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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”

In the Sept. 3 Daily Caller’s  opinion piece Just The Facts: Bill Steigerwald Exposes A Great Writer’s ‘Literary Fraud’ In Dogging Steinbeck, author, musician and creative fiction practitioner Robert Dean Lurie of Arizona serves up a fair, fine and thoughtful review of my literary expose/travel book.

Lurie, who also discusses the eternal  fight between facts and fiction in Thoreau’s “Walden” and elsewhere, is a writer who leans toward the creative/ fiction side of creative nonfiction. He isn’t a just-gimme-the-facts kind of guy, like most career journalists.

Nevertheless, Lurie says that my exhaustive — and sometimes clunky — journalism won him over.

One might think, given my stated positions above, that I would be fundamentally opposed to Steigerwald’s assertion that Travels With Charley is a “literary fraud.” And, indeed, I fought that premise tooth and nail throughout much of the book, even while falling in love with Steigerwald’s jocular style, his unvarnished political opinions, and, yes, his honesty. But the wily devil wore me down in the end. The mountain of damning evidence is just too massive to ignore.

When I get my first million in royalties, I’ll be sure to send Mr. Lurie and the great guys at the Daily Caller their checks. Until then, here’s a plug for his book, “No Certainty Attached.”

As Publishers Weekly said …

Lurie remains stridently impartial in this skillfully balanced assessment of his musical idol, Steve Kilbey, the esoterically minded front man for the Australian rock band the Church. Into his noisy myriad of interviews with Kilbey and his circle, Lurie mixes his own personal journey as a fan, musician and first-time author, offering something to both Church devotees and the uninitiated. The result is a quietly and thoughtfully structured narrative that entertains as well as informs.

robert dean lurie's book