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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”

The ‘Travels With Charley’ Timeline — Day 5

Sept. 27, 1960 Deer Isle, Maine

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Steinbeck spent two nights at Eleanor Brace’s spectacular house on Deer Isle, Maine, where his agent Elizabeth Otis rented a cottage each year.

Steinbeck and Charley continue their stay on beautiful Deer Isle, Maine, at the fabulous home of Eleanor Brace. He wrote in a letter to his wife from Deer Isle that on Tuesday he “saw the island and talked to people.”

He visited the quaint fishing port of Stonington, where he buys a kerosene lamp at a nautical hardware store on Main Street. He ate a lobster dinner at Brace’s house with Brace and her woman friend and went to bed early, sleeping another night in his camper Rocinante.
In a letter he mailed from Deer Isle to his friend and political hero Adlai Stevenson, Steinbeck said he had heard part of the first televised presidential debate between Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy on Monday, Sept. 26. He was distressed that both candidates were so courteous toward each other.

Steinbeck’s Partisan Politics

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 protesters, whom he thought were stupid and cowardly, he despised hippies and the ‘60s youth culture.

— Excerpted from “Dogging Steinbeck”

The ‘Travels With Charley’ Timeline — Day 7

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It’s not a very accurate representation of Steinbeck’s foray into New England, but it makes the point — he went north and east before heading west.

Thursday, Sept. 29, 1960 – To the top of Maine

From wherever he stopped Wednesday night in northeast Maine, Steinbeck drives north into Aroostook County on U.S. Highway 1. Tracing the U.S.-Canadian border on the south side of the St. Croix River, he reaches the top of Maine, turns south on state Route 11 and plunges deep into the pine wilderness of Maine’s interior. He has to park alone Thursday night somewhere on Route 11 under a concrete bridge in the rain.

Aroostook County

Aroostook County is famous for two things – potatoes and its enormous size. It’s one fifth of Maine and bigger than Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. No one traveling north from Calais along the pretty St. Croix River would challenge those facts. I was 929 miles from Steinbeck’s Sag Harbor driveway. Steinbeck drove the same stretch of U.S. Route 1 on Sept. 29, 1960, exactly 50 years ahead of me. He had a weird thing about wanting to touch the top of Maine before heading west, a weird thing he ultimately regretted as he realized how endless and empty the state was. Steinbeck also wanted to see the famed potato fields of Aroostook County, then the foremost spud-producing area of the country.

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Maine’s State Route 11, which Steinbeck took south from Fort Kent, is beautiful, empty and devoid of motels, as Steinbeck learned.

After 2,400 miles tracing the edge of the East Coast all the way from Key West, U.S. Highway 1 evaporates without fanfare in the town of Fort Kent. As Steinbeck did, when Route 1 vanished I turned south on state Route 11 for the long haul back to New Hampshire and the way West.

Before I left Fort Kent, I suffered a shock that made me realize what a strange, atypical part of America I had been traveling through. It happened when I saw a black college student on the street. She was the first non-white person I could remember seeing since a pizza shop in downtown Northampton.

The 2010 Census tells the statistical tale. The previous three states I had been in – Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine – might be full of color in the fall, but year round their lilywhite populations don’t look like much of the rest of the country. Each had black populations of about 1 percent. The national percentage was 12.6 percent. The same lack of color would be true for other long stretches of the Steinbeck Highway.

— Excerpted from “Dogging Steinbeck”

 

The ‘Travels with Charley’ Timeline — Day 8

Friday, Sept. 30, 1960 – Lancaster, N.H.

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What’s left of one of the Whip ‘o Will cabins is still used as a shed.

After sleeping Thursday night in his truck in the middle of Maine’s woods, Steinbeck drives ”long and furiously” all day Friday. He goes south and then west on U.S. 2 to get back to Lancaster, New Hampshire, which he had passed through earlier in the week going east to Bangor. He sleeps in his camper at a ”ghost” motel/lunch counter by the Connecticut River because, though the office is open, no one is around to rent him a cabin. The motel was the Whip o’ Will, which is now trailer court and convenience store.

