The ‘Travels With Charley’ Timeline — Day 11
Monday, Oct. 3, 1960 – Somewhere west of Ohio
Leaving his motel in Buffalo, Steinbeck takes his maiden interstate trip, driving 150 miles on I-90 to Erie and into Ohio, where the interstate then ended at Madison. In “Travels With Charley” he says he picked up “the equally wide fast U.S. 20” at Madison and it carried him across northern Ohio “past Cleveland and Toledo, and so into Michigan.”
In “Charley” he describes camping that night (Monday) on private land somewhere between Toledo and South Bend, Indiana. U.S. 20 almost touches the southern border of Michigan, where there are some lakes that might have attracted Steinbeck. No one knows where he actually stopped, or if. It’s a mystery night, one of four in the book. But Steinbeck was definitely not “sitting alone beside a lake in northern Michigan,” as he writes in the book. “Northern Michigan” was clearly a geographic mistake his publisher’s copy editors missed. (Day 1.)
First Impressions of the USA
Back home in Pittsburgh on my pit stop, I waited for Steinbeck to get to Chicago. I had retraced the New England leg of his trip in 10 days. That was almost exactly how long it took him. I saw part of the country that on average was whiter, less obese, more Democrat, richer and more likely to be employed than the rest of America was in the fall of 2010. I had already learned some generalities about America and Americans, at least the America and Americans along the Old Steinbeck Highway.
Speeding somewhere in Upstate New York I wrote in the notebook that was always on my knee that “America looks pretty good on U.S. 5, 2, 1 and 11. Richness and wealth predominate. People have tons of stuff – much of it for sale on the roadside. People take care of their houses – most of them. People cling to the water, like Steinbeck did, in their RVs, mobile homes, tiny cottages and mansions. … People drive safely and sanely. People don’t like to throw things away or tear down old houses or barns, no matter how slumped and sagging they are. People are inside their houses. People are friendly, clean and don’t seem to litter much.”
Those were my early drive-by impressions of the USA, but I could have written them at any time on my trip. What was true of the Eastern Time Zone would be true for the rest of the country. So far, I had driven virtually the exact highways Steinbeck did. But even with the help of dates and locations provided by his letters from the road, I often couldn’t sort out what he actually did from the account he gave us in “Charley.” Much of his New England trip remained a mystery.
We know he drove fast and furiously. We know he never really camped on a farm in the White Mountains. We’ll never know if he really stayed at an over-sanitized motel in Bangor, really entertained a family of Canuck potato pickers in Aroostook County or really had a run in with American border guards in Niagara Falls. We have only his nonfiction book to rely on and it was unreliable, to say the least. The more I learned about Steinbeck’s journey, the more obvious it was becoming that nothing in it could be believed.
— Excerpt from “Dogging Steinbeck”