Currently viewing the tag: "John Steinbeck"

The ‘Travels With Charley’ Timeline — Day 1

Sept. 23, 1960 — Sag Harbor, N.Y.

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On Sept. 23, 2010, I left John Steinbeck’s summer home in Sag Harbor on Long Island and hit the Steinbeck Highway. (video)

Early Friday morning John Steinbeck and his poodle Charley leave his summer home in Sag Harbor, Long Island, in the pickup truck-camper hybrid he named Rocinante after Don Quixote’s horse.

To get back in touch with America and regular Americans after living in ”the island” of New York, he plans to circle the country counterclockwise and stick to two-lane highways.

He takes three ferries across Long Island Sound to New London, Conn., 36 miles away, then heads for his son’s boarding school in Deerfield, Massachusetts.

 

Steinbeck’s ambitious plans went awry

While doing research on Steinbeck’s exact 10,000-mile route around the USA I found a letter he wrote to an aide of Adlai Stevenson’s in the summer of 1960 describing how he hoped to travel on his upcoming trip.

In the summer of 1960 Steinbeck wrote a letter to an aide to Adlai Stevenson describing what he hoped to do on his coming road trip around the USA.

Steinbeck’s ambitious plans quickly fell apart. He actually did little of what he said he’d do on his journey, including traveling alone, but he had the right idea and it really didn’t matter. His beloved 1962 road book “Travels With Charley” was his only Number 1 New York Times best-seller (on the nonfiction list) and still sells around the world today.

The ‘Travels With Charley’ Timeline — Day 2

Sept. 23-24, 1960 — Deerfield, Mass.

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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 3

Sept. 25, 1960 — White Mountains, N.H.

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The Spalding Inn is high in the woods of the White Mountains about 7 miles south of Lancaster in Whitefield. It describes itself – without doing its gloriously old-fashioned character enough justice – on its Web site: “Surrounded by manicured lawns, orchards, perennial gardens and a 360-degree view of the Presidential Mountain range, it offers you the perfect escape from city life.” (video)

Steinbeck says in “Travels With Charley” that he drives east into the rugged White Mountains of New Hampshire on U.S. Route 2 near Lancaster, N.H., and camps on a farm.

He says in “Charley” that he talks to the farm owner about the Russians and the boorish behavior of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev at the United Nations.

In the book, Steinbeck and the  Yankee farmer talk about Khrushchev banging his shoe on his desk at the United Nations, but that conversation couldn’t have happened. That famous Cold War event  — if it actually happened that way — occurred Oct. 11, 1960.

But did Steinbeck really even camp on a farm?

Fifty years later, after searching in vain for the farm and the farmer near Lancaster, a local writer, Jeff Woodburn, learned that Steinbeck was seen in the fall of 1960 at the nearby Spalding Inn in Whitefield. Exactly when that was, Woodburn was not sure.

On March 30, 2010, a woman who worked for the Spalding Inn’s owner at the time said she was absolutely certain Steinbeck slept at the inn for one night. And Donald Spalding, the son of the original owners and operators of the inn, said on March 30, 2011, that there was no doubt that Steinbeck ate dinner and slept at the exclusive inn during “foliage season” of 1960.

America’s Death Roads

By 1960 cars had replaced trains as the country’s mass mode of transportation. Interstates, truck stops and national motel and restaurant chains barely existed. Wal-Mart did not. America’s fleet of cars had doubled since 1941 to 74 million. About 75 percent of homes owned a car and 15 percent owned two. Automobiles were 4,000-pound death wagons with metal dashboards, crummy tires and lights and no safety gear; 1 percent of drivers used seat belts. America’s highways were criminally lethal. About 36,000 of the country’s 180 million people were killed in or by cars in 1960. In 2010, when there were three times as many autos and trucks on the road and 310 million Americans riding around in them, the annual death toll had fallen to 32,708.

— Excerpted from “Dogging Steinbeck”

The ‘Travels With Charley’ Timeline — Day 4

Sept. 26, 1960 — Deer Isle, Maine

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Rocinante’s interior was compact but contained a stove, a refrigerator and a table, like the cabin of a small boat.

