While I was chasing Steinbeck’s ghost I wrote eight travel stories for the Sunday Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. This was the final one from Nov. 21, 2010. Links to previous travel stories from Maine, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Montana, Oregon, California and Route 66 follow.
“No change since 1960.”
Long after the farms and forests of New England disappeared in my rearview mirror, I was still scrawling those words in the notebook on my knee.
Big, empty, rich and surprisingly unchanged — that’s a pretty boring scouting report for America the Beautiful.
But that’s how I’d sum up what I saw as I spent seven weeks retracing the route John Steinbeck took in 1960 for his classic 1962 best-seller “Travels With Charley.”
On my dogless and thrifty “Travels Without Charley” trip, which began in Pittsburgh Sept. 21 and ended Nov. 7, I logged 11,276 miles on mostly smooth, mostly uncongested highways and interstates.
Along with logging trucks, huge stacks of firewood and RVs for sale, everywhere I looked I saw a safe, friendly country filled with people living in good homes, driving monster pickup trucks and playing with powerboats, motorcycles and snowmobiles.
Following Steinbeck’s route as faithfully as possible, and sticking to old U.S. highways for the most part, I drove my 2010 Toyota RAV4 from Long Island to Maine to Chicago to Montana to Seattle to San Francisco to Texas to New Orleans to Pittsburgh.
Through my windshield, often at 80 mph, I saw the same spectacular landscapes Steinbeck and Charley saw exactly 50 years before me.
The gorgeous seacoasts of Maine, Oregon and Northern California. The big skies and valleys of Montana. The vast interstate-tamed deserts of Arizona and New Mexico. The beautiful port cities of Seattle and San Francisco and Monterey, Calif.
I also traveled for hours at high speed through some of the prettiest and least-peopled parts of the country — the endless forests of Maine, the dry plains of North Dakota, the cotton country of the Texas Panhandle.
I averaged about 300 miles a day on the road. But I slowed down often to see the sights and enjoy the ride.
I had never seen Maine before, and now I have seen how big and lovely it is. The coast — especially Deer Isle south of Bangor — is as beautiful in its own subdued, classy way as Oregon’s awesome coast is, though I still don’t believe there are really moose in Maine’s thick woods.
When I slowed down in Baraboo, Wis., near the Wisconsin Dells, I stumbled upon a raging downtown arts and craft fair. I also discovered that the hometown of the Ringling Brothers had a historic movie theater and a world-famous circus museum.
On the Monterey Peninsula, arguably home to the best combination of natural and manmade attractions in the country, I took an afternoon to scale Fremont Peak for a 360-degree view of Steinbeck Country.
I’ve seen my share of mountain peaks, from Pike’s Peak in Colorado to the Andes of Peru, but the view from Fremont Peak — one of Steinbeck’s favorite places in the whole world — is my No. 1.
Because I was behaving as a journalist, not a tourist or a Steinbeck idolator, I faced a dilemma during my trip: I had to keep on the move, but I was always stopping to take photos or to talk to local people about what things were like in 1960 when Steinbeck and Charley came through their part of the world.
In Alice, N.D., in the middle of a sea of cornfields, a friendly farmer got down off his huge tractor to help me. I was trying to figure out where John Steinbeck might have camped overnight by the Maple River, as he said he did on his “Charley” trip. (Steinbeck didn’t actually camp overnight at Alice, but that’s not the point.)
In the dark mountains of Wisconsin, I sat for an hour with the owner of a German restaurant who told me how at age 11 he watched Allied bombs falling on his hometown of Frankfurt.
In Albuquerque, N.M., I bumped into Sabine Pasco, a French baker who in the early 1990s used to live in Mt. Lebanon and run Julien Pastries on Penn Avenue in the Strip District.
I had my little drive-by journalism adventures, too.
In Texas cattle country I found the fancy ranch house Steinbeck and his wife Elaine stayed at for at least a week during Thanksgiving of 1960.
The house is in the middle of a cattle ranch bigger than the entire city of Pittsburgh and, thanks to the Texas hospitality of its trusting owner, I had the place to myself for almost an hour.
In New Orleans, where the young male drivers are nuts and nasty and the roads are horrible and jammed, I went to the Lower Ninth Ward to see where history was made 50 years ago last week.
The William Frantz Elementary school is gutted, boarded up and fenced off now, a victim of Katrina’s floods.
But in December of 1960, it was the epicenter of the civil rights universe; it was the first New Orleans public school to be integrated.
I went there because Steinbeck went there on his “Charley” trip to watch white mothers and other demonstrators spew hatred and vulgarities at black and white parents who brought their kids to the boycotted school.
Before I left on my 43-day road trip I was worried about the high cost of motel rooms, so I fixed up the back of my Toyota RAV4 with a cozy bed and my wife made blackout curtains.
I’ve slept in a lot of crazy places early in my amateur travel career — on a picnic table in Elko, Nev., and on the floor of the front lobby of a small hotel in Oban, Scotland.
