Travels With Charley

Charlottesville, Virginia

May 8, 2020

What a fun read! I read most of Steinbeck's books as a teenager, and I am glad I reread this one this week. Great followup to Blue Highways. Or vice versa.

Steinbeck took his trip around the US in 1960 in order to rediscover America. His journey took him a counterclockwise direction around the U.S. (Heat-Moon from Blue Highways took a clockwise path. As for me, I guess you'd call my walkabout so far mostly clockwise.)

Steinbeck's camper

A map of Steinbeck's trip

Steinbeck had a travel companion in his poodle, Charley. Charley gets a lot of ink in the book - Steinbeck's love of his canine friend is quite clear.

It is interesting to read Steinbeck's view of America as he found it in 1960. He found there was a great deal of political apathy with folks unwilling to express their perspectives on Kennedy and Nixon. He was not pleased with the environmental degradation he saw and the unhinged growth of cities. In the south, he saw the ugliness of racism and spent several pages describing his observations. He bemoaned the loss of regional accents. In sum, he found a country that had changed quite a bit in 20 years and he wasn't too pleased with the changes.

It is interesting to compare Blue Highways and Travels with Charley. Both authors sought "blue highways" (Steinbeck does not use that term but he avoids the "super highways" (US highways)). The interstate system was only just beginning in 1960 when Steinbeck was traversing the country. Heat-Moon was not always true to the blue highways and several times took an interstate. Both men sought to get the flavor of towns by stopping in taverns for food and drink. Heat-Moon seemed to like to sample the local beers; Steinbeck preferred his alcohol of a higher proof. It is fun to read that they share my affection for interestingly named towns - I'm a bit biased but I think I found some pretty good ones compared to the best they have to offer. And Steinbeck says of himself that he is a sign reader - we have that in common, too. Whereas Heat-Moon comes across as an average guy making a journey, something in Steinbeck's writing style makes me think he would be much more fun to be around - a bit of a rascal, I sense. Hmm. Maybe I should be more of a rascal on the next part of my walkabout? 🤔

Here are some of my favorite quotes and passages:

His (Charley's) nose, moist with curiousity....

Now I had moved through a galaxy of states, each with its own character, and through clouds and myriads of people, and ahead of me lay an area, the South, that I dreaded to see and yet I must see and hear. I am not drawn to pain and violence. I never gaze at accidents unless I can help, or attend street fights for kicks. I faced the South with dread. Here, I knew, were pain and confusion and all the manic results of bewilderment and fear. And the South being a limb of the nation, its pain spreads out to all America. A question is a trap and an answer is your foot in it. [Discussing racism]. I came out to learn. What was I learning? I had not felt one moment free from the tension, a weight of savage fear. No doubt I felt it more being newcome, but it was there; I hadn’t brought it. Everyone, white and black, lived in it and breathed it -- all ages, all trades, all classes. To them it was a fact of existence. And it was building pressure like a boil. Could there be no relief until it burst? He [Charley] doesn’t belong to a species clever enough to split the atom but not clever enough to live in peace with itself. He doesn’t even know about race, nor is he concerned with his sisters’ marriage. It’s quite the opposite. Once Charley fell in love with a dachshund, a romance racially unsuitable, physically ridiculous, and mechanically impossible. But all these problems Charley ignored. He loved deeply and tried dogfully. It would be difficult to explain to a dog the good and moral purpose of a thousand humans gathered to curse one tiny human. I’ve seen a look in dogs’ eyes, a quickly vanishing look of amazed contempt, and I am convinced that basically dogs think humans are nuts. With all the polls and opinion posts, with newspapers more opinion than news so that we no longer know one from the other .... [in other words, the blurring of news and opinion has been going on for a while]

I am an avid reader of all signs, and I find that in the historical markers the prose of statehood reaches its glorious best, and most lyric. I have further established, at least to my own satisfaction, that those states with the shortest histories and the least world-shaking events have the most historical markers. Some Western states even find glory in half-forgotten murders and bank robberies. The towns not to be left behind proudly announce their celebrated sons, so the traveler is informed by signs and banners—Birthplace of Elvis Presley, of Cole Porter, of Alan P. Huggins. This is no new thing, of course. I seem to remember that small cities in ancient Greece quarreled bitterly over which was the birthplace of Homer. Within my memory an outraged home-town citizenry wanted Red Lewis back for tarring and feathering after he wrote Main Street. And today Sauk Centre celebrates itself for having produced him. We, as a nation, are as hungry for history as was England when Geoffrey of Monmouth concocted his History of British Kings, many of whom he manufactured to meet the growing demand. And as in states and communities, so in individual Americans this hunger for decent association with the past. If one is "vacilando," he is going somewhere but doesn’t greatly care whether or not he gets there, although he has direction. It occurs to me that, just as the Carthaginians hired mercenaries to do their fighting for them, we Americans bring in mercenaries to do our hard and humble work. I hope we may not be overwhelmed one day by peoples not too proud or too lazy or too soft to bend to the earth and pick up the things we eat. [Wow, written in 1960.] In establishing contact with strange people, Charley is my ambassador. I release him, and he drifts toward the objective, or rather to whatever the objective may be preparing for dinner. I retrieve him so that he will not be a nuisance to my neighbors—et voilà! A child can do the same thing, but a dog is better. On such a trip as mine, there is so much to see and to think about that event and thought set down as they occurred would roil and stir like a slow-cooking minestrone.

