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The ‘Travels With Charley’ Timeline — Day 2

Sept. 23-24, 1960 — Deerfield, Mass.


The apple orchard on a dairy farm in Deerfield, Mass., where Steinbeck camped while visiting his son. (video)

Steinbeck and Charley camp Friday and Saturday nights in Rocinante in an apple orchard on a farm on top of the mountain above his son John’s exclusive boarding school, the Eaglebrook School.

In “Travels With Charley” he doesn’t say much about his visit or how many nights he spent at Eaglebrook. But in a letter to his wife Elaine, he makes it clear that he was there until Sunday morning, when he woke up late and almost missed church. Later that day he headed north on U.S. Highway 5 into Vermont and New Hampshire.


Steinbeck’s ‘Act of Courage’

John Steinbeck was especially brave to embark on his solo road trek in 1960 – and it had nothing to do with not having radial tires, GPS or air bags. Given his lousy health, his biographer Jackson Benson said the “Travels With Charley” trip could be best appreciated “as an act of courage.” As Steinbeck’s son Thom told the New York Times, “The book was his farewell. My dad knew he was dying, and he had been accused of having lost touch with the rest of the country. ‘Travels With Charley’ was his attempt to rediscover America.”

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The primitive, uncomfortable 1960 GMC pickup truck/camper combo Rocinante is parked in a place of honor at the National Steinbeck Center in Steinbeck’s hometown of Salinas, Calif.

Steinbeck’s agent, doctor and everyone who loved him tried to talk him out of his trip, which he had been thinking about taking for at least six years. What if he had a heart attack and collapsed in the middle of nowhere? He’d die for sure and he might never be found. He refused to hear such cautionary crap. He was the contemporary rival and equal of Hemingway. He was the World War II correspondent who went on daring midnight raids in PT boats off the Italian coast with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. He was a future Nobel Prize-winner. He may have been born with a heart too small for his big body, as a European doctor once told him. But he was not a famous dead author yet, literally or figuratively. He was still a man – and not an old man. He still had balls. He still had stuff to say and write and prove.

Steinbeck wrote in letters to his agent and others that he was tired of being fussed over like a sick baby or an invalid who had to be “protected” and “hospitalized.”  He had to go on his great land-voyage of rediscovery – and go by himself, even though at the last minute he would ask his wife if he could take her 10-year-old standard French poodle Charley with him for company. Defending his solo project in a letter to his agent Elizabeth Otis, he said what he was proposing was not “a little trip of reporting, but a frantic last attempt to save my life and the integrity of my creative pulse.”

— Excerpted from “Dogging Steinbeck”


The ‘Travels With Charley’ Timeline — Day 18

Monday, Oct. 10, 1960 – Chicago

As his wife Elaine flies back to New York, John Steinbeck and Charley set out from Chicago in Rocinante, bound for Seattle by way of Minneapolis, Fargo, Missoula and Spokane. He drives about 220 miles north and sleeps Monday night in his camper at a truck stop on busy U.S. Highway 12 in Mauston, Wisconsin, a town of about  2,100.

Steinbeck wrote a letter that night to his wife, saying, “I am camped in a cornfield behind a truckers service area and coffee shop.” (In “Charley” Steinbeck mentions Charley’s delight in finding piles of manure that had been cleaned out of cattle trucks. Steinbeck also writes that he walked to a valley and looked down at a sea of turkeys being raised for America’s thanksgiving dinners. But both of those events actually happened the next night at a truck stop in Frazee, Minnesota.)

U.S. 12 carried all the truck traffic from Minneapolis to Chicago in 1960. Bob Rose, a retired truck driver, and his wife Dona lived in Mauston in 1960. They said it was almost certain that Steinbeck stopped at Ernie’s Truck Stop and coffee shop, a mile south of town. Ernie’s is now the site of the offices and parking lots of Brenner Tank Services. Day 1 of Steinbeck’s trip was Sept. 23, 1960.