Steinbeck writes that he left New Hampshire on what would have been Monday, Sept. 26, and drove east across the neck of Maine. He says he stopped at a motel near Bangor but that he was so put off by the sterile and plastic environment in his room that he went out and slept in the back of his truck.

In fact, on Sept. 26 he drove 250 miles from Lancaster, New Hampshire, to Deer Isle, Maine, a beautiful little island south of Bangor. He was expected at the seaside home of Eleanor Brace, a friend of his agent Elizabeth Otis.

On the Monday night that 70 million Americans watched the first televised Nixon-JFK debate from Chicago, he slept on Brace’s property by the sea in the back of Rocinante.

 

South of Bangor

I wanted only to do what Steinbeck did in 1960 – cut through the city of Bangor quickly on my way to the seacoast paradise of Deer Isle, where he spent two days at a gorgeous old house I hoped to find.  Driving into the suburbs on state Route 15, the 55-mile trip to Deer Isle became a highlight reel of Maine’s L.L. Bean culture. Boats and RVs of every size, truck caps, kayaks, logs, shingles and gigantic piles of firewood lined the roadside or adorned front lawns. Gas was $2.62 a gallon. The billboard “Guns, Ammo and Camo” pretty much said it all. The closer I got to Deer Isle, the farther back in time I went and the more upscale and artsy-crafty things got.

— Excerpt from “Dogging Steinbeck”

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On Sept. 23, 1960,  John Steinbeck set out alone on the cross-country road trip that he would turn into his best-selling 1962 nonfiction book “Travels With Charley in Search of America.”

Exactly 50 years later, on Sept. 23, 2010, I left Steinbeck’s summer house on the eastern end of Long Island and followed his cold trail as faithfully as possible as a journalist.

Steinbeck’s journey was much tougher and braver than mine.  In 1960 America’s cars were like tanks and its two-lane highways were narrow, thick with traffic and deadly.

The world famous writer drove 10,000 hard and furious miles in his uncomfortable and primitive 1960 GMC pickup truck/camper.

Touching the top of Maine and speeding across the top of the USA to Seattle, he drove back to New York City by way of California, Texas and New Orleans. His trip, which included long layovers on the West Coast and in Texas, took about 75 days. He took no notes or photos.

I had originally set out to retrace Steinbeck’s tire tracks as a serious act of journalism. I simply hoped to write a book comparing the America of 1960 he saw on “The Steinbeck Highway” with the America of 2010 I saw.

My circumnavigation of the USA was even more fast and furious than his. As I traveled doglessly for 11,276 miles, I blogged to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette web site, interviewed dozens of Americans and took thousands of photos. As I drove I wrote about 10 travel stories for the PG’s Sunday paper.

I got lucky and during my research on and off the road I discovered new or “forgotten” information about Steinbeck, his actual trip and the devious editing and publishing of his iconic book.

My discoveries about the major discrepancies between Steinbeck’s actual trip and the one he described in “Charley” got me written up in the New York Times and ultimately changed the way Steinbeck’s classic will be read forever.

I didn’t get a New York publishing deal — or a Hollywood movie deal. But I have no regrets. As I detail in my book “Dogging Steinbeck,” chasing Steinbeck’s ghost around the country for 43 days at age 63 was a trip of a lifetime. Here are two great reviews of “DS” from Robert Dean Laurie in The Daily Caller and Shawn Macomber in  the Weekly Standard.

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A Steinbeck & Charley Timeline

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This fine illustration by Stacey Innerst accurately shows where Steinbeck and Charley were on various dates in the fall of 1960.

Below are excerpts from my book “Dogging Steinbeck” and a timeline of where I believe John Steinbeck was each day during his trip in the fall of 1960. Many photos have video links.

It’s based on “Travels With Charley,” the unedited  first draft of the book, letters Steinbeck wrote from the road to his wife Elaine and others, biographies of Steinbeck, newspaper articles, interviews and best-guesses.

It’s as accurate as I could make it.

images-1A lot of really smart, thoughtful people — and a few dummies — have “reviewed” my book “Dogging Steinbeck” on Amazon.
Below is what I think is the best of the 60 comments and reviews that have been put on Amazon’s site so far. Whoever wrote it spent a lot of time assessing my book of “True Nonfiction” in a fair and thorough way.
He or she chose to be anonymous. But whoever they are, I thank them for their hard, high-quality work — and for not letting my libertarian politics or their own continuing affection for “Travels With Charley” blind them to the quality and value of my book.

