The ‘Travels With Charley’ Timeline — Days 29 – 34

Friday, Oct. 21 to Oct. 26, 1960 – The Pacific Coast Highway

There are virtually no hard clues to determine where the Steinbecks stopped as they came down the Pacific Coast through redwood country to San Francisco. Based on scenes deleted from the book’s original manuscript, once they crossed the California line they stayed for at least two days at a large, nearly empty resort in the shade of redwoods. The only reliable clue is a postcard Steinbeck mailed on Monday, Oct. 24, 1960, to his editor Pascal Covici from Trinidad, California, where he said he and Elaine were staying the night in a motel by a redwood grove on U.S. 101, about 300 miles north of San Francisco. They arrived in downtown San Francisco Wednesday, Oct. 26. Day 1 of Steinbeck’s trip was Sept. 23, 1960.

Not ‘Travels With Elaine’

It was on the West Coast that “Travels With Charley” reached its height of deception. In the real world, John, Elaine and Charley made their slow trip down to San Francisco in their overloaded pickup truck. But in the book Elaine is not there. It is only the author and his faithful poodle who visit Seattle, fix a flat tire on a rainy Sunday in Oregon and commune with the great bodies of the redwoods.

It wasn’t that way at all in the original manuscript, which co-stars Elaine and reads like the travel log of the Duke and Duchess of Sag Harbor. As soon as she made it to Seattle, Elaine – aka “my wife” – is in about six straight scenes at the waterfront and on the road. Some of those scenes were dropped completely and some were retained, but her presence was stripped out.

One scene completely dropped from the first draft mentions “the several days” Mr. and Mrs. Steinbeck stayed “at a partially closed resort in a big redwood grove.” Holed up in “a cottage at the base of a cluster of monster trees,” he wrote that he was sore and scraped up after having to flounder in “thick yellow muck” while fixing Rocinante’s flat tire, which he said he did as Elaine sat in the cab reading a book.

Steinbeck wrote that the cottage in the redwoods seemed like “the perfect place to rest and refurbish our souls.” Apparently, he was halfway to heaven. As he soaked in “a tub of near boiling water,” he wrote, “My lady wife slipped in and set a scotch and soda on the edge of the tub. And the world and the people there of, the grasses and the trees became very beautiful.”


Elaine and John Steinbeck circa 1960.

Another completely dropped scene does not reflect well on Steinbeck’s vaunted love for the common man. After he and Elaine hear about a good restaurant nearby, they decide to get dolled up and do the “town.” They were disappointed to find that the eatery in the sticks of Northern California was not a Trader Vic’s franchise but a neon hellhole. Sounding like an old fogey, Steinbeck wrote that the restaurant possessed “every damnable feature of our civilization – cold glaring light, despondent roaring music from a cathedral juke box, batteries of coin machines, Formica counters and tables. One wall was a cemetery of ugly … pies.”

Great descriptive writing, as usual. But when Steinbeck – who rarely let a commoner he meets on his journey escape without uttering a “he don’t” or a “them people” – made fun of the waitress for saying “fried tatters” and “We ain’t got no (liquor) license,” he doesn’t sound like a friend of the working class. Later he was happy to report that while he and Elaine slept close to the redwoods, there were “no trippers, no chattering troupes with cameras” to spoil their stay. The entire restaurant tragedy was easily snipped from the final version of “Charley.” But excising Elaine from the other scenes posed a larger editorial problem. On the West Coast, whenever he writes “we” in the book he was originally referring to himself and Elaine, not himself and Charley.

Speaking of poor Charley, he all but disappears from the first draft once Elaine takes over the passenger seat. It became so obvious to some folks (i.e., the editors or Steinbeck’s agent) that the poodle was missing that Steinbeck felt obligated to explain to the reader where Charley went. He handwrote a short chapter – obviously never published – answering the criticism that Charley was being ignored and assuring everyone he was feeling fine. He explained that with the missus onboard, the standard Steinbeck family pecking order had reasserted itself: “When Charley and I traveled alone together, the dog was indeed man’s best friend. But Charley knows better than anyone when the wife is present, he is man’s second best friend, and he finds this a normal relationship and perhaps a better one.”

In the end, Charley was restored to top billing and Elaine’s presence on the West Coast for four weeks was completely eliminated. It was editorially smart – and necessary – to dump the duchess. First of all, the scenes focusing on her were boring as hell. But most important, she seriously undermined the book’s romantic conceit. With her by his side every night, Steinbeck was no longer the man alone. He was a love-struck honeymooner.

— Excerpted from “Dogging Steinbeck”

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