear subs. He didn’t like subs, either, because despite their beauty they were “designed for destruction” and “armed with mass murder.”
I didn’t see any subs or sailors. But as I waited with about 90 other vehicles to drive into the empty open belly of the Susan Anne I met Blaize Zabel, 20.
A high school dropout, he looked tough with his big forearms, black T-shirt and shorts and cross tattoo. But he turned out to be an incredibly nice kid. He was on his way back to his home in Falmouth, Massachusetts, and said he hoped he would have enough money for the Greyhound Bus fare.
I took his picture and gave him the same crazy advice I tell all young people (under 30), including my own kids Billie, Joe and Lucy — go to L.A. and see what happens. It’s been a good move for millions of migrants, including me in the late 1970s.
L.A.’s not as lovable or affordable as it was in the 1980s, but it’s still a la-la land of opportunities. If it isn’t a place for you, you’ll find out soon enough. Then you can go back home to your hometown, which you’ll have decided isn’t so bogus after all
On the ferry I also met a 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning crime reporter, John Woestendiek, 57, formerly of the Baltimore Sun and Philly Inquirer.
John is now the owner-operator of OhMiDog.com and TravelsWithAce.com, two dog-oriented web sites. Ace, his Rotweiller/Akita/Chow/pitbull mutt of 130 pounds, was traveling with him.
He’s been on the road for several months already, mostly down South, and he decided it would be cool for him and Ace to start following Steinbeck and Charley’s trail exactly 50 years later. He’s doing dog-related things as he goes.
John genuflected at Steinbeck’s house at dawn, too. He slept last night unmolested by the law behind a business called Sleepies in one of the Hamptons, sprawled across the front seat of his red Jeep Liberty.
Ace, 6, was so big and friendly he made me wish I had a dog along too — for about four seconds.
Ace provides security and unconditional love but consumes the back of John’s Jeep. We exchanged info, took pictures of each other and agreed our paths will probably cross again either in Maine or Montana.
Now — at 4 p.m. — I’m writing this at a McDonald’s somewhere north of East Hartford on US 5.
I’m on the route I presume Steinbeck took to Deerfield, Mass., home of the Eaglebrook School (where actor Michael Douglas matriculated).
On state Route 85 from New London was the kind of healthy commercial development that Steinbeck never saw — a mega-car-dealership complex with strange car names like Hyundai and Subaru.
It gave way quickly to a rural countryside and still-green woods. And the roadside was loosely strung with old white houses and barns and roadhouse restaurants and fruit stands that look like they were there in 1960 to watch Steinbeck whiz past.
Empty, Pretty and Rich
Steinbeck’s first stop in the fall of 1960 was the Eaglebrook School, the boarding school in Deerfield, Mass., that his youngest son John was attending.
Steinbeck didn’t divulge much about his visit to Eaglebrook in “Charley.” He said he got there too late on Sept. 23 (a Friday in 1960) to rouse his son, so he drove to the top of a hill nearby and camped overnight on a farm under an apple tree.
Though he actually stayed in the Deerfield metro area until Sunday afternoon, he said in the book that he visited with his son the next day and then drove north into Vermont.
Before I do the same, I’ll drive over to Eaglebrook’s campus and check it out.
Meanwhile, I’ll enjoy the luxurious amenities of the Days Inn I treated myself to last night to make up for my night sleeping on Sag Harbor’s Long Pier in the back of my RAV4.
The nicest part of my $71 stay here so far? – the generous wall plugs that have replenished the juice in all my batteries.
Road Report: The drive from East Hartford to here on Connecticut state routes 85 and 2 and then on two-lane US 5 reminded me yet again just how empty America is and how rich it is.
US 5 north pierces some small towns like Enfield, Conn., – founded in 1683. Then it leads to Massachusetts college towns like Springfield, Holyoke and Northampton, where the spectacular historic downtown buildings, the thriving retail scene and the sidewalk mobs of young people on a Thursday night at 8 were surreal.
Mostly, though, US 5 was undeveloped and timeless. The “Purple Heart Memorial Highway” made Connecticut look as un-peopled as Long Island and Pennsylvania.
And when there were houses along the road – and there were hundreds — they were usually big, white, pre-Teddy Roosevelt-looking beauties on large and perfectly landscaped lots.
