In the fall of 2010 I wrote a daily road blog for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette as I retraced the 10,000-mile trip around the USA that John Steinbeck took in 1960 and turned into his best-seller Travels with Charley. My blog and links to videos I shot as I performed my drive-by journalism are reprinted here.

Chasing John Steinbeck’s Ghost in words, photos and video

September 23, 2020

Sixty years ago this morning, on Sept. 23, 1960, John Steinbeck and his poodle Charley set out from Sag Harbor on the iconic road trip around the United States that would become Travels with Charley in Search of America.

Ten years ago this morning I set out from Steinbeck’s seaside house on the eastern end of Long Island and followed his 10,000-mile trail as faithfully as possible.

I admit I had my suspicions that Steinbeck had embellished Charley and had invented some of the colorful Americans he said he met at random. (I couldn’t help it – I was a veteran drive-by print journalist who knew how hard it was on the road to bump into the right people you need for a story.)

But my original intention was not to discredit Steinbeck, show him up or prove that his 1962 New York Times nonfiction bestseller was a heavily fictionalized and disappointingly dishonest account of his actual journey.

My main goal simply was to turn my solo adventure along the Steinbeck Highway into a book that would compare the America of Barack Obama that I saw in 2010 with the America of JFK and Nixon that Steinbeck saw in the historic fall of 1960.

Some of what I saw out my windshield on my mad 11,276-mile dash around the country can be seen in these 16 videos on YouTube.

I’m no documentary maker, as you will see. The videos are largely un-edited and the wind is a recurring character. But I visit Steinbeck’s houses, the top of Fremont Peak and many other places he stopped on his journey.

What I learned about the facts and fictions of Travels with Charley, the character of John Steinbeck and the nature of America’s Flyover People are documented in my Amazon book Dogging Steinbeck. And my new e-book Chasing Steinbeck’s Ghost is a guide to where Steinbeck really was on each day of a nearly 11-week search for the country he admitted he did not find.

Illustration by Stacy Innerst

Travels Without Charley

Articles and blogs from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Fall, 2010

My Plans

September 16, 2010

The book “Travels With Charley” is my map, timeline and guide to where John Steinbeck was, when he was there and what he was thinking about during his spin around America in the fall of 1960.

But Steinbeck’s book is often vague and confusing about time and place. And it doesn’t include a number of places Steinbeck went but did not include in his book.

Since Steinbeck took few notes and left no maps, itinerary or expense vouchers among the tons of written material and memorabilia he left us, I have had to rely on other sources to follow his cold trail.

I’ve used clues from letters he sent from the road, newspaper articles written in 1960 (and later) and TV-detective logic to make the best guesses I can.

I am going everywhere Steinbeck actually went on his 10,000-mile trip across 34 states, I think.  I’m taking the same U.S. highways he took – except where they’ve been buried under interstates.

I’m leaving from Sag Harbor, Long Island, on Thursday, Sept. 23 — 50 years to the day after Steinbeck and Charley set out in their overloaded pickup-truck/camper hybrid.

I won’t take nearly three months to circumnavigate the country, as he did, however, because I won’t be spending nearly five weeks off-road staying at posh hotels or visiting friends and family — as he did.

I’ll be moving quickly in my red Toyota RAV4, practicing drive-by journalism at its finest or worst. I’ll report and opine on what I see along the Old Steinbeck Highway in 2010 and try to discover, document — or imagine — what Steinbeck saw on his journey in 1960.

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I’ll also try to find out how the simpler, less prosperous and less lovely America that he observed, critiqued and worried about has changed or not changed in half a century. And whether those changes have turned out for the better or the worse.

Meanwhile, I’m packing and getting my RAV4 set up so if I need to crash somewhere — not literally — I can sleep in it at campgrounds, rest stops, truck stops or Walmart parking lots.

It’s not as homey as Rocinante, Steinbeck’s truck/camper, but it’ll be a much smoother ride on the road.

Oh, yeah. About the dog.

I’m not taking one.

Not because I don’t like dogs.  My big joke — which I won’t repeat again — is that I just couldn’t find a dog that knows how to read Google maps and tweet at the same time.

But even if I had our family dog, the late, great Alex, I wouldn’t subject him to the long and crazy road ahead.

First stop is Sag Harbor, where Steinbeck loafed when he wasn’t living in his Manhattan brownstone and where his backyard ended at the ocean’s edge.

Travels Without Charley, the blog begins

September 21, 2010

Steinbeck’s Little Land Ship

EIGHTY FOUR, PA.  —  MILE ZERO

Steinbeck’s Rocinante is parked permanently at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, Ca.

Steinbeck carefully planned his trip for months. He studied maps to choose routes that dodged big cities but circled the edge of the country from Maine to Seattle and back.

He also packed his Spartan camper shell Rocinante with everything he thought he’d ever need.

He had a pile of books like William Shirer’s “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” that he hoped to read but never did. He had tools, spare truck parts and several rifles.

He also had a propane stove, a table that converted to a bed, closets and a toilet, as you can see if you use a camera to light up the interior of his camper at its eternal parking place in the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, Ca.

It was Steinbeck’s idea to carry his little house around with him so he could invite people he met in for a friendly drink.

His truck cab was nothing like the luxuriously appointed pickups today. He had no AC and only an AM radio — not even push-button.

No wonder he was always talking to Charley.

I left Pittsburgh and drove to New York, stayed overnight in northern New Jersey, drove through Manhattan on the morning of Sept. 22 and arrived in Sag Harbor after lunch. I went to Steinbeck’s old house by the sea late in the afternoon.

Me and Steinbeck’s Ghost

Wednesday, September 22, 2010 11:20 PM

SAG HARBOR, N.Y. — Steinbeck’s House

Before the sun set on the last day of summer, and before the harvest moon rose, I drove out to Steinbeck’s seashore house on Bluff Point Lane. The GPS Girl had no trouble finding it, but the house hides at the end of a narrow private gravel road.

I didn’t pull in the driveway because John Stefanik’s car was there. He’s been taking care of the house for 28 years — when widow Elaine hired him to do the job.

The wood-sided house and its outer buildings and thick shaggy grass were looking pretty good beneath the heavy shade of the lot’s tall and muscular oak trees.

The oaks are much bigger than they were when Steinbeck lived there, of course, and the house and other structures — dark green 50 years ago — have been painted slate-gray. But Steinbeck would have recognized it in its preserved state.

Stefanik said on Monday a New York Times reporter and photographer went with him to the house to do a story about the 50th anniversary of Steinbeck’s “Charley” trip.

Though he usually asks for appointments from pushy media-types like me, as soon as I explained why I was there he let me wander around and take pictures as the sun set over the waters of Morris Cove.

Stefanik couldn’t have been nicer. While he and his son ran noisy garden gadgets and did yard work, I did my best impression of a real photojournalist and tried to document the scene in the failing orange-red light.

When the Stefaniks drove off they left me in the driveway with my cameras and, I guess, Steinbeck’s ghost.

Hitting the Steinbeck Highway

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Sag Harbor — Mile 0

Goodbye, Sag Harbor.

It’s 7 a.m. My RAV4 is in Steinbeck’s driveway, ready for launching.

I’m sure he wouldn’t mind my trespassing.

The ferry to New London, Conn. — back to the continent — embarks at 10.

Island-hopping, Ferry-jumping

Thursday, 23 September 2010 04:10 PM Written by

EAST HARTFORD, CONN. —  MILE 60

It hasn’t been easy getting this far inland.

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I was up before dawn after sleeping in my RAV4 on the Sag Harbor pier, trying to blend in with all the yachts berthed nearby.Let’s pretend I got five hours of actual sleep. A local told me it was a good and safe place — i.e., I wouldn’t be arrested or run out of town — and he was right.The idea of any crime going on Sag Harbor — other than felonious BMW-envy — is absurd. I never saw a cop while I was there. Of course I was in town less than 18 hours.

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Ready to roll: Steinbeck’s front door. Southampton Express photo.

I went back to Steinbeck’s house at dawn to see if anyone was there and to take a picture of my idling RAV4 in the driveway.

It was like visiting a quiet, perfectly landscaped museum at the end of a well-disguised private lane, which is exactly what it is.

An hour later I had to go back to Steinbeck’s for a photo shoot with a local photographer from the Southampton Express.

The paper is doing a little feature on me and my madness written by Mike White, a guy I talked to but never met (“Blogger will retrace Steinbeck’s travels 50 years later,” Sept. 28).

Ferrying to the Mainland

I missed my first ferry from Sag Harbor to Shelter Island, so I never had a prayer of catching the big ferry from Orient Point to Connecticut at 10 a.m.

Steinbeck, like my co-voyagers, was no doubt a pro at the island-hopping and ferry-jumping it takes to escape the expensive end of Long Island, but I was a total rookie.

It was a pretty cool sea journey for a landlubber. Two silent but swift 10-minute crossings on and off Shelter Island with about 15 other vehicles. Then the 90-minute trip on the Cross Sound Ferry from Orient Point across Long Island Sound to Connecticut.

I had to drive about 16 miles between ferries. Virtually every home or berry farm I sped past on land was pre-1960-old, classy, rural and picture perfect.

It was a pricy escape from Long Island — $12 and $9 for the local trips on the small ferries and $49 for the long ride to New London, which 1,000 cars would be making today.

Those steep prices would tax even the average wealthy hamptonite. But commuters get a week’s worth of roundtrips for $22, a nice deal for rich people that’s probably subsidized by some government public transit agency somewhere.

On Steinbeck’s watery way to New London aboard “the clanking iron ferry boat,” he said he saw submarines surfacing nearby and met a sailor on leave — a nuclear submariner, to be exact. They talked about the nuclear subs that were then filling up the docks at the U.S. naval base in New London on the Thames River.

Like so many Americans in those scary Cold War days, Steinbeck was not fond of the U.S./Soviet strategy of mutual assured destruction, part of which involved building a fleet of Polaris-firing nuclear subs. He didn’t like subs, either, because despite their beauty they were “designed for destruction” and “armed with mass murder.”

Blaize Zabel.

I didn’t see any subs or sailors. But as I waited with about 90 other vehicles to drive into the empty open belly of the Susan Anne I met Blaize Zabel, 20.

A high school dropout, he looked tough with his big forearms, black T-shirt and shorts and cross tattoo. But he turned out to be an incredibly nice kid. He was on his way back to his home in Falmouth, Massachusetts, and said he hoped he would have enough money for the Greyhound Bus fare.

I took his picture and gave him the same crazy advice I tell all young people (under 30), including my own kids Billie, Joe and Lucy — go to L.A. and see what happens. It’s been a good move for millions of migrants, including me in the late 1970s.

L.A.’s not as lovable or affordable as it was in the 1980s, but it’s still a la-la land of opportunities. If it isn’t a place for you, you’ll find out soon enough. Then you can go back home to your hometown, which you’ll have decided isn’t so bogus after all

John Woestendiek and Ace.

On the ferry I also met a 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning crime reporter, John Woestendiek, 57, formerly of the Baltimore Sun and Philly Inquirer.

John is now the owner-operator of OhMiDog.com and TravelsWithAce.com, two dog-oriented web sites. Ace, his Rotweiller/Akita/Chow/pitbull mutt of 130 pounds, was traveling with him.

He’s been on the road for several months already, mostly down South, and he decided it would be cool for him and Ace to start following Steinbeck and Charley’s trail exactly 50 years later. He’s doing dog-related things as he goes.

John genuflected at Steinbeck’s house at dawn, too. He slept last night unmolested by the law behind a business called Sleepies in one of the Hamptons, sprawled across the front seat of his red Jeep Liberty.

Ace, 6, was so big and friendly he made me wish I had a dog along too — for about four seconds.

Ace provides security and unconditional love but consumes the back of John’s Jeep. We exchanged info, took pictures of each other and agreed our paths will probably cross again either in Maine or Montana.  (Editor’s Note: We did not meet again on the road, but I met John again in Winston-Salem, N.C. in 2012 on my way to a golf trip to South Carolina. Sadly, he died in the summer of 2020. He was a nice guy and a great journalist.)

Now — at 4 p.m. — I’m writing this at a McDonald’s somewhere north of East Hartford on US 5.

I’m on the route I presume Steinbeck took to Deerfield, Mass., home of the Eaglebrook School (where actor Michael Douglas matriculated).

On state Route 85 from New London was the kind of healthy commercial development that Steinbeck never saw — a mega-car-dealership complex with strange car names  like Hyundai and Subaru.

It gave way quickly to a rural countryside and still-green woods. And the roadside was loosely strung with old white houses and barns and roadhouse restaurants and fruit stands that look like they were there in 1960 to watch Steinbeck whiz past.

Empty, Pretty and Rich

Friday, 24 September 2010 08:15 AM 

GREENFIELD, MASS. – Mile 188

Steinbeck’s first stop in the fall of 1960 was the Eaglebrook School, the boarding school in Deerfield, Mass., that his youngest son John was attending.

Steinbeck didn’t divulge much about his visit to Eaglebrook in “Charley.” He said he got there too late on Sept. 23 (a Friday in 1960) to rouse his son, so he drove to the top of a hill nearby and camped overnight on a farm under an apple tree.

Though he actually stayed in the Deerfield metro area until Sunday afternoon, he said in the book that he visited with his son the next day and then drove north into Vermont.

Before I do the same, I’ll drive over to Eaglebrook’s campus and check it out.

Meanwhile, I’ll enjoy the luxurious amenities of the Days Inn I treated myself to last night to make up for my night sleeping on Sag Harbor’s Long Pier in the back of my RAV4.

The nicest part of my $71 stay here so far? – the generous wall plugs that have replenished the juice in all my batteries.

Road Report

The drive from East Hartford to here on Connecticut state routes 85 and 2 and then on two-lane US 5 reminded me yet again just how empty America is and how rich it is.

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Friday night in Northampton, Mass.

US 5 north pierces some small towns like Enfield, Conn., – founded in 1683. Then it leads to Massachusetts college towns like Springfield, Holyoke and Northampton, where the spectacular historic downtown buildings, the thriving retail scene and the sidewalk mobs of young people on a Thursday night at 8 were surreal.

Mostly, though, US 5 was undeveloped and timeless. The “Purple Heart Memorial Highway” made Connecticut look as un-peopled as Long Island and Pennsylvania.And when there were houses along the road – and there were hundreds — they were usually big, white, pre-Teddy Roosevelt-looking beauties on large and perfectly landscaped lots.

Steinbeck may or may not have noticed this impressive gauntlet of affluence. But he would have passed 99 percent of the same homes I saw as he drove to Deerfield, which is about 160 road miles from Sag Harbor.

Ghost farm

Friday, 24 September 2010 05:40 PM 

DEERFIELD, MASS. — Eaglebrook School

I bet there’s not a better or more beautiful middle school in America than Eaglebrook.DSC_1839

Its campus hangs on the side of a low mountain overlooking the historic village of Deerfield on US 5 north not 25 miles from Vermont.

It’s not your run-of-the mill public middle school. It’s private and exclusive and so pricy that if you have to ask what a year’s tuition and room and board costs, you’re not rich enough to send your heir there.

Its nearly 250-boy student body, one quarter of them day students, fork over Harvard-level annual fees that would stagger a movie star.

Along with many future successful businessmen and scholars, Michael Douglas, actor Kurt’s son, went there.

Michael was present in 1960 when Steinbeck pulled in with his pickup-camper hybrid to see his son John, who was 13 or 14.

In those days, former headmaster Stuart Chase told me, Steinbeck would have found schoolboys outfitted in identical Navy blue blazers and thick-striped school ties.

Today’s students don’t dress so formally, Chase said. But they aren’t allowed to ruin the school’s pre-prep school milieu with bluejeans, torn pants or un-collared shirts.

Chase wasn’t running Eaglebrook when Steinbeck arrived from Sag Harbor on Friday evening, Sept. 23, 1960. Since it was too late to see his son, Steinbeck says in “Travels With Charley,” he drove up to the top of the mountain and “found a dairy, bought some milk, and asked permission to camp under an apple tree.”DSC_1852

Chase, whose father preceded him as Eaglebrook headmaster and whose son succeeded him eight years ago, gave me directions to the apple orchard. He also told me how time and uninterested heirs had turned a thriving farm into the abandoned and overgrown white hulk it is today.

Climbing the road above Eaglebrook I twisted my way through the dense woods to the top and found the apple orchard right where Chase said it would be.

He called it a “skeleton” of an orchard and that’s what it was. The trees were still there.DSC_1860_copy

They were thick and tall and old and gnarly and heavy with red apples — apples that were not being harvested, polished and sold but were providing a feast for the local insect population.

The trees that weren’t surrounded by weeds and golden rod were being strangled by rose bushes and grape vines. Rotting fruit on the ground made the orchard smell like apple juice.

The gate to the former orchard was invitingly off its hinges and lying flat in the low jungle. I drove my RAV4 through the opening in the heavy stone wall and parked/posed it under what could have been the same very large apple tree Steinbeck camped under.

Unlike Steinbeck, however, there was no dairy man with a Ph.D. in mathematics to shoot the breeze with while I swatted bugs and tried not to stand too long in the shag carpet of baby poison ivy plants.

DSC_1850Humans had lost control of the orchard and nature was slowly reasserting itself on the rest of the place.

Steinbeck could probably have written a novelette about the process.

The big beautiful (white) farmhouse and the (white) dairy barn, looked fine and prosperous. It was as if one day someone just dropped a water hose or closed a barn door and drove to Boston.

It almost looked like someone could come in, cut the grass, throw a switch and get back to dairy farming in a week or so. Almost.

Sleeping by the River

Saturday, September 25, 2010 12:03 PM

LANCASTER, N.H. — Lancaster Motor Inn lobby

After passing on the opportunity last night to spend $70 for a box with one locked window in a mom & pop motel in mid-Vermont, I pushed up US 5 north.SLEEPINVERMONTRAV_copy

The fat yellow rising moon, the dark mountains of New Hampshire and the Connecticut River were on my right as I drove toward St. Johnsbury, Vt., and the intersection with US 2 east.

The GPS girl kept trying to get me to leave the river valley and take I-91, which parallels US 5, but I stuck to the Steinbeck Highway and its little towns and big dark empty spaces.

By 10, minutes after my wife Trudi’s phone call to me dropped, I pulled over into a small turnout by some trees in the middle of nowhere. I decided to try to get some sleep in my “bed,” which is made of six This End Up sofa cushions that fit perfectly when the RAV4’s back seats are down.

I locked myself in, crawled in the back and hung up the Velcro-equipped “blackout curtains” fashioned by my wife.

Once the spooks were put to rest and I got used to the occasional car buzzing past, I slept almost straight through till dawn.

At 6 the light showed me what a perfect spot I had accidentally chosen.

I was not 30 feet from the wooded edge of the Connecticut River, which was silent as a pond.

I figure I had seven hours of good sleep — twice what I had been getting in motels or on Sag Harbor’s lighted pier.

Town of White Churches

Saturday, 25 September 2010 02:40 PM DSC_1947_copy

LANCASTER, N.H. — Lancaster Motor Inn

Steinbeck passed through this town on the Vermont border twice on his long loop to the top of Maine and back — once going east on US 2 exactly 50 years ago this weekend and again a week later heading west.

He no doubt noticed the town’s surfeit of white churches.

I can see at least five on US 2 from the venerable and welcoming Lancaster Motor Inn, where I am sitting in their lobby borrowing their wi-fi service after a fine $8 breakfast of steak and eggs; a local says 13 or 14 churches serve the town’s 3,200 souls/sinners.

Driving through St. Johnsbury, Vt., on my way here was a disappointment. I was hoping to stop at one of the dozens of hip Internet cafes I imagined would be open in “St. Jay’s” downtown at 7 a.m.

Instead I had to quickly turn right/east on US 2 and travel through a dingy light industrial district that included the Maple Grove Farms of Vermont’s “plant” with attached Gift Shop and Maple Museum.

US 2 was a fast smooth ride. At one point I was doing 65 mph and being pushed from behind by a guy pulling a racing car on a trailer.FOUR_POLITICAL_SIGNS

Nothing — mostly nothing. That’s all  there was except for the gorgeous scenery. Few humans were to be seen on or off the road.

A few mobile homes and trailers came and went. Their snowmobiles and pickup trucks were seductively parked by the side of the road, hung with “For Sale” signs.

Mostly it was mountains and woods and yellow and orange and red and green leaves and an occasional “Moose” warning sign. signliberals

Not long before I hit Lancaster and the NH border, I turned a bend on US 2 and found the first screaming evidence that politics and the upcoming off-year elections were important to some folks ’round he-ah.The front yard of this partisan’s farm had it all.Not only did his driveway have a display of pumpkins for sale — as did half of the Vermontians who live on US 5 and US 2. But he had carefully posted a dozen political signs along the side of the curve.

If there was any doubt where his sympathies lay, his hand-lettered sign made it clear.

Downtown Lancaster

Lancaster’s main drag — US 2 — was busier than it must be on a Sunday morning when townspeople are pouring into all the white churches.

At 9 a.m. a flea market was setting up on the grass next to the old brick courthouse. Among the sellers of maple syrup and organic vegetables and gluten-free breadstuff was Gerry Gallick, 52.

Gallick, the second person I talked to, could be a poster-victim for the current economic downturn.

He was putting his color photographs and calendars on display, but he was not really a photographer by choice. He was a civil engineer, a former cop, a former truck driver, a musician, a poet — and now a photographer.GERRYFROMPITT

He lost his engineering job in January and can talk your ear off about all the jobs he’s looked for since but didn’t get.

He’s been rejected because he’s too old or over-qualified and so he’s trying to make a living selling his big color photos of the magnificent local stuff that he said God has made — the mountains and woods and fauna.

I struck up a conversation with Gallick when I spotted one of his panoramic photos — the one taken of downtown Pittsburgh from Mt. Washington.

Yes, like Mike from Sag Harbor and others I am destined to meet in the next weeks, he’s from the ‘burgh — 31 years removed.

He grew up in Forest Hills, went to Churchill High School and is living in God’s Country, right where he wants to be.

Miraculously, we found each other and neither of us was wearing a stitch of Steelers black and gold.

Walmart, Ho

Sunday, 26 September 2010 04:32 PM

EAST NEW HAMPSHIRE — US 2 East

The Granite State and the Pine Tree State blended together smoothly Saturday evening as I headed east to my nocturnal rendezvous with the scorching klieg lights of the Bangor Walmart parking lot.

I cruised into and out of New Hampshire’s rugged White Mountains in light-to-no traffic at 60 mph.

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The White Mountains are tall and dark and they look tough and mean.

I’m no geologist, but in age they must fall somewhere between Pennsylvania’s gentle, smoothed and dying Alleghenies and the craggy, punk mountain ranges out West that are still growing.

Steinbeck traveled the same route half a century ago to get to Bangor and down to the Maine seacoast at Stonington. He would recognize this part of his highway, too.

A short stretch of US 2 is under major reconstruction, but little is new from 50 years ago. I passed the same farms, same houses and same frozen-in-time intersections as he did.DSC_1888_copy

Not that I am especially sensitive to such things, but on the road nothing screamed “urban sprawl” or “development” or “commercialization.”

In fact, a few of the Maine towns on US 2 — Rumford in particular — could use some old-fashioned exploitation from a few decent national fast-food chains like Bob Evans.

I asked a young Maine state trooper who was washing his windshield at a gas station in Rumford where I could get something decent to eat.

He thought for a second and, being an honest cop, pointed across the road and, with a mix of embarrassment and empathy, said “There’s the Subway.”

God bless Walmart

Sunday, September 26, 2010 04:40 AM

BANGOR, ME. — Walmart parking lot

Thanks, Walmart, for letting me/us stay in your parking lot overnight.

It’s a little on the bright side. I could perform a heart transplant on my hood.

I don’t know yet if I’m living better, but I’m sure saving money.

From Bangor to the Sea

Sunday, 26 September 2010 09:50 PM

STONINGTON, ME. — BOYCES MOTEL

Sleep one night in a parking lot and next thing you know it’s fall and long-pants time.

When I crawled out of the back of my car in the Bangor Walmart lot shortly after dawn, it was barely 50 degrees and the start of a gray and damp and chilly day. It was also actually much darker than it had been at 3 a.m.DSC_1897

About 15 RVs had taken up Walmart’s standing invitation to America’s RVers and spent the night under the bright lights, but no one but me was in a hurry to hit the road.

I had no interest in exploring any part of Bangor, even if it once was the lumber exporting capital of the world.

I just wanted to do what Steinbeck did in 1960 — cut through the city on my way south on Route 15 to the seacoast paradise of Deer Isle.

