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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”