 

4.0 out of 5 starsDogging Steinbeck, following John Steinbeck’s route fifty years later., February 25, 2013
Verified Purchase(What’s this?)
This review is from: Dogging Steinbeck: Discovering America and Exposing the Truth about ‘Travels With Charley’ (Kindle Edition)

I remember enjoying Travels with Charley many years ago so I was intrigued when I learned of Dogging Steinbeck in which the author, Bill Steigerwald, follows Steinbeck’s famous cross-country route fifty years later. Before reading Dogging Steinbeck, I took the time to read Travels with Charley again immediately before starting Steigerwald’s book.I enjoyed Dogging Steinbeck very much and admire Steigerwald for his efforts in making and recording his own journey. The day by day observations of the seasonal weather, the local characters and conditions he encountered, and the frequent comparisons to Steinbeck’s own journey to rediscover America made interesting reading. It’s soon became apparent, however, that his experiences and extensive Steinbeck research created considerable doubt about the accuracy of Charley. Indeed, Steigerwald offers convincing evidence that Steinbeck’s beloved classic was more a work of fiction than a trip journal.One of the great pleasures in reading Steigerwald’s book was that he found so many friendly and interesting people in his travels. Certainly the mass media does not spend much time reporting about nice people; the weirdos, extremists, uberwealthy, instant celebrities, and truly dangerous are far more likely to be in the news. It was nice to read that the vast majority of average Americans were still pleasant and helpful to a traveling stranger. I was also pleased to be repeatedly reminded of the many ways that our daily lives have immeasurably improved over the past five decades. It happens that I grew up in a small town on old Route 66 (which figures in both books) so I have personal knowledge of just how dangerous those highways were 50 years ago. Likewise, our medical technology, communications and self-educational opportunities, and personal comfort today are incomparably superior to that of the past.In comparing his experience with Steinbeck’s, perhaps we should recall that old saying, “Don’t go looking for trouble… for you will surely find it.” Most people, most days go through life in a responsive mode. If we approach them in a friendly and respectful manner, they will respond in kind. Perhaps Steigerwald’s book is like another more famous volume, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, in that the book also tells us a great deal about the writer. If he encountered many nice people, maybe it is because he expected them to be nice, and that he impressed them as being a nice guy himself. They were in sharp contrast with the many shallow, ungrammatical characters that Steinbeck wrote about in his book. Of the two journeys, Steigerwald probably met more interesting people and had more fun – even if he did not have the resources to indulge in high-end hotels and stay with rich friends along the route as Steinbeck did.I must mention the controversy that the book has apparently created. A significant part of Steigerwald’s book involves the responses from the Steinbeck establishment to his claims of “literary fraud”. What now seems incontrovertible was that John Steinbeck did wholly manufacture entire episodes and characters. I am willing to accept an explanation of “artistic license”; indeed, I have no problem with that. What I found more disturbing was the revelation that, rather than being a lonely, thoughtful old man taking a meandering, low-budget trip, Steinbeck was not roughing it at all. Steigerwald’s conclusion that he spent only about five nights in his entire journey actually sleeping in his camper greatly diminishes the aura of Steinbeck, the common man.

Yet, for all that, I take exception with Steigerwald’s implication that Charley was not a good book. I am now willing to accept that this is more a work of fiction than a travel book but it is still wonderful reading. I had forgotten just how good it is until I read it again. Okay, finding an itinerant Shakespearean actor/vagabond drifting across North Dakota strains credibility now that Steigerwald has brought it to my attention. But, honestly, I don’t care; in Steinbeck’s book, he was an articulate, warm character. If Steinbeck used these literary creations to make his point… well, that is what novelists do – and he did it rather skillfully, I thought. A big part of the writing challenge is in creating a picture that the reader finds believable. A great many contemporary authors are far, far less adroit with such literary devices than Steinbeck.

Reading Dogging Steinbeck was a pleasure, a modern journalist’s trip down Memory Lane… even if he did spend many nights sleeping in Wal-mart parking lots. I recommend that readers of this book do as I did, read Charley first for the pleasure of Steinbeck’s superlative narrative. Remembering the details of Steinbeck’s book will then prepare you for the comparable experiences and revelations in Bill Steigerwald’s book.