Steinbeck may or may not have noticed this impressive gauntlet of affluence. But he would have passed 99 percent of the same homes I saw as he drove to Deerfield, which is about 160 road miles from Sag Harbor.
A fuzzy picture of a typical house that I snapped as I drove by:
DEERFIELD, MASS. — Eaglebrook School
I bet there’s not a better or more beautiful middle school in America than Eaglebrook.
Its campus hangs on the side of a low mountain overlooking the historic village of Deerfield on US 5 north not 25 miles from Vermont.
It’s not your run-of-the mill public middle school. It’s private and exclusive and so pricy that if you have to ask what a year’s tuition and room and board costs, you’re not rich enough to send your heir there.
Its nearly 250-boy student body, one quarter of them day students, fork over Harvard-level annual fees that would stagger a movie star.
Along with many future successful businessmen and scholars, Michael Douglas, actor Kurt’s son, went there.
Michael was present in 1960 when Steinbeck pulled in with his pickup-camper hybrid to see his son John, who was 13 or 14.
In those days, former headmaster Stuart Chase told me, Steinbeck would have found schoolboys outfitted in identical Navy blue blazers and thick-striped school ties.
Today’s students don’t dress so formally, Chase said. But they aren’t allowed to ruin the school’s pre-prep school milieu with bluejeans, torn pants or uncollared shirts.
Chase wasn’t running Eaglebrook when Steinbeck arrived from Sag Harbor on Friday evening, Sept. 23, 1960. Since it was too late to see his son, Steinbeck says in “Travels With Charley,” he drove up to the top of the mountain and “found a dairy, bought some milk, and asked permission to camp under an apple tree.”
Chase, whose father preceded him as Eaglebrook headmaster and whose son succeeded him eight years ago, gave me directions to the apple orchard. He also told me how time and uninterested heirs had turned a thriving farm into the abandoned and overgrown white hulk it is today.
Climbing the road above Eaglebrook I twisted my way through the dense woods to the top and found the apple orchard right where Chase said it would be.
He called it a “skeleton” of an orchard and that’s what it was. The trees were still there.
They were thick and tall and old and gnarly and heavy with red apples — apples that were not being harvested, polished and sold but were providing a feast for the local insect population.
The trees that weren’t surrounded by weeds and golden rod were being strangled by rose bushes and grape vines. Rotting fruit on the ground made the orchard smell like apple juice.
The gate to the former orchard was invitingly off its hinges and lying flat in the low jungle. I drove my RAV4 through the opening in the heavy stone wall and parked/posed it under what could have been the same very large apple tree Steinbeck camped under.
Unlike Steinbeck, however, there was no dairy man with a Ph.D. in mathematics to shoot the breeze with while I swatted bugs and tried not to stand too long in the shag carpet of baby poison ivy plants.
Humans had lost control of the orchard and nature was slowly reasserting itself on the rest of the place.
Steinbeck could probably have written a novelette about the process.
The big beautiful (white) farmhouse and the (white) dairy barn, looked fine and prosperous. It was as if one day someone just dropped a water hose or closed a barn door and drove to Boston.
It almost looked like someone could come in, cut the grass, throw a switch and get back to dairy farming in a week or so. Almost.
Sleeping by the River
After passing on the opportunity last night to spend $70 for a box with one locked window in a mom & pop motel in mid-Vermont, I pushed up US 5 north.
The fat yellow rising moon, the dark mountains of New Hampshire and the Connecticut River were on my right as I drove toward St. Johnsbury, Vt., and the intersection with US 2 east.
The GPS girl kept trying to get me to leave the river valley and take I-91, which parallels US 5, but I stuck to the Steinbeck Highway and its little towns and big dark empty spaces.
By 10, minutes after my wife Trudi’s phone call to me dropped, I pulled over into a small turnout by some trees in the middle of nowhere. I decided to try to get some sleep in my “bed,” which is made of six This End Up sofa cushions that fit perfectly when the RAV4′s back seats are down.
I locked myself in, crawled in the back and hung up the Velcro-equipped “blackout curtains” fashioned by my wife.
Once the spooks were put to rest and I got used to the occasional car buzzing past, I slept almost straight through till dawn.
