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”