 

The dark, empty gut of Maine

The middle of Maine feels even emptier when the sun is gone. It was dark when I pulled into Millinocket, the lumber mill town where the Pelletier family of “American Loggers” fame lived. After a surprisingly good spinach salad and a beer at Pelletier’s crowded family restaurant/bar, I drove into the black night for the next major town, Milo. In the dark I covered a distance of 39 miles to Milo, but the road I traveled could have been a high-speed treadmill in a tunnel. As far I could tell, except for Brownville Junction, it was deep forest all the way. I took photos of the twisting road ahead as I chased its white lines at 60 mph, straddling the centerline through a narrow channel of trees.

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A few mailboxes flashed by, a house with no lights, maybe a river. My Sirius XM radio, cranked up extra-loud with jazz, cut in and out because of the terrain or overhanging trees, I didn’t know which. I met my third car after 17 miles. In 45 minutes I counted 12. Steinbeck, who slept overnight in his camper shell by a bridge somewhere along Route 11, traveled the same lonely desolate way, but probably in daylight, when the local moose population would have been awake. Maine has 30,000 moose but I didn’t run into one.

— excerpted from “Dogging Steinbeck”

The great travel writer Paul Theroux is done with the continents of Asia, Africa and South America and is now working on North America.

He’s written a long article in Smithsonian magazine, “the Soul of the South,” that will be part of the book he’s writing about the American South.

He was also interviewed by NPR’s midday news program “Here and Now,” so you can listen to him. Here’s a previous interview with him from NPR, before he took off on his Southern trip.

Here are some pull quotes taken from WBUR’s interview:

 

Interview Highlights: Paul Theroux

On reactions to being a Northerner traveling through the American South

“I stuck to the rural areas. And rural America has its deep roots, and, I think, great values. I said to a man in Aiken, South Carolina, ‘I’m a stranger.’ He said, ‘You’re not a stranger, there ain’t no strangers here.’ And a woman said the same thing to me in Tuscaloosa [Alabama]. ‘I’m a stranger.’ She said ‘You’re not a stranger, there are no strangers here.’”

On visiting the infamous Bryant’s Grocery in Money, Miss.

“Bryant’s Store where Emmett Till met his doom, is still standing. It’s on a crossroads. Money, Mississippi, is a back road, there’s a railway running through it. Train doesn’t stop. The walls are crumbling, there are vines and roots sort of holding it together. They don’t know whether it’s a monument, a horror — it’s a haunted building. And Money, Mississippi, is a very tiny place. I doubt there are two dozen people who live there.”

On unexpected encounters in the Delta

“I was in the Delta, in the town of Greenville [Mississippi] in the Delta. And I must say, the Delta is a very poor place — poor in money, great in spirit. I was asking a lady about the B.B. King Museum and this woman’s colleague said, ‘Should we tell him?’And she said, ‘I don’t know.’ And the [colleague] said, ‘This is B.B. King’s ex-wife.’ His last wife! Most recent wife. So we talked about B.B. King.”

 

And here’s quote from Theroux about how helpful people are when you travel — alone.

 

THEROUX: When you’re traveling in the South, you get a warm welcome. I mean you, I go from New England, rather chilly and, you know, people barely say hello to each other in the post office. They kind of stare and think, you know, you look – they look at you as though you might be asking them not to pay their taxes or something. And, you know, in the South, I mean one of my earlier experiences was I was stuck.

I was looking in a map in my car and the woman in the car next to me said: You lost, baby? I said, yeah, I’m looking for this church. And she said: Well, I can tell you – I told her the church – she said I can take you there. Follow me. She drove three miles out of her way. I mean, we had been in a parking lot and she was going to church that morning too but not there and took me to the church. And I thought, this is wonderful, I like this.

And afterwards, I thanked her profusely. And she said: Be blessed. And I thought that’s the South: Be blessed.

I had a handful of encounters during my road trip in 2010. A guy in Minnesota drove across town to lead me to a diner and the women of New England took great pity on me, as I recount in this excerpt from “Dogging Steinbeck”:

 

I had my first face-to-face encounter with a human on state Route 11 when I drove through the sad little burg of Patten.