But at age 63 I was not looking forward to sleeping in my car at Walmart parking lots or interstate rest stops.
It turned out that I really enjoyed crashing in my car — which I did on the road 20 times compared to the 16 times I paid for motels — at an average of $60 a night.
I slept contentedly in 10 Walmart parking lots from Bangor to Salinas, Calif. It was scorchingly bright under their big lights, but Walmarts’ lots were safe. Plus, the stores were open before dawn, and their bathrooms were always clean.
By the time I left California and headed east, the back of my RAV4 had become my default lodging preference.
In Arizona, I pulled off a dark interstate exit and slept soundly till dawn beside an old stretch of Route 66. In Texas I slept peacefully at two roadside picnic areas until idling tractor-trailers woke me.
I don’t know yet if I’ll be able to leverage my trip down the Steinbeck Highway into a book about how much America has or has not changed in the past 50 years. But it’s already a complete success, as far as I am concerned.
It didn’t cost me as much as I thought it would. The weather was so good I never wore socks. There were no road disasters, no speeding tickets, just a parking ticket somewhere in Maine — which I actually paid.
Even my biggest blunder — leaving my debit card in an ATM in San Jose, Calif. — turned out to be no big deal.
As for regrets, I wish now that I had stuck around Stonington, Maine, long enough to watch the town’s armada of lobster fishermen bring in their catch.
And I wish I could have slowed down to visit my relatives in Lewistown, Mont., and my sister Mary at her super-rustic mountain redoubt in northern New Mexico.
My crazy trip wasn’t an excuse to escape reality or find myself; it was simply an entrepreneurial act of extreme drive-by journalism that I had to do or leave town in shame for talking about it so much.
My great adventure has been over for two weeks. It was fun. I learned a lot. I met many wonderful Americans.
My faith in the goodness, kindness and future of the country and its people is affirmed.
I can still barely believe I did such a crazy thing. But I’d be happy to do it again.
VAN BUREN, Maine —
A pier next to a yacht in Long Island.
A lonely riverbank in rural Vermont.
A blinding Walmart parking lot in Bangor.
A dark gravel road by the foggy Bay of Fundy.
I don’t care how rotten the economy is. No sane adult planning a fall vacation wants to sleep where I’ve slept during the past 10 days, or drive around the New England countryside as fast as I have.
My previous travel articles:
LANCASTER, N.H. —
New England, like the rest of the known universe, appears empty, old and pretty awesome.
After racking up 2,300 miles chasing John Steinbeck’s ghost from the shores of Connecticut to the very tiptop of Maine to the Lake Champlain Islands of Vermont, that’s the gist of my scouting report.
BARABOO, Wis. —
I don’t know what John Steinbeck saw in the Wisconsin Dells that was so “enchanting,” but I sure didn’t see it.
I drove the same route last weekend that he did on his “Travels With Charley” trip in 1960. Steinbeck and poodle Charley went north on U.S. 12 from Chicago past Madison, past this impressive little tourist town and past the strip of garish motels, amusement parks and waterparks that are said to have inspired Chicago mobster Bugsy Siegel to steal the idea for his plans for Las Vegas.
“I am in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection, but with Montana it is love.”
— John Steinbeck, “Travels With Charley”
LIVINGSTON, Mt. —
John Steinbeck fell hard for Montana. Who doesn’t?
But the great author’s love affair with the Treasure State was really more like a two-night stand.
LANGLOIS, Ore. —
Scotty Mathess of Denver was seeing the spectacular Pacific Coast the hard, slow way — on two wheels.
For the past month he’s been riding his bicycle from Seattle toward San Francisco on U.S. Highway 101.
That stretch of highway, which John Steinbeck took on his “Travels With Charley” trip in 1960, and I took 10 days ago, could be the most spectacular 1,000-mile drive in the USA.
FREMONT PEAK, Calif.–
Elevation 3,169. Population 10.
The best way to see all of Monterey Peninsula — aka Steinbeck Country — is from the rocky top of spectacular Fremont Peak.
Like all of California, the area Steinbeck made world famous with “The Grapes of Wrath,” “Cannery Row” and “East of Eden” has been unfairly blessed by Mother Nature…
NEWBERRY SPRINGS, Calif., Old Route 66 —
A lot of the country’s most famous U.S. highway has been replaced, paved over or bypassed, but you can still get your kicks on Route 66.
You can drive on stretches of old Route 66 in the Mojave Desert for half an hour at 70 mph and not encounter another car.
You can inspect the crumbling ruins of motels and gas stations that were killed decades ago when Interstate 40 made Route 66 obsolete.
You can take a dark exit off I-40 in empty Yavapai County, Ariz., and sleep on the berm of a part of Historic Route 66.
And, if you’re as lucky as I was two Sundays ago when I did all of the above, you also can meet a busload of French tourists who’ve come to the desert to worship American culture.