At 6 the light showed me what a perfect spot I had accidentally chosen.
I was not 30 feet from the wooded edge of the Connecticut River, which was silent as a pond.
I figure I had seven hours of good sleep — twice what I had been getting in motels or on Sag Harbor’s lighted pier.
Town of White Churches
LANCASTER, N.H. — Lancaster Motor Inn
Steinbeck passed through this town on the Vermont border twice on his long loop to the top of Maine and back — once going east on US 2 exactly 50 years ago this weekend and again a week later heading west.
He no doubt noticed the town’s surfeit of white churches.
I can see at least five on US 2 from the venerable and welcoming Lancaster Motor Inn, where I am sitting in their lobby borrowing their wi-fi service after a fine $8 breakfast of steak and eggs; a local says 13 or 14 churches serve the town’s 3,200 souls/sinners.
Driving through St. Johnsbury, Vt., on my way here was a disappointment. I was hoping to stop at one of the dozens of hip Internet cafes I imagined would be open in “St. Jay’s” downtown at 7 a.m.
Instead I had to quickly turn right/east on US 2 and travel through a dingy light industrial district that included the Maple Grove Farms of Vermont’s “plant” with attached Gift Shop and Maple Museum.
US 2 was a fast smooth ride. At one point I was doing 65 mph and being pushed from behind by a guy pulling a racing car on a trailer.
Nothing — mostly nothing. That’s all there was except for the gorgeous scenery. Few humans were to be seen on or off the road.
A few mobile homes and trailers came and went. Their snowmobiles and pickup trucks were seductively parked by the side of the road, hung with “For Sale” signs.
Mostly it was mountains and woods and yellow and orange and red and green leaves and an occasional “Moose” warning sign.
Not long before I hit Lancaster and the NH border, I turned a bend on US 2 and found the first screaming evidence that politics and the upcoming off-year elections were important to some folks ’round he-ah.
The front yard of this partisan’s farm had it all.
Not only did his driveway have a display of pumpkins for sale — as did half of the Vermontians who live on US 5 and US 2. But he had carefully posted a dozen political signs along the side of the curve.
If there was any doubt where his sympathies lay, his hand-lettered sign made it clear:
Lancaster’s main drag — US 2 — was busier than it must be on a Sunday morning when townspeople are pouring into all the white churches.
At 9 a.m. a flea market was setting up on the grass next to the old brick courthouse. Among the sellers of maple syrup and organic vegetables and gluten-free breadstuff was Gerry Gallick, 52.
Gallick, the second person I talked to, could be a poster-victim for the current economic downturn.
He was putting his color photographs and calendars on display, but he was not really a photographer by choice. He was a civil engineer, a former cop, a former truck
driver, a musician, a poet — and now a photographer.
He lost his engineering job in January and can talk your ear off about all the jobs he’s looked for since but didn’t get.
He’s been rejected because he’s too old or over-qualified and so he’s trying to make a living selling his big color photos of the magnificent local stuff that he said God has made — the mountains and woods and fauna.
I struck up a conversation with Gallick when I spotted one of his panoramic photos — the one taken of downtown Pittsburgh from Mt. Washington.
Yes, like Mike from Sag Harbor and others I am destined to meet in the next weeks, he’s from the ‘burgh — 31 years removed.
He grew up in Forest Hills, went to Churchill High School and is living in God’s Country, right where he wants to be.
God bless Walmart
BANGOR, ME. — Walmart parking lot
Thanks, Walmart, for letting me/us stay in your parking lot overnight.
It’s a little on the bright side. I could perform a heart transplant on my hood.
I don’t know yet if I’m living better, but I’m sure saving money.
EAST NEW HAMPSHIRE — U.S. 2 East
The Granite State and the Pine Tree State blended together smoothly Saturday evening as I headed east to my nocturnal rendezvous with the scorching klieg lights of the Bangor Walmart parking lot.
I cruised into and out of New Hampshire’s rugged White Mountains in light-to-no traffic at 60 mph.
The White Mountains are tall and dark and they look tough and mean.
I’m no geologist, but in age they must fall somewhere between Pennsylvania’s gentle, smoothed and dying Alleghenies and the craggy, punk mountain ranges out West that are still growing.