In “Travels With Charley” he said he got annoyed by Bangor’s traffic confusion and got lost. If the roads were laid out in 1960 the way they are now, I can understand why he got so testy. DSC_1902

Downtown Bangor — where I grabbed an omelette at a crowded bagel factory — looked suspiciously to me like one of those cities that has spent about five decades wrecking large parts of itself.

First came urban renewal projects, I bet. Then the heavy-handed street and traffic management.

Too many one-way streets and too many turn arrows and lines on the pavement are always a sign of planning experts working too hard. They only gum things up, waste paint and make things worse.

Once you are beyond Bangor’s suburbs on Route 15, the 60-mile trip to Deer Isle becomes a highlight reel of Maine culture.

Boats and RVs of all sizes, truck caps, kayaks, logs, shingles and gigantic piles of firewood on people’s front lawns are everywhere. The best roadside sign advertised  “Guns, Ammo and Camo.”DSC_1907_copy_copy_copy

The closer you get to Deer Isle and the impossibly quaint and funky “downeast” tourist/lobster fishing village of Stonington, the farther back in time you go and the more upscale and artistic things get.

By the time you reach Caterpillar Hill and its panoramic view of Deer Isle and the ocean and the rainbow-arcing bridge that connects them, you’ve already passed dozens of pottery studios, antique shops, art galleries and ceramics shops — but no sports bars or McDonald’s.DSC_1930_copy

Eventually the turning, roller-coasting road delivers you to Stonington’s narrow old Main Street.

And when you see the harbor, the fishing boats and the charming/funky mix of beautiful homes and buildings holding onto the hillside or hanging over the water’s edge, you’ll understand why Steinbeck thought it was unlike any American town he’d ever seen.DSC_1965_copy

I stayed for less than $80 at Boyces Motel.

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Pay phones on Main Street

Monday, 27 September 2010

DEER ISLE, MAINE — STONINGTON

01SteigStoningtonOne reason John Steinbeck would still love the village of Stonington is pay phones.

When he was looping up to the top of Maine and back in 1960, he was constantly looking for a public phone to call his wife Elaine in New York.

Of course, he’d have exactly the same problem today, only worse.

He’d be thrilled to find a pair of the living techno-relics standing side-by-side at this moment in what passes for Stonington’s town square.

They haven’t been preserved by the local historical society.

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They’re necessities: cell phone signals don’t make it to Stonington’s Main Street, so land lines haven’t become obsolete or irrelevant here and you don’t see people walking around looking at their hands all day. The pay phones are also important to fishermen coming in off their boats.

Stonington and Deer Isle is a one big photo-op. Just point and shoot at the wondrous works of man and nature.

The collision of charm and funk creates character.

What a suburbanite would declare an eyesore and want to outlaw — the hulk of a 1950s car or a fishing boat on a front lawn — is what keeps downtown Stonington from becoming post-card perfect.

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Stonington is the top lobster port by value of catch on the East Coast.

As long as there are hundreds of real working lobster fishermen in town and elsewhere on Deer Isle who need to stack their traps and ropes and other gear in their side yards, this place will never become one of those over-perfected tourist horrors like Niagara on the Lake.

Sleeping by the Sea

Monday, 27 September 2010 09:23 PM

Gleason Cove, Me.

Right now I am parked by the ocean not far from Pleasant Point, Me.

It’s not actually the ocean, it’s the Bay of Fundy and the Canadian border, drawn somewhere in the water out there in the pitch dark, is not far.DSC_1924_copy

I’ll not do any trick photography like I did in the Walmart lot Saturday night, because I don’t want to attract attention with a flash.

I didn’t see any signs that said I couldn’t drive down here and sleep for a few hours — or the night — so I just did.

I chose this road because I knew it led to a public access spot on the beach and because there is a Verizon phone signal, which means my Samsung phone’s mobile hot spot will send this note all the way to Pittsburgh.

For most of the trip up US 1 from Deer Isle and Ellsworth to Machias and Perry, I was out of Verizon’s vaunted coverage. It’s totally dark — except the glow from my laptop’s screen — but I’m sure it’s perfectly safe here.

Meanwhile, here are some more photos from beautiful Stonington and Deer Isle:

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The Ooze of Dawn

Tuesday, 28 September 2010 07:21 AM

GLEASON COVE, ME. — Dawn’s feeble light

Here in the northeast corner of America, dawn didn’t exactly come up like thunder.

It oozed into being around 6.

The sun is up now, but there’s no telling where it is. There is no horizon. The local world is murky and gray and foggy.

Sleeping by the sea turned out fine.  During the night only a few locals drove down Gleason Cove Road to the “beach” and turned around.

The Bay of Fundy’s famous high tides didn’t rise up and sweep me out to sea. Best of all, all night  it was nice and dark.

The dawn.

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The beach.

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Of Eggs & Books

Tuesday, 28 September 2010 01:32 PM

CALAIS, Me. — 100 miles north of Bangor

We’ll never know if John Steinbeck stopped at the US 1 border town of Calais.

Pronounced callous despite or perhaps in spite of its French origins, the town in 1960 was a lot healthier than it is now.

Population is down from about 4,000 to around 3,000 since 1990, according to the local downeasters/upeasters/overeasterns/fareasters eating breakfast at the counter in Karen’s Main Street Diner.

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It’s a familiar story. Hundred of jobs have been lost in the paper mill. Young people are leaving.

If it weren’t for the fact that the department of homeland security beefed up the three border crossings with Canada after it learned one of the 9/11 hijackers entered the States at Calais, there’d be even fewer jobs around.

Calais is in Washington County, which has about 33,000 people and is the state’s poorest county. Across the St. Croix River is New Brunswick, Canada, so there’s a lot of interaction of all kinds with the Canadians, including marriages.

One side of Calais’ Main Street’s business district was foolishly destroyed long ago in the name of urban renewal/progress.

But the old red brick buildings that survive include two good reasons for Steinbeck — or anyone following his trail — to stop:  Karen’s diner and the Calais Book Store.

DSC_1959_2 Karen’s is one of those priceless local eateries where getting a breakfast of two eggs over medium, sausage and home fries is a routine of perfection, not a matter of chance. The prices were good and the diner was doing a steady business, as it’s done for five years.

Its owners, Karen and Lou Scribner, do homey things like cook their own turkey each week. Unless you go all exotic and go for the fried fresh clams, you can’t spend more than $9 on something sensible like a hot turkey sandwich.

A few storefronts up the street is the Calais Book Shop. It’s not something you’d expect to find in this part of the world — especially after driving for what seemed like days through pine forests just hoping for a place that served coffee.

Carole Heinlein, 59, owns and operates the bookstore, which she started five years or so ago with the 8 tons of books she trucked up from Florida. Unlike half the Maine folk around here who head for Florida for the winter or for retirement, she came north and started her own business.

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She’s hanging on, without being able to afford to hire any help, running a semi-funky place overflowing with thousands of old and new good/classic books of all genres. A copy of “Travels With Charley” sat two feet inside her front door.

It’s “Banned Books Week” this week, and Steinbeck would get the importance of that fight against bluenosed censorship. Two of his biggest/greatest works — “Of Mice and Men” and “The Grapes of Wrath” —  are perennial  victims of America’s nuttier local school boards.

Carole grew up in Key West, Fla., and worked for almost 20 years at various newspaper jobs including reporting.

She loves books, old or new. She doesn’t have much good to say about TV or radio, but realizes she has to get an Internet site and go global, if she is ever to survive in her tiny market.

She hasn’t made her initial investment back yet, but she’s not about to give up, despite the economic downturn.

“I opened a bookstore in the poorest county in Maine — on April Fool’s Day,” she laughed. “The joke’s on me. But I’d do the same thing again in the poorest county of any state.”

Potato Country

Wednesday, 29 September 2010 10:11 AM

VAN BUREN,  Me. — 929 Steinbeck Miles

Aroostook County, famous for potatoes, is said to be bigger than Connecticut and Rhode Island combined.

No one behind the wheel of a car traveling north on US 1 from Calais is going to challenge that fact.

Steinbeck came all this way armed with only an AM radio and his own imagination, though he had Charley to talk to.DSC_1932_copy_copy

Probably 50 years ago today, Steinbeck headed north on US 1 from Deer Isle to the top of Maine after staying for two days at Eleanor Brace’s spectacularly beautiful house on the edge of the sea.

He probably slept there in Rocinante the nights of Sept. 26 and Sept. 27. A Sept. 28 letter he sent from Deer Isle to Adlai Stevenson mentioned that he had seen part of the first Nixon-JFK TV debate (held Sept. 26) and was disgusted by the excess of courtesy the two candidates showed toward each other.

Steinbeck’s long-time agent, Elizabeth Otis, had been vacationing at Brace’s place for 30 years, renting a rustic cottage on the grounds straight out of a Disney movie.

Otis insisted that the island and the house were too beautiful for Steinbeck to miss.

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Eleanor Brace’s house on Deer Isle, where Steinbeck slept two nights on his way to the top of Maine.

After Steinbeck left Deer Isle, he said in “Charley” that he slept in Rocinante under a bridge one rainy night and also camped overnight by a lake somewhere in Aroostook County, where he entertained a family of French Canadians at a little party in his camper shell.

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Eleanor Brace’s guest house.

The Canucks had come across the border from Canada, as they always did during potato harvest time, to pick potatoes.

Machines do most of the picking now, and, as with most everything else that was once hard and back-breaking slave’s work, human muscle has been replaced by brainpower and the magic of technology.

Last night I behaved like an adult and slept in the Aroostook Hospitality Inn here on US 1.

I rolled the motel-room dice from 60 miles away and I didn’t lose. It’s a good place with all the important amenities I need — strong wi-fi, lots of wall plugs and a good shower.

It’s an independent mom & pop, has a lot of character — not to mention the character who manages it — and it cost $69.

Today I set out on the long haul back down to Lancaster, N.H., on state Route 11, as Steinbeck did.

First I’ll  see if I can find a big potato farm — or big potato factory  — or big whatever it is that potatoes come from these days.

Good Roads, Good women

Thursday, 30 September 2010 08:08 AM Written by

FARMINGTON, ME. — McDonald’s

Unlike Steinbeck, I never did find a potato farm on US 1 in Aroostook County that looked like it was harvesting or processing spuds with Canuck migrant workers or even machines.

Maybe next time.

In Ft. Kent I reached the northern end of US 1 about noon on Wednesday and turned south on state Route 11 for the long drive back to New Hampshire and the way West. DSC_1932_3

On the map, Route 11 looks like a boring north-south highway stuck into the top half of Maine.

For some reason — maybe because Steinbeck said nothing about the road itself — I dreaded Route 11. I imagined running all day long through pine trees over a marshy flatland.

In reality Maine’s longest highway is prettier and far more interesting and fun to drive than foggy, flat US 1 — until the sun sets, anyway.

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After it leaves the top of Maine, Route 11 runs over, around, up and down and through hills and low mountains in deepest, darkest, woodsiest Maine.

There was so little traffic I began to suspect the smooth wide two-lane highway was built just to prove how empty the middle of Maine truly is. Or to give highballing’ double-trailered logging trucks their own speedway.

Other cars were almost as rare as the towns, houses and farms. Steinbeck saw moose on Route 11. The only mooses I saw were painted on warning signs.DSC_1925_copy

Route 11 took me longer than it should have.

I pulled over too many times to take photos of sagging abandoned farm houses or the cute little rest stops that MaineDOT has built to provide a quiet place for  picnics or the couples who arrive separately in their pickup trucks.

When I stopped at a rest stop to snack on some peanut butter and crackers — I wasn’t counting on finding a restaurant for a another day or two — there were three cars and only one person. Then a couple stepped out of the woods and got into their vehicles.

Maine people — Mainers? Manians? Mainsters? — couldn’t be nicer and they’ve obviously been brought up to be kind to strangers.

In the little burg of Patten I turned around to go back and photograph a weed-strangled home that was obviously inhabited when Steinbeck hurried through there 50 years ago so he could get to a motel in Lancaster, N.H., before nightfall.DSC_2001_copy

As I got out of my car, a young woman who had seen me turn around pulled over and asked if I needed any help.

She thought I was lost, of course, which it looked like I was. But I was just driving the way I usually do — as if traffic laws don’t apply to journalists (or ex-journalists).

She quickly filled me in on the local history, said her town has about 1,000 inhabitants and suggested I take a picture of the corner store “because it’s going to be torn down tomorrow.”DSC_2009

She wasn’t the first woman in timeless/spaceless/changeless Maine to think I was in distress; she was the fourth in less than 24 hours.

In Calais — was that Tuesday? — after I talked to the people in Karen’s Main Street diner and the town bookstore, I stopped along the side of the road on my way out of town to file a blog item.

I wanted to take advantage of the sudden surge in Verizon’s cell phone signal. (It was from Canada and roaming charges will apply until I call Verizon and plead my case; it happens all the time, warn the locals.)

I was twisted around backwards, squeezed between my two front seats, typing on my laptop, which sat on my “bed.”

Since I am journalism’s worst typist even when sitting up straight in a booth at McDonald’s, it took almost two hours to write my blog item and load and send it and photos to Pittsburgh.

My first visitor was a U.S. Customs and Border Control officer, who pulled up behind me in her patrol car. I thought it was a local cop coming to arrest me, but she couldn’t have been sweeter.

She had passed me three times and saw me in the same stupid position, so she naturally thought I had had a heart attack or had been the victim of a mob hit.

I told her, apologizing as abjectly as possible, I was fine and explained what I was doing and begged for mercy because I was an ex-journalist and didn’t know any better.

She believed every word of it, wasn’t the least bit mad or officious, and left me to my pathetic typing. I didn’t dare take her picture.

Ten minutes later I looked up from my keyboard to see two cars parked right behind me and two women with worried faces hurrying toward me.

They too thought I was dead or dying and were genuinely relieved, and not the least bit annoyed, to be told I was physically fine, just mentally challenged.

I finally came to my senses and pulled into a parking lot farther up the road, where I should have been in the first place.

It felt comforting to know the good women of Maine were looking out for me.

Where the Calais police force was all this time, I’ll never know.  I’m not complaining, mind you. But based on my five-day, nearly 1,000 mile loop through Maine, police are as rare as moose.

A night at an auto park

Thursday, 30 September 2010 09:11 AM

FARMINGTON, ME. — Still at McDonald’s

Nice to find a McDonald’s. Nicer to find a McDonald’s open at 5:15.

I tried to make it to the  Lancaster Motor Inn in Lancaster, N.H., last night — honest — but I couldn’t keep my eyes open. Driving in a snaking tunnel of pine trees at 60 mph for three hours will do that.DSC_2025

Maine is even emptier at night, if that’s possible. The distance between Millinocket — the lumber mill town where the Pelletier family of “American Loggers” fame lives and runs a new restaurant that surprised me with an amazingly good spinach salad — and the next big town, Milo, is 39 miles. I encountered 12 cars in 45 minutes.

Steinbeck said in “Travels With Charley” that he camped behind or beneath or beside a bridge somewhere in the middle of Maine’s vast nowhereness. I was not so lucky. For an hour I looked for a  “camping” turnout or rest stop where I could crash for the night but found none.

Then I saw a poorly lighted used car dealership out in the country on US Route 2 maybe 10 miles east of here. I stopped. I backed onto the grass next to a pickup truck. With the nose of my RAV pointed at the road just like the other cars, I hung up my blackout curtains and went to sleep.

Impersonating a used car worked. My RAV4, despite its cargo top, blended in perfectly with the 30 or 40 other vehicles. The random trucks and cars that roared by in the night took no notice. I didn’t take a photo of the crime scene because I would have had to use a flash. I didn’t want to push my luck.

Now it’s on to Concord, Vt., which is 120 miles west of here. I want to see the spot along the Connecticut River where Steinbeck slept in his camper in the parking lot of a “ghost” motel that was opened all night but had no one at the desk to rent him a room. I also want to be in Concord when Scott Simon of NPR’s “Weekend Edition Saturday” calls to find out if I’m safe to be interviewed by public radio.

Where Steinbeck Really Slept

Friday, 01 October 2010 01:05 PM

LANCASTER, N.H. — Lancaster Motor Inn

Steinbeck wrote in “Travels With Charley” that he slept in or near this lovely town on the border with Vermont two times during his trip.

The first time was Sept. 25, 1960, when he was going east on US 2 to the top of Maine and he said he camped on a farm by a stream in the White Mountains.

Then, a week later, when he passed through here again on his way west, he wrote that he slept in his camper in the parking lot of a “ghost” motel on the banks of the Connecticut River that was open for business but had no one around to rent him a cabin.

Yesterday, as I followed Steinbeck’s route out of Maine, I came back here intent only on finding out as much as I could about the riverbank motel he stayed in on Sept. 30, 1960.

Instead, thanks to the spade work of a local writer, I think I found out where Steinbeck really slept on his first stop.

Not in the woods in his spartan camper shell, but at a cushy mountain-top inn near here that catered to the rich and privileged of New York and Europe.

How I learned this scandalous piece of Steinbeck news is a good lesson in the magical and serendipitous workings of drive-by journalism.

DSC_1950_copyAbout 2 p.m. Thursday, I drove about six miles west of here to Lunenburg, Vt.,  where Scott Simon of NPR’s “Weekend Edition Saturday” was going to call me and interview me.

I needed a land line so the quality would be OK for radio and I wanted to be near Concord, Vt., where a woman I met last week told me I’d find the actual location of the motel/cabins Steinbeck described in “Charley.”

It was pouring rain. The pay phone outside the Lunenburg Variety Store was not only like a public shower, it had no phone number that I could give to NPR’s producer so Simon could call me.

With only minor weeping and explaining, I persuaded variety storeowner Mary Lou Ingalls to let me use her phone.

After the interview, which went well and which I presume NPR will air tomorrow morning, Mary Lou told me there was no way that the motel Steinbeck stayed at was in Concord, Vt.

She was almost certain it was back in Lancaster along US 2, near the iron bridge over the Connecticut River. She said it was where I had always assumed it once was — where a sprawling RV park, gas station and truck stop are now (The Beaver Trails RV Park and Munce’s Convenience store.)

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Back to Lancaster I went.

I found the owner/operator of the RV park. She was too young to remember the scene in 1960, since she didn’t exist then. So she sent me across the street to talk to Mike and Sally Beattie, who once owned the property.

Sally and Mike told me that yes, the “ghost” motel — the Whip ‘o Will — was there in 1960.

I handed Sally my copy of “Charley” and had her read the pertinent passages. That’s the Whip ‘o Will, she said.

Mike Beattie said there were six small cabins, a small office, a larger house and a barn. Everything is long gone now — except one of the cabins, which was out in the swamp forming in the back of their house/farm/business complex.

The cabin had been moved across the road from the Whip o’ Will site decades ago and was being used as a storage shed. I asked if I could check it out.

They said sure, so out into the deluge I went to take photos of a cabin Steinbeck didn’t sleep in in 1960. Here’s what it looked like:DSC_1946_copy

Sally Beattie was just another in a series of fine New England women who’ve helped me on my insane quest to follow Steinbeck’s trail and tell the whole/truer story of his road trip.

She grabbed a phone book, flipped through it and handed me the phone numbers of three locals who could tell me more about the motel’s history.

One number was Jeff Woodburn’s. He’s a local free-lancer, ex-politician, sometime social studies teacher and rental property owner who’s been asking questions about the old motel for months.

I called Jeff’s number last, fearful that he might not want to share what he found after months of digging with a pushy journalist who had just parachuted into town.

But Jeff couldn’t have been nicer or more generous. He quickly began adding to what I already knew about the old motel and the cabin behind the Beattie’s house.

Then he dropped the bombshell/newsflash:

On one of Steinbeck’s stops in the Lancaster area in the fall of 1960 it is very possible that Steinbeck, and presumably poodle Charley, stayed overnight at the Spalding Inn, a super-exclusive mountain-top hotel/retreat of the era.

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The Spalding Inn, near Lancaster, N.H.

Yes, the Spalding Inn still exists, Jeff said, offering to meet me there, which he did.

The Spalding Inn, in Whitefield, N.H., is perched high in the woods of the White Mountains about 7 miles south of Lancaster on state Route 3.

It describes itself, without doing its glorious and old-fashioned self justice, on its Web site thusly: “Surrounded by manicured lawns, orchards, perennial gardens and a 360-degree view of the Presidential Mountain range, it offers you the perfect escape from city life.”

The true story, as Jeff learned through his digging and will reveal in his upcoming article in New Hampshire Magazine, is that Steinbeck stayed at the Spalding Inn for a night 50 years ago this week.

He had a room there. He ate dinner there. He didn’t socialize and kept busy with some writing.

When he tried to enter the dining room he was refused entrance. He lacked the proper attire, as they used to say at such fancy old-fashioned places. When he told them who he was, however, they quickly rounded up a coat and tie.

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The Spalding Inn’s beautiful but empty dining room, where Steinbeck ate in the fall of 1960.

Jeff learned about Steinbeck’s stay at Spalding Inn innocently and by accident.

After he looked for but did not find the local farm Steinbeck said in “Charley” he camped on, and realized it did not exist, he posted a note on a local Facebook page asking if anyone remembered Steinbeck passing through the area in 1960.

Jeff got a handful of responses. He heard the same Spalding Inn story independently from several people, plus reports of Steinbeck sightings in the old Lancaster Diner on Main Street (U.S. 2).

Jeff followed up his leads and said to me there is no doubt Steinbeck stayed at the inn — there’s even supposed to be a file card somewhere in the hotel’s archives that records his stay. Until that card is exhumed, exactly when Steinbeck stayed at the Spalding Inn will remain uncertain.

Jeff and I, two journalists who are digging up different ends of the same esoteric old bone, shared our inside-Steinbeck knowledge over a beer in the dank bar of the otherwise totally empty inn.

Despite its many charms and reasonable $140 per-night price, it had no diners in its spacious and fancy dining room and had more friendly employees than overnight guests. The movie “The Shining” came to mind as we were shown a room they might have given Steinbeck.

Jeff and I don’t know for certain, but we think Steinbeck stayed at the Spalding Inn on his swing east and slept in his camper at the “ghost” hotel by the river on his way west. It could be the other way around.

It doesn’t really matter.  It’s clear evidence — and further proof, considering what I and others already know and anyone who reads “Travels With Charley” with a critical eye should suspect — that the book is not nonfiction but a creative mix of fiction and nonfiction.

It’s not close to being a true account of Steinbeck’s 10,000-mile journey, as Steinbeck himself virtually comes out and says several times in the book.

But so what?

What Steinbeck did or did not really do on his trip doesn’t change anything. “Charley” is still an entertaining work that continues to be read and loved by new generations — not for its accuracy or literal truth, but for what it says about America, its people and the guy who wrote it.

Is it his fault it’s considered nonfiction?

Update, Nov. 26, 2010:

Journalist John Woestendiek, following behind me on the Steinbeck Highway with his super-dog Ace, also talked to good-guy Woodburn and took his picture with Ace.

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Writer Jeff Woodburn and celebrity dog Ace Woestendiek at the Spalding Inn. John Woestendiek photo.

His article about his local search for Steinbeck’s ghost is in New Hampshire Magazine. Photo: John Woestendiek

John visited the Spalding Inn — owned by the producers of the “Ghost Hunters” TV show — and did a nice job of weighing the whole “Charley” fiction/nonfiction issue.

John also talked to a professor who teaches writing about Steinbeck’s pioneering work in what one day would be termed “creative nonfiction” — aka “the literature of reality.”

Pittsburgh’s own Lee Gutkind, of course, was the godfather of the creative nonfiction movement, according to Vanity Fair magazine.

He started the first creative nonfiction writing program at a university in the 1990s at Pitt. And if I ever do a book around how Steinbeck rearranged reality — and enhanced it — in order to write “Charley,” I’ll be talking to Lee Gutkind.

Update Update: Jan. 23, 2011:

Drive-by journalism has its obvious limitations.

Especially when you are trying to reassemble the half-century-old road trip of a famous author who didn’t keep notes and didn’t tell the truth in the nonfiction book he wrote about his journey.

Now, after recently talking again with Jeff Woodburn, the two of us aren’t sure if Steinbeck slept at the Spalding Inn or just ate there.

Steinbeck’s actual sleeping arrangements for his two passes through Lancaster remain tangled and confused.

He was definitely seen by several local people there in the fall of 1960, eating and sitting in the lobby. But until we find Steinbeck’s name on the unlocated guest register — if he used his real name — we don’t know if he stayed at the Spalding Inn overnight.

On his way east on U.S. Route 2 to Maine, he says in “Charley” that he slept in his camper on a farm. That’s not true, according to Woodburn, who looked hard and long and futilely in the White Mountains for the farm and its mythical owner.