Five years ago I started down the road to dogging John Steinbeck. It’s been a tremendous trip and though my book hasn’t become as widely distributed — or profitable — as I hoped,  I don’t regret a day I spent pursuing Steinbeck’s ghost and the truth about his book. I’ve made many new friends, including fellow Dutch Steinbeck-chaser Geert Mak and master travel writer Paul Theroux. Theroux has been a loyal supporter. He tells me he mentions me and my “Dogging Steinbeck” project in his upcoming road book about the America South, “Deep South,” which was previewed last summer in Smithsonian magazine. Steinbeck’s love-blinded fans are another story. So are the academics who make their livings touting his works and protecting his reputation as a truth-teller. Despite what I proved — that “Travels With Charley” is largely fiction and riddled with literary dishonesty and deceit — the Steinbeck “scholars” at Steinbeck Review refuse to mention, review or even trash my book. But enough whining. I had a lot of fun digging into Steinbeck and his iconic travel tale. It all started in March of 2010, when I, a mere babe of 62, traveled to Central California to do some early research for what became “Dogging Steinbeck.”

A free excerpt:

2 — Stranger in Steinbeck Country

Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process, a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. – “Travels With Charley”

Alone on Fremont Peak

I was sitting alone and shivering on top of Fremont Peak, a spectacular little spike of marble overlooking the entire Monterey Peninsula. I couldn’t see Steinbeck’s grave or his ghost, but both of them were out there somewhere under the glare of the dying California sun as it fell toward Monterey Bay.

Everything Steinbeck was down there somewhere — the house he grew up in, the statues, the things named after him, the museum/shrine that glorifies him and his works, the places and characters he made famous for eternity in “The Red Pony,” “Of Mice and Men,” “Cannery Row” and “East of Eden.” It’s why they called it “Steinbeck Country.”

Except for the pushy wind and the chirpings of a few invisible birds, I had Fremont Peak to myself. No tourists. No park rangers. No other ex-journalists with or without dogs doing books about “Travels With Charley.” Just lucky me, my notebook, my cameras and a head full of conflicting thoughts about my famous new sidekick.

It was March 11, 2010. Day 4 of my extreme West Coast research tour. I had learned a ton of new stuff about the man, his last major book and his highway travels. I’d gone to Stanford’s Green Library, where 300 letters from Steinbeck to his agent Elizabeth Otis are kept. I’d been to San Jose State University’s Steinbeck Center. I’d been to San Francisco to meet a writer who interviewed Steinbeck on his “Charley” trip. I’d checked out Cannery Row, downtown Monterey, Steinbeck’s family cottage in Pacific Grove, plus his gravesite and the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas.

The only reason I was up on Fremont Peak was because Steinbeck said he climbed to that exact spot during his “Travels With Charley” trip. I was glad to be there. It was an awesome, rugged place, the star attraction of Fremont Peak State Park’s collection of grassy round mountains and steep wooded canyons.

The pile of gray boulders is only 3,169 feet above Monterey Bay, but its distinctive little tooth is visible from almost anywhere in the Salinas Valley. It was lonely, peaceful, beautiful, a little dangerous and a little scary. No wonder young Johnny, who played on its slopes, hoped to be buried up there someday. It was the closest you could get to a heavenly view of Steinbeck Country without putting on wings.

Though it was the end of a hazy day, I could see more than 20 miles in every direction. In the shadows behind me, dry valleys and barely green mountain ranges stretched eastward to the Sierra Nevada. The San Andreas Fault was down there somewhere too, which explains why Fremont Peak — not to mention the Monterey Peninsula, Los Angeles and the rest of the northbound Pacific Plate — had inched 8.33 feet closer to San Francisco since Steinbeck visited the area in 1960.

Twenty-five miles southwest across the valley floor, hugging chilly Monterey Bay, was the historic city of Monterey. To be honest, I couldn’t see it, even with the zoom of my video camera. I only knew it was out there somewhere in the growing darkness, hidden by a strip of low coastal mountains, because that morning I had gone to Cannery Row to watch the sun come up over Monterey Bay.