‘Like an old lady stuck in the Indianapolis 500’


Somewhere in Upstate New York, 2010.

On his way to Chicago, John Steinbeck describes using interstates for the first time on his trip, or possibly his life. Sounding like an old lady stuck in the Indianapolis 500, he was tortured by the speed and flow of the intense truck traffic on “this wide, eventless way called U.S. 90,” aka the New York Thruway, which he took from Buffalo to where it ended at Madison, Ohio.

The thruway and the Indiana Toll Road, which he also used, were some of the earliest pieces of the Interstate Highway System, which in 1960 was 16 percent complete and barely existed outside major population centers. Steinbeck also had a practical reason for wanting to avoid interstates. His journey was “designed for observation,” he said, not self-reflection or daydreaming. He wanted to stay “as much as possible on secondary roads where there was much to see and hear and smell.”

The Interstate Highway System was only about 16 percent finished in 1960.

The Interstate Highway System was only about 16 percent finished in 1960.

Steinbeck preferred two-lane highways to interstates. He said he missed being able to stop at fruit stands or local diners. He didn’t mention the small towns, traffic lights, deadly intersections, stop signs, blind turns, business districts, schools, farm tractors, stray dogs and 1,001 other hazards to life and obstacles to efficient car travel. Interstates eliminated 99 percent of them. Steinbeck didn’t realize it, but statistically he was much safer dueling with “trucks as long as freighters” on those four-lane “gashes of concrete and tar” than he had been when he was touring the two-lane roads of New England. But he understood that the quickest way to his wife’s embrace in Chicago was via the Indiana Toll Road, which he was happy to use.

— Excerpted from “Dogging Steinbeck”

The ‘Travels With Charley’ Timeline — Days 25 – 28

Monday, Oct. 17 to Oct. 20, 1960 – Seattle

Steinbeck stayed in Seattle longer than he intended. Based on a handful of detailed scenes he wrote in the first draft of his book that were cut entirely from the published version, he checked into a modern motel near the Seattle-Tacoma Airport. He waited three days for his wife Elaine to fly out from New York. He then showed her his old haunts in downtown Seattle before heading south. There’s no way to tell when he left Seattle, but based on when he arrived in San Francisco and what he wrote in the first draft, a good guess is that it was Thursday, Oct. 20. Day 1 of Steinbeck’s trip was Sept. 23, 1960.

Steinbeck’s very ‘modern’ motel room


While Steinbeck waited for his wife Elaine to fly out from New York, did he cool his heels at this “modern” Holiday Inn at Sea-Tac, Seattle’s airport?

Before I left Seattle for Oregon, I made a brief attempt to find the motel Steinbeck stayed in at SeaTac, the Seattle-Tacoma airport. I went around to several older motels. But there had been too many changes in 50 years and he provided no helpful clues in the West Coast scenes cut from the first draft of “Travels With Charley.”

There were interesting details in those lost scenes, however. For example, Steinbeck said he waited for three days in a “modern” glass and Plexiglas motel room while wife Elaine struggled to book a direct jet flight from New York to Seattle. He rattled on about luxuriating in its bathtub and soft bed. He played with modern push-button gizmos. He listed – and mocked – the TV shows he watched.

“The beauty and culture of our time,” he wrote sarcastically: “Gunsmoke. Have Gun Will Travel. I Love Lucy. I love Dinah Shore. I love Barbara Stanwick. The greatest engineering minds in the history of the world had made these marvels available to me. Just looking at all those buttons brought home to me what a primitive life I had been leading.”