Steinbeck traveled the same route half a century ago to get to Bangor and down to the Maine seacoast at Stonington. He would recognize this part of his highway, too.
A short stretch of US 2 is under major reconstruction, but little is new from 50 years ago. I passed the same farms, same houses and same frozen-in-time intersections as he did.
Not that I am especially sensitive to such things, but on the road nothing screamed “urban sprawl” or “development” or “commercialization.”
In fact, a few of the Maine towns on US 2 — Rumford in particular — could use some old-fashioned exploitation from a few decent national fast-food chains like Bob Evans.
I asked a young Maine state trooper who was washing his windshield at a gas station in Rumford where I could get something decent to eat.
He thought for a second and, being an honest cop, pointed across the road and, with a mix of embarrassment and empathy, said “There’s the Subway.”
From Bangor to the Sea
STONINGTON, MAINE — BOYCES MOTEL
Sleep one night in a parking lot and next thing you know it’s fall and long-pants time.
When I crawled out of the back of my car in the Bangor Walmart lot shortly after dawn, it was barely 50 degrees and the start of a gray and damp and chilly day. It was also actually much darker than it had been at 3 a.m.
About 15 RVs had taken up Walmart’s standing invitation to America’s RVers and spent the night under the bright lights, but no one but me was in a hurry to hit the road.
I had no interest in exploring any part of Bangor, even if it once was the lumber exporting capital of the world.
I just wanted to do what Steinbeck did in 1960 — cut through the city on my way south on Route 15 to the seacoast paradise of Deer Isle.
In “Travels With Charley” he said he got annoyed by Bangor’s traffic confusion and got lost. If the roads were laid out in 1960 the way they are now, I can understand why he got so testy.
Downtown Bangor — where I grabbed an omelette at a crowded bagel factory — looked suspiciously to me like one of those cities that has spent about five decades wrecking large parts of itself.
First came urban renewal projects, I bet. Then the heavy-handed street and traffic management.
Too many one-way streets and too many turn arrows and lines on the pavement are always a sign of planning experts working too hard. They only gum things up, waste paint and make things worse.
Once you are beyond Bangor’s suburbs on Route 15, the 60-mile trip to Deer Isle becomes a highlight reel of Maine culture.
Boats and RVs of all sizes, truck caps, kayaks, logs, shingles and gigantic piles of firewood on people’s front lawns are everywhere. The best roadside sign advertised “Guns, Ammo and Camo.”
The closer you get to Deer Isle and the impossibly quaint and funky “downeast” tourist/lobster fishing village of Stonington, the farther back in time you go and the more upscale and artistic things get.
By the time you reach Caterpillar Hill and its panoramic view of Deer Isle and the ocean and the rainbow-arcing bridge that connects them, you’ve already passed dozens of pottery studios, antique shops, art galleries and ceramics shops — but no sports bars or McDonald’s.
Eventually the turning, roller-coasting road delivers you to Stonington’s narrow old Main Street.
And when you see the harbor, the fishing boats and the charming/funky mix of beautiful homes and buildings holding onto the hillside or hanging over the water’s edge, you’ll understand why Steinbeck thought it was unlike any American town he’d ever seen.
Pay phones on Main Street
One reason John Steinbeck would still love the village of Stonington is pay phones.
When he was looping up to the top of Maine and back in 1960, he was constantly looking for a public phone to call his wife Elaine in New York.
Of course, he’d have exactly the same problem today, only worse.
He’d be thrilled to find a pair of the living techno-relics standing side-by-side at this moment in what passes for Stonington’s town square.
They haven’t been preserved by the local historical society.
They’re necessities: cell phone signals don’t make it to Stonington’s Main Street, so land lines haven’t become obsolete or irrelevant here and you don’t see people walking around looking at their hands all day. The pay phones are also important to fishermen coming in off their boats.
Stonington and Deer Isle is a one big photo-op. Just point and shoot at the wondrous works of man and nature.
The collision of charm and funk creates character.
What a suburbanite would declare an eyesore and want to outlaw — the hulk of a 1950s car or a fishing boat on a front lawn — is what keeps downtown Stonington from becoming post-card perfect.
Stonington is the top lobster port by value of catch on the East Coast.