At my feet, sprawled on the valley floor, lay Salinas, the capital of Steinbeck Country and the barely fictionalized setting for “East of Eden.” The city was an island in a shallow sea of strawberries, lettuce, tomatoes, spinach and other crops — the “green gold” that made Salinas rich 100 years ago and earned it the nickname “The Salad Bowl of the World.” The valley’s fertile black soil and sunny, ocean-cooled climate, combined with the labor of busloads of Latino farm workers, produced 80 percent of the lettuce Americans eat every year.

Salinas’ population was 160,000. That was twice what it was in 1960 and 40 times larger than when Steinbeck was born there in 1902. The city was wracked by deadly Latino gang violence and, like most California governments in the spring of 2010, was in deep budgetary trouble.

The Great Recession had slammed Steinbeck Country hard. The unemployment rate was 13 percent and going higher. Foreclosures were running twice as high as in 2006. Poverty rates were up, property tax revenues were down. But from high atop Fremont Peak, California was as golden as ever and everything in the Salinas Valley looked fine and healthy.

Earlier that day in the old downtown of Salinas I had toured the main Steinbeck stops. I took a few photos of the restored Queen Anne-style Victorian house he grew up in. It was closed, so I didn’t see the gift shop or gourmet restaurant that features local produce and $13 entrees like Asparagus & Ham Timbale with choice of Tomato Leek Soup or Green Salad. The corner house is on the National Register of Historic Places and Oprah Winfrey taped one of her shows in the front yard when her book club was touting “East of Eden.”

Two blocks away was the National Steinbeck Center, one of the few reasons for tourists to divert from the sun and surf of the Pacific Coast to the scorched flats of Salinas. The largest museum in the country devoted to a single writer, it’s smartly designed and visitor friendly. Steinbeck’s life story and books co-star in a dozen well-staged exhibits that include loops of clips from movies like “East of Eden” and “Of Mice and Men.” Recordings of his deep voice are never out of earshot.

The enduring popularity of “Travels With Charley” was evident at the center. The bookstore sold various editions of the entire Steinbeck canon — 16 novels, six non-fiction and five short-story collections. “Travels With Charley” had been the No. 1 seller since 2003 and the center’s most popular attraction and holiest relic was the 1960 GMC pickup truck/camper combo Steinbeck rode in on his search for America.

You couldn’t get inside the cab of the truck or the camper shell, or even touch them, because “Rocinante” was corralled behind a tall fence of Plexiglas. Squared-off and primitive, the cab’s hard utilitarian interior was uncomfortable just to look at. It was proof of the punishment Steinbeck endured for 10,000 miles with only an old French dog, an AM radio and his imagination for company. Unfortunately, the $11 million Steinbeck Center was not doing well. Its annual attendance was running about 30,000, which doesn’t sound so bad but works out to about 82 people a day. Chronically short of funds, it was dependent on subsidies from a city government that itself was in serious fiscal trouble.

Across the street from the Steinbeck Center, suckered in by the permanent sidewalk sign boasting that “Steinbeck Ate Here,” I ate lunch at Sang’s Café. Under my withering questioning the owner broke down and confessed the truth. The sign should more accurately say “Steinbeck Drank Here,” because that’s what young John did too much of there in the ‘20s and ‘30s when he was a struggling writer and the place was a bar. It wasn’t the first or last time I’d bump up against a Steinbeck myth. A lot of what we know about him — good and bad — is either truer or less false than we think.

Until I began “investigating” him for my book idea, I didn’t know much about him at all. “John Steinbeck” had been reduced to a famous literary name — a “Jeopardy!” question to the answer “This Californian was the sixth American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962.” Whatever I had learned about him I’d forgotten. During high school in the 1960s I was forced to read the usual Steinbeck classics, but they had no more impact on my life than “Beowulf.”

I liked “Of Mice and Men” then and appreciated it much more after re-reading it as an adult. But my social conscience wasn’t aroused by “The Grapes of Wrath’s” expose of the cruelty of capitalism and the sufferings of the migrant working class. I was a Baby Boomer from another political planet, a red one. When I was 17, in 1964, I was watching William F. Buckley Jr.’s “Firing Line” and sneaking Barry Goldwater stickers onto the bumper of my neighbor’s Country Squire station wagon.