But where did he sleep?

The often detailed letters Steinbeck wrote to his wife Elaine while he was on the road — which are credible/truthful and which served as his only notes for “Charley” — provide clues but no answers. (You can read most of Steinbeck’s “Charley” road letters for yourself for free if you go to Amazon.com and search inside the 1975  book “Steinbeck: A Life in Letters,” which Elaine co-edited.51-CX4-v8L._SL500_AA266_PIkin3BottomRight-1634_AA300_SH20_OU01_ Search for the word “Bangor.”)

Steinbeck wrote a letter to his wife Elaine on Sunday, Sept. 25, 1960,  from St. Johnsbury, Vt., which is 30 miles west of Lancaster at the intersection of U.S. Routes 5 and 2. (On the top of the letter he wrote that it was Sunday evening, which was correct, but he incorrectly wrote that it was September 24.)

He said in the letter that he was going to try to get as close to Deer Isle, Me., as he could the next day.

Deer Isle, which is south of Bangor, was 236 miles and six hours away from St. Johnsbury. It makes no sense that he’d hit the hit highway the next morning and stop 40 minutes later in the Lancaster, N.H., area, then wait around all day and go to dinner at the Spalding Inn or sleep there.

When Steinbeck went through Lancaster again a week later on his way west, things are more clear.

Based on a Friday, Sept. 30 letter to his wife, Steinbeck stopped at was undoubtedly the Whip o’ Will. In the letter he details where he was (roughly) and what he did after arriving at 4 p.m. on the border of New Hampshire and Vermont and camping by a stream (the Connecticut River).

He tells his wife he fixed a dinner for himself and went to bed early after a long day of hard driving. Unless he was telling his wife fibs, it doesn’t sound like he went to the Spalding Inn for a nice dinner or to sleep.

The next day, Steinbeck was moving west, heading for Niagara Falls and ultimately to Chicago for his meeting with Elaine.

A postcard he wrote to his agent Elizabeth Otis on Sept. 30 was postmarked Oct. 1 by the Concord, Vt., post office — which is 20 miles west from Lancaster on U.S. Route 2.

So what did Steinbeck do at the Spalding Inn? And when did he do it?

Woodburn and I don’t know, but he’s going to do a little more sleuthing before we call in the FBI.

Update Update Update, March 24, 2011:

The manager of the Spalding Inn, Jared Rice, is going to dig around among his inn’s thousands of old guest registration cards to see if he can find Steinbeck’s name on one of them.

In the next week or so, he’ll look at dates between Sept. 25 and Oct. 2, 1960. The inn only has 36 rooms so it won’t take long to check. If Steinbeck signed a card using his real name, the mystery will be solved. If he didn’t sign a card, or if he used a fake name, we’ll probably never know where he slept when he passed twice through this area like a phantom.

Update Update Update Update, March 30, 2011:

Iris Glidden, 87, was a secretary for the owner of the Spalding Inn in the fall of 1960. She did not see Steinbeck himself, but in a phone call she provided me with this information:

Steinbeck showed up in his shorts and plaid shirt and expected to be able to eat dinner in the dining room. “The story is,” Iris said, “he was told he had to dress properly if he wanted to eat. It’s probably true. It was a very exclusive place for the wealthy in those days.”

Iris said it was definitely in late September of 1960 — “It was foliage season.” She said Steinbeck had a dog with him and that it probably had to stay in Steinbeck’s car (camper) overnight.

Did Steinbeck definitely sleep overnight at the Spalding Inn?  “Oh yes, he did. I’m sure of that. Only one night. He probably stayed through breakfast and cleared out. ”

A few hours later Donald Spalding, the son of the original owners and operators of the inn, confirmed Glidden’s account. He said there is no doubt that Steinbeck ate dinner and slept at the inn during “foliage season” 1960. It’s a 50-year-old story, part of the inn’s rich lore, he said.

“I heard the story from my parents,” Spalding said. “He was traveling with his dog Charley and didn’t socialize. He checked in, ate and kept to himself. He stayed the night.”

Spalding Inn General Manager Jared Rice never got around to looking for a Steinbeck-signed guest card. But based on two well-placed sources, it’s safe to conclude that Steinbeck slept at the Spalding Inn during his “Charley” trip.

It’s not clear what date it was. But my best guess is that he stayed there Sept. 25, 1960, on his way east to Bangor. He wrote a letter to his wife from St. Johnsbury, Vt., that evening but provided no clues about his lodging. He easily, and logically, could have driven another 30 miles to the Spalding Inn.

Also, upon further review, there’s little question Steinbeck was at the Whip ‘o Will Cabins by the Connecticut River on Sept. 30, 1960. He all but says so in his letter to his wife that night. The next night he wrote to his wife that he was staying at a trailer park, probably in Upstate New York.

Eating in the Dark

Friday, 01 October 2010 09:26 PM Written by

 CHURUBUSCO, N.Y. — US 11 — Filion’s Diner

My prayers for a sign of neon were answered by this humble family-friendly diner in the middle of Nowhere, N.Y.DSC_1977

Actually, it wasn’t really neon.

And actually, I’m not really nowhere.

I’m in the middle of Clinton County, 20 miles shy of Malone and 31 miles beyond Rouses Point, N.Y.

Rouses Point, across the bridge from the beautiful Lake Champlain Islands clogging the top of Lake Champlain, is where Steinbeck, and therefore I, 50 years in his wake, crossed from upper Vermont into upper New York.

Steinbeck picked a beautiful if eccentric route. US 2 from Lancaster, N.H., twists around or through Montpelier, Vt., and into Burlington.

Montpelier and the rest of Vermont was under a lot of water after about 36 straight hours of rain had turned the Winooski River into an angry churning brown snake that transformed lowlands into shallow lakes and swamped a ball field.DSC_1936

In Burlington I experienced my first serious traffic jam near the airport and whatever university all the kids on bikes were attending. It took me a while before I realized I was part of the evening rush hour.

Otherwise, it’s been the same old story on the Steinbeck Highway.

Except for some serious new malls and office stuff on US 2 on the way into Burlington, the highway is as empty, rural and pretty as its namesake saw it 50 years ago.

I faithfully followed US 2 signs through residential neighborhoods in Burlington and through the squared-off rotary of downtown Winooski — or was that just the name of that raging river I crossed? — and then onto Grand Isle and South and North Hero islands.

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By the time I made it to Churubusco,  it was dark as far as I could see. I passed up the garish light show that pointed to the Pizza Barn and was rewarded by Filion’s, which was not here when Steinbeck drove by.

I stopped as fast as I could, backed up, and pulled into the diner’s lot.  At the counter, Nikole Patnode, 20, became my guide to her local world, a world that she intends to stay in and raise her kids in, just like her parents did.

Nikole’s in college, taking human services. Her high school graduating class numbered about 60 and half of them are leaving this land of dairy farms.

She likes it here because life is quiet and it’s without the hassles of big cities like New York or Washington, which she saw on high school field trips.

When I came in to the diner most of the dozen tables and the counter had been evacuated by locals who came for the specials — fish and chips  ($5.75) and the hot pork sandwich ($5.95).

After consulting with Nikole, I chose the pork deal — real pork roast, mashed potatoes and green beans. Everything, including the pies, is homemade.

The meat was tender and juicy, and though I should have skipped the white bread that sandwiched it, it instantly moved up to Number 2 on my best-meal-of-the-trip list.

That spinach and chicken salad at the Pelletier family’s restaurant/bar in Millinocket, Me., still holds the top spot.

When NPR’s Scott Simon interviewed me yesterday for tomorrow’s “Morning Edition Saturday,” he asked me what my best meal was so far.

I was stumped, since I haven’t been chasing 5-star restaurants, I’ve been chasing Steinbeck. Simon laughed when I tried to convince him that my simple spinach salad was worth so much praise.

I couldn’t remember how to pronounce Millinocket, so my garbled and stumbling answer will never make it to the NPR airwaves.

But when you’re in the middle of Maine and hungry and your highest hope is something to eat that doesn’t begin with “Mc-,” a perfect spinach salad is even better than finding a homemade pork dinner in the dark of northern New York.

Midnight Suntans

Saturday, 02 October 2010 09:10 AM

WATERTOWN, N.Y — Nice and Easy Shoppe parking lot

I didn’t sleep here last night. But I did get another good night’s sleep at one of Walmart’s Sunspot Inns.

No other travelers took advantage of the company’s open invitation to sleep in its vast asphalt spaces, but I didn’t care.

After a few hours of US 11’s dark emptiness, the blazing — and inescapable — lighting setup at Walmart’s Potsdam store didn’t seem so bad this time.

So thanks again, Walmart. I’m getting to like your accommodations.

But really, couldn’t you cut back on the light by a few million watts? You could claim you’re trying to save the planet, like everyone else, plus your guests wouldn’t wake up with suntans.

I’m now in Watertown, N.Y., angling south on US 11.

The flat foggy farmland on both sides of the highway is dotted by large prosperous dairy farms that offer pumpkins and tomatoes for sale on the honor system, plus the occasional dead motel and blink-and-you-miss-them communities like Dekalb and Canton.

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But US 11 also cuts through the center of the classic American town of Watertown. The old highwy runs through a residential neighborhood in Watertown that’s a textbook example of the kind of old-fashioned neighborhood they don’t — and can’t — make anymore.

Broad quiet streets, sidewalks, large handsome shoulder-to-shoulder houses, tall old oak trees.

When Steinbeck  plied those quiet streets exactly 50 years ago, the trees were younger, thinner and shorter, but the neighborhood was already old.

At Mexico, N.Y., I’ll turn west on Route 104 and eventually get to Niagara Falls, where Steinbeck tried to cross into Canada.

To save time,  he wanted to slice across southern Ontario from Hamilton and pop out at Windsor/Detroit.

Maybe he wanted to visit the birthplaace of his pickup/truck camper, which was made in Michigan by the Wolverine Co.

In any case, he was foiled because — you guessed it — he had a dog.

Charley didn’t have the proper inoculation papers; today, it’s humans who need all the paperwork to cross into Canada. Good thing there aren’t border guards at state lines, yet.

I don’t have a dog but I don’t have a passport, either. I plan to spend Saturday night not far from Niagara Falls at my family’s cottage on Lake Erie in Port Colborne, Ontario.

My mom and aunt Louise — native-born Canadians whose average age is 90 — are there and are expecting me.

Getting into Canada should be no problem; it’s getting back into my own country that will be the hassle.

I can’t wait.

In My Defense …

Saturday, 02 October 2010 12:06 PM

SANDY CREEK, N.Y. — US 11, Sandy Creek Diner

Forgive me, good folks of Lunenburg, Vt., for mispronouncing your name in front of the whole country this morning on NPR’s “Morning Edition Saturday.”

It’s my bad all the way. But at my trial I have been advised by my attorney to plead for mercy based on temporary insanity and extenuating circumstances:

It was pouring rain so I couldn’t use the town pay phone that would have let me look at the Lunenburg Variety Store sign while I spoke to Scott Simon of NPR.

I was only in your lovely US Route 2 town of 1,300 to use the phone.  I needed a land line for my interview.

NPR did everything right. Scott was as nice on the phone as he is on the air. Mary Lou Ingalls at the variety store let me use her fax line.

All I had to do was say “Lunenburg” into a phone without sticking a “D” in it, and I failed.

Next time I retrace John Steinbeck’s 10,000-mile road trip around the USA, I’ll pronounce your town’s name right.

Rolling Down Rural 104

Sunday, 03 October 2010 11:04 AM

ROUTE 104 — Mexico, N.Y. to Niagara Falls

DSC_1995New York state Route 104 skewers what’s left of the poor city of Rochester as it runs through the rural countryside under Lake Ontario between Mexico, N.Y., and Niagara Falls.

Except for in central Rochester, where its number 104 was swiped and put on a freeway, the road’s signs still mark the path Steinbeck would have taken Oct. 2 or 3, 1960.

The highway — like 95 percent of the ones I’ve racked up 2,000 Steinbeck miles on — has barely changed in 50 years.

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The 90 miles or so from Rochester to Niagara Falls is rural, empty, old and healthy looking.

The few eyesores only add to its character. It’s essentially a super-stripmall for anyone who wants to buy an antique, a pumpkin, a pickup truck, a snowplow or a unique farmhouse made of cobblestone.

Medina, the town Steinbeck says he thinks he got lost in during a rainstorm, is about 5 miles off Route 104.It’s midway between Rochester and Niagara Falls and next to the Erie Canal, which spawned the town in 1823 and turned it into a thriving industrial and fruit-exporting town by 1900.

After Route 140’s endless rurality, Medina’s impressive collection of brick buildings, apparently healthy business district and large residential neighborhoods is kind of shocking.

I no longer wonder how Steinbeck managed to get lost there that rainy night.

Pitstopping in Pittsburgh

Monday, 04 October 2010 12:29 PM

EIGHTY FOUR, PA. — My house

Lucky me, since John Steinbeck zipped past Erie on the New York Thruway 50 years ago, and Erie is only two hours from here, I drove home last night.

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My house.

It’s only a brief pitstop on a 10,000-mile course. Think of my first leg from Sag Harbor to Maine to Erie — 2,130 Steinbeck Miles — as a test-drive or a shakedown cruise.

I need to adjust some things with my car bed and my communications system.

I better get the Bluetooth hooked up in my RAV4 or I’m going to get into a wreck trying to unlock my smart phone every time someone calls me.

I’m glad no one took video of me trying to take notes, shoot photos/video and talk on my phone at the same time — not that I would ever do those things while driving down Route 11 in Maine at 60 mph.

By Wednesday or Thursday, I’ll head for Chicago. On his trip Steinbeck rendezvoused there with his wife Elaine at the Ambassador East Hotel downtown for four or five days.

He got there from Niagara Falls/Buffalo via the New York Thruway (I-90) to Madison, Ohio, where he picked up US 20 until he could jump on the Indiana Toll Road to Chicago.

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Steinbeck’s first experiences with the speed and flow and intense truck traffic on these first sections of the Interstate Highway System frightened and bothered him, as he describes in “Travels With Charley.”

He missed being able to stop at fruit stands or diners. But statistically he was much safer driving on those four-lane “gashes of concrete and tar” than he had been when he was happily tooling down the two-lane deathroads of New England.

Steinbeck, who was a big baseball fan,  arrived in Chicago on or about Oct. 5 — the day the Pirates-Yankees World Series started with a 4-3 Pittsburgh win.

I’ll visit that elegant hotel in the heart of Chicago’s historic Gold Coast district; it’s where the biggest celebrities, movie stars and cool guys like Sinatra and his gang stayed when they came to town to entertain mob bosses.

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Chicago’s Gold Coast.

I won’t sleep at the Ambassador, unless they have a nice dark parking lot.

After Chicago, Steinbeck hit the Steinbeck Highway again, alone except for Charley, on the morning of Monday, Oct. 10, 1960.

Before he left for what would be a quick seven-day dash through Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana and Idaho to Seattle, Steinbeck, Elaine and Charley did a sleepover at his hero Adlai Stevenson’s farm in Libertyville, Ill.

I’ll also drop by Libertyville for a quick tour of that now historic site to see if I can find any ghosts. Meanwhile, I’ve got to stock up on more official Reporter’s Notebooks.

Oh yeah.

If, like my mom, you missed my interview with Scott Simon of NPR’s “Weekend Edition Saturday,” it is here.

Lonely Planet Guy Digs Steinbeck

Monday, 04 October 2010 05:37 PM

EIGHTY FOUR, PA — My house

Robert Reid, the U.S. travel editor of Lonely Planet, knows how to travel and have fun at the same time. ROBERT_REID__LONELY__PLANET_NEW_YORK_USA

He also knows how to create entertaining blog items about John Steinbeck.

First there was this 76-second video on why you shouldn’t share a pizza with Mr. Steinbeck, who spent a disproportionate number of pages in “Travels With Charley” on New England and the Midwest.

Then there was this riff by Reid on why Steinbeck should have stopped in Oklahoma to reprise his “Grapes of Wrath” stuff.

Then, on Sept. 23, while I was in Sag Harbor beginning my retracing of Steinbeck’s “Charley” trip after a night sleeping on the townpier, Reid struck again.

He did this preview of some of the real and imaginary Steinbeck stops from “Charley” that I will be visiting in the next few weeks. He even drew the map.

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Steinbeck’s Mystery Church

Tuesday, 05 October 2010 09:37 AM

EIGHTY FOUR, PA. — My house

My dash through beautiful, almost timeless New England in pursuit of John Steinbeck’s ghost has left me with a large unresolved religious mystery — where is that white church John said he attended on Oct. 2, 1960?

In “Travels With Charley” Steinbeck describes going to a church service on his last day in Vermont. He describes it as a “John Knox church” and goes into detail about how much he enjoyed the fire-and-brimstone sermon.

The preacher’s scolding made him feel bad and guilty inside, which made him feel like a first-rate sinner. (He really had been living in New York City too long.) He even shook the preacher’s hand after the service at the church door.

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Not John Steinbeck’s “blindingly white” church.

Until I realized that “Travels With Charley” should not, like the Bible, be taken literally, I thought it would be fairly easy to find that exact “blindingly white” wood-sided church and perhaps even dig up the scary sermon Steinbeck heard.

Because I am a 100-percent-pure product of a Catholic education, elementary school through Villanova, I was taught little about Protestants except that they were non-Catholic and we shouldn’t marry them or attend their church services.

For some reason I assumed “John Knox” was Steinbeck’s indirect way of saying he went into a Presbyterian church.

So before I ever set tire in New England, and long before I realized  every other one of its 1.3 million lovely churches is white and made of wood, I called several Presbyterian presbyteries in Vermont and northern New York to see if they could help me find Steinbeck’s mystery church.

The good Presbyterians of New England tried to help irreligious me. But three months and 2,130 Steinbeck Miles later, Steinbeck’s church remains a mystery.

I don’t know whether it was Presbyterian or Methodist. I’ve been told by credible Protestants that both are “John Knox” churches.

And I sure don’t have any idea where the church was — or even if it ever was. It could have been a sermon Steinbeck heard in a church anywhere anytime.

The Sunday Steinbeck would have attended his Vermont church service was Oct. 2, 1960. But on that date he wasn’t hanging around waiting for the leaves to fall, he was already motoring west toward Niagara Falls.

The evidence from the Steinbeck’s archives:

On a post-card to his agent dated Friday, Sept. 30, Steinbeck described his long lonely loop through Maine.

He also said he was on the Vermont-New Hampshire line — probably at the “ghost” motel by the Connecticut River in Lancaster, N.H. — and was “headed west tomorrow” — i.e., Saturday. That post-card was mailed Saturday, Oct. 1, from Concord, Vt., about 20 miles west of Lancaster on US 2.

Rouses Point, the first New York town you hit when you cross the bridge from Vermont’s Lake Champlain Islands, is about four hours and 160 miles from the Vermont-New Hampshire line via US 2.

Did Steinbeck only drive 150 miles and sleep on the islands overnight Saturday, then go to church in upstate Vermont the next morning?

Did he stop later that Sunday somewhere along US 11 in Upstate New York?

Believe me, there are dozens of white churches he could have chosen on his route.

Except to an ex-journalist like me with a lot of spare time and a 50-year-old ghost to chase, does it really matter what Steinbeck did or what church it was?

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The “White Church” in the village of Deerfield, Mass., which Steinbeck probably attended Sept. 25, 1960, with his son and other Eaglebrook students.

Perhaps the mystery church is this one in the historic village of Deerfield, Mass., which he probably walked to the previous Sunday (Sept. 25, 1960) with his son and other Eaglebrook School students.

The “White Church” in the village of Deerfield, Mass., which Steinbeck probably attended Sept. 25, 1960, with his son and other Eaglebrook students.

But the actual place doesn’t matter.

Even if he made it up, it’s a nice little scene Steinbeck spins in that church. It tells you something about his religious psyche.

Unless he dropped a generous personal check into the collection basket, we’ll probably never know where his mystery church was or if it existed only in his creative mind.

Return of the Steinbeck Highway

Monday, 11 October 2010 10:15 PM

DETROIT LAKES, MINN. — Walmart Store # 2957

It’s too dark to poke around this lighted up town of 8,300.

But with all the neon, motels, malls and billboards along the road, it’s already pretty clear this community 40 miles east of Fargo is nothing like it was on Oct. 11, 1960, when John Steinbeck camped here at a truck stop. Today it’s a recreation mecca, swelling in summer and winter.

The drive from St. Paul, Anoka and all points south was nothing like what Steinbeck saw, either.

US 10 and Route 52 have been replaced or covered over almost entirely by I-94. It is really only in Sauk Centre, where Steinbeck picked up Route 71 to take him back to US 10 at Wadena, that the Steinbeck Highway returns.

Sauk Centre, Sinclair Lewis’ hometown, looked pretty nice to me. Perfect, almost.

It’s got old houses, old neighborhoods, old sidewalks and tall old trees. The business district looks healthy. There’s a giant church.DSC_0045

It’s another one of those Norman Rockwell-brand pre-zoning towns that planners want to recreate from scratch today from the top-down but never can.

As Jane Jacobs knew,  towns like Sauk Centre grew organically and spontaneously from the bottom-up, not from some genius’ master plan or from zoning laws.

Anyway, I didn’t have time to visit Sinclair Lewis’ home or the Sinclair Lewis interpretation center. And I forget what local crimes and hypocrisies he was all worked up about in his books.

Based on my drive-through, though, it doesn’t look like he had much to complain about.

You can get cute little homes on Original Main Street for way under $100,000, a guy who lives in one of them told me. And even the two-story beauties are in the $150,000 range.

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The drive from Sauk Centre to here was a return to the look and feel of the Steinbeck Highway I saw in New England and Ohio.

Almost nothing new was along Route 71 — just farms and a few small towns of 595 like Eagle Bend. The two-lane road is smoother and wider and safer than in Steinbeck’s time.

Steinbeck would probably have seen more trucks, because there were no interstates.

But they couldn’t possibly have been as gigantic and loud as the 18-wheel beasts that came thundering toward me as I cruised at 70 through miles of slightly tilted or barely rolling farmland and woods.

Steinbeck would have seen most of what I saw through my windshield. That includes an impressive auto junk yard outside Eagle Bend.DSC_0060_copy_copy

It had at least a dozen cars from the 1940s and ’50s that I counted as I flew by. They were neatly pointed at the highway like they were on a used car lot that time forgot.

The one thing new that Steinbeck would have been really shocked by on his ride from Sauk Centre to Wadena on Route 71  is the graceful monster that suddenly appears on the horizon near Hewitt, population 267.

I’m sure there’s an outrageous story to be told about how that boondoggle of a wind turbine ended up being built right smack in the middle of nowhere.

No matter how uneconomic wind turbines are, or how much in government subsidies they waste, or how many birds they kill, or how much noise and vibration they make, they sure are pretty when they’re standing all alone where they ought not to be.

 

Where Steinbeck Slept Oct. 11, ’60

Tuesday, 12 October 2010 12:53 PM

FRAZEE, MINN.  —  Daggett Truck Line

Here, in 26 easy steps, is how to find out where John Steinbeck slept on the night of Oct. 11, 1960:

1– Drive from St. Paul to Sauk Centre to Detroit Lakes.

2 — Get at least 6.5 hours of sleep in a Walmart parking lot.

3 — Get up early and go to the nearest McDonald’s for coffee.

4 — Sit in a booth next to the oldest guys in the restaurant (you can find four or six of them drinking coffee and shooting the breeze every morning in every McDonald’s in America).

5 — Wait patiently until there’s a lull in their conversation about the nearest pro football team (in this example, the Vikings).

6 — Introduce yourself, tell them you are a traveling journalist (wave your Professional Reporter’s Notebook to prove it) and explain that you are chasing the ghost of John Steinbeck, who came by here exactly 50 years ago.

7 — Explain who John Steinbeck is.

8 — Tell them you’re looking for a truck stop on US 10 near Detroit Lakes that handled cattle trucks and was near a turkey farm.

9 — Go where they agreed the place I was looking for definitely was — Daggett Truck Line’s home operations in Frazee, Minn.,  aka, “Home of the World’s Largest Turkey.”DSC_1966

10 — Thank the senior citizens for their time and help.

11 — Drive eight miles back the way you came the night before to Frazee, pop. 1,377, which is just off new US 10 and was once sliced in half by old US 10.

12 — Take pictures by the Frazee exit of one of the dozens of turkey barns there and wonder how many turkeys can be packed in a building that looks half-a-mile long.

13 — Drive around the town’s major detour, cruise the modest-to-shabby main drag,  stop on a side street  and ask a guy building something in his garage where Daggett trucking is.