— excerpted from “Dogging Steinbeck”


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The ‘Travels With Charley’ Timeline — Days 39 – 53

Monday, Oct. 31 to Monday, Nov. 14, 1960 – Monterey Peninsula/Pacific Grove

The Steinbecks John, Elaine and Charley  stayed for two weeks with his sister Beth at the modest Steinbeck family cottage two blocks from the ocean in Pacific Grove. After not having been in Monterey for about 20 years, he visited the remnants of the once thriving sardine industry on Cannery Row, the official new name for Ocean View Avenue. In his book he says he returned to one of his favorite bars on Alvarado Street  (the Keg) and went with Charley to the top of Fremont Peak. He was interviewed and photographed at the cottage by the Monterey Peninsula Herald. The newspaper article, “John Steinbeck Back – But Not to Stay,” ran Nov. 4, 1960, and included a photo of Steinbeck standing in the garden of the cottage with a cigarette in his mouth.  To start at Day 1 of Steinbeck’s trip, go here.

The Steinbeck Family Cottage

On 11th Street I parked across from the Steinbeck family cottage. Except that it was probably the least renovated and shabbiest structure on the block, it fit in well with its cramped neighborhood of little yellow-and-dark-green-trimmed stucco houses on micro-lots. Two blocks from the surf, with a low gray wood fence at the sidewalk and a dense side garden, it had been remodeled by Steinbeck so it’d have no door to the street.

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His father, who was neither poor nor un-influential, built the red-and-white cottage early in the 20th century. Steinbeck lived there with his first wife Carol from 1930 to 1936, when he wrote books like “The Red Pony” and “Tortilla Flat” that made him nationally known. Though it was still owned and used by Steinbeck heirs, no one was there when I dropped by to snoop. It was just as well, since all I wanted to do was take photos.

In 1960 the Traveling Steinbecks were at the cottage for only a day or two when the Monterey Peninsula Herald dispatched a writer and photographer to do a story. The resulting feature, which ran in the Nov. 4 paper, was very well written by Mike Thomas and included a photo of Steinbeck standing in the garden with a cigarette in his mouth.


Thomas found Steinbeck fixing a wooden front gate, which the author said he had probably built himself 30 years earlier. Describing Steinbeck as a big man with broad features, piercing blue eyes, graying hair and small goatee, Thomas said he was wearing corduroy pants and a shapeless green sweater.

His fingers were nicotine stained and he had a Zippo cigarette lighter on a string around his neck. Wife Elaine was there. So was “an aging poodle sitting in a car at the curbside.” When Thomas asked if he would ever move back to the Monterey area, Steinbeck said he felt like a stranger on the peninsula and repeated his Thomas Wolfe mantra – “You can’t go home again.”


Election Day, 1960

Going into Election Day, the presidential race was close in both California and the nation, with Kennedy leading Nixon in the Time and Newsweek polls. On Nov. 2, with six days to go, JFK came through San Jose on his way to a fundraiser in San Francisco and Nixon was about to fly into Fresno. The Peninsula Herald put its endorsement of Richard Nixon and Henry Cabot Lodge at the top left of its front page. It ran the same recommendation on Page 1 every day for the next six days.

The plug for “Tricky Dick” may have helped Nixon take Monterey County by a 56-43 majority and narrowly carry the state by 35,000 votes out of 6.5 million cast. But it couldn’t sway Steinbeck. On Nov. 8, he cast an absentee vote. Unless he wrote-in the name of his hero Adlai Stevenson, he voted for John F. Kennedy.

Two months later he’d attend JFK’s inauguration and begin his personal relationship with Kennedy and LBJ. Steinbeck would be pleased to know the voters of Steinbeck Country have done a political 180 in the last half-century. In 2008 they voted 66-33 for President Obama, a nail-biter compared to the 80-20 Obama landslide in San Francisco….


Steinbeck’s Partisan Politics

Part of John Steinbeck’s original mission had been to take the political pulse of the country. He was quickly disappointed to find how difficult that was. As he wrote in his first draft, he was saddened to learn that the greatest number of Americans he saw “did not have political opinions, or if they did, concealed them whether out of fear or expediency I do not know.”


Their silence didn’t stop him from lacing his original manuscript with his running commentary on the election, which he obviously followed closely. He was a stanch New Deal Democrat and didn’t pretend otherwise. In the first draft of “Charley,” he wrote, “It must not be thought that my wife and I are or were nonpartisan observers. We were and are partisan as all get out, confirmed, blown in the glass democrats and make no bones about it.”