By today’s definitions, Steinbeck was a ball of political contradictions. He was a highly partisan FDR big-government Democrat who went ape for Adlai Stevenson in the 1950s and became a White House-sleepover friend of LBJ and frequent weekend guest at Camp David. Like most of his New Deal generation, he had a naïve trust in the federal government to solve massive social and economic problems.

But Steinbeck was never close to being the true-believing commie or socialist both his rightwing enemies and leftwing friends liked to claim he was. He was what we call today “a Cold War liberal.” He supported labor unions, the civil rights movement and LBJ’s war on poverty. He was also a staunch anti-communist who believed in containing the Soviet Union and what then was so impolitely called “Red China.”

He was a sincere patriot, which, along with becoming too friendly with LBJ, may have blinded him to the folly of Vietnam and the fallacy of the Domino Theory. He was a loud public hawk on Vietnam in its early stages, but became a quiet dove when he realized the war was unwinnable. Intolerant of anti-war protestors, whom he thought were stupid and cowardly, he despised hippies and the ‘60s youth culture.

Steinbeck the man had personal issues that didn’t appeal to me. He was a parochial New York City snob by the time he took his long road trip. He was an enthusiastic and daily boozer. And in the 1960s he forgot his earlier wise warning to artists to stay away from political power and cozied up to JFK and especially LBJ. His biographer Jackson Benson pointed out in his 1984 epic “The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer” that Steinbeck’s darker side included a quarrelsome nature and a “striking lack of charity and understanding.”

His sons John Steinbeck IV, who died from complications during surgery in 1991, and Thom, who is a California writer, felt their father neglected them after he divorced their mother and married Elaine, his third and final wife, in 1950. Yet whatever his faults as a father and husband, personally and politically Steinbeck was a living saint compared to many celebrities and famous writers of his era.

Despite our differences, I had grown to like the grouchy, contradictory guy. Underneath his New Yorker magazine limousine liberalism, he hid an admirable libertarian streak. He wrote fine paeans to individualism, understood the importance of private property rights and hated bureaucrats and government bullying. Plus he didn’t moralize about things like prostitution. He treated prostitutes kindly in his books and thought they provided a service to the community, which of course they do.

If I wasn’t captured by Steinbeck’s New Deal politics or his social conscience, I sure was impressed by his writing skills. When I re-read “Of Mice and Men” and “Cannery Row,” I was blown away by his spare style, beautiful descriptive powers, sense of place and storytelling. Just the first 500 words of “Cannery Row” should make any journalist envious or throw her laptop away and become a plumber. I didn’t have the casual attitude about facts that Steinbeck did, which was why I’d ultimately get pissed at him. But I totally agreed with what he said about the impossibility of objectivity and the inherent and unavoidable subjectivity of journalism and all writing — fiction or nonfiction.

My last stop in Salinas that morning before climbing Fremont Peak had been his gravesite in Garden of Memories Memorial Park. Though a colorful “Steinbeck” sign pointed right at it, his small flat marker was hard to find among the weathered grey slabs and spiky old stone monuments. Seeking anonymity, simplicity and privacy even in death, Steinbeck’s ashes are interred with his parents, wife Elaine and sister Mary in the Hamilton plot, the plot of his mother’s family.

A pot of bright yellow mums, wilted slightly and knocked over by the valley’s unrelenting wind, gave away his final whereabouts: “John Steinbeck: 1902–1968.” A 2-inch white ceramic poodle with a pink heart for its collar guarded the simple marker. I stood on Steinbeck’s grave as respectfully as possible and took a few close-ups of the tiny dog, which had been left by a “Travels With Charley” fan. Was that chintzy totem of Charley a warning to let his master’s reputation rest in peace? I had no clue. I was a journalist looking for facts, not symbols.

Anyway, it didn’t matter. In the spring of 2010 I was a guy with no job, a melting 401(k), a fat mortgage and too many leased cars. I had already invested too much of my life in Mr. Steinbeck, his travels around the USA and what I already suspected was his blatant fudging of the truth in “Travels With Charley.” Chasing his ghost across America had become my destiny, my mission, my mad obsession, my brilliant act of entrepreneurial journalism, my big waste of money and time — I wasn’t sure which. I only knew I was too many miles down the Steinbeck Highway to turn back.