14 — Follow his directions to just north of downtown Frazee on old US 10, where Daggett Truck Line has been since the 1930s and where its office and cattle-truck operations were in 1960.

DSC_1977_copy15 — Stick your head in the secretary’s office and ask if there’s a Daggett you can talk to.

16 — Meet Chris Daggett, the fourth generation of his family to run the medium-sized company that now has about 95 refrigerated trucks and no longer hauls cattle, which it did exclusively in 1960 when Chris’ grandfather Vern was running things.

17 — Read Chris the part in “Travels With Charley” where Steinbeck describes his night at a truck stop; then read Chris part of the letter Steinbeck wrote to his wife on Oct. 11, 1960, where he talks about cattle trucks, piles of manure and a small valley filled with thousands of turkeys.

18 — Explain that Steinbeck’s letter is credible but that what he writes so beautifully in “Charley” is a fictionalized composite of his overnight stays at a truck stop in Mauston, Wis., and one “not far from Detroit Lakes.”

19 — Write down in your  Professional Reporter’s Notebook exactly what Chris Daggett says: “This was the place he’s talking about. Absolutely, it was.”

20 — Take pictures of the great old pictures and the 1960 magazine article hanging in the hall that tell the 80-plus year history of Daggett Truck Line.DSC_1988

21 — Take pictures of Daggett’s building, whose siding now hides the brick Steinbeck would have seen.

22 — Take pictures of the cow head — cattle head? — over the front door.

23 — Forget to take Chris Daggett’s’ picture standing by his front door with the cow’s head above him.

24 — Thank Chris and tell him if he sees you again it’ll be because you’ve got a book deal.

25 — Say goodbye.

26 — Drive 100 yards west on old US 10 and take pictures of the turkey barns that sit next to Daggett’s big parking lot.

Extra credit:

Write this account of your adventure in drive-by journalism.

Drive 100 miles west on US 10 to the next stop on the Steinbeck Highway — Alice, N.D. That’s where the ghost you are following said he stopped to camp by the Maple River on the morning of Oct. 12, 1960.

Town Without People

Wednesday, 13 October 2010 08:29 AM

BISMARCK, N.D. — McDonald’s

One minute I was in Moorhead, Minn., the next I was in deepest downtown Fargo.

I can see how John Steinbeck missed out on seeing much of Fargo because he was sort of swept along by the traffic. Just keeping track of US 10 — those dumb one-way city streets again — was too hard for me.

I lost its signs and then found them again just as US 10 disappeared under the interstate that was built on top of most of it all the way across North Dakota and Montana all the way to Seattle.

DSC_2011_copyI got to metropolitan Alice, N.D., via I-94 and County Road 38 about 1:30 p.m.

Not a soul was there to greet me. Hardly a soul is left in Alice, which sits in the middle of a flat agricultural zone — what 99 percent of North Dakota apparently is.

The town, like some big cities Back East we know and love, has bled population since 1960, but it started out with about 150 people. Now it’s closer to 50 and the post office is gone, the grain silo is gone, the school is gone and the Catholic Church, St. Henry’s, is gone.

There’s still plenty of room in the town cemetery, though.DSC_2015

To find out this sad local history, I needed a human. To find one of those, I had to hail a farmer who was running a big tractor on the edge of his 1,400 acre farm. His wife — he pointed to a dust cloud half a mile away — was running the family combine.

The farmer, who didn’t want the whole world wide web to know his name, grows wheat and soybeans and not corn (like most of his neighbors) because wheat doesn’t take as many people or tractors to produce.

I told him the story about Steinbeck coming to his flat corner of the world to camp out by the Maple River 50 years ago and asked if he knew a spot where Steinbeck could have pulled off the road. It turns out there could be a dozen such spots.DSC_2004_copy_copy_copy_copy_copy_copy_copy_copy

The friendly farmer went back to his disking.DSC_2024

I drove around the endless sea of dense yellow cornstalks that rattled in the relentless, not very friendly wind.

I went to several places where the gravel farm roads intersect the meandering Maple River — creek, really. But I had to give up and — as my GPS Girl always says — “take the highway.”

Contrary to what he wrote so nicely and in such detail in “Charley,” Steinbeck didn’t camp overnight near Alice on the Maple River or anywhere else on the night of Wednesday, Oct. 12, 1960.

As he told his wife in a road-letter, he stayed at what he called the “Dairy Queen Hotel” in Beach, N.D., some 300-plus miles to the west. That’s where I’m headed — the Beach — after a 39-degree overnight sleep in my RAV4 in the Bismarck Walmart parking lot.

I was fine under my blankets and sleeping bag and actually slept too late. I had tried to get a motel room under $125 in this oddly popular filled-up town, but there was none available in an affordable place I could trust.

The Dairy Queen Motel in Beach — or whatever it was really called — apparently is gone now. But maybe I can find some of its remains when I get there later today — as soon as I defrost my laptop.

UPDATE, Dec. 8, 2010: The downside — and danger — of doing drive-by journalism is that you don’t take the time to do all the reporting you should.

I should have realized then, but didn’t, that the Maple River flows south past Alice on the west side of town but then doubles back and swings northeast and passes to the east of the town.

Steinbeck didn’t camp overnight at Alice. But he could have stopped by the edge of the Maple River somewhere for a few hours.

If he did, there are several places about 4 to 6 miles to the southeast and east of Alice where local roads intersect the snaking, tree-lined Maple River.

Did he pull over at one of those quiet spots to eat his lunch? Maybe. Did he meet an itinerant actor there? Possibly. It’s just not very probable — east or west of Alice.

Lonely (Steinbeck) Highway

Wednesday, 13 October 2010 01:11 PM Written by 

I-94 WEST — 122 Miles East of Beach, N.D.

DSC_1968_copy How empty is North Dakota? How big? Let me try to give you an idea in case you ever want to be totally alone.

I’m cruising at 70 mph on I-94, five miles below the speed limit. My Professional Reporter’s Notebook is on my right knee.

My laptop, my cell phone and my camcorder are being fed their morning breakfasts of juice from the cigarette lighter and the RAV4’s 120-volt plug, which I never thought I would come to depend on so much.

It’s a beautiful day to be driving west on the Old Steinbeck Highway.

The sun is behind me. The sky is blue with only the thinnest gauze of high white clouds. It’s 54 degrees. The wind, though carrying a chill, has not yet risen to its usual afternoon car-pushing intensity.

As I drive, I have nothing to do but listen to CNBC on my blessed satellite radio and steer with one finger. I watch the local universe come and go, rolling by unchangingly, as if it is an abstract painting on a video loop.

I can see probably two miles of four-lane road ahead of me and a mile behind.  I count five cars or trucks.

I see one farm. I see one tree bigger than a house.

Everything else is bald rolling light-green grassland with plump rolls of hay strewn randomly and maybe a stray fence line.

The black spots on the horizon to my left are cows,  I think.

Wayside of the Dogs

Wednesday, 13 October 2010 05:20 PM

I-94 WEST — By the Wayside

It was so considerate of the North Dakota Department of Transportation to put this rest-stop here just for me.DSC_1967

The only vehicle here when I pulled up at about noon belonged to a hunched over little North Dakota grandma with a cane and a friendly attitude toward strange men who ask her questions.

When she pulled away, the place was all mine for the next 10 minutes.

Reddish sand stone, architecturally in synch with the empty windswept universe, this “wayside” (that’s the quaint term for rest-stops in these and others parts) looks more like an art museum than a place to answer nature’s call or grab a tourist brochure about the culture of North Dakota’s western edge.DSC_1962_copy

The grounds — teen-age pine trees and thick country-club grass and picnic tables like the one I’m sitting at — are as spotless as the rest-stop’s bathrooms and chapel-like lobby.

In the interest of good journalism, however, I do have to report a disturbing incident that could have ruined my entire trip.

Going to my car to get my camera, I almost stepped in a little pile of dog poop.

Maybe I’m catching up to Steinbeck and Charley. Or maybe my new buddy John Woestendiek — ex-journalist and owner/operator of the beautifully written blog ohmidog.com — passed me up last night while I was sleeping at the Bismarck Walmart.

John, who won a Pulitizer, is somewhere behind me and is doing dog-related things as he works his way down the Steinbeck Highway in a less investigatory way than I am.

While I sitting in the sun pecking away at my keyboard, my wayside has been jumping.

A monstrous truck has parked itself across the way and at least a dozen cars have stopped — half of them containing dogs like Sam Iversen, 12, and Jack Graff, 5.DSC_1956_copy_copy_copy_copy

DSC_1959Actually Sam the gentle Lab and Jack the wired-up pointer belong to a pair of Minnesota pheasant hunters, Eric Iversen and Jason Graff.

It’s pheasant hunting season this week and they stopped their overloaded Suburban here so their bird dogs could have a pitstop.

Iversen and Graff are headed west to their secret hunting grounds in Scranton, N.D. — which they want other hunters to know is not really that great for pheasant hunting.  Really.

They just drive 400 miles to go there every year in hunting season because the burgers at the Main Bar & Grill are the best in the state.

Steinbeck’s ‘Dairy Queen’ motel

Wednesday, 13 October 2010 09:30 PM

BEACH, N.D. — Flying J Restaurant

John Steinbeck moved fast for an old guy.

Three days of driving from Chicago brought him to the center of this small agricultural town near the Montana border on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 1960. He traveled about 1,000 miles on roads that were not as smooth or safe as the ones I have.

We know he slept in Beach because he wrote a letter from here to his wife Elaine, saying he was staying “in a motel called the Dairy Queen.”DSC_2071_copy_copy

That was most probably a joke based on the fact that a Dairy Queen franchise was across the street. It’s not likely he really thought his motel was named the Dairy Queen.

But what motel was it?

Was it the diminutive Westgate Motel on old US 10 — where I’m staying tonight?

The motel, built in 1949, still sits diagonally across the intersection from where the Dairy Queen franchise was in 1960.

Or was Steinbeck actually staying in one of the small motel cabins that are long gone but once stood in the empty lot across the road from the Westgate?

Tomorrow, with the help of Westgate manager Sandy, I’ll do some reporting/research.

Where John Steinbeck had his bath

Thursday, 14 October 2010 07:44 PM

BEACH, N.D. — Flying J Restaurant

I don’t know what John Steinbeck did for laughs on the night of Oct. 12, 1960, when he slept in this agricultural town of 925 people on his way to Montana and Seattle.

In a letter to his wife Elaine he said he was about to take a bath in a motel he jokingly called “the Dairy Queen.”

That night in Beach he could have gone to the Bijou Theater a few blocks away and seen Alec Guinness in “Our Man In Havana,” a good little movie that was shot in oppressive Havana shortly before Fidel Castro came to power and made everything perfect.

Steinbeck probably didn’t go to see a movie for the same reason I didn’t go to the Bijou last night to see Angelina Jolie star in “Salt.” We had both spent our days driving almost 408 miles across North Dakota and we were both beat.DSC_2026

I spent this morning checking out Beach and trying to pin down where Steinbeck slept as part of my insane one-man, no-dog quest to separate fiction from fact in Steinbeck’s classic “Travels With Charley.”

Based on my quick spin around town, Beach is a mix of perfectly nice homes and some shabby ones, old neighborhoods and new.

Beach seems to have everything it needs — several churches, a couple of banks, a county courthouse, a hardware store, a pharmacy, a supermarket, a few shaky restaurants, a busy railroad line in its city-center and one of those cool town water towers that looks like a rocket taking off.

Beach is in no way quaint or charming or hip or artificially polished by local boosters to appeal to tourists. It is what it is and it looks to a parachuting journalist like what it is — a working-class town.DSC_2061_copy

Susan Davidson, the Golden Valley County recorder, prefers the term “blue-collar.”

I had stopped in her office at the courthouse shortly after 8 this morning. I explained what I was doing, begged forgiveness for my superficial assumptions about her fine town and got the names of some local historians.

I also found out a few things I could never have learned just from driving around town:

— Beach’s economy, like the rest of North Dakota, is doing better thanks to the regional oil boom. Unemployment is down. A local entrepreneur was starting up a vineyard east of town on old US 10.

— You should eat at the La Playa Mexican restaurant downtown, not at the Flying J at the I-94 exit — where I ate two perfectly fine breakfasts.

— And you should go to the Prairie Fire Pottery, where Tama Smith’s beautiful high-kiln pottery creates little traffic jams during the summer by pulling thousands of cars and RVs off I-94.

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By noon, I had stopped by the Prairie Fire Pottery and the office of the Golden Valley News newspaper. I had also snooped around some shrub-strangled tourist cabins behind the liquor store on Old Highway 10.

I also talked to Harold Lassell, a lifelong Beach resident who said he was the oldest living mechanic in the county.

Lassell, 86, instantly became the last word on what the intersection of US 10 and 1st Avenue NW looked like 50 years ago.

He didn’t just know the names of the owners of the Westgate Motel, the owners of the Dairy Queen that sat diagonally across from it and the owners of the long-gone tourist cabins on the empty lot across the street from the Westgate. He also knew whether they were dead or alive.

Lassell looked at my crude map of the intersection. He listened patiently to all the evidence I had marshaled:

John Steinbeck came into town from the east on US 10. The Westgate was the only modern motel near enough to the Dairy Queen to become a joke. Steinbeck called it a “motel” in his letter, not a “cabin.”DSC_2054

Lassell agreed with my TV-detective logic and my conclusion — it is almost certain that Steinbeck slept in one of the Westgate’s 11 motel rooms exactly 50 years and one day before I happened to stay there myself after a series of coincidences.

I don’t know what room he and Charley stayed in. But I was in Number 5 and I slept well and encountered no ghosts.

UPDATE, Dec. 7, 2010: Doug Davis of Bozeman, Mt., was only eight in 1960, but his father owned the Westgate Motel and the Mobil gas station and small picnic grounds next to it.

Davis, who called me from Bozeman after hearing I was looking for information,  grew up helping his mother run the Westgate. He did everything from cutting the grass and cleaning rooms to “mangling” sheets in the motel’s basement.DSC_2071

After Davis’ mother died in late November, he said, he and his older brother found all the motel’s registration books, including those from the fall of 1960, stored at her house — and threw them all out in the trash.

No Davis-family lore talks about John Steinbeck visiting the motel, which his uncle designed and his father built in 1949. But Davis believes the Westgate was Steinbeck’s “Dairy Queen” motel.

It was the only “modern” hotel in Beach in 1960. Across the street were “It Happened One Night”-style cabins, but they wouldn’t have had what the Westgate definitely had in each room on Oct. 12, 1960 — a bathtub.

It’s Friday, right?

Friday, 15 October 2010 08:33 AM

I-94, MT. — Buffalo Country rest stop

Thursday, right? I’m starting to lose track.

I pulled in here last night at about 10. I’m not far from the exit to the Custer Battlefield, which is about 50 miles south. John Steinbeck went there — he said so in a letter to his wife — but hardly talks about it in “Travels With Charley.” I’ll go there now.

It’s been quiet all night. Just the sound of trains rumbling by somewhere in the dark. They sounded like tornados. That’s a weather joke.

No one’s on the road so no one stops here to use the bathroom. Another four or five RVs and cars were scattered around the parking lot last night but they’ve already cleared out.

The official signs only care about where you let your pet poop. And watch out for those rattlesnakes.

Sleeping here is not restricted, therefore it is permitted. What a concept.  What if a whole country worked that way? That’s a libertarian joke.DSC_1957_copy_copy

The lighting is subdued — just enough to make you feel secure without making it seem like you’re sleeping in a dentist’s chair.

John Steinbeck moved so fast he made it from Beach, N.D., to Livingston, Mt., by Thursday night — AGGGHHH.

It’s Friday! My computer says it’s Friday. This is 2010, right? Earth, right?

I fooled around in Beach too long yesterday morning. Or maybe it’s the size of these states out here.

I don’t know how Steinbeck made it from Beach to Livingston so quickly — on old, skinny US 10 and through the middle of towns like Miles City and Billings — and still did so much stuff in one day.

He stopped at the Custer memorial and told his wife he stopped at about six bars in towns along US 10 — not to drink but to gather information.

He bought a stockman’s hat in Billings. And he arrived  at a motel or trailer court near Livingston in time to watch the third Nixon-Kennedy TV debate.

So I may not know what day it is, but I know where Steinbeck was on Thursday, Oct. 13, 1960 — the day he probably heard Bill Mazeroski hit his historic home run to win the World Series.

The next morning — Friday, right? — Steinbeck dropped down to Yellowstone Park where Charley went nuts barking at the bears.

I’m not trying to race or pace Steinbeck, but I have a lot of driving to do. The sun’s coming up.

A Tip of the Hat to Brave Ghosts

Friday, 15 October 2010 02:41 PM

LITTLE BIGHORN BATTLEFIELD, MT. — Last Stand Hill

Talk about ghosts.DSC_1983_copy

If they exist anywhere, they exist here.

The top of this grassy windblown hill is where Gen. Armstrong Custer and about 41 of his men died on June 25, 1876.

Even on a sunny day, it’s a somber, strangely beautiful place.

In every direction the rolling brown grassland is big and the sky even bigger.DSC_1980_copy_copy_copy_copy

The more you think about what went on at this hilltop and the slopes leading up to it — the great stupidity, the great bravery, the great slaughter of a battle fought in the middle of nowhere over nothing — the more impressive the silence is.

When John Steinbeck and Charley took a side trip here to “pay our respects to General Custer and Sitting Bull,” it had been only 84 years since the historic battle.

DSC_1976Much of what he and everyone else knew about it then was from Hollywood (which you can always count on to get everything wrong) and from the Frederick Remington painting.

We know much more now about what happened thanks to nearly two decades of forensic investigation of the battlefield.

And we give a more fair-and-balanced account of a military “engagement” — now there’s a euphemism for ya — in which 260 men from the U.S. Army’s 7th Calvary and 100 Lakota-Cheyenne died.

Steinbeck wrote that when he was here at this almost religious site he “removed my hat in memory of brave men.”

It was the classy thing to do then and still is.

Billings

Friday, 15 October 2010 08:02

I-90 —  Bozeman Trail rest stop

John Steinbeck stopped at bars to sample the local color and dialect.

I stop at Verizon Wireless stores to see if anyone can explain why my Verizon email takes longer to deliver than the US Post Office.

A guy in a Vermont Verizon store failed to help me but a younger dude in some other eastern state that escapes me told me the trick — take the battery of my Samsung smart phone out every other day or so to reboot it. That has speeded delivery, but doesn’t seem very smart.

As Steinbeck says in “Travels With Charley,” he stopped in Billings for half an hour to buy a hat. I stopped for two hours in Billings — a perfectly named town as we shall see — to try to straighten out the $692 roaming charge that appeared on my latest Verizon Wireless bill.

My wife Trudi, who’s paying the bills while I roam the country chasing Steinbeck’s ghost, opened the Verizon bill in Pittsburgh today and almost fell down.

I knew roaming charges were coming but not nearly $700 worth.

In late September, when I was running along the top edge of Maine about 100 yards from the Canadian border for two days, a local guy warned me. He told me my phone would pick up the Canadian towers’ signals  and I’d be charged roaming charges.

He said you just have to call Verizon and tell them where you were and they’ll drop the charges. Maybe if you live in Maine they will.

As anyone who’s ever tried to call any of Verizon’s 11 subsidiaries knows, it takes an hour out of your life just to get a human on the phone. To make a long boring story short, a nice Verizon Wireless supervisor named Angie who lives in a secret but secure location is handling my case.

One of Angie’s merciful underlings offered to cut my roaming charges 50 percent. I told her no thanks. My tires never left the USA in Maine. I’m looking for a 100 percent cut — which is how I met Angie.

We’ll see how this turns out. I’m predicting a happy ending soon. If not, consider this a warning to any Verizon Wireless stores to my west — where I’m trying to get as fast as I can.

HAPPY POSTSCRIPT: As I figured they would, the folks at Verizon looked at their maps and credited my account for every dime of roaming charges. Even my email seems to be arriving faster.

Another Regular Pittsburgh Guy

Saturday, 16 October 2010 10:23 AM

LIVINGSTON, MT. — I-90

I met another ex-Pittsburgher last night in this fishing and hunting mecca on the northern doorstep of Yellowstone Park.

He’s a typical Western Pa. product — a regular guy from Coraopolis who had to leave his hometown to find work elsewhere when the steel industry collapsed.mt_livingston04

We sat at a small bar for about an hour with the bartender and another nice guy — an actor from New York who, unbelievably, lived in the same apartment building in Hollywood that I once lived in.

We all had lots of laughs and talked about sports, old friends, my insane John Steinbeck trip and how the ex-Pittsburgh guy and I once lived not far from each other in L.A. in the late ’70s but didn’t know it.

I met the ex-Pittsburgher long ago through my brother John the ex-TV sportscaster and now blogger and book author.

He lives about 30 or 40 miles from here now but works mostly in California. We talked like old friends who’d gone golfing or bird-shooting just last weekend, but I’d actually only met him three or four times before — about once every 10 years.

We first met in L.A. in the early ’80s at — where else? — a Steelers-Raiders game. We met again in Pittsburgh in the ’90s when I was at the Post-Gazette and he came to town to do some PR work.

And then we met up last night at the 2nd Street Bistro in the historic part of Livingston.

The restaurant is in the Murray Hotel, a creaky, character-filled, uniquely time-warped place.DSC_1960_copy

On the other side of the building, in the un-gentrified Murray Bar, the Fossils were tuning up their guitars, the Yankees-Rangers playoff game was ending and a lot of lonely single guys were sipping beers and playing pool.

Who knows? John Steinbeck might have stopped in the Murray Bar for a drink when he slept in or near this town Oct. 13 and 14 on his “Charley” trip in 1960.

My once-a-decade friend told me to say hi to his family and pals in Pittsburgh for him. I didn’t have my camera with me or I would have taken his picture.

But here’s what he looked like the last time we met.

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John Steinbeck’s Two-Night Love Affair with Montana

Saturday, 16 October 2010 12:43 PM

LIVINGSTON, MT. — Yellowstone Inn

DSC_1980_copy_copy_copy John Steinbeck fell in love with Montana when he first laid eyes on her.

Everyone does.

He said, famously, in “Travels With Charley” that Montana was his favorite state. The only thing it lacked for him was an ocean.

But his love affair with Montana was just a fling.

We know from his road-letters to his wife that he left Beach, N.D., early on the morning of Thursday, Oct. 13, 1960.

He immediately crossed into Montana on US 10 west and drove all day, diverting to the Custer Battlefield and dropping in, as he told his wife Elaine, to six bars in six towns along the way. He bought a hat in Billings.

He stopped at a trailer court in or near Livingston overnight on Thursday, Oct. 13, then drove down to Yellowstone Park Friday morning Oct. 14.

After Charley had his run-in with the park’s bears, Steinbeck retraced his route to Livingston and turned west on US 10.

He bought a rifle and a scope in downtown Butte, and, according to a letter to his wife, he camped that Friday night west of Missoula on private land about 60 miles shy of the Idaho line, near the tiny community of Tarkio.

DSC_2028The following day, Saturday, Oct. 15, he headed west for Seattle on US 10.

Steinbeck said in “Travels With Charley” that he slept somewhere in Idaho near the Washington border that night, but that doesn’t make sense. It’s not likely that he would have driven such a short distance and then stopped overnight.

Let’s not quibble. Altogether, Steinbeck couldn’t have been on Montana soil for more than about 50 hours — hardly more than a weekend stand.

Skipping Yellowstone for Butte

Sunday, 17 October 2010 01:28 AM

MISSOULA, Mt. — Holiday Inn

DSC_1974I decided not to drive 60 miles down to Yellowstone Park from Livingston, even though John Steinbeck did.

Instead, on Saturday morning I poked around the architecturally stunning storefronts of downtown Livingston and asked senior citizens I encountered which motel or “pretty auto court” Steinbeck might have stayed in on the nights he was in town exactly 50 years ago.DSC_1979

I talked to four or five motel owners. I eliminated a few possible places like the Livingston Inn (not old enough) and put the Country Inn on the suspicious list.

I found this likely trailer court, but the owner was not around to be interrogated.

John Steinbeck says in “Travels With Charley” that he decided at the last minute to make his maiden visit to Yellowstone Park.

He was no fan of national parks because he felt they enclosed and featured the freaks of nature — he felt Yellowstone was no more representative of America than Disneyland. But because he was worried his friends would deride him for being so close to the park and not going there, he went.

images-1His day-trip was a disaster because Charley went nuts every time he saw a bear — which was every 30 seconds in the era when bears hung out on the side of the road waiting for handouts.

I could say I skipped Yellowstone because I didn’t want to contribute to global warming, if I believed in global warming.