There are map people whose joy is to lavish more attention on the sheets of colored paper than on the colored land rolling by. I have listened to accounts by such travelers in which every road number was remembered, every mileage recalled, and every little countryside discovered. Another kind of traveler requires to know in terms of maps exactly where he is pin-pointed every moment, as though there were some kind of safety in black and red lines, in dotted indications and squirming blue of lakes and the shadings that indicate mountains. It is not so with me. I was born lost and take no pleasure in being found, nor much identification from shapes which symbolize continents and states. Besides, roads change, increase, are widened or abandoned so often in our country that one must buy road maps like daily newspapers. But since I know the passions of the mapifiers I can report that I moved north in Maine roughly parallel to U.S. Highway 1 through Houlton, Mars Hill, Presque Isle, Caribou, Van Buren, turned westward, still on U.S. 1, past Madawaska, Upper Frenchville, and Fort Kent, then went due south on State Highway 11 past Eagle Lake, Winterville, Portage, Squa Pan, Masardis, Knowles Corner, Patten, Sherman, Grindstone, and so to Millinocket. [Discussing truckers]. It is a whole pattern of life, little known to the settled people along the routes of the great trucks. I learned only enough about these men to be sure I would like to know much more. There in the quiet, with the wind flicking tree branches and distorting the water’s mirror, I cooked improbable dinners in my disposable aluminum pans, made coffee so rich and sturdy it would float a nail, and, sitting on my own back doorsteps, could finally come to think about what I had seen and try to arrange some pattern of thought to accommodate the teeming crowds of my seeing and hearing.

My wants are simple. I have no desire to latch onto a monster symbol of fate and prove my manhood in titanic piscine war. But sometimes I do like a couple of cooperative fish of frying size. At noon I refused an invitation to come to dinner and meet the wife. I was growing increasingly anxious to meet my own wife, so I hurried on.

Only through imitation do we develop toward originality. Take Charley, for example. He has always associated with the learned, the gentle, the literate, and the reasonable both in France and in America. And Charley is no more like a dog than he is like a cat. His perceptions are sharp and delicate and he is a mind-reader. I don’t know that he can read the thoughts of other dogs, but he can read mine. Before a plan is half formed in my mind, Charley knows about it, and he also knows whether he is to be included in it. There’s no question about this. I know too well his look of despair and disapproval when I have just thought that he must be left at home.

I came out on this trip to try to learn something of America. Am I learning anything? If I am, I don’t know what it is. So far can I go back with a bag full of conclusions, a cluster of answers to riddles? I doubt it, but maybe. When I go to Europe, when I am asked what America is like, what will I say? I don’t know. Well, using your olfactory method of investigation, what have you learned, my friend?” Two complete wags. At least he didn’t leave the question open.

I am serious about this. I did not put aside my sloth for the sake of a few amusing anecdotes. I came with the wish to learn what America is like. And I wasn’t sure I was learning anything. I found I was talking aloud to Charley. He likes the idea but the practice makes him sleepy. Again it might have been the American tendency in travel. One goes, not so much to see but to tell afterward. When a city begins to grow and spread outward, from the edges, the center which was once its glory is in a sense abandoned to time. Then the buildings grow dark and a kind of decay sets in; poorer people move in as the rents fall, and small fringe businesses take the place of once flowering establishments. The district is still too good to tear down and too outmoded to be desirable. Besides, all the energy has flowed out to the new developments, to the semi-rural supermarkets, the outdoor movies, new houses with wide lawns and stucco schools where children are confirmed in their illiteracy. The old port with narrow streets and cobbled surfaces, smoke-grimed, goes into a period of desolation inhabited at night by the vague ruins of men, the lotus eaters who struggle daily toward unconsciousness by way of raw alcohol. Nearly every city I know has such a dying mother of violence and despair where at night the brightness of the street lamps is sucked away and policemen walk in pairs. And then one day perhaps the city returns and rips out the sore and builds a monument to its past.

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