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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 — Day 24

Sunday, Oct. 16, 1960 – Seattle

After leaving the Tarkio, Montana, area on Saturday morning and passing through Saltese,  Steinbeck may or may not have stayed somewhere in eastern Washington that night.  There’s no evidence of where he stopped Saturday night. But since the distance from Tarkio to Seattle on U.S. Highway 10 is only about 430 miles, he almost certainly made it to Seattle by Sunday evening, Oct. 16. Day 1 of Steinbeck’s trip was Sept. 23, 1960.

DSC_2013 7Steinbeck busts ass to Seattle

Steinbeck came the same way on old U.S. 10 to get to Seattle – and he traveled just as fast. In the first draft of his book, in a paragraph that would be deleted, he wrote, “As before reaching Chicago, I found myself packing on the mileage and for the same reason. My lady wife was to fly out to meet me in Seattle and to travel with me down the West Coast for she had never seen the great real woods. I drove farther and faster than I intended. Increasingly I chose the wider and faster roads.”

This was one of several instances where Steinbeck admits he was rushing almost blindly to meet his wife Elaine – and where he betrays how little time he actually spent studying the country or meeting its people. When he was alone on the road – whether he was on his Chicago-Seattle sprint, his California-Amarillo dash or his New Orleans-New York City final kick – he was busting ass, not searching for the heart and soul of America.


As he approached Seattle on U.S. Highway 10, Steinbeck barely recognized the “little city of space and trees and gardens” he knew as a skirt-chasing young man. He had read about the West Coast’s post-war population explosion, but he couldn’t believe the changes. More with sadness than anger, he wrote, “Everywhere frantic growth, a carcinomatous growth. Bulldozers rolled up the green forests and heaped the resulting trash for burning. The torn white lumber from concrete forms was piled beside gray walls. I wonder why progress looks so much like destruction.”

That out-the-car-window observation of suburban sprawl on the march forever endeared Steinbeck to future generations of the no-growth crowd as a Nostradamus. But it only proved how out of touch he was with 1960 America and the needs of middle-class Americans. With his extra house and two acres by the sea, he didn’t need an affordable new home with a little yard in the suburbs. But millions of ordinary urban American families did – and in 1960 they were getting them.

— 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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