I had doubled back to photograph a bush-choked old house on Main Street that was obviously inhabited when Steinbeck hurried by 50 years ago. As I got out of my car, a young woman stopped, rolled her passenger window down and asked if I needed any help. She thought I was lost, which it looked like I was. But I was just driving as if traffic laws didn’t apply to journalists. When I told her I was chasing Steinbeck, she gave me a quick history of her town of 1,200 mid-Mainers.

The future didn’t sound too promising for Patten. It owed its existence to the lumber boom of the 1800s and still relied on forestry, hunting, fishing and the wood products industries for a disproportionate share of its jobs. Before the woman drove off she suggested I take a picture of the Patten General Store down the road. “Why?” I asked. “Because it’s going to be torn down tomorrow.”

She wasn’t the first woman in timeless/spaceless/changeless Maine to think I was a helpless man in distress. She was the fourth in less than 24 hours. The first time was in Calais. After I left Karen’s Main Street diner and the Calais Book Shop, I stopped by the side of the road on my way out of town to write what I thought would be a quick blog item.

It was a pleasant spot by the St. Croix River, but mainly I wanted to take advantage of the sudden surge in Verizon’s cell phone signal. (Three weeks later, when my wife got our bill, I’d learn the strong signal had been coming from across the river in Canada. Two days of cross-border roaming charges in upper Maine would cost $900. In Billings, Montana, I’d waste an afternoon at a Verizon store getting the charges reduced to zero.) I wrote a blog entry about Calais and its people while sitting in the driver’s position, but because my laptop was on my “bed” in the back I had to twist around between the front seats to type. Because I am journalism’s slowest writer, the blog, which was really more like a long newspaper feature story, took almost two hours to write.

The first visitor was a U.S. Customs and Border Control officer, who pulled up behind me in her patrol car.  She had passed me three times and seen me in the same strange position, so she naturally thought I had a heart attack or had been the victim of a Canadian mob hit. Apologizing as abjectly as possible, I assured her I was fine and explained what I was doing. She was as sweet as any police person could legally be and with a smile left me to my pathetic, contorted typing.

Ten minutes later, I looked up from my keyboard to see two cars parked behind my RAV4 and a pair of women with worried faces hurrying toward me. They too thought I was dead or dying and were genuinely relieved, and not the least bit annoyed, to be told I was physically fine, just mentally challenged. I finally drove across the road to a parking lot, feeling like a jerk.

Maine people – Mainers? Manians? Mainsters? – of both sexes couldn’t have been more pleasant and they obviously had been brought up to be kind to strangers. But it was comforting to know the good women of The Pine/Potato State were looking out for me.  I’d meet dozens of other women on my trip who were unnecessarily sweet or went out of their way to help me – waitresses, motel managers, county government officials, mothers at home. Whether they were just doing their job or answering my fool questions when I appeared unannounced at their front door, not a one was sour or unfriendly or even wary. When you are old and scraggly and alone, as I was, you’re an object of pity and a threat to no one.

Charley” & America in Pictures

By Bill Steigerwald

In the fall of 2010, I retraced the road trip John Steinbeck made for his bestseller “Travels With Charley.” Along with posting blogs to “Travels Without Charley” at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, I took nearly 2,000 pictures of America and Americans.

I took snapshots of people I met, places I went or things I thought were interesting, pretty, funny or stupid. I photographed many places Steinbeck mentions in “Travels With Charley” as well as hotels and homes he stayed at while on his 1960 journey.

Some of my photos are pretty good, some are blurry or kind of crazy. Many were taken through my car windows at 70 mph.

Collectively they help me tell the true story of “Travels With Charley” and provide a hint of the beautiful country and good people I saw on my high-speed dash down the Steinbeck Highway.

Here are some photos from Stonington, Maine, where Steinbeck visited in late  September of 1960 and I visited in September of 2010.

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It’s not hard to see why Steinbeck flipped over Stonington, Maine.

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Its main street is on the harbor’s edge.

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Boyces Motel on Main Street has rooms with and without a view.

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Homes hang over Main Street and look to the sea.

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Lobster fishermen and their gear are everywhere.

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So are photo ops.