As long as there are hundreds of real working lobster fishermen in town and elsewhere on Deer Isle who need to stack their traps and ropes and other gear in their side yards, this place will never become one of those over-perfected tourist horrors like Niagara on the Lake.
Sleeping by the Sea
Gleason Cove, Me.
Right now I am parked by the ocean not far from Pleasant Point, Me.
It’s not actually the ocean, it’s the Bay of Fundy and the Canadian border, drawn somewhere in the water out there in the pitch dark, is not far.
I’ll not do any trick photography like I did in the Walmart lot Saturday night, because I don’t want to attract attention with a flash.
I didn’t see any signs that said I couldn’t drive down here and sleep for a few hours — or the night — so I just did.
I chose this road because I knew it led to a public access spot on the beach and because there is a Verizon phone signal, which means my Samsung phone’s mobile hot spot will send this note all the way to Pittsburgh.
For most of the trip up US 1 from Deer Isle and Ellsworth to Machias and Perry, I was out of Verizon’s vaunted coverage. It’s totally dark — except the glow from my laptop’s screen — but I’m sure it’s perfectly safe here.
Meanwhile, here are some more photos from beautiful Stonington and Deer Isle:
The Ooze of Dawn
(Click to see the video.)
The sun is up now, but there’s no telling where it is. There is no horizon. The local world is murky and gray and foggy.
Sleeping by the sea turned out fine. During the night only a few locals drove down Gleason Cove Road to the “beach” and turned around.
The Bay of Fundy’s famous high tides didn’t rise up and sweep me out to sea. Best of all, all night it was nice and dark.
Of Eggs & Books
CALAIS, Me. — 100 miles north of Bangor
We’ll never know if John Steinbeck stopped at the US 1 border town of Calais.
Pronounced callous despite or perhaps in spite of its French origins, the town in 1960 was a lot healthier than it is now.
Population is down from about 4,000 to around 3,000 since 1990, according to the local downeasters/upeasters/overeasterns/fareasters eating breakfast at the counter in Karen’s Main Street Diner.
It’s a familiar story. Hundred of jobs have been lost in the paper mill. Young people are leaving.
If it weren’t for the fact that the department of homeland security beefed up the three border crossings with Canada after it learned one of the 9/11 hijackers entered the States at Calais, there’d be even fewer jobs around.
Calais is in Washington County, which has about 33,000 people and is the state’s poorest county. Across the St. Croix River is New Brunswick, Canada, so there’s a lot of interaction of all kinds with the Canadians, including marriages.
One side of Calais’ Main Street’s business district was foolishly destroyed long ago in the name of urban renewal/progress.
But the old red brick buildings that survive include two good reasons for Steinbeck — or anyone following his trail — to stop: Karen’s diner and the Calais Book Store.
Karen’s is one of those priceless local eateries where getting a breakfast of two eggs over medium, sausage and home fries is a routine of perfection, not a matter of chance. The prices were good and the diner was doing a steady business, as it’s done for five years.
Its owners, Karen and Lou Scribner, do homey things like cook their own turkey each week. Unless you go all exotic and go for the fried fresh clams, you can’t spend more than $9 on something sensible like a hot turkey sandwich.
A few storefronts up the street is the Calais Book Shop. It’s not something you’d expect to find in this part of the world — especially after driving for what seemed like days through pine forests just hoping for a place that served coffee.
Carole Heinlein, 59, owns and operates the bookstore, which she started five years or so ago with the 8 tons of books she trucked up from Florida. Unlike half the Maine folk around here who head for Florida for the winter or for retirement, she came north and started her own business.
She’s hanging on, without being able to afford to hire any help, running a semi-funky place overflowing with thousands of old and new good/classic books of all genres. A copy of “Travels With Charley” sat two feet inside her front door.
It’s “Banned Books Week” this week, and Steinbeck would get the importance of that fight against bluenosed censorship. Two of his biggest/greatest works — “Of Mice and Men” and “The Grapes of Wrath” – are perennial victims of America’s nuttier local school boards.
Carole grew up in Key West, Fla., and worked for almost 20 years at various newspaper jobs including reporting.
She loves books, old or new. She doesn’t have much good to say about TV or radio, but realizes she has to get an Internet site and go global, if she is ever to survive in her tiny market.