But I didn’t go to Yellowstone because I didn’t need to see Yellowstone for the fifth or sixth time. I’ve been there. I get it. It’s way overcrowded now, but every human should go there once in their life before it’s too late.

As anyone who watches the Disaster Channel knows, the caldera the park sits in is predestined to blow up again someday with such destructive power that it’ll end life as we know it in a huge swath of the American heartland.

Since I wasn’t able to pin anything down in Livingston, a small town blessed disproportionately with great buildings, art galleries and a community of big-time creative types like artist/editor Russell Chatham and authors Tom McGuane, I hit the road for Butte.

Butte is a former copper boomtown that’s been hollowed out of people and is suffering from the environmental damage done by mining operations that have been inside its city limits for over 100 years.

It’s also where Steinbeck bought a gun in a sporting goods store — a store I had no trouble locating Saturday afternoon on Butte’s beautiful but spooky and desolate main street.

Montana at 80 mph

Sunday, 17 October 2010 09:36 AM

MISSOULA, Mt. — Holiday InnDSC_2014_copy_copy

Now that’s Montana.

The 228-mile stretch of I-90 from Livingston to here shows you what Montana is famous for — big land and big sky and endless sunsets and not enough humans to form a Wednesday night basketball league.

John Steinbeck only saw Montana for less than three days but he got it — and he described it beautifully in “Travels With Charley.”

I’m Montanan by marriage, so I’ve been lucky to spend about two summer months of my life in this state. I hear winter is no day at the beach, especially on the colder east side of the Rockies, unless you like to snowshoe, ski or ride snowmobiles for five months of the year.

You obviously need to get out of your car and into the creeks and rivers and mountains and meadows on foot to really appreciate Montana.

But driving northwest across the southwestern corner of Montana toward the top of Idaho and Spokane along the Steinbeck Highway gives you the basic idea.DSC_2116_copy_copy

Even at 80 mph the broad valleys and mountains ranges just went on and on yesterday as the slowly sinking sun and light rain clouds constantly shifted and played.

Gray-brown mountainsides and valleys are dotted or smeared with dark pine trees.  Flatlands by rivers are yellow with what? Oaks? Cottonwoods? Steinbeck would have known.

By the time you pass Butte and get to within about 25 miles of Missoula, the mountains squeeze in on I-90 as it threads its way through the Sapphire Mountains.

It’s one of a dozen steep jagged mountain ranges in Montana you’ve never heard of but make you realize what they call mountains back east are mostly just hills.

(If you want to know why I am following Steinbeck’s “Charley” route around the USA, or want to start at the beginning of my extreme act of drive-by journalism, read this.)

Butte: Where Johhny Got his Gun

Sunday, 17 October 2010 01:33 PM

MISSOULA, Mt. — Holiday Inn

There must be 30,000 college students in this beautiful town on the wet, warmer, western side of the Rockies.

They go to the University of Montana. Half of them have bicycles and backpacks and they apparently were all out drinking and eating downtown last night.

The busy, youthful, 99.5 percent healthy street scene in Missoula, my favorite Montanan town, was a stark contrast to Butte, the mile-high city famous for copper, union activism/violence, great downtown architecture, environmental troubles and its most daring favorite son, Evel Knievel.

DSC_2063_copyDSC_2065_2I stopped on East Park Street in Butte late Saturday afternoon when the Steinbeck Highway zigzagged through the center of the former copper capital of the world.

On Friday, Oct. 14, 1960, John Steinbeck had done the same and popped into Phil Judd’s Sporting Goods store/armory to buy a used Remington bolt-action .222 rifle and scope.DSC_2085

I parked in the heart of uptown/downtown Butte to look for Phil Judd’s old store — or, more likely, the building it used to be in.

As has become the pattern wherever I stop, several kind, helpful and smart locals helped me find what I was looking for in a matter of minutes.

I went into Rudolph Furniture’s beautiful showroom and interrupted the lives of the people working there with my drive-by journalism routine. They couldn’t have been nicer.

Mike Rudolph runs the store. His family has been operating it since 1919, when Butte was a thriving, prosperous, crowded city, not a borderline ghost town with a stock of priceless downtown buildings a city 10 times its size would covet.

Mike told me Phil Judd was long dead and his store long gone. But he said the building the sporting goods store was in sat two doors down — where the Rediscoveries Vintage Clothing store is at the corner of Park and Wyoming.DSC_2070

A few minutes later I was talking on the phone to Mike’s father, Lou. He’s 88 and sharper than any of us. Lou was Phil Judd’s brother-in-law, so I couldn’t have had a better source.

No, Lou said, there’s no family lore about the great author Steinbeck stopping in and buying a rifle.

No, he had no photos, no records — and no framed check for $73.50 with Steinbeck’s signature on it.

(A writer/artist named Bill Baltezar, who was in the sporting goods store that day and later wrote about his encounter with Steinbeck in 1993 for the Salinas Californian newspaper, said Steinbeck wrote a personal check for $73.50.)

Lou Rudolph gave me a quick socioeconomic briefing on how Butte has changed in the last 50 years. Like Pittsburgh and other former industrial powerhouses Back East, Butte’s population of 33,000 is about half what it was in 1960.

It’s about a third of what it was at its peak in the early 1900s when immigrants came from Europe to work for the Anaconda Copper Co. extracting copper from “The Richest Hill in the World.”

Lou said in 1960 that Park Street (old Highway 10) was congested with cars and trucks that had to work their way through the town before I-90 came along. I stood in the middle of Park Street at 4 p.m. to take photos without fear of being hit by anything larger than a raindrop.

Butte’s uptown no longer jumps 24/7 with the saloons and whorehouses that kept thousands of underground miners from forgetting how underpaid they were. Today underground mining by men has been replaced by open pit mining by machines.

The city’s tremendous boom went bust long ago. And taking all that copper out of the ground under itself for 120 years has left Butte with a hideous and seemingly impossible environmental cleanup job.DSC_2098

Heather Meeks was in Rediscoveries looking for Halloween costumes for her two kids when I went in to look for Steinbeck ghosts.

She isn’t from Butte and she calls herself an old hippie. But since she moved here she has learned a lot about the city’s boom-bust history, its current environmental debacle and its many natural and manmade charms.DSC_2073

She didn’t hide her working-class sentiments when she talked about how the mining company and its executives got filthy rich for decades while the miners just got filthy.

“Butte is a gritty, grimy, hardworking, take-no-prisoners city,” she said.

“Butte is what America claims to be — a true melting pot. English, Cornish, Welsh, Chinese, Eastern Europeans — they all crossed the country to come here to make their fortunes. Three dollars a day were top wages for miners for decades.”

Like other fellow Americans I’ve met from Maine to Minnesota to Montana, Meeks is smart, friendly and quick to reveal her passions and opinions.

I never found out the names of Meeks’ kids or exactly what Meeks did for a living, but I  know she’s 44 and was born in Hawaii.

She obviously loves Butte and she says clever things like “Butte used to export copper, now it exports people.” It sounds like she should run for mayor.

Preserving Steinbeck’s Highway

Monday, 18 October 2010 02:35 AM

MOSES LAKE, Wa. — McDonald’s

John Steinbeck didn’t need no stinking GPS to keep him on his “Travels With Charley” path.

Once he picked up US Route 10 in northern Minnesota, all he had to do was follow the 10 signs across Montana, Idaho and Washington to Seattle.

US 10 was almost always the main street of the cities on his route.  I-94 and then 1-90 have replaced US 10 from North Dakota to the West Coast.

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I haven’t seen a US 10 sign since Fargo because they don’t exist out West anymore.

But there are still many stretches of old US 10 pavement running parallel with the four-lane interstates.

Yesterday I checked out the one off I-90 at the Saltese exit in northwest Montana. It’s hardly a mile long.

It dead-ends at each end and contains about 20 buildings, but it’s like a 1960 time warp.

DSC_2037

Mangold’s General Store & Motel is a new name Steinbeck wouldn’t recognize. But the grocery store, the six pine-paneled motel rooms and the big “M-o-t-e-l” sign were all there when he and Charley motored by on Saturday morning, Oct. 15, 1960, after camping Friday night on private land about 50 miles to the east.

So were the decommissioned state highway maintenance shed, most of the homes and the building housing the Old Montana Bar & Grill.

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When the interstate was poured on top of US 10’s right-of-way in the early 1960s, Saltese’s main street — US 10 — was frozen in time and the community of about 60 permanent residents got its own exit.

Terri Mangold sure is glad Saltese’s main street was spared. She’s run the Mangold grocery store and motel since 1995. Her rooms are usually full year round, thanks to hunters, fishermen and snowmobilers who stay for a week at a time. Mangold’s rates are absurdly reasonable — $30 and up.

At the other end of the Saltese remnant of US 10 is the Old Montana.

Part slots casino, part restaurant, part bar, part gallery of local historical photos, it’s got dead animals on the menu and hanging all over its walls. Bryan Teeters, 48, owns the Old Montana.

DSC_2031

He’s also responsible for a lot of the elk heads, bear skins and the stuffed mountain lion above the pool table.  Except for the moose, the animals were locally grown — and shot.

Teeters, who lives across the street, used a bow to bag his trophies. He tracked the mountain lion in the snow and when it climbed a tree, it was all over for the big cat.

Teeters came to Montana from California with his parents when he was 12 and he’s basically grown up to become a modern Jim Bridger with a snowmobile. He hunts and fishes “out back” — the deep forests and steep mountains looming over Saltese.

The wilds of Montana are paradise for him and his restaurant is full nearly every night.

But Teeters is miffed that Montana’s he-man government is turning soft — and hurting him in the pocketbook. The state has banned smoking in all public buildings. That’s hurt his casino business.

And wolves are being reintroduced by wildlife experts.

Teeters doesn’t like wolves for some sensible reasons — they kill for the fun of it and kill a lot more game than they can eat. He’s worried wolves will wipe out the elk and scare off the hunters who come to northwest Montana to hunt them.

When I told Teeters that John Steinbeck drove down the street we were standing on 50 years ago, he had a special reason to think that was pretty cool. He knew more about Steinbeck than the average Montanan because he and Steinbeck had something in common.

Like Steinbeck, Teeters was born in Salinas, Ca.

Update, Feb. 10:

As I twisted west on I-90 through the forestland of the Bitterroot Range, I made a rookie mistake.

I completely forgot about Steinbeck telling his wife in a letter that on Oct. 14 he was camped west of Missoula 60 miles from Idaho.

I should have stopped near the tiny community of Tarkio to do some drive-by sleuthing and look for old-timers with details or memories, but I just cruised by on I-90.

It turns out Tarkio is probably not the place, after all.

I recently called about a seventh of the population of the Tarkio Valley – four nice people – from Pittsburgh to seek their help.

Though it’s possible Steinbeck could have slept by the Clark Fork River at the old Forest Grove Campgrounds, even Tarkio’s oldest and friendly citizens were stumped.

Where Steinbeck slept on his second — and final — night in Montana remains a mystery.

Sleeping on the Steinbeck Highway

Monday, 18 October 2010 12:32 PM

ELLENSBURG, Wa. — I-90, 110 Miles from Seattle

As he followed US 10 on his way to Seattle, John Steinbeck came down Main Street in Ellensburg’s healthy historic downtown.

He definitely passed the “Since 1922” Palace Cafe, where I got one of my best road breakfasts — corned beef hash and poached eggs for a pricy $10.DSC_2004_copy_copy_copy

He would not have seen Ace Emporium, the fully certified body piercing establishment, or Bailey’s Bibliomania, one of two used book stores inhabiting the row of early 1900s brick storefronts. And being something of a gun nut, he would have loved Bullets Gunshop.

Last night I slept, willingly, happily, in my seventh Walmart parking lot. The temperature in Moses Lake hit 32 degrees but I was completely comfortable in my dark and cozy berth. My nose and my Apple laptop were pretty icy when I awoke at 6, though.

Here’s an accounting of 13 sleeping arrangements on the road that have cost me $0 and resulted in no arrests for trespassing or vagrancy:

Seven Walmarts from Bangor to Moses Lake, Wa.; the Long Pier at Sag Harbor; a turnout on the bank of the Connecticut River; a lonely boat launching site 50 feet from the Bay of Fundy; a used car lot in central Maine; my family’s cottage on Lake Erie; a rest stop on I-90 in Montana.

Since I left Pittsburgh nearly 6,000 miles ago, I’ve stayed like an adult at 10 motels from New Jersey to the Holiday Inn in Missoula for an average of around $62 per night. Total cost: about $620.

So for 22 nights on the Steinbeck Highway I’ve averaged about $28 a night for lodging — if it’s legal to call sleeping in your car lodging.

I could have sought out cheaper/shakier places and paid much less per night. But instead of risking a stay at the Bates Motel for $45, I’d always rather sleep at one of Walmart’s Sunspot Inns for $0.

DSC_1928_copy_copy_copy

Dawn by the Bay of Fundy.

Tonight I’ll be staying at a Holiday Inn near the Seattle-Tacoma airport for $65, thanks to Hotwire.

There were probably not more than 100 Holiday Inns in 1960, but if I’m extraordinarily lucky, it’ll be the same airport motel Steinbeck slept in 50 years ago.

As I know from reading his original manuscript of “Charley,” he hung out at the airport for three days or four days while he waited for his wife Elaine to jet out from New York and join him for their slow ride down the Pacific Coast in Rocinante.

Steinbeck’s Ratty Cabins

Monday, 18 October 2010 06:20 PM

SEATTLE-RENTON — Holiday Inn near the airport

John Steinbeck probably arrived here 50 years ago either yesterday or today. It’s impossible to be precise because we only know what we know from what he says in “Travels With Charley” and that’s not trustworthy.

Because he mentioned it in a letter to his wife, we know he and Charley spent Friday night encamped somewhere along US 10 about 40 miles west of Missoula. On Saturday morning, Oct. 15, 1960, they would have continued their 7-day sprint to Seattle. From then on, all we have to go on is “Charley.”

Steinbeck says in the book that he stopped Saturday night near the Idaho-Washington border at a ratty motel/gas station combo.

He spends several pages discussing how he got in the middle of a long-running argument between a he-man father and his 20-year-old son, who Steinbeck said had a light male voice, dressed flamboyantly (he had an ascot) and was interested in theater, fashion and becoming a hairdresser. His father was interested only in hunting, fishing, drinking and not seeing his son become a hairdresser.If this caricature of a young gay man sounds like something Steinbeck-the-great-novelist might have made up, it’s because it almost certainly is. Steinbeck said the young man even subscribed to The New Yorker, which to me is the most unbelievable thing of all.

I have little doubt that the kid was a dramatic invention — just like the itinerant actor in “Charley” that Steinbeck said he met while camped overnight near Alice, N.D. (where Steinbeck did not really camp overnight).

Despite my doubts, last night before sunset I tried to find Steinbeck’s ratty cabins. Not far from Cataldo, Ida., right next to where I-90 arced over the mountains toward Washington, I looked along a several mile stretch of old US 10 for the place Steinbeck described in such vivid detail.DSC_2047_copy

In the Mission Inn I read locals the description of the cabins from “Charley.” I followed up a tip from a long-time resident. I knocked on the doors of several old houses. I peered into the heavy underbrush looking for the ruins of a gas station or a collapsed tourist cabin.

No luck. Steinbeck had to stop somewhere for the night on his way to Seattle, which is 450 miles from his last known campout west of Missoula. The unpopulated two-lane remnant of U.S. 10 north of Cataldo fits Steinbeck’s description. But if the cabins really existed, they shouldn’t be so hard to find.

Was This Steinbeck’s Inspiration?

Tuesday, 19 October 2010 09:37 AM

SEATTLE-RENTON — Holiday Inn

This place on old US 10 near the Idaho-Washington border may be all that’s left of where John Steinbeck stayed Oct. 15, 1960, on his way to Seattle.DSC_2060

Steinbeck described it in detail as a ratty motel/tourist cabin/gas station/grocery store complex in “Travels With Charley.”

In a long scene with copious dialogue, Steinbeck depicted how it was run by a he-man hunter/drinker who had no wife but had a stereotypically gay son who was clearly trying to come out of the closet.

I couldn’t find out much about the house’s history when I drove by it Sunday night. But yesterday I talked to its owner, Ron Rex, by phone from here in Seattle.

In 1960, seven years before Rex bought it, the place was a bar, a grocery store and a gas station. It was called the Canyon Store and had four cabins that it rented out.

The Canyon Store was owned and operated not by a macho man with a 20-year-old son who wanted to be a hairdresser but by a single woman named Judy McKeever who had help running the place from a couple that lived with her.

Confirming whether it’s the place Steinbeck and Charley stopped is something I’ll have to do next time I take a 6,000-mile drive on the Steinbeck Highway.

Meanwhile, anyone interested in buying a place that may have inspired Steinbeck to write one of his more memorable fictional scenes in “Charley” can take a virtual tour of the house at KarenHulstrom.com.

It looks like a steal $199,000 — and it’s only a few hundred feet from I-90.

Steinbeck’s Old Seattle

Tuesday, 19 October 2010 11:39 AM

SEATTLE — The Waterfront

What a spectacular city.AZN7wsuV4lvvaatbLrnoiATjo1_500DSC_2029_2

What a crazy sprawling lively healthy downtown.

What a funky Waterfront.

People unaccustomed to sharing their public spaces with packs of homeless and raggedy men, some of them clearly crazy and some definitely terrifying to a parochial suburbanite, might feel uncomfortable walking in Seattle’s Waterfront district after dark.

The high-strung career street denizens squatting on benches and patrolling the sidewalks, though harmless, elicit apprehension and annoyance, not sympathy.DSC_2023

But, hey, I saw no bodies of tourists in the streets last night  — just a local TV newsperson doing her standup.

As the sun’s pink light slowly faded and the moon rose, and as the vendors of fish, veggies and god-knows-what else shut down their stands, stalls and cramped speciality stores for the day, thousands of people with jobs and more than one shirt to their name milled along the Waterfront’s maze of restaurants, bars and shops.

John Steinbeck visited the Waterfront on his “Charley” trip 50 years ago when he took his wife Elaine on a tour of the old part of downtown Seattle he knew as a skirt-chasing, boozing young man.

Elaine had flown out to Seattle to meet Steinbeck, so she could travel down the Pacific Coast to San Francisco/Monterey wiDSC_2019th him and Charley.

Here’s how a real writer described the waterfront of Seattle before the city’s booster sector gave it its capital “W”:

“Next day I walked in the old part of Seattle, where the fish and crabs and shrimps lay beautifully on white beds of shaved ice and where the washed and shining vegetables were arranged in pictures. I drank clam juice and ate the sharp crab cocktails at stands along the waterfront. It was not much changed — a little more run-down and dingy than it was twenty years ago.”

Steinbeck was shocked by the sprawl and “carcinomatous growth” that had occurred in Seattle since he had last seen it. He barely recognized the city, whose population had leaped from 368,000 in 1940 to 580,000 in 1960 — about 30,000 less than today.

He wasn’t an old fogey who was automatically against change — an attitude that he said “is the currency of the rich and stupid.”

What he didn’t like was the destruction of hilltops and forests that were done in the name of progress.

Steinbeck would really be amazed/appalled at how much more Seattle — birthplace of Hendrix and grunge and home to Boeing and Microsoft — has grown and changed since 1960. Its metro area population has exploded from about 1 million to 3.4 million.

If I were a real photographer, I could have taken this aerial photo of the Waterfront provided by Google:

If you have a weak stomach, don’t read how one of the web sites devoted to helping tourists enjoy the Waterfront describes its virtues:

“Circling seagulls charm the chattering crowd. Aromas pepper the briny air—freshly baked waffle cones and steaming baskets of fish & chips entice you. You sidestep to make room for a passing jogger and smile as a young couple poses for a photo. Signs call out: “Fresh Oysters! Souvenirs! Buy your tickets here!”

“Perhaps you came to browse the eclectic souvenir and curio shops and taste the fresh Pacific Northwest seafood. Perhaps you came to catch a ride to the beautiful islands of Puget Sound. Or maybe you just came to relax on a pier and enjoy the romantic Waterfront views….”

Enough.

That’s a mighty embarrassing chamber-of-commerce depiction of the Waterfront’s untidy/funky/edgy character, as Steinbeck would no doubt agree.

There’s a simple reason the Waterfront is such a wonderful and wildly popular marketplace.

It’s the same reason the Strip District in Pittsburgh is a wonderful and wildly popular marketplace — the Waterfront has been allowed to exist and evolve organically and spontaneously for 100 years.

Miraculously, it’s been left alone by the city planners/urban experts/zoning nazis who would have destroyed it 40 years ago with a sterile, orderly redevelopment plan that today would be attractive not to millions of visitors but only to the homeless.

On Steinbeck’s Trail in Oregon

Wednesday, 20 October 2010 12:46 AM 

NESKOWIN, ORE. — US 101, Proposal Rock Inn

DSC_2027_copy_copy_copy_copy_copy_copy_copy_copy_copy_copyFollowing the route I presume John Steinbeck took, Tuesday morning I drove south from Seattle to Aberdeen, Wash., on I-5/US 12 and hopped on US 101, which hugs the Pacific Coast most of the way to San Francisco.

Right now I’m 283 miles from Seattle and about 1,000 feet from the ocean.

From Astoria, Ore., to here has been a series of stops to see spectacular views of the Pacific surf, wide empty beaches, giant rocks rising from the sea, steep cliffs, tidal basins and fishing boats.DSC_1999_copy

No wonder there was so much traffic on US 101, which is two lanes most of the time as it runs along the ocean and cuts over, around and through spruce-covered mountains:

It’s got to be one of the most beautiful stretches of highway in the USA.

Cutting out Elaine Steinbeck

Wednesday, 20 October 2010 01:32 PM 

NESKOWIN, ORE. — Proposal Rock Inn

Before I left Seattle for Oregon yesterday morning, I made a brief attempt to see if I could find the motel Steinbeck stayed in for three days at SeaTac, the Seattle-Tacoma airport.

I went to several of the older motels. But there have been too many changes in 50 years and Steinbeck provided no telling details in the scenes he wrote about his layover there in the original draft of “Travels With Charley.”

As Steinbeck wrote in his first handwritten manuscript, which I recently read at the Morgan Library in New York City, he waited in a motel room while his wife struggled to book a jet flight to Seattle.

All the planes were sold out and it took three days, maybe four, for her to join him.

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Elaine and John Steinebck at the Frankfurt airport in 1963. Elaine’s adventures along the Pacific Coast were in the first draft of “Charley” but were edited out.

Meanwhile, though they were cut from the final version of the book, the scenes Steinbeck wrote went into great detail about the modern push-button gizmos in his motel room. He listed the TV shows he watched and mocked them, too.

“The beauty and culture of our time,” he wrote: “Gunsmoke. Have Gun Will Travel. I Love Lucy. I love Dinah Shore. I love Barbara Stanwick. The greatest engineering minds in the history of the world had made these marvels available to me. Just looking at all those buttons brought home to me what a primitive life I had been leading.”

Steinbeck went on and on about how he luxuriated in his modern hotel room and its bathtub and soft bed while he waited for his wife. Then he went on and on about how his wife was suffering from all the stress and complications of plane travel.

In his original draft, when Elaine showed up in Seattle she became the major character in Steinbeck’s story.

Steinbeck detailed her “ordeal” with the airplane flight and included her on his tour of Seattle’s Waterfront. And of course she was with him on their long, leisurely drive down the coast  to San Francisco and Monterey.

Poor Charley all but disappeared. (It was so obvious that Charley had fallen off the planet that Steinbeck felt obligated to write a short chapter — never published, of course — explaining that with the missus in town Charley knew he was to take a subservient role and did.)travels_cove

In the final version of the book, however, Elaine’s presence in Seattle and on the trip down the coast was cut out totally.

The many “we’s” Steinbeck wrote in his nearly illegible first draft were changed to “I’s.”

And the details of where the couple stayed as they poked along in Rocinante through Oregon and California redwood country — at nearly empty resorts — and where they dined were edited out.

In the published book, it is only the author and his faithful dog Charley who see the redwoods.  I’ll leave it to literary scholars to determine who made the decision to dump Elaine and cut most of the original scenes of the Steinbeck family’s Seatttle-San Francisco trip.

It could have been Steinbeck’s editor Pat Covici or his agent Elizabeth Otis or somebody at Viking, his publishing company.

But the decision to cut Elaine out of “Travels With Charley” — thereby dumping a handful of scenes depicting two very rich and pampered Beautiful People from New York having trouble finding proper lodging and suitable cocktails on the road — was a smart one.

First of all, the scenes were pretty boring.