That confession was axed. So was nearly every overt political comment or crack he put in the first draft. For example, all four televised Nixon-Kennedy debates occurred while he was on the road. Based on his letters and the original manuscript, he saw or heard each one in full or in part.


A Stevenson Man until the bitter end, Steinbeck didn’t swoon over the prospects of a President John Kennedy. But he loathed Nixon, as the manuscript repeatedly makes clear. At one point, after watching a Nixon-JFK debate on the big TV in his motel room, he criticized Nixon and Herbert Hoover and went on for about 150 words, making fun of their pedestrian Republican reading habits and comparing their low intelligence levels to Kennedy’s high one.  “Being a democrat,” he wrote without capitalizing Democrat, “I wanted Kennedy to win….” That scene was axed.

Also cut was his commentary following the third presidential debate, which he watched in his room at a “pretty auto court” in Livingston, Montana. He sarcastically asked himself if Montanans had any real interest in the major geopolitical issue of that debate – whether the United States should defend the tiny islands of Quemoy and Matsu, which the Red Chinese were shelling and threatening to take from Taiwan. Other political comments he made in San Francisco, Monterey and Amarillo – some of them refreshingly bipartisan in their cynicism – were chopped out completely. So were two pokes at the John Birch Society, a favorite punching bag.

Though it took some of the edge away from an already nearly edgeless book, cutting 99 percent of the presidential politics from “Travels With Charley” was smart and logical editing. First of all, by the time the book would hit bookstores – in late July of 1962 – the 1960 election was ancient history. Who would care by then what Steinbeck thought about the third JFK-Nixon debate?

Plus, his political sniping was petty and one-sided, though that probably bothered no one at the Viking Press. It was also boring and at odds with the rest of the book’s grouchy but generally likable tone. The trouble was, removing all of the politics left a glaring hole in what was supposed to be a nonfiction account of what was going on in the nation….

— Excerpted from “Dogging Steinbeck”

The ‘Travels With Charley’ Timeline — Days 60 – 69

Monday, Nov. 21 to Nov. 29-30, 1960 – Texas

Steinbeck says in “Charley” he spent “three days of namelessness at a beautiful motor hotel” in the middle of Amarillo while the broken front window of his camper shell was repaired. He says Charley was sick and was left with a kind vet for four days. Elaine flew in to rejoin him in her home state of Texas and the pair went to her ex-brother-in-law’s cattle ranch in nearby Clarendon, arriving the day before Thanksgiving. Steinbeck doesn’t say in the book how long he stays at the ranch and never mentions that afterwards the Steinbecks drove 400 miles south to Austin to visit Elaine’s sister until the end of the month.


Where the Steinbecks spent Thanksgiving 1960

Though two buildings were new and many upgrades had been made, it was clearly the place Steinbeck described in “Charley.” The main structure, a long one-story redbrick house, had a big screened-in porch overlooking a trout pond surrounded by trees. The great room had a white-brick fireplace and a high white ceiling with heavy beams. Each of the three bedrooms had a Texas-size bed, its own bathroom and a door to the outside.DSC_0873It was like a little motel, only in 1960 the regular guests were members of Texas’ richest cattle families. The showroom of heavy wood outdoor furniture on the covered patios was worth more than my house. Yet, notwithstanding the “Dallas” stereotypes, nothing inside or out was ostentatious or in bad taste, just expensive and heavy.

Enjoying the sun and wind and park-like setting, I tried to imagine what it was like to be a vacationing cattle baron. I couldn’t. My hat was too small. But I didn’t need to imagine anything, since Steinbeck did a thorough job of detailing the cattle-baron lifestyle in “Travels With Charley.” When Steinbeck writes about something he really did on his trip, you can usually tell. Instead of inventing pages of wooden dialogue, he delivers detail.

— excerpted from “Dogging Steinbeck”


One of the ranch’s bedrooms in 2010.


The living room with fireplace in 2010.