Travels with Charley in Search of America by John Steinbeck
Summary: To hear the speech of the real America, to smell the grass and the trees, to see the colors and the light—these were John Steinbeck’s goals as he set out, at the age of fifty-eight, to rediscover the country he had been writing about for so many years.
With Charley, his French poodle, Steinbeck drives the interstates and the country roads, dines with truckers, encounters bears at Yellowstone and old friends in San Francisco. Along the way he reflects on the American character, racial hostility, the particular form of American loneliness he finds almost everywhere, and the unexpected kindness of strangers.
Personal opinion: To say I liked this book would be an understatement, though the circumstances may have made me biased. Here’s what I wrote after that first reading that remains true:
“And there are the less obvious reasons I love him. He willingly pokes fun at himself. He finds modern cities sterile, seeks out small towns with character instead. He has a curious mind, a quick wit and a kind heart.
But most of all, I love John because he makes me feel less crazy. Shows me there are others out there with a never squelched wanderlust. Proves that even in different times and circumstances there’s magic to be found in exploring. Brings to life the tiny adventures of living on the road that intertwine imperceptibly with the mundane tasks necessary to carry on.”
Read this book if: You love travel. You want to experience life on the road through a master wordsmith. You enjoy a journey for no other purpose but the challenge and the discovery. You want to see the similarities and differences between present day America and the past. You’re ready to fall in love with John Steinbeck once and for all.
You might also enjoy:
- Blue Highways: A Journey into America
- Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term Travel
- The Grapes of Wrath
When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch, When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked….In other words, I don’t improve; in further words, once a bum always a bum. I fear the disease is incurable.
Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process; a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, and exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness…A journey is a person in itself; no two are a like. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us…Only when this is recognized can the blown-in-the-glass bum relax and go along with it. Only then do the frustrations fall away. In this a journey is like a marriage. The certain way to wrong is to think you control it. I feel better now, having said this, although only those who have experienced it will understand.
We value virtue but do not discuss it. The honest bookkeeper, the faithful wife, the earnest scholar get little of our attention compared to the embezzler, the tramp, the cheat.
There was genuine worry about my traveling alone, open to attack, robbery, assault. It is well known that our roads are dangerous. And here I admit I had a senseless qualms. It is some years since I have been alone, nameless, friendless, without any of the safety one gets from family, friends and accomplices. There is no reality in the danger. It’s just a very lonely, helpless feeling at first.
In long-range planning for a trip, I think there is a private conviction that it won’t happen. As the day approached, my warm bed and comfortable house grew increasingly desirable and my dear wife incalculably precious. To give these up for three months for the terrors of the uncomfortable and the unknown seemed crazy. I didn’t want to go.
And in my own life I am not willing to trade quality for quantity.
I saw in their eyes something I was to see over and over in every part of the nation- a burning desire to go, to move, to get under way, anyplace, away from any Here. They spoke quietly of how they wanted to go someday, to move about, free and unanchored, not toward something but away from something. I saw this look and heard this yearning everywhere in every states I visited. Nearly every American hungers to move.
And then I saw what I was to see so many times on the journey – a look of longing. “Lord! I wish I could go.”
“Don’t you like it here?”
“Sure. It’s all right, but I wish I could go.”
“You don’t even know where I’m going .”
“I don’t care. I’d like to go anywhere.”
*talking about total drag of a waitress*
Strange how one person can saturate a room with vitality, with excitement. Then there are others, and this dame was one of them, who drain off energy and joy, can suck pleasure dry and get no sustenance from it. Such people spread a grayness in the air about them. I’d been driving a long time, and perhaps my energy was low and my resistance down. She got me. I felt so blue and miserable I wanted to crawl into a plastic cover and die.
In the bathroom two water tumblers were sealed in cellophane sacks with the words: “These glasses are sterilized for your protection.” Across the toilet seat a strip of paper bore the message: “This seat has been sterilized with ultravioet light for your protection.” Everyone was protecting me and it was horrible.
Then the rain stopped falling and the trees dripped and I helped to spawn a school of secret dangers. Oh, we can populate the dark with horrors, even we who think ourselves informed and sure, beliieving nothing we cannot measure or weigh. I knew beyond all doubt that the dark things crowding in on me either did not exist or were not dangerous to me, and still I was afraid.
But there is left, particularly on very long trips, a large area for daydreaming or even, God help us, for thought. No one can know what another does in that area. I myself have planned houses I will never build, have made gardens I will never plant, have designed a method for pumpkins the soft silt…I don’t know whether or not I will do this, but driving along I have planned it in detail…I’ve written short stories in my mind, chuckling at my own humor, saddened or stimulated by structure or content.
I can only suspect that the lonely man peoples his driving dreams with friends, the loveless man surrounds himself with lovely loving women and that children climb through the dreaming of the childless driver…I can suspect, but will never know, for no one ever tells.
Chicago was a break in my journey…When that time was over and the good-byes said, I had to go through the same lost loneliness all over again, and it was no less painful than at first. There seemed to be no cure for loneliness save only being alone.
In actual time, not over an hour elapsed before I had the spare tire on. I was unrecognizable under many layers of yellow mud. My hands were cut and bleeding. I rolled the bad tire to a high place and inspected it. The whole side wall had blown out. Then I looked at the left rear tire, and to my horror saw a great rubber bubble on its side and, farther along, another. It was obvious that the other tire might go at any moment, and it was Sunday and it was raining and it was Oregon. If the other tire blew, there we were, on a wet and lonesome road, having no recourse except to burst into tears and wait for death.
It would be pleasant to be able to say of my travels with Charley, “I went out to find the truth about my country and I found it.” And then it would be such a simple matter to set down my findings and lean back comfortable with a fine sense of having discovered truths and taught them to my readers. I wish it were that easy. But what I carried in my head and deeper in my perceptions was a barrel of worms. I discovered long ago in collecting and classifying marine animals that what I found was closely intermeshed with how I felt at the moment. External reality has a way of being not so external after all.
This journey had been like a full dinner of many courses, set before a starving man. At first he tries to eat all of everything, but as the meal progresses he finds he must forgo some things to keep his appetite and his taste buds functioning.
Remember: Every adventure has a moment where fear overtakes, where we wish for nothing more than a return to the comfortable. Our experiences and viewpoints are inextricably connected to our personal paradigm. People are good. Varied, unique, friendly, reserved, at the core of it good.
Ponder: A longing to go exists in all of us. The unrest is always there. How do we choose when to listen (and go) and when to quiet it (and stay)?