Most important, Elaine’s presence on the West Coast  wrecked the book’s theme: Steinbeck was no longer a man alone on his road trip, he was teamed up with his wife and the two of them were slumming through the boondocks.

Whoever made the changes in “Charley” realized few readers would be sympathetic to the Steinbecks’ little tragedies.

And they assured that the book, though flawed and fictionalized, would become a classic story about a man, his dog and the road they traveled.

It’s Not Walmart’s Fault

Thursday, 21 October 2010 10:20 AM 

CRESCENT CITY, CA. — Curly Redwood LodgeCurly Redwood Lodge is not Henry Cabot Lodge’s grandson. It’s a motel.

exterior5

I was forced to find this great 1950s mom & pop place (for $62) because the Crescent City Walmart does not allow bums like me to sleep in its lot.

I was ready to call one of the Walton heirs to complain but then I went in and asked the manager. It’s not Walmart’s fault.

curlylog1

It’s the usual culprit — government. The city or county has an ordinance against sleeping overnight in cars, even on private property. She apologized — twice.This usurpation of property rights by a local constabulary is an outrage for John Stossell or the guys at Reason magazine to address.

Of course the homeless population of California — already large and growing as the state sinks deeper into the red — doesn’t have to worry about the local law because they sleep in the bushes.Above is a picture of the single redwood that produced the 57,000 board feet of lumber used to build this motel, which is paneled in redwood and probably worth more for scrap than it is as a building.

No crying: as I am about to find out, there are whole forests of redwoods in my path as a I continue down US 101.

This is by far the most beautiful stretch of the Steinbeck Highway (sorry Montana).

But it’s also the biggest slog. No wonder Steinbeck and his wife Elaine decided to take a leisurely drive down US 101. They had no choice.

Leaving Steinbeck in the Dust

Thursday, 21 October 2010 05:50 PM 

ARCATA, CA. — McDonald’s

I know where I am on Oct. 21, 2010 — here, in Northern California:  30 days and 6,681 miles from where I started this crazy trip in Pittsburgh on Sept. 21.

Where were John Steinbeck, his wife Elaine and Charley the poodle 50 years ago on this Thursday in 1960? Almost surely back in Seattle near the airport, where I left Tuesday morning.

Since Steinbeck had to wait at least three days in a motel for his wife to fly out to Seattle, and then he apparently gave her a tour of Seattle’s Waterfront, I’m now several days and 400 miles ahead of him. He no doubt made a point to watch the last Nixon-JFK TV debate, which was held on this date in 1960.

It was probably late Friday or Saturday that the three Steinbecks started south to Oregon and California redwood country.

I have no idea if they took US 101 the entire way along Oregon’s coast and passed through California’s coastal redwoods for miles south of Crescent City, as I did. DSC_1979_copy

I find it hard to believe that Steinbeck would have passed up Oregon’s coast entirely, since Elaine had never seen its splendors. But he never mentions it in the “Charley” book or in his original  handwritten manuscript that detailed his and Elaine’s experiences as they traveled south.

“Travels With Charley,” as we have seen, is not a reliable/true chronological or geographical account of its author’s trip. Even with the help of the original manuscript, the Seattle-San Francisco leg remains a mystery with few clues about where he was and when.

In the book Steinbeck says he took Charley to southern Oregon’s redwood country. And Elaine Steinbeck told biographer Jay Parini they saw Oregon’s redwoods. Did Steinbeck go down the Pacific coast and then cut inland?  Don’t ask me.

In the next two hours I’ll try to find the old resort in California near a grove of redwoods that Steinbeck  described stopping at with Elaine.

The place was virtually empty and he said they stayed there “for several days.” If by some miracle I find it, I’ll take a few photos and try to make San Francisco tonight.photo_big9_copy

San Francisco is the next place we know for sure Steinbeck and Elaine and Charley were and when they were there — in a suite at the St. Francis Hotel from Oct. 26 to Oct. 30.

Well, actually, Charley wasn’t there. He apparently was in a kennel. At least I won’t have any trouble finding the Westin St. Francis.

Striking Out in the Redwoods

Friday, 22 October 2010 10:49 AM 

MILL VALLEY, CA. — McDonald’s

I didn’t find the big deserted resort in the redwoods Steinbeck and his family stayed at for several days on their way to San Francisco half a century ago.2010-10-21_16.00.22

I drove down the Avenue of the Redwoods yesterday afternoon, past thousands of trees so tall and thick they shut out the entire electromagnetic spectrum — from the sun, Verizon or Sirius XM.

The avenue’s narrow and snaky, and the tree trunks so monstrous they often touch the paint of the yellow line. It’s impossible to believe that until the mid-1960s, when the bypasses were put in, the road was US Route 101 and a major truck route.2010-10-21_17.15.55-1

I pulled over at an organic fruit and veggie stand near Pepperwood, but I was never able to find the old resort that the people there said might be the place I was looking for: the Hartsook Inn, set in the redwoods at the southern end of the Avenue of the Giants.

The Inn is now closed and owned by the Save- the-Redwoods League.  A real getaway with 62 rustic cabins and no phones, it was once the place to go for celebrities like Steinbeck.H-CA8

I did find the Benbow Inn, another resort that might have sheltered the Steinbecks for several days. It’s not hidden so deep in the redwoods, but it’s still going strong.

I stopped for dinner last night in downtown Garberville, the prosperous capital of Marijuana County, and guess what? Everyone seemed stoned.

Demographically, everyone was either old and homeless looking or young and homeless looking (they were the ones with the overstuffed backpacks).

As I got back in my RAV4, a stereotypically solid citizen of Garberville was squatting on the sidewalk with his back against a building.

“Is that a 2010?” he said.

“Yeah,” I said.

“I’ve got an ’09.”

“Sure you do, pal,” I thought.

He asked me where I was from and I told him Pittsburgh.

“I’ve got an uncle in Pittsburgh — and I went to a football game at Three Rivers Stadium in the ’80s, when I was a teen-ager.”

As I got into my car, he hit me with the closer that I should have seen coming but didn’t:

“I’ve got some good weed if you’re interested.”

I passed on his kind offer, thereby missing a chance to contribute to the greater Garberville economy by buying locally.

I tried to make it to my daughter Michelle’s house here last night, but didn’t. Too tired. I slept in my car for about three hours somewhere along lonely, dark, twisting, dipping US 101 near Willits.

Then I got up, drove the remaining 100 miles and pulled into Michelle’s driveway at 2. I slept till 6, breaking several dozen zoning laws in her fine upstanding community, I’m sure.

Why I’m Hounding Steinbeck

Friday, 22 October 2010 03:27 PM

MILL VALLEY, CA. — Daughter Michelle’s house

Why am I driving around America in a 10,000-mile circle?

Why am I, an ex-journalist, wasting time and gasoline fact-checking John Steinbeck’s classic road book?

Why am I spoiling a perfectly good work of literature by comparing what Steinbeck said he did in “Travels With Charley” with what he really did or did not do on his iconic journey in the fall of 1960?

Good & fair questions.

First off, I’m not following John Steinbeck’s ghost for any of the usual made-for-TV docudramatic reasons.

I’m not going through a divorce or going through a delayed mid-life crisis at 63 — which in Boomer years, by the way, is 17.

My beloved dog and I don’t each have prostate cancer and only six months to live. I haven’t even owned a dog since the great, unreplacable Alex ate something bad and died three years ago.old_stuff_004_copy

And, sorry Hollywood, I don’t have a stuffed dog, a bobble-head dog or a locket of Alex’s fur onboard my red RAV4.

DSC_0039The only dog-related thing I carry with me is my late dad’s U.S. Navy dog-tags.

And they were attached to my car keys long before I dreamed up this crazy exercise in drive-by journalism.

The boring truth is, I thought — naively, it has turned out — that doing a book about Steinbeck’s 1962 book/1960 road trip would be simple.

I’d plot Steinbeck’s actual route, go everywhere Steinbeck and Charley went, take notes, take pictures and talk to people. Then I’d write a book about everything I saw/observed/thought and compare the differences between 1960 and 2010 America. My intentions were innocent.

Then I started my research – what we ex-journalists call reporting.

I had a lot of catching up to do on Steinbeck. I’m not a big literature guy — just a C+ History major/ English minor.

I was not a huge fan of Steinbeck’s writing, though I am now. And unlike Bruce Springsteen, my working-class consciousness hadn’t been awakened in high school by “The Grapes of Wrath” — or anything else.

I did my Steinbeck 101 homework.

I re-read “Travels With Charley” and other Steinbeck works.DSC_1013_copy_copy

I read the Steinbeck biographies by Jackson Benson and Jay Parini.

I talked to scholars like Benson and archivists from the West Coast Steinbeck Industrial Complex.

I called up authors like Curt Gentry and Barnaby Conrad, who interviewed Steinbeck or partied with him in San Francisco during his “Charley” trip half a century ago.

I read “Travels With Charley” for the third time.

I visited libraries to look for specific clues of time and place in the letters Steinbeck wrote from the road.

I read his handwritten “Charley” manuscript to compare what he originally wrote and what was edited or cut out of the final version.

Long before I went to this year’s  annual Steinbeck Fest at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, Ca., where the theme was Steinbeck and his lifetime of travels, I was in too deep financially and psychically to turn back. pics_of_golf_canada_steinbeck_fest_305

Plus, once you tell everyone you know you’re going to do something crazy, you’d better do it or they’ll think you’re nuts.

Unfortunately for “Charley’s” reputation as a work of nonfiction, I’m a naturally skeptical and curious ex-journalist. The more I learned about Steinbeck’s actual 10,000-mile trip, the less it resembled the trip he described in “Charley.”

For 50 years, America has been misled by the book. Most people, including me before I learned otherwise, carry around the impression that Steinbeck and Charley spent three months on the American road, roughing it and camping out most nights almost like hobos as the famous author carefully documented the soul of a changing nation and its people.

Hardly.

In fact, out of about 75 days “on the road,” Steinbeck probably spent at least 50 nights sleeping in the best hotels and motels in America, at his family cottage in Pacific Grove or at a fancy cattle ranch in Texas.

So so what?

“Travels With Charley” has always been classified as nonfiction but no one ever claimed it was a documentary.

Steinbeck himself insisted in “Charley” – a little defensively — that he wasn’t trying to write a travelogue or do real journalism.

And he said more than once in the book that his trip was subjective and unique, and so was its retelling. (Most of “Charley’s” reviewers didn’t pick up those hints in 1962.)

“Leave ‘Charley’ alone, you cranky old fact-checking ex-journalist,” I can hear people say.

“Write a libertarian expose of the public mass transit racket or something else — something that’s important.

“You’re ruining everyone’s fun.

” ‘Charley’ is almost 50 years old.  It’s a wonderful and quirky and entertaining book. It contains flashes of Steinbeck’s great writing and humor and it appeals to readers of all ages. That’s why it’s a classic.

“Who cares if it’s not the true or full or honest story of Steinbeck’s road trip? It was never meant to be. It’s a metaphor, a work of art, not a travelogue.

“Steinbeck has enough detractors. Lay off.

“Who cares if he made up a few characters and stuck them in his little book?

“Who cares if he didn’t really camp overnight near Alice, N.D., or in the Badlands or on that dumb farm in New Hampshire?

“Who cares if ‘Charley’ would not or could not be called ‘nonfiction’ today? All nonfiction is part fiction.”

Those are all good & fair questions & complaints.

It’s just way too late for me to answer them or apologize. I’m too far down this road to turn back or ask for new directions.

As Steinbeck said and knew from experience long before he left his driveway in Long Island, when you take a trip, you don’t take it, it takes you.

Marketing ‘Camper’ John Steinbeck

Saturday, 23 October 2010 03:05 PM

MILL VALLEY, CA. — Daughter Michelle’s house

The publisher of “Travels With Charley,” Viking Press, did a good job of marketing John Steinbeck’s last major work as a nonfiction book when it came out in July of 1962. It jumped to the nonfiction best-seller lists at the New York Times and Time magazine and stayed there for over a year.

The famous illustrations by Don Freeman on the dust jacket and inside covers created the impression that Steinbeck and Charley spent three months on the American road, roughing it and camping out almost like hobos as they carefully documented the soul of a changing nation and its people.Travels_with_Charley

Though Steinbeck himself makes it clear in the book that he stayed at a posh hotel in Chicago (for four days) and at a fancy ranch in Texas for at least a week, the book’s reviewers in 1962 generally liked “Charley” and bought into the romantic on-the-road story line.

In those innocent days, no one questioned the “authenticity” of the cast of characters Steinbeck said he met or the book’s nonfiction designation, either.

But how often did John Steinbeck actually camp out or sleep in Rocinante during his 11-week circumnavigation of America? Not very often.

The book itself is little help. We know Steinbeck made up several of the big campout scenes — on the farm in New Hampshire (when he reportedly stayed overnight at an exclusive inn) and two nights under the stars in North Dakota (which, unless the week of Oct. 9, 1960, had nine days, was an impossible feat).

I don’t pretend to have seen every shred & shard of Steinbeck’s massive archives.

But based on the “Charley” book, his road letters, Jackson Benson’s biography and several newspaper articles, I’d say Steinbeck probably slept in Rocinante a maximum of three or four nights between Oct. 5, when he met his wife Elaine in Chicago, and early December, when he returned to New York City.

In those last 60 or so days of his trip, Steinbeck slept at the Ambassador East in Chicago four nights, at Adlai Stevenson’s house near Chicago one night and at motels in North Dakota, Montana and Seattle (probably four nights).

He and Elaine stayed at motels and resorts for almost a week as they traveled down the Pacific Coast from Seattle to San Francisco, where they stayed at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco for four or five days.bu_francis

They then drove south to the Monterey Peninsula where they visited one of Steinbeck’s sisters and stayed until almost the middle of November at Steinbeck’s modest family cottage in Pacific Grove.

After Elaine flew on to Texas, John drove in Rocinante from Monterey to Amarillo. For the first four days on the road, until Flagstaff, his old friend Toby Street traveled with him — so it’s unlikely Steinbeck cuddled up in the camper with Toby on any of those nights.

When Steinbeck reached Texas, he stayed in a downtown motel in Amarillo for three or four days, then spent Thanksgiving weekend at a nearby cattle ranch, then visited some of Elaine’s relatives in Austin.

As Elaine flew home to New York, in late November Steinbeck drove to New Orleans for a quick peek at the daily circus of bigotry outside a recently integrated elementary school, then headed home as fast as he could.

The last reliable date and location I have found for Steinbeck on his trip was Dec. 3, when he mailed a post-card to his agent from Pelahatchie, Ms.

While he may have grabbed some sleep in Rocinante on his sprint home, Steinbeck — road bleary and dispirited and out of gas — certainly didn’t do any leisurely camping or last-minute research into the American soul.ca_232_copy

Steinbeck was on the road for about 75 days in the fall of 1960 — from Sept. 23 to about Dec. 5.

As far as I can tell, on nearly 65 of those nights he slept in hotels, motels, resorts, a cottage, a ranch or with friends or relatives. Twice he slept in his camper on the grounds of Eleanor Brace’s house on Deer Isle, Maine; three of four times he slept in his camper at truck stops or “trailer courts” between Chicago and Seattle.

The number of times he slept in his camper in the middle of nowhere, as depicted in the book’s illustrations? Once or twice. He told his wife he parked by a bridge overnight in the interior of Maine. And, though there is no corroboration, he says he slept in a canyon in New Mexico by the Continental Divide and near a lake between Buffalo and Chicago.

It’s testimony to his great writing skill — and the gullibility of the age — that he was able to create a classic “nonfiction” road book around such a pedestrian journey.

Road Warriors

Sunday, 24 October 2010 11:39 AM

MILL VALLEY, CA. — Daughter Michelle’s house

I thought I was roughing it because I’ve slept overnight in a bunch of Walmart parking lots. Then late Thursday afternoon in Oregon I came upon three road warriors named Scotty, Boris and Don.

I had been cruising at 70 mph along a rare straight section of US 101 when I slowed down to go through a few buildings called the town of Langlois, Ore. When I saw a trio of bicyclists and their heavily saddle-bagged bikes in front of the Langlois Market & Deli, I stopped and turned around.DSC_2042

All day I had been passing bikers along US 101 in ones and twos — mostly lean young men, but also women and a father and young son. I figured it was time to talk to a couple of them.

Scotty Mathess, 32, was scarfing down a tube of Pringles when I pulled up. When I told him I was a traveling journalist and he was under interrogation, he cooperated fully.

He said he was on vacation, but actually he had quit his job at a bike shop so he could take a trip down the Pacific Coast route, part of the Adventure Cycling Association’s network of bike routes.

The Pacific Coast route starts in Vancouver and runs 1,853.5 miles to Imperial Beach, Ca. The association’s description of the 415-mile Oregon leg gives you an idea what a bicyclist  — or even a motorist — has to deal with in order to partake of the coastline’s stupendous beauty:DSC_2043

“During the peak tourist season, there is heavy recreational vehicle traffic along U.S. Highway 101 along the coast, so cyclists must ride cautiously and defensively. This route can be ridden from early spring to late fall. Heavy winter rains can cause flooding and mud slides and may close roads, especially along the coast in the spring. Fog can also be a problem during any season. Due to changing local conditions, it is difficult to predict any major wind patterns.”DSC_2041

Scotty left Denver by himself on Aug. 26 and biked through Yellowstone Park and Missoula to Seattle and Vancouver, B.C.

He was averaging 60 miles a day and was a few miles short of hitting 3,000.  His final target was San Diego or New Mexico.

His bike was draped with saddlebags holding all his camping gear, rain gear and clothes. He had been sleeping mostly at campgrounds and RV parks, where he paid a hiker/biker rate, or, when it was permitted, in city parks. Sometimes he slept in the bush — off the side of the road somewhere.

Sleeping in the bush is what Boris Skrobek did a lot of as he crossed Canada.  Boris, 24, is from Europe — Polish-born and living in Normandy, France — so we’ll use the metric system in his honor.

He rode 3,000 kilometers just in Quebec. He went as far north in that province as he could, then started west across Canada to Vancouver and turned south.DSC_2053

Boris, who budgeted his trip at $30 a day, worked for a year in Normandy to get the money he needed. He had been sleeping mostly in campgrounds in the USA and he’ll stop pedaling in San Francisco.

Scotty and Boris each started out alone, but they met on the road somewhere, liked each other and paired up. They weren’t really traveling with the third biker, Don, of Juneau, Alaska. Don was just taking a short trip — 1,500 miles from Bellingham, Wash., to San Diego.

After I took some photos I sped off down the Steinbeck Highway, going as far in the next hour as the three road warriors would go the next day.

Me & My GPS

Sunday, 24 October 2010 01:04 PM 

MILL VALLEY, Ca. — Daughter Michelle’s House

Based on a couple of emails I’ve received, I may have given the impression that I am relying heavily on my GPS to guide me on this trip.

I’m not.DSC_2069_copy_copy

Following the Steinbeck Highway for 10,000 miles is as easy as following the signs of US 5, US 2, US 1, US 11, US 20, US 10, US 101 and US 66 (if you can still find Route 66’s few remaining old signs).

Most of the time my GPS has been turned off or on mute. But I don’t know how many times I have rudely told my GPS Girl to shut up when she insists over and over that I make a right turn and get back on the interstate.

The GPS has been invaluable — and worth its weight in silver — when I am in a strange town like Bismarck or Seattle at the end of a long day and I’m looking for a Walmart Sunspot Inn or a motel I’ve booked through Hotwire.com.

(The cheering and hooting you hear in the background is the local populace still celebrating the Giants victory over the Phils last night. Watching that great baseball game — a game that meant so much to people here — reminded me why I used to be a big fan of Major League Baseball.)

INTER-MEDIA CORRECTION: In my travel article about Montana in today’s Post-Gazette, I referred twice to that beautiful state as “The Gem State.” Everyone but me knows that Idaho is “The Gem State.” Montana’s nickname, of course, is “The Treasure State.”

The Traveling Steinbecks

Monday, 25 October 2010 02:13 PM 

MILL VALLEY, CA. — Daughter Michelle’s house

It feels strange sleeping in one place for so long — three days. I got used to moving fast, which is what I had to do to keep pace with John Steinbeck on his seven-day dash from Chicago to Seattle (Oct. 10-17, 1960).

I’m waiting for the Traveling Steinbecks to catch up to me, so you can’t accuse me of dogging it.

John, Elaine and Charley didn’t get to San Francisco until Wednesday, Oct. 26, 1960.  We know this because the San Francisco Chronicle’s Herb Caen wrote in a columnon Oct. 28 that Steinbeck had arrived in town from New York. Also, writer Curt Gentry (future “Helter Skelter” author) interviewed Steinbeck in his suite at the St. Francis Hotel on Oct. 28 for a San Francisco Chronicle article.

In the published version of “Travels With Charley,” most of Steinbeck’s trip from Seattle to the Monterey Peninsula was left out entirely or edited to remove evidence of Elaine’s presence.

Steinbeck’s four or five day stay at the St. Francis Hotel in downtown San Francisco is never mentioned at all in the manuscript or the book. And as far as the reader knows, it was just Charley and his master who visited the great redwood groves on the drive from Seattle.

But the original handwritten manuscript, which is kept like a sacred scroll at the beautiful Morgan Library in New York City, tells a more complete story.

It contains a handful of scenes Steinbeck wrote about his three-day wait for Elaine in a motel near the Seattle airport and their slow trip down the Pacific Coast.DSC_1033

The manuscript, which has been at the Morgan (pictured at right) since Steinbeck gave it to them in 1962, is broken up into five or six chunks that Steinbeck wrote over a period of almost a year.

Always written in his barely decipherable scribble, always written from top-to-bottom and edge-to-edge of the page, it contains virtually no edits or changes (the editing changes were marked on a typewritten version of the original draft).

The manuscript is handwritten mostly on carefully page-numbered yellow or white legal pads. One part — which Steinbeck wrote while vacationing in Barbados in February of 1961 — is in a ledger-like book that also includes a daily journal he kept. One day he notes that he got a card from JFK, whose inauguration the Steinbecks attended with the Kenneth Galbraiths.

For someone trying to follow Steinbeck’s trail, the “Charley” manuscript is not a big help. Steinbeck is no more or less specific about where he was or when he was there than in the published book.

The manuscript does prove two things, however — that Elaine was with him the whole time he cruised down the Pacific Coast and that the Traveling Steinbecks knew how to enjoy themselves on the road.

They had every right to enjoy themselves, obviously. It’s just that detailing their fine lodging accommodations and uptown-manhattan lifestyle didn’t exactly support the book’s roughing-it-on-the-road theme, which no doubt was one reason the scenes were cut.121003_copy_copy_copy_copy_copy_copy

(In a sloppy piece of editing, Steinbeck’s line that “Quite naturally, as we moved down the beautiful coast my method of travel changed” was left in the book; reading that line in the manuscript, it’s clear that the “we” who slept in a “pleasant auto court” each night was not referring to Steinbeck and poodle Charley but Mr. and Mrs. Steinbeck.)

One scene edited out of the final draft mentions “the several days” Mr. and Mrs. Steinbeck stayed “in a cottage at the base of a cluster of monster trees.”

Steinbeck was sore and scraped up from having to fix Rocinante’s flat tire in a rainstorm in southern Oregon (an adventure he apparently really had), and he said the cottage and its bathtub of near-boiling water seemed like “the perfect place to rest and refurbish our souls.”

Another scene Steinbeck wrote in the manuscript does not reflect well on his love for the common man, which apparently cooled in late middle age. After he and Elaine heard about a good restaurant on the road up ahead, they decided to get dressed up and do the “town.”

They were bummed out to find that the eatery in the middle of nowhere was not a Trader Vic’s franchise but a neon hellhole.

Steinbeck wrote that it 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 writing.

But the elitist/snobby tone — and the fact that Steinbeck later makes fun of the waitress for saying “We ain’t got no (liquor) license” — is not flattering to Steinbeck, the appreciator of the common man. Some editor knew it obviously didn’t belong in the final version of “Charley.”

Another couple of wisely expurgated scenes involve the Steinbecks’ attempts to get a hotel room in San Francisco. Elaine’s calls ahead from roadside pay phones as they drove were for naught at first, but then they landed a room at the St. Francis Hotel in downtown.Westin-St-Francis-4_copy_copy

Steinbeck, as he described it, parked Rocinante at the luxury hotel’s entrance — and blocked traffic, as the doorman later complained to him.

Steinbeck went straight to his hotel room and jumped in the bathtub with a whisky and soda. He really enjoyed sitting in bathtubs.

Steinbeck purred that the suite was “pure grandeur.” He was pleased to find no formica, no plastic, no cheap ashtrays in the already old and prestigious St. Francis.

