The ‘Travels With Charley’ Timeline — Days 71 – 75
Friday, Dec. 2, 1960 – Upriver to Mississippi
Steinbeck writes in “Charley” that he left the Upper Ninth Ward, ate a sandwich by the Mississippi River and then stopped at “a pleasant motel.” The next day, most likely Dec. 2, he drives north on U.S. Highway 61 along the Mississippi River to Natchez and Vicksburg. Then he takes U.S. Highway 80 east across Mississippi.
Saturday, Dec. 3, 1960 – Pelahatchie, Mississippi
Steinbeck mails two postcards from Pelahatchie, Mississippi, on U.S. Route 80. One is to his agent, Elizabeth Otis, and one is to his editor, Pascal Covici. At dusk, 26 miles east of Jackson, I stopped on U.S. 80 to get a picture of the yellow brick Pelahatchie post office, where Steinbeck’s cards to his agent and editor had been postmarked Dec. 3, 1960. To his agent Elizabeth Otis Steinbeck wrote, “I’ll miss the coastal states but can’t have everything. Damned if I know whether I’m getting anything. At least I’ll know what’s not so.” The postcards are the last reliable evidence of where he was and when. He takes U.S. 80 into Alabama and picks up U.S. Route 11, which runs northeast along the Appalachian Mountains toward New York and home.
Sunday, Dec. 4 to Dec. 6, 1960 – The Home Stretch
Steinbeck meets U.S. Highway 11 in Alabama and slants through Tennessee and parts of Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland into Pennsylvania at Carlisle. He takes the PA Turnpike to New Jersey and arrives in New York City at the Holland Tunnel. In the book he says he’s denied entrance to the tunnel because of the propane tank aboard Rocinante. He takes the Hoboken Ferry, gets lost in evening rush hour in downtown Manhattan and has to ask a cop for directions to his house. In nearly 11 weeks, he had touched 33 states and driven about 10,000 miles. To start at Day 1 of Steinbeck’s trip, go here.
Home at last
Angling northeast on U.S. Route 11, shadowing the Appalachian Mountains, Steinbeck pushed hard for home. He says he drove in a blur, stopping only to sleep for a few hours at a time. The last town he mentions in the book is Abingdon, Virginia, 650 miles short of New York City. Abingdon is where he says his trip in search of America ended in a kind of road-weary amnesia, but of course it had effectively ended seven weeks earlier in Seattle. No matter.
My best guess is that Steinbeck staggered into New York City on about Dec. 5 or 6. He had been gone roughly 75 days. He had racked up about 10,000 noisy, butt-busting miles in his beloved Rocinante, which he quickly sold. He was out of gas physically and psychically. He had gone in search of America and its people and knew he had found neither….
In the late summer of 1962 his book “Travels With Charley” debuted on the New York Times Top 10 nonfiction bestsellers list, hit No. 1 for a week in late October and stayed on the list for more than a year. It has sold about 1.5 million copies. In 2012, when Penguin Group published its 50th anniversary edition of “Charley,” the introduction was edited to alert readers that what they were about to read was not nonfiction but a highly fictionalized account of Steinbeck’s actual trip.
— Excerpted from “Dogging Steinbeck”