She hasn’t made her initial investment back yet, but she’s not about to give up, despite the economic downturn.
“I opened a bookstore in the poorest county in Maine — on April Fool’s Day,” she laughed. “The joke’s on me. But I’d do the same thing again in the poorest county of any state.”
Aroostook County, famous for potatoes, is said to be bigger than Connecticut and Rhode Island combined.
No one behind the wheel of a car traveling north on US 1 from Calais is going to challenge that fact.
Steinbeck came all this way armed with only an AM radio and his own imagination, though he had Charley to talk to.
Probably 50 years ago today, Steinbeck headed north on US 1 from Deer Isle to the top of Maine after staying for two days at Eleanor Brace’s spectacularly beautiful house on the edge of the sea.
He probably slept there in Rocinante the nights of Sept. 26 and Sept. 27. A Sept. 28 letter he sent from Deer Isle to Adlai Stevenson mentioned that he had seen part of the first Nixon-JFK TV debate (held Sept. 26) and was disgusted by the excess of courtesy the two candidates showed toward each other.
Steinbeck’s long-time agent, Elizabeth Otis, had been vacationing at Brace’s place for 30 years, renting a rustic cottage on the grounds straight out of a Disney movie.
Otis insisted that the island and the house were too beautiful for Steinbeck to miss.
It’s easy to see why.
After Steinbeck left Deer Isle, he said in “Charley” that he slept in Rocinante under a bridge one rainy night and also camped overnight by a lake somewhere in Aroostook County, where he entertained a family of French Canadians at a little party in his camper shell.
The Canucks had come across the border from Canada, as they always did during potato harvest time, to pick potatoes.
Machines do most of the picking now, and, as with most everything else that was once hard and back-breaking slave’s work, human muscle has been replaced by brainpower and the magic of technology.
Last night I behaved like an adult and slept in the Aroostook Hospitality Inn here on US 1.
I rolled the motel-room dice from 60 miles away and I didn’t lose. It’s a good place with all the important amenities I need — strong wi-fi, lots of wall plugs and a good shower.
It’s an independent mom & pop, has a lot of character — not to mention the character who manages it — and it cost $69.
Today I set out on the long haul back down to Lancaster, N.H., on state Route 11, as Steinbeck did.
First I’ll see if I can find a big potato farm — or big potato factory – or big whatever it is that potatoes come from these days.
Good Roads, Good women
FARMINGTON, ME. — McDonald’s
Unlike Steinbeck, I never did find a potato farm on US 1 in Aroostook County that looked like it was harvesting or processing spuds with Canuck migrant workers or even machines.
Maybe next time.
In Ft. Kent I reached the northern end of US 1 about noon on Wednesday and turned south on state Route 11 for the long drive back to New Hampshire and the way West.
On the map, Route 11 looks like a boring north-south highway stuck into the top half of Maine.
For some reason — maybe because Steinbeck said nothing about the road itself — I dreaded Route 11. I imagined running all day long through pine trees over a marshy flatland.
In reality Maine’s longest highway is prettier and far more interesting and fun to drive than foggy, flat US 1 — until the sun sets, anyway.
After it leaves the top of Maine, Route 11 runs over, around, up and down and through hills and low mountains in deepest, darkest, woodsiest Maine.
There was so little traffic I began to suspect the smooth wide two-lane highway was built just to prove how empty the middle of Maine truly is. Or to give highballing’ double-trailered logging trucks their own speedway.
Other cars were almost as rare as the towns, houses and farms. Steinbeck saw moose on Route 11. The only mooses I saw were painted on warning signs.
Route 11 took me longer than it should have.
I pulled over too many times to take photos of sagging abandoned farm houses or the cute little rest stops that MaineDOT has built to provide a quiet place for picnics or the couples who arrive separately in their pickup trucks.
When I stopped at a rest stop to snack on some peanut butter and crackers — I wasn’t counting on finding a restaurant for a another day or two — there were three cars and only one person. Then a couple stepped out of the woods and got into their vehicles.
Maine people — Mainers? Manians? Mainsters? — couldn’t be nicer and they’ve obviously been brought up to be kind to strangers.