As for Elaine, who preferred well-staffed English country inns to the “do-it-yourself” style of the modern American motel, Steinbeck said: “My lady wife was very pleased.”

Later today I’ll visit the handsome St. Francis Hotel that so pleased the Traveling Steinbecks — if they let a Walmart frequent-sleeper like me in the lobby.

John Steinbeck’s Heart Was in SF

Tuesday, 26 October 2010 07:56 AM 

SAN FRANCISCO — Marin Headlands

San Francisco put on a show for me. I saw her across the bay, from the great road that bypasses Sausalito and enters the Golden Gate Bridge. The afternoon sun painted her white and gold — rising on her hills like a noble city in a happy dream. A city on hills has it over flat-land places. New York makes its own hills with craning buildings, but this golden white acropolis rising wave on wave against the blue of the Pacific sky was a stunning thing, a painted thing like a picture of a medieval Italian city which could never have existed. I stopped in a parking place to look at her and the necklace bridge over the entrance from the sea that led to her. Over the green higher hills to the south the evening fog rolled like herds of sheep coming to cote in the golden city. I’ve never seen her more lovely.

— Travels with Charley

San Francisco did nothing special to seduce the eyes and heart of John Steinbeck that October afternoon half a century ago.

Few humans could describe it so artfully in one paragraph.

But San Francisco has put on that same lovely show for millions of people who were not famous writers or were not already in love with her, as Steinbeck was.

As I saw yesterday afternoon, thousands of tourists, day-trippers, photographers, hikers and bicyclists from around the world enjoy the beauty of San Francisco from the hills above the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge every day.

I spent half my time taking pictures of couples from Australia, Florida, France, Japan and Berkeley with their cameras so they could prove DSC_2134_2they were together in San Francisco.

The details of light and color can differ wildly from season to season, day to day, even hour to hour. It depends on the predictably unpredictable whims of the clouds, wind and rain.

But from the Marin Highlands the basic view of San Francisco and the bay and the islands and the mountains and the great bridges that tie them together has not DSC_2098_3changed since Steinbeck took his stunning verbal snapshot on his “Charley” trip in 1960.

It’s an absurd panorama, a prime example of man and nature collaborating at their best – at least until the same slow-motion tectonic violence that took eons to create the spectacle gets around to destroying it.

Where did John Steinbeck stop to gaze so lovingly upon the city he never fell out of love with? Was it Vista Point, the popular scenic lookout at the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge, or high atop the Marin Headlands?

It doesn’t matter. From either spot, where I have probably stood 20 times since 1974, San Francisco is a post card of beauty and goodness that can offend no one’s politics or morals.

You can’t tell it’s the most liberal city in America or that it voted 84 to 14 percent for President Obama in  2008.

You can’t tell it has criminally high housing costs, a permanent parking shortage and an intractable homeless problem that costs its taxpayers $200 million a year.DSC_2035_copy

You can’t tell it’s the second-most densely populated city in the USA — with 815,000 people packed into an area smaller than the City of Pittsburgh, which has 308,000.

You can’t tell 37 percent of its residents are immigrants or that it has the highest percentage of gay people of any city in the country.

Did Steinbeck stop at Vista Point to gaze upon his beloved city and reflect upon his time there as a young struggling writer? Probably.

Essentially level with the north end of the Golden Gate, only 200 feet above the water, the Vista Point lookout was already open in 1960.

It doesn’t sound like he, Elaine and Charley drove up Conzelman Road to the top of the Marin Headlands, where the concrete ruins of defanged artillery batteries and crumbling coastal defense forts peek over the cliffs, guarding the narrow entry to the bay from enemy fleets that never came.

Of course it didn’t really matter where Steinbeck stood.

He could have described the scene from memory. He had been in San Francisco many times and knew it well. As a kid growing up 100 miles to the south in the lettuce fields of the Salinas Valley, San Francisco was known to everyone simply as “the city.”DSC_2057

As he wrote in “Charley,” it’s where he spent his “attic days” struggling to become a writer.

During the 1920s, while Hemingway and the other literary giants of his generation were losing themselves and becoming rich and famous in Paris, Steinbeck said he “fledged in San Francisco, climbed its hills, slept in its parks, worked on its docks, marched and shouted in its revolts.”

In both miles and time, Steinbeck was almost exactly halfway through his trip when the Traveling Steinbecks arrived in San Francisco on Oct. 26, 1960, via U.S. Route 101. Despite his fondness for San Francisco, Steinbeck had little to say about it in “Travels with Charley.”

After describing the city so perfectly from across the Bay, he wrote, “Then I crossed the great arch hung from filaments and I was in the city I knew so well. It remained the City I remembered, so confident of its greatness that it can afford to be kind. It had been kind to me in the days of my poverty and it did not resent my temporary solvency. I might have stayed indefinitely, but I had to go to Monterey to send off my absentee ballot.”

That’s it for San Francisco in “Travels With Charley.” Steinbeck’s next paragraph is about the politics of Monterey County, “where everyone was a Republican” including his family.

But in the real world, Steinbeck spent four busy days in San Francisco, staying at the handsome and very celebrity-favored St. Francis Hotel in Union Square. He hung out with his friends at some of the city’s top bars and restaurants — and, as we shall see, his famous presence was quickly discovered by the local media.

John Steinbeck, Baseball Fan

Wednesday, 27 October 2010 03:32 PM 

San Francisco — Westin St. Francis Hotel

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John Steinbeck was a big baseball fan.

We know he listened to the Yankees-Pirates World Series on his AM car radio during his “Travels With Charley” trip. What else was there before talk-radio was invented?

Steinbeck was also wealthier than a left-handed major league starting pitcher, which is why he stayed at palaces like the St. Francis Hotel, where he arrived 50 years ago yesterday. San Francisco city columnist extraordinaire Herb Caen, a friend of Steinbeck’s, wrote in his Oct. 28, 1960 column in the San Francisco Chronicle that Steinbeck had “chugged” into town on Wednesday, Oct. 26, “from New York.” Actually, Steinbeck and wife Elaine had driven down the coast from Seattle.  But would Steinbeck fork over $15,500 for a single ticket to tonight’s opening game of the Giants-Rangers series?
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That’s the asking price right now for one seat on StubHub! — Infield Club 215, Row F, to be exact.

Of course, since the U.S. dollar was worth about seven times more in 1960 than what it is today, $15,500 in our inflated currency would have been about $2,000 for Steinbeck out-of-pocket — about the cost of his new 1960 GMC pickup truck Rocinante, not counting the $750 camper shell.

The Local Media Discover Steinbeck

Wednesday, 27 October 2010 10:23 PM 

San Francisco — St. Francis Hotel, Oct. 27, 1960

Fifty years ago today, when Curt Gentry got a tip that John Steinbeck was in this town, he did what any hustling free-lance writer would do — he called the famous author in his hotel room and begged for an interview.sanfrancisco05

Gentry got his interview with Steinbeck in the St. Francis Hotel at 11 a.m. the next day, Oct. 28, 1960.

Steinbeck had put his “Travels With Charley” trip on hold and was socializing with friends at the city’s top bars and restaurants.

He talked with Gentry about presidential politics, Ernest Hemingway, the novel he just finished (“The Winter of Our Discontent”) and the immorality of an America whose people Steinbeck thought were growing soft and unwilling to do the hard work necessary to survive.

Gentry, then 29, would go on to write more than a dozen books, including “Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders” and “J.Edgar Hoover: The Man and His Secrets.”DSC_2029

But in 1960 he was a struggling writer and bookstore manager who lived in North Beach, the Italian neighborhood in downtown San Francisco where the hip jazz culture of the Beats would soon give way to the hippie rock culture of the 1960s.

Gentry knew Kerouac, Allen Ginsburg and other writers whose headquarters were in North Beach at Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore at the corner of Broadway and Columbus.

He also was a big admirer of Steinbeck, an author who had no connection with the Beats, and vice versa.

When Gentry went to interview Steinbeck, he brought along a shopping bag with every Steinbeck work he could carry — 21 books. He asked Steinbeck to sign them, which Steinbeck did.

Gentry told me last spring that when he got to Steinbeck’s room at 11 a.m. Elaine Steinbeck was still in bed and she and Steinbeck looked like “they both had quite a night.” Charley was not to be seen and Gentry assumes he had been checked into a kennel.DSC_0002_2_copy_copy

As soon as his interview with Steinbeck was over, Gentry typed up about 10 pages of notes. In the notes, Gentry wrote that Steinbeck was friendly, talkative and politically partisan. He told Gentry he was driving across the country in an attempt to find out what the people think about politics.

“Everywhere he has traveled,” Gentry wrote in his notes, “there is fantastic interest. People are not indifferent, or undecided. They just won’t say.”

Steinbeck, who told Gentry he thought a Kennedy victory was imminent, made fun of Eisenhower and lamented that for the previous eight years the Republicans had “made it fashionable to be stupid.” Gentry also wrote that Steinbeck “had much to say on Richard Nixon, a great part of it unprintable.”

Gentry’s subsequent article, headlined “John Steinbeck: ‘America’s King Arthur is Coming,'” ran in the San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday, Nov. 6, 1960.

The Chronicle, which along with the San Francisco Examiner supported Nixon against Kennedy, had the final political word, as newspapers always do. It cut out all the nice things Steinbeck said about his hero Adlai Stevenson.

John Steinbeck’s ‘Low Profile’

Thursday, 28 October 2010 01:31 PM 

SAN FRANCISCO — North Beach, Broadway & Columbus

In 1960 John Steinbeck was able to travel the backroads of America anonymously, even though he was world famous. DSC_2049

But in his old backyard — San Francisco and later in the Monterey Peninsula, aka “Steinbeck Country”  — his presence was quickly detected by the local media, which in those days meant newspapers.

Steinbeck, though known for being publicity shy, certainly was not keeping a very low profile during his stay at the St. Francis Hotel 50 years ago.

He and his wife Elaine — even Charley — were spotted as Steinbeck ate and drank with his friends in Enrico’s, one of the hot spots in town in 1960 and still open today.ca_566

In the San Francisco Chronicle of Sunday, Oct. 30, 1960, the paper’s popular city columnist Herb Caen wrote a long item about his recent afternoon encounter  with “well-nigh immortal author” John Steinbeck at “Enrico’s Coffee House.”

Enrico’s was on Broadway in what was then the culturally hip/happening neighborhood of North Beach in downtown San Francisco. Now its neighbors are mostly strip clubs.

But 50 years ago Enrico’s was flanked by jazz and comedy clubs and just around the corner from the City Lights bookstore in what Caen called “Beatland.”ca_588

Caen, who is said to have coined the term “beatnik” to describe Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsburg and their fellow literary travelers, ate lunch at Enrico’s sidewalk cafe nearly every day.

Steinbeck and his beard and costume were not too hard for Caen to spot. He was looking “terribly distinguished like/as a writer should,” Caen wrote. “Pinstriped suit. Black hat. Silver-topped cane.”

Steinbeck ordered a beer, took one bite of a fruit salad and pushed it away, Caen reported in his column.

He told Caen he had just driven across the country in “a campwagon. Alone. My wife met me in Seattle. I’ve been living in New York — that’s not America — and Europe. I hadn’t seen my own country in twenty years. I wanted to get to know the people again, hear how they talk and feel. You can’t live on memories.”

Steinbeck told free-lance writer Curt Gentry in an interview for the Chronicle that he didn’t want to try to guess who’d win the presidential election, which was less than 10 days away. But he told Caen he thought Kennedy was going to win.

“It’s like writing a play — you can’t fool people. You can get away with a sensational play, maybe, but not a bad one. Nixon is a bad play, the kind you don’t believe.”

Steinbeck also offered Caen his drive-by assessment of where the American people were politically.

Steinbeck was a devout New Dealer, a partisan Democrat, a proud FDR/Adlai Stevenson liberal. But what he said could have been said yesterday by a Tea Partier — or by almost anyone at any time in the last 50 years:

“The people are disturbed, plenty. They feel nobody in Washington has been telling them what’s going on.”

John Steinbeck, Individualist

Thursday, 28 October 2010 06:32 PM 

MILL VALLEY, CA. — Election Day, plus 4

A few people who probably belong to the Tea Party that’s going to shake up Washington on Tuesday have questioned why I, a devout libertarian, would want to waste my time on a lousy left-wing writer like John Steinbeck.ist2_4371390-steinbeck-stamp_copy

First of all, if I only wrote about people whose politics I agreed with even 50 percent of the time, I would have had few people to write about during my journalism career.

Second, Steinbeck was no more to the left than Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern or Teddy Kennedy were. In fact, in some ways — specifically his animosity/bellicosity toward the Soviet Union and communism and his hawkish position on Vietnam — Steinbeck was to the right of McGovern, Teddy Kennedy and most of his fellow liberal artists and celebrities.

Steinbeck was a highly partisan Democrat, a New Dealer, a huge fan of FDR; he was especially fond of Adlai Stevenson, the great egghead Steinbeck thought could save the nation from country club Republicanism, Tricky Dick Nixon and Ike’s poor syntax.

Though he cast an absentee ballot for John F. Kennedy from Pacific Grove, Ca., on Nov. 8, 1960, Steinbeck was leery of JFK. He didn’t like JFK in part because, as Steinbeck wrote in a letter before the 1960 election, JFK was “a bed hopper” and bed-hoppers were not trustworthy.

Here, below, is something lefty Steinbeck wrote that endeared him to libertarian me. He mistakenly believed that a bigger federal government could fix social problems or micromanage the economy without making things worse or diminishing its citizens’ freedom.images_copy_copy_copy

But Steinbeck was no commie and no fool. He knew what was wrong with the Soviet Union. He proved it in this wise and prescient message he delivered over Radio Free Europe in 1954 to the peoples of Eastern Europe who looked then like they would be trapped forever behind the Iron Curtain.

“To my friends,

“There was a time when I could visit you and you were free to visit me. My books were in your stores and you were free to write to me on any subject. Now your borders are closed with barbed wire and guarded by armed men and fierce dogs, not to keep me out but to keep you in. And now your minds are also imprisoned. You are told that I am a bad writer but you are not permitted to judge for yourselves. You are told we are bad people but you are forbidden to see and to compare. You are treated like untrustworthy animals, subjected to conditioning as cold and ruthless as though you were rats in a laboratory. You cannot travel, you cannot read freely and you cannot work at the profession of your choice. Your writers are the conditioned servants of a regime. All of this is designed to destroy your ability to think.

“I beg you to keep alive the integrity of the individual in his ability to judge and compare and create. May your writers write secretly and hold their writing for the time when this grey anesthetic has passed as pass it must. The free world outside your prison still lives. You will join it again and it will welcome you. Everything around you is cynically designed to destroy you as individuals. You must remember and teach your children that they are precious, not as dull cogs in the wheel of party existence, but as units complete and shining in themselves.”

Steinbeck’s Walk in the Woods

Friday, 29 October 2010 12:05 AM 

MARIN COUNTY, CA. — Muir Woods

While John Steinbeck was in San Francisco exactly 50 years ago, he took Charley across the Golden Gate Bridge on US Highway 101 to Muir Woods.ca_558

As it is now, it was a beautiful place — 240 dark and damp acres of old growth Coast Redwoods only 12 miles north of downtown.

Why he wanted to see more giant trees after having seen so many on his slow drive through Oregon and California redwood country is a mystery.

Maybe he just wanted to get away for a few hours to a cool, quiet place that was neither a church nor a bar.

When Steinbeck visited  Muir Woods in 1960 a lot of things were different. It may or may not have been officially called Muir Woods National Monument then. But the same 500-year-old trees he saw are still standing tall.

No visitor center was there in 1960 to sell him nature books, organic local salads, coffee and gluten-free pastries. And instead of two miles of boardwalks and paved walkways, he’d have had only dirt paths to walk on with Charley.

Muir Woods was purchased by a private individual more than 100 years ago and given to the federal government for safekeeping — exactly the opposite ownership arrangement I and my free-market brethren would prefer.ca_564_copy

So far, Muir Woods appears to be well maintained and carefully protected. But it’s no place for silently communing with nature.

It’s a place for weddings and tour groups. On a Monday morning at 10, five sightseeing buses and 30 cars had already delivered more than a 100 people through the front gate.

And, sorry, Charley, today it’s no place for dogs. Not even on a leash.

Working on Cannery Row

Sunday, 31 October 2010 12:33 PM

CANNERY ROW — Lilly Mae’s Cinnamon Rolls

Deborah Hannas of Monterey knows from experience what John Steinbeck was talking about when he said Cannery Row at dawn was magical.

She sees it every morning when she drives down the hill above Cannery Row and opens up her business, Lilly Mae’s Cinnamon Rolls.DSC_0072_copy_copy

It might be misty or sunny, rainy or cloudy. The bay can be rough or calm. Sometimes the fog sits gently on the water, sometimes it flows ashore like thick soft surf. But she agrees with Mr. Steinbeck that it’s always pretty magical.

Hannas is a shop owner now, but she’s been working on Cannery Row since she was 17 – since 1977.

As usual, just before 7 a.m. yesterday, Deborah was prepping her bright and colorful little tourist-catcher for a sunny day.

Business was going to be nothing like the mob scene of mid-summer. Her bright-red double doors were opened wide to an empty sidewalk, but the street itself was busy. Before 9 is the official feeding and primping time for the thriving commerce on Cannery Row.

I first met Hannas early one morning in March, when I was checking out the magic of Cannery Row as part of a research mission for my “Travels Without Charley” trip.

While I was talking to her in March, her old friend Harry Traylor popped into Lilly Mae’s with his order pad to see if she needed anything. Traylor sold his wholesale drive-in dairy years ago but still supplies fresh milk from Salinas to a few old friends like Hannas.ca_161

Traylor was 85 and had migrated to Monterey from Arkansas in 1957. Cannery Row was a hollowed out wreck then. No longer “The Sardine Capital of the World,” all but one of its 19 sardine canneries had closed.

Harry the Milkman remembered what it was like in 1960: A piano bar and a movie theater by the water. A big fire. “There was lots of arson,” he said.

Deborah has watched Cannery Row’s steady resurrection. She knows some of the history of the former “Sardine Capital of the World.” Before it was officially renamed Cannery Row by the city in 1958, it was Ocean View Avenue.

In the 1930s, when Steinbeck was hanging out, each cannery on the street had its own coded whistle that blew at 3 or 4 in the morning to alert its workers that fishing boats were coming in with bellies full of the sardines that thrived by the billions on Monterey Bay’s plankton.DSC_0128_2

The cannery packers – mostly wives of Portuguese and Italian fishermen – would come walking down off the same hill Deborah lives on now to go to work like extras in a scene from one of George Romero’s zombie movies.

“Every morning at 5 a.m. my whistle blows,” said Deborah, who is happy to go home smelling of coffee and cinnamon, not fish guts.

Cannery Row is now a place for families to eat and shop after they go to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. There’s virtually no trace of what made it famous.

A few old wooden storefronts from the 1930s and a remodeled cannery are preserved.

The holiest remnant is the surf-side lab where marine biologist Ed Ricketts — Doc in “Cannery Row” – worked and lived. He hosted a combination party house and bohemian intellectual salon for local artists, musicians and writers like Steinbeck.ca_139_2_copy_copy_copy

Ricketts and Steinbeck became great pals. According to Steinbeck scholars like Susan Shillinglaw of San Jose State, Ricketts’ holistic and then-innovative ideas about ecology and the interdependence and cooperation of all organisms within a specific habitat were strong influences on Steinbeck’s writing and thinking.

Otherwise, other than some workers’ shacks and the black-and-white photos incorporated into dozens of historical markers spotted around the street and its seaside, little else is left of Steinbeck’s real or imaginary Cannery Row.

In “Travels With Charley” Steinbeck acknowledged the progress that had occurred across the entire Monterey Peninsula in the 20 years he hadn’t been watching it. He was no blind romantic or limousine preservationist. He knew restaurants and antique shops on Cannery Row are a big improvement over smelly sardine canneries and whorehouses.

As Harry the Milkman recalled, in 1960 Cannery Row was a seaside slum, an economic derelict wondering what to remake of itself.

It took a collective of entrepreneurs, developers, enlightened government, Packard Foundation money, armies of tourists – plus the ruthless exploitation of the Steinbeck brand — to eventually resuscitate it.DSC_0123

Steinbeck saw the Cannery Row theme park in its infancy, knew where it was going, and didn’t like it much. What would he think of its nearly perfected state? Not much, probably.

He didn’t particularly like change, but he was smart enough to know he couldn’t stop it. As a good amateur ecologist, he’d probably understand that Cannery Row 2010 is the result of an  evolving, natural process of creative destruction brought about by the complex interplay of nature and man.

DSC_0145Without billions of sardines in Monterey Bay to catch, process and sell to the rest of the globe, there would have been no Cannery Row.

Without 20 canneries and decades of overfishing combined with the natural cycles of sardine and plankton populations, there would have been no economic collapse on Cannery Row to allow the tourist industry a chance to take hold 50 years ago.

Steinbeck most likely would not dig Cannery Row 2010’s tourist economy, upscale gentrification or exploitation of his name.

But I bet he’d agree that it  — like the rest of America he saw in 1960 — is a lot better, safer, cleaner and more prosperous today.

As Deborah Hannas can tell you, Cannery Row is also a much nicer place to make your living when your whistle blows at dawn.

Steinbeck’s Cottage by the Sea

Sunday, 31 October 2010 08:35 PM 

PACIFIC GROVE, CA. — Steinbeck Family Cottage

DSC_0175Saturday was a big day for my self-guided tour of Steinbeck Country.

After I went to Cannery Row, I buzzed next door to Pacific Grove, America’s prime candidate for most perfect community ever. I went to see if anyone was staying at the Steinbeck family’s modest three-bedroom  cottage on 11th Street, about 200 yards up the street from the heavy surf of the Pacific.DSC_0192_2

In 1960, after the Traveling Steinbecks left their digs at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco — probably around Oct. 31 — they drove about 120 miles south to Pacific Grove. They stayed with Steinbeck’s sister in the cottage for almost two weeks.

The local paper, the Monterey Peninsula Herald, got wind of their famous son being in town and sent a reporter and photographer to the cottage. The resulting feature story — which ran in the Nov. 4, 1960 paper — was nicely written  by Mike Thomas.

It included a photo of a wizened Steinbeck standing in the garden where Thomas found him fixing the old wooden front gate he had probably built 30 years earlier when he and his first wife Carol lived there.DSC_0558

Steinbeck quoted Thomas Wolfe’s line “You can’t go home again” to the reporter. He talked about the slow road trip he was making to “renew his acquaintance with the country” and, wrote Thomas, he smoked cigarettes with nicotine-stained fingers.

His wife Elaine was mentioned as being there. So was “an aging poodle sitting in a car at the curbside.”

The Steinbecks would stay at the Pacific Grove cottage for almost two weeks.

On  Nov. 8, John cast an absentee vote for John Kennedy. According to Steinbeck’s original handwritten draft of his “You can’t go home again” scene in “Travels With Charley,” Elaine accompanied him to Johnny Garcia’s bar in downtown Monterey. (Garcia’s bar and the building it was in on Alvarado Street were demolished in the late 1960s, victims of a misguided urban renewal project.)

Elaine’s presence was cut from the final version of the book, just as she had been cut from all the scenes Steinbeck wrote about their leisurely trip from Seattle down the Pacific Coast.

Elaine flew ahead to Amarrillo, Texas. Steinbeck stayed on in Pacific Grove a few days. Then, before he and Charley set out in Rocinante to catch up with Elaine, Steinbeck paid a visit to Fremont Peak.DSC_0258_copy_copy_copy

Visible from everywhere in Salinas, including Steinbeck’s gravesite, the spiky, toothlike peak is the highest point in Steinbeck Country. The trip to Fremont Peak  inspired some of Steinbeck’s best writing  in “Charley.”

Fremont Peak was one of his favorite places. Anyone who goes there — as I have done twice now — will immediately understand why.

Fleeing California

Monday, 01 November 2010 01:01 PM 

METEOR CRATER, ARIZ. — I-40/Historic US 66

Driving 830 miles is easier than writing.  I’ve got to catch up with myself.DSC_0274

This is quick rundown of the last 44 hours. Later I’ll provide the griping details of my lone assault on Fremont Peak, one of the most rewarding mountain tops you’ll ever climb, and my amazing encounter with 55 Frenchmen (and women) in the California desert on a lonely stretch of old US Route 66.

I left I Steinbeck Country weeks ago — actually Saturday afternoon — after genuflecting at Steinbeck’s grave in Salinas and climbing Fremont Peak for an aerial view of Steinbeck Country.DSC_0455_copy_copy

After driving 295 miles, I made it past Fresno and Tulare to a $62 motel in Bakersfield Saturday night.

