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The ‘Travels With Charley’ Timeline — Day 22

Friday, Oct. 14, 1960 – Somewhere west of Missoula

Before heading west from Livingston, Steinbeck says in the book that he abruptly decides to drive about 55 miles south on U.S. 89 to Yellowstone Park. When Charley goes nuts every time he sees a grizzly bear, Steinbeck quickly leaves and retraces his path to Livingston. He turns west on U.S. 10, buys a rifle in Butte and drives past Missoula before stopping. In an undated letter to his wife Friday night he mentions his Yellowstone detour that morning and says he was camped on the property of an old woman west of Missoula about 60 miles from the Idaho line. That would have been near Tarkio, but local old-timers there could not provide any further clues about Steinbeck’s second night in Montana. Day 1 of Steinbeck’s trip was Sept. 23, 1960.

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Steinbeck nailed Montana and its natives

Steinbeck fell hard for Montana. As he mooned in “Travels With Charley,” “Montana has a spell on me. It is grandeur and warmth. If Montana had a seacoast, or if I could live away from the sea, I would instantly move there and petition for admission. Of all the states it is my favorite and my love.”

He can’t be blamed for being smitten. But his relationship was more like a two-night stand than a serious love affair. He drove down the main streets of Billings, Bozeman, Butte and Missoula and other smaller U.S. 10 towns. He stopped in bars, a clothing shop and a gun store. He stayed one night in a trailer court near Livingston and a second on private land west of Missoula along the Clark Fork River.

Montana-born Trudi Logan Steigerwald and daughter Lucy enjoying an anonymous mountain top in 2007.

But other than gawking out his windshield for hours at the state’s natural grandeur, that was pretty much it for Steinbeck’s fling with lovely Montana: Two days, two nights, two sunsets. Fifty total hours and about 850 miles of driving. All packed into 2.5 pages of “Travels With Charley.” Steinbeck obviously missed a lot of Montana. Curving from southeast to northwest on old U.S. Highway 10, he saw just a sliver of the country’s fourth biggest state.

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The corner in Uptown Butte where Steinbeck says he stopped on Oct. 14, 1960 to buy a rifle and a scope at a sporting goods store that, like its owner, is long gone.

He didn’t see Glacier National Park, Flathead Lake or the Missouri Breaks. He didn’t have time to do the signature outdoor Montana things –- fly fishing in the Yellowstone River, hiking up creeks to the toxic but cool ruins of silver mines, driving 10 miles into a pine forest on a dirt road for a picnic in a meadow at 7,000 feet or conquering your own nameless mountain.

Yet after only 50 hours in Montana, Steinbeck got it. He nailed her and its people. In “Travels With Charley,” he writes “… It seemed to me that the frantic bustle of America was not in Montana. Its people did not seem afraid of shadows in a John Birch Society sense. The calm of the mountains and the rolling grassland had got into the inhabitants…. Again my attitude may be informed by love, but it seems to me that the towns were places to live in  than nervous hives. People had time to pause in their occupations to undertake the passing art of neighborliness.”

How he figured out Montana so quickly testifies to Steinbeck’s superior powers of observation.

— 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.

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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”