In the little burg of Patten I turned around to go back and photograph a weed-strangled home that was obviously inhabited when Steinbeck hurried through there 50 years ago so he could get to a motel in Lancaster, N.H., before nightfall.
As I got out of my car, a young woman who had seen me turn around pulled over and asked if I needed any help.
She thought I was lost, of course, which it looked like I was. But I was just driving the way I usually do — as if traffic laws don’t apply to journalists (or ex-journalists).
She quickly filled me in on the local history, said her town has about 1,000 inhabitants and suggested I take a picture of the corner store “because it’s going to be torn down tomorrow.”
She wasn’t the first woman in timeless/spaceless/changeless Maine to think I was in distress; she was the fourth in less than 24 hours.
In Calais — was that Tuesday? — after I talked to the people in Karen’s Main Street diner and the town bookstore, I stopped along the side of the road on my way out of town to file a blog item.
I wanted to take advantage of the sudden surge in Verizon’s cell phone signal. (It was from Canada and roaming charges will apply until I call Verizon and plead my case; it happens all the time, warn the locals.)
I was twisted around backwards, squeezed between my two front seats, typing on my laptop, which sat on my “bed.”
Since I am journalism’s worst typist even when sitting up straight in a booth at McDonald’s, it took almost two hours to write my blog item and load and send it and photos to Pittsburgh.
My first visitor was a U.S. Customs and Border Control officer, who pulled up behind me in her patrol car. I thought it was a local cop coming to arrest me, but she couldn’t have been sweeter.
She had passed me three times and saw me in the same stupid position, so she naturally thought I had had a heart attack or had been the victim of a mob hit.
I told her, apologizing as abjectly as possible, I was fine and explained what I was doing and begged for mercy because I was an ex-journalist and didn’t know any better.
She believed every word of it, wasn’t the least bit mad or officious, and left me to my pathetic typing. I didn’t dare take her picture.
Ten minutes later I looked up from my keyboard to see two cars parked right behind me and two women with worried faces hurrying toward me.
They too thought I was dead or dying and were genuinely relieved, and not the least bit annoyed, to be told I was physically fine, just mentally challenged.
I finally came to my senses and pulled into a parking lot farther up the road, where I should have been in the first place.
It felt comforting to know the good women of Maine were looking out for me.
Where the Calais police force was all this time, I’ll never know. I’m not complaining, mind you. But based on my five-day, nearly 1,000 mile loop through Maine, police are as rare as moose.
A night at an auto park
FARMINGTON, ME. — Still at McDonald’s
Nice to find a McDonald’s. Nice to find a McDonald’s open at 5:15. I tried to make it to the Lancaster Motor Inn in Lancaster, N.H., last night — honest — but I couldn’t keep my eyes open. Driving in a snaking tunnel of pine trees at 60 mph for three hours will do that.
Maine is even emptier at night, if that’s possible. The distance between Millinocket — the lumber mill town where the Pelletier family of “American Loggers” fame lives and runs a new restaurant that surprised me with an amazingly good spinach salad — and the next big town, Milo, is 39 miles. I encountered 12 cars in 45 minutes.
Steinbeck said in “Travels With Charley” that he camped behind or beneath or beside a bridge somewhere in the middle of Maine’s vast nowhereness. I was not so lucky. For an hour I looked for a “camping” turnout or rest stop where I could crash for the night but found none.
Then I saw a poorly lighted used car dealership out in the country on US Route 2 maybe 10 miles east of here. I stopped. I backed onto the grass next to a pickup truck. With the nose of my RAV pointed at the road just like the other cars, I hung up my blackout curtains and went to sleep.
Impersonating a used car worked. My RAV4, despite its cargo top, blended in perfectly with the 30 or 40 other vehicles. The random trucks and cars that roared by in the night took no notice. I didn’t take a photo of the crime scene because I would have had to use a flash. I didn’t want to push my luck.
Now it’s on to Concord, Vt., which is 120 miles west of here. I want to see the spot along the Connecticut River where Steinbeck slept in his camper in the parking lot of a “ghost” motel that was opened all night but had no one at the desk to rent him a room. I also want to be in Concord when Scott Simon of NPR’s “Weekend Edition Saturday” calls to find out if I’m safe to be interviewed by public radio.