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.
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.
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.
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”