Yesterday — Sunday, Oct. 31, right? — I drove across flat, dry, irrigated California, past a huge wind farm, through the Mojave Desert, to Barstow.

I flew down the same roads John Steinbeck took 50 years on his way east to a Thanksgiving feast at a ranch near Amarrillo, Texas — California 156 and 99.

But they were smoother, wider, faster, safer.

At Barstow I picked up I-40, which has replaced, bypassed or paved over most of US 66 that doesn’t go through the rosary of towns from the Bobby Troup song “Route 66” — Barstow, Kingman, Winslow, don’t forget Winona, etc. The historic/globally beloved “Mother Road” used to be the main highway from St. Louis to LA until Ike brought us the interstate highway system.DSC_0469

West of Needles, Ca., on Sunday afternoon, I saw the first major wreck of my 8,000-plus-mile road trip — a big trailer truck that had rolled over minutes earlier. The driver was OK but his cab was badly crushed.

Shortly after that excitement, I took an exit off I-40 that pointed to a lonely two-lane stretch of old US 66 that closely paralleled the interstate as it arrowed through the desert valley.

DSC_0544There are no Route 66 road signs because they’ve all been swiped by souvenir hunters years ago, but every four or five miles or so there are fading “Route 66” logos painted on the crumbling pavement.

I rode the preserved but unmaintained old highway that Steinbeck and Charley also traveled for about 25 miles. Sometimes at 75 mph, sometimes at 40, because the asphalt was so bumpy, eroded and worn.

It was so bad it made Western Pa. roads look good.) The 15-mph 90-degree turns were an DSC_0573occasional treat. After 30 minutes, the hunk of road ended at a Dairy Queen/76 gas station/truck stop next to I-40 where gas was $3.69 a gallon. On my private joy ride back in time I had encountered no other car.

By 10 p.m., I was so sleepy I gave up trying to reach my goal — a Walmart Sunspot Inn in Flagstaff.DSC_0570

I pulled off I-40 at Crookton Road, aka Historic Route 66, about 17 miles east of Seligman, Ariz., which was such a boring or un-rhymable town it wasn’t included in the Route 66 song.

I slept in my trusty/comfy RAV4 at the side of old US 66 in dusty truck turnaround.

It was the anti-Walmart parking lot — pitch black except for the flickering lights of trucks hurtling down I-40 and the gentle glow of a few billion stars.

Detour on the Steinbeck Highway

Thursday, 04 November 2010 12:58 PM

RALLS, TEXAS — George’s Restaurant.

DSC_0792_copy_copyI’m not as smart as I think I am. But I’m still lucky.

Yesterday I thought I found the house on the Scott Ranch where John, Elaine but not Charley  Steinbeck enjoyed a fabulous Thanksgiving holiday 50 years ago.

The house I found was located north of Amarillo seven miles off Highway 87 in the middle of a vast cattle and oil ranch in Moore County.

It looked like this:DSC_0798_copy
But this morning, as I left Lubbock for New Orleans, I got a call from one of the people in Amarillo I tried to reach yesterday.

The man, an attorney, said the house I’m looking for — which was  owned by the family of Elaine’s ex-husband, actor Zachary Scott — is another former Scott family house on another former Scott family ranch in another county.

The attorney gave me the name of the Lubbock cattleman who now owns the ranch. I called the owner and, in keeping with the generous spirit of all the Texans I have met, he said I was welcome to go there and check it out.

The  house is east of Amarillo in Clarendon, Texas, on a 40,000 acre ranch. I’m headed there now. It’s back the way I came. But after 9,000 miles on the Steinbeck Highway, what’s a little 156-mile detour?

Driving to New Orleans

Friday, 05 November 2010 09:20 AM

KILGORE, TEXAS — I-20 picnic area

Ah, the sound of idling trucks in the morning.

Another Texas picnic area sleepover. This time I’m east of Dallas and short of Shreveport, La.

The GPS Girl, into whose hands I am fully entrusted, chose this route to New Orleans.

Yesterday, despite some confusion in Lubbock, she guided me for 597 miles through Texas cotton country to cattle country and now I think I’m in oil country. Texas has a lot of countries in it.

I haven’t been keeping stats. But that’s the most I’ve driven  in any single day on this trip, which started Sept. 21 from Pittsburgh almost 10,000 miles ago.

The only other stat I know is 40 — that’s the number of days I’ve been on the Steinbeck Highway and the number of consecutive days I’ve gone without wearing socks. I have about 10 pair onboard my cargo carrier in case the next Ice Age starts before I reach home.

I can see the finish line from here. It’ll be Sunday, I hope. But first I must go to an elementary school in soggy New Orleans.

That’s where John Steinbeck stopped in early December of 1960 to see the bigoted white mothers — the “Cheerleaders” — whose morning protests against the integration of their public school district had become a national media story.

The mothers gathered outside an elementary school each morning to scream extremely foul language at the few white parents who dared to bring their kids to a school that now contained a single black child.

SteinbeckimageAt least I hope Steinbeck really went there. Diverting to New Orleans — which is really south — adds another 300 miles and 5 hours to my home stretch.

P.S.: Yesterday I found the ranch/compound (pictured) where John, Elaine and Charley Steinbeck spent Thanksgiving in 1960. Steinbeck detailed it at great length — and with great accuracy — in “Travels With Charley.”

I’ll report what I found after I rack up a couple hundred miles on the old odometer. New Orleans is about 400 miles south.

A Ranch Fit for the Steinbecks

Friday, 05 November 2010 12:59 PM 

APPALOOSA, LA. — McDonalds

For the record, as we say in the news biz, let’s clean up the confusion about that fancy ranch John, Elaine and Charley Steinbeck went to for a prolonged, orgiastic Thanksgiving vacation in 1960.

First, it is not this place — which I found all by my slightly trespassing self Wednesday afternoon:DSC_0798_copy_copy

This lovely white stone house with eight barking dogs, a few vehicles and nobody home was seven miles inside a ranch in Moore County north of Amarillo.

Because it was once owned by the family of Zachary Scott, the actor who was Elaine Steinbeck’s first husband, I thought it was the place I was seeking.1578068371

If I had been on the ball, or if I still trusted anything Steinbeck wrote in “Travels With Charley,” I would have re-read how he described the place.

Steinbeck described it as “a beautiful ranch, rich in water and trees and grazing land.” The one-story brick house “stood in a grove of cottonwoods on a little eminence over a pool made by a dammed-up spring.”

Hmm. Cottonwoods and a pond.

If I had re-read that passage beforehand I would have realized right away that the white house was not the right one.

Steinbeck provides lots of concrete detail about the Thanksgiving place. As you can see below in the photos I took of it yesterday afternoon on my self-guided tour, it is not your typical cabin in the woods.

It wasn’t until Thursday morning (yesterday) — after I had driven 140 miles south to Lubbock — that I was reminded why presumption is a mortal sin in journalism.

A man who was once a member of the family that owned the ranch when the Steinbecks stayed there called me back and told me I was looking for the Bitter Creek Ranch.DSC_0863

He gave me the new owner’s name. I called him, gave him my traveling journalist/Steinbeck pitch and as fast as you can say “Texas hospitality” he gave me directions to the ranch.

The bad news was that the place was 156 miles from where I was parked in Lubbock.

It was located in the middle of a medium-sized cattle ranch —  about 40,000 acres — east of Amarillo near Clarendon, Texas.

I had only been off by 120 miles, two hours and two counties. In the Texas system of measuring, though, that’s a near miss — just 3.5 cattle ranches. DSC_0876_copy_copy_copy_copy

10RanchPhoto

When I drove through the gate to the ranch compound about 2 p.m., there were four or five cars and trucks parked, several brick houses, a maintenance garage with the lights on, horses in a corral — but no one home.

Though two buildings are new, and there have been upgrades to roofs and plumbing, the place is much as it was in the fall of 1960.

The main structure has a big screened-in porch overlooking a pond and three bedrooms, each with a door to the outside. It is like a little motel, only in 1960 the regular guests were usually members of Texas richest cattle families. The porch furniture is worth more than the Boro of Dormont.

I poked around taking my photos, enjoying the sun and wind and parklike setting. (Video and more photos of the ranch and my entire road trip are here at YouTube.)

I didn’t have to imagine what it was like to hang out there for a week or 10 days, because Steinbeck did a thorough job of doing that in “Charley.”

After having the ranch and its ghosts to myself for half an hour, I did what I had to do — hit the Steinbeck Highway for New Orleans.

PS: I’ve since learned the ranch was never actually owned by the Scott family, which I was led to believe in a way which I don’t remember. But the owners and the Scotts — including ex-Scott-by-marriage Elaine — were all intertwined by marriage and money, which, according to one of my new sources in the cattle sector, is the way things work in the upper demographics of Texas.

Slogging Through Louisiana

Friday, 05 November 2010 03:21 PM 

Appaloosa, La. — McDonald’s

How the heck did Louisiana get so big? So deep?

I thought it was losing land to the Gulf of Mexico because of stupid management of the Mississippi River by the Army Corps of Engineers.louisiana-road-map

When I woke up this morning I was 415 miles from New Orleans. After driving all morning at 75 mph, I’m still 130 miles short. I’m going to miss Mardi Gras.

McDonald’s, by the way, is — along with Walmart — an unofficial sponsor of this trip down the Steinbeck Highway. (Steinbeck didn’t actually take this route to New Orleans, but at this late date let’s not be picky.)

McDonald’s is the only place where I can always find fast, reliable wi-fi (and decent coffee). But I don’t even have to buy a coffee and sit inside.

I’m in the parking lot now and the signal is 10 times better than the Mobile Hot Spot on my Verizon phone.

Loading and sending stuff by phone involves such torturous waits that sometimes I think I went through a time warp and I’m back in 1960 with the Traveling Steinbecks.

New Orleans’ Moronic Drivers

Saturday, 06 November 2010 12:09 AM 

NEW ORLEANS — I-10

I’ve driven around the block a few times.

I’ve driven in Boston, New York City and San Francisco.

I drove in L.A. for 12 years.

I’m a aggressive but safe driver. I never tailgate, drive too fast for conditions or speed recklessly.

With the above credentials, and after driving nearly 10,000 miles on American highways in the last six weeks, I think I am qualified to say this about New Orleans’ drivers: They are disproportionately moronic.

I have never seen so many jerks (I’d like to use the a-word here but I’ll be good) behind the wheel in one city in my life.

Aggressive, nasty, stupid, they are mostly young, always male and either drive pickup trucks with extra-loud engines or cheap sports cars. DSC_0915

If you are going 70 in the fast lane behind a line of cars, one of these Louisiana losers will suddenly appear in your rearview mirror 12 feet from your bumper.

They will then tail your gate as if you have somewhere to go. If you so much as leave three car lengths between yourself and the car in front of you, one will fly up the slow lane and jam themselves into the space.

Not four hours before I hit I-10 to New Orleans I had told my wife that from Maine to Amarillo I could’t remember being tailgated once.

(I get tailgated in Pittsburgh all the time; it’s a combination of dumb and/or creepy drivers and too many highways and freeways with only two lanes.)

I also told my wife I had not flashed anyone a certain rude hand signal — which I do about twice a day in Pittsburgh.
DSC_0919
All that nice driving stuff ended in southern Louisiana during three hours of driving down lumpy/bumpy rough I-10 and in the city.

At first I thought it was just a few hotheads. Then I realized this moronic-aggressive driving is a cultural thing.

We’re not talking about one or two cases. We’re talking 20 or 25 in three hours.

Everyone here tailgates at 70 mph — including Louisiana Highway Patrolmen. The photo above is out of focus because I was going 70, too, but you get the idea.

Steinbeck’s Rendezvous With Racism

Saturday, 06 November 2010 02:03 AM 

NEW ORLEANS —  William Frantz Elementary

Remember this Norman Rockwell painting?rubybridges_rockwell

It was called “The Problem We All Live With.” It was based on historical events that occurred at William Frantz Elementary school on North Galvez Street 50 Novembers ago, when the New Orleans public schools were first integrated.

The little girl is Ruby Bridges. The men are federal marshals. Ruby was the first black child to attend the all-white New Orleans schools.

The ugly racial circus that formed each morning in front of the neighborhood school in  New Orleans made national headlines for months. It also attracted the attention of John Steinbeck, who was in Amarillo on his “Travels With Charley” trip and still had to drive home to Long Island.

As he explains in “Charley,” Steinbeck went to North Galvez Street in early December of 1960 because he wanted to observe the “Cheerleaders.”

They were the white bigoted mothers who stood across the street from the sidewalk Ruby so innocently walked each morning and yelled obscenities at the few white parents who did not “honor” the white boycott of the school.

In his handwritten manuscript, Steinbeck wrote exactly what kind of foul things he heard the women shout. It couldn’t be printed in a book in 1960, and he knew it. And it can’t be revealed today in this blog or anything this side of Hustler.

Ruby Bridges’ name did not become public knowledge until years later.

Here, in a nicely written article by New Orleans Times-Picayune writer Chris Rose, is her story from start to finish, from innocent child to motivational speaker who travels the country talking to school kids about the lessons she learned from her experience.

Last night I plugged the address of the William Frantz school into my GPS and let it guide me to the school’s shabby-to-desolate New Orleans neighborhood.DSC_0938

I don’t know what neighborhood it is yet, but at night it looked like parts of it might have been underwater not too long ago.

The stout brick school that made history in 1960 is closed, locked, boarded up and surrounded by a tall fence today. It’s one of the many victims of Katrina — the “storm” it’s simply called — that has never recovered.

Bridges and others are trying to reopen Frantz as a charter school. Meanwhile, ironies abound.

Some of the sidewalks and the school steps Ruby walked into history on are blocked today by fences topped with barbed wire — protected not from angry white racists but from the school’s own neighborhood.

The Day Steinbeck Went to School

Saturday, 06 November 2010 10:22 PM 

NEW ORLEANS — Upper Ninth Ward

It’s 8:57 in the morning.DSC_0992

The sun is out and the birds are chirping. The William Frantz Elementary school is as quiet and dead as it was Friday night when I first visited it.

Its windows are still broken and boarded up. Its sidewalks are still closed.DSC_0998

Its barbed-wire fence is still protecting the brick school building and its entire block from vandals and thieves who’ll break into any structure that doesn’t have someone living in it or isn’t protected by strong barbed-wire fences.

The neighborhood of small houses around North Galvez and Pauline streets doesn’t look so dangerous in bright sunlight. There is a freshly broken beer bottle on the sidewalk — next to the BMW at the curb. And in daylight it doesn’t look at all like a waterlogged slum.

If you don’t count the moldy houses that are  boarded up with plywood, or are gutted and doorless and windowless, or are still landscaped with the debris of the flood that Katrina brought five years ago, the ward was perfectly tidy and full of nice, small, well-kept homes. DSC_1014

The Upper Ninth Ward, like its much more Katrina-battered sister, the Lower Ninth Ward, is inordinately poor and 98 percent black today. It is still barely above sea level and vulnerable to the next Katrina. But probably 90 percent of the homes in the Upper Ninth that were once up to their roof gutters in polluted seawater have been fixed, rebuilt or replaced.

Fifty years ago, John Steinbeck stood somewhere along these same sidewalks at 8:57 in the morning. But on that day — probably Dec. 1, 1960 — the sidewalks were crowded with an angry mob, police and news people.

The whole country had its eye on William Frantz Elementary. The New Orleans public schools were being integrated and Frantz was the guinea pig that was going to make history.

When little Ruby Bridges showed up to attend kindergarten there on Nov. 14, 1960, it caused such an uproar you’d have thought the whole crummy institution of Jim Crow was about to be destroyed by a six-year-old girl.rubybridges_rockwell_copy

Frantz then was an all-white school in an all-white working-class neighborhood. Local mothers didn’t take kindly to a black kid learning her alphabet while sitting next to their kids and so most of them pulled their children out of school.

Along with the boycott by white parents came the daily circus of ugliness — what Time magazine on Dec. 12, 1960, called “an ecstasy of hatred.”

19601212_107White parents screamed crude things at anyone going in the school and carried homemade signs that said “Integration is communism” and “Communists & Jews Behind Race Mixing.”

Local and national media were encamped there each morning as Ruby arrived to take classes in a nearly empty school. State and federal authorities kept people from killing each other.

Steinbeck went to Frantz elementary at the tail-end of his “Travels With Charley” trip because he wanted to see “The Cheerleaders,” a chorus of haters who specialized in shouting vulgarities that were so crude no news media would dare to repeat them then or now.

He was appalled and disgusted by the nasty freak show he saw and heard.

In the original draft of “Charley,” Steinbeck wrote that he felt that the ugliness of the scene could not be truly conveyed unless the actual words the women screamed were put down. He wrote that he knew that the publisher would never print those words, but he wrote them in the manuscript anyway.

Steinbeck noted that no paper in America ever printed the actual words the women used; they just hinted that they were “indelicate” or obscene.

In its Dec. 12, 1960, article, Time magazine used only the “n”-word and “Jew” and “bastard” in a lame effort to depict the level of crudity and hate. But Steinbeck didn’t pull any punches in his manuscript.

In a blistering, graphic paragraph, which was cut from his book, he quoted exactly what he said the Cheerleaders yelled at a white man who defied the boycott and brought his kid to school.

I can’t repeat the dirty words and phrases Steinbeck wrote. Let’s just say they included a lot of four-letter words sailors and athletes use, plus a lot of -ings.

If you want specifics, you’ll have to go to the Morgan Library in New York and read the original manuscript. (Or read my book Dogging Steinbeck.)

Steinbeck didn’t stay long in New Orleans. He jumped back in Rocinante and did what I did 50 years later — he headed for home.

When I left the Upper Ninth Ward, my odometer read 12,415 — exactly 10,003 more miles than when I left home for Sag Harbor on Sept. 21 six or seven years ago.

Homeward Bound

Sunday, 07 November 2010 05:53 AM 

TUSCALOOSA, ALA. — Walmart parking lot

That’s it.

No more sleeping in Walmart parking lots in this lifetime.

Not that there’s anythng wrong with it. I had six good, safe hours of sleep. It’s 37 degrees, the coldest night of my trip.  Total Steinbeck Highway mileage from Pittsburgh since Sept. 21 is 10,460.

Only 795 to go.

John Steinbeck Got it Right

Sunday, 07 November 2010 01:12 PM 

Chattanooga — US 11, McDonalds

John and Charley Steinbeck got out of New Orleans as fast as Rocinante could lug them, and I don’t blame them.

I’m sorry, but if the entire bottom half of Louisiana sinks beneath the sea — from natural causes or from Army Corps of Engineers causes — I won’t shed a tear.

Of the 30-plus states I have spent any time in on this trip, it is by far the most annoying. It’s dirty, it’s overcrowded, its roads are horrible and it’s already below sea level anyway.

I don’t care if Louis Armstrong and jazz did come from there.

In 1960 on Nov. 7, the Traveling Steinbecks were still in Pacific Grove at the family cottage. John and Charley didn’t arrive in New Orleans to check out the racist dramaturgy at the William Frantz Elementary school until about Dec. 1, 1960.

In “Travels With Charley,” Steinbeck, after being crippled with sorrow at the ugliness he had witnessed in New Orleans, described his meetings with four Southern men.

The writing is great, of course. And Steinbeck does a nice job of trying to sort out the rights and wrongs and complicated realities of an issue that would tear apart the country for the next decade or more.

Knowing what we know now about what Steinbeck did and did not do on his “Charley” trip,  however, and not knowing for sure whom he did or did not meet, the likelihood that he actually met the four Southerners is pretty slim.

One white man is a wise philosophical Southerner who defies the definition of the North’s stereotypical moron/racist Southerner.

One is an old black field hand who’s wary of white men asking questions.

One is an archetypal white bigot, a poster cracker for the segregation-forever crowd.

The last man is a smart young black student who thinks Martin Luther King’s methods were too slow.

Steinbeck, as he often does, offers a realistic disclaimer in “Charley.”

He says he doesn’t pretend to have offered a true cross-section of the South. He comes to no conclusions, he says — just that integration is inevitable; it was only the means of achieving that end that were in question.

He never lived to see it, but Steinbeck got that right.

Bypassing the Steinbeck Highway

Sunday, 07 November 2010 06:45 PM 

TAZEWELL, VA. — McDonalds, Route 19 South

John Steinbeck and I have a few more things in common today than we did six weeks and 11,000 miles ago.

One of them is that we both wanted to get home ASAP after we left New Orleans.

Too bad for him, but he had to do it on busy two-lane roads without the aid of Ike’s interstates. It wasn’t easy and his finishing kick kind of drove him crazy, as he admits at the end of “Travels With Charley.”

After taking in the scene at the William Frantz Elementary school in New Orleans, Steinbeck drove north on US 61 to Natchez and Vicksburg, Miss., then headed east on US 80 toward Alabama.

We know that was his route because on Dec. 3, 1960, he wrote his itinerary on a post-card he sent to his agent from Pelahatchie, Miss.DSC_1069_2

US 80, which I drove last year when I was chasing the 60-year old ghost of great P-G reporter Ray Sprigle (for what would become my 2017 history book 30 Days a Black Man), is pretty much the same as it was before it was bypassed by I-20. It’s smooth but it’s rural, bermless and slows you down with its little towns.

When Steinbeck hit US 11, in Birmingham, Ala., he started northeast on an angle that took him parallel with the Appalachian Mountains. He went through the heart of Tennessee, the western tab of Virginia, pieces of West Virginia and Maryland and into Pennsylvania at Carlisle and the PA Turnpike.

Yesterday, I took the Steinbeck Highway on my flight from southern Louisiana.  I followed US Highway 61 north. I don’t know how it was in 1960, but yesterday it was smooth, wide, beautiful and empty all the way to Vicksburg.

It’s one of the prettiest roads I’ve ever driven — and, unlike most of my opinions, that is based on experience.

I took a token spin on old US 80 to take a picture of the Pelahatchie post office, then hopped back on I-20 to Tuscaloosa. While the Alabama Crimson Tide faithful were crying in their beers over their loss to LSU, I slept soundly in the town Walmart.

Today, I put on my push for home — more than 700 miles away.

I took a series of interstates to Abingdon, Va., which is where Steinbeck said his trip ended in a kind of road-weary amnesia. His journey actually ended weeks before when his wife Elaine joined him in Seattle, but let’s not go down that bumpy road now.DSC_1107

If Abingdon is a good enough place for Steinbeck to call it quits, it’s good enough for me.

My old friend and former Pittsburgher John Schardong, who was serving as a kind of remote navigator for me by phone from Cincinnati this afternoon, noticed something as he was helping me negotiate the spaghetti of Tennessee’s interstate highways.

The Steinbeck Highway’s US 11 route converged at Abingdon with US 19 — yes, that same north/south Route 19 that northern Pittsburghers and southern Pittsburghers share with equal love and congestion.

I decided that was the best way home for me — north on Route 19, which run just three miles west of my home in Washington County.DSC_1105_2

I don’t think the selection committee for the Noble Prize for Literature will hold it against me that I didn’t finish every last mile of the Steinbeck Highway as I chased the great author’s 50-year-old ghost around America for what will ultimately be more than 11,000 miles.

I’m still 300 miles and 5 hours from home. I should be there by midnight. All I have to do is take Route 19 — the Steigerwald Bypass.

The End of the Highway

Monday, 08 November 2010 01:02 PM

Eighty Four, Pa. — My houseDSC_1959_copy

The final 300 miles of my trip last night from Tazewell, Va., seemed like it would never end. But this morning, at about 1:20, I made it back to where I started on Sept. 21.

I broke my previous single-day mileage record (597) on Sunday by racking up 809 miles on the Steinbeck Highway. That’s how far it is from Tuscaloosa, Ala., to Abingdon, Va., and then north on Route 19, I-77 and I-79 to here.

Here’s the unofficial — but purely non-fictional — box score for my trip, which started from John Steinbeck’s former home in Sag Harbor, Long Island, on Sept. 23:

Not counting a four-day pitstop in Pittsburgh in early October, I spent 42 days on the Steinbeck Highway, touched 26 states with my feet or tires and drove 10,784 miles — an average of about 270 miles a day.

That compares with Steinbeck’s estimated 75 days, 10,000 miles and 33 states. Of course, he didn’t actually spend 75 days driving Rocinante. Counting all his layovers and hotel rest-stops, his actual road time probably was more like 43 days.

I don’t know yet how much money I spent. The RAV4 performed perfectly and doesn’t have a ding on it. The closest I came to an accident was last night when I came around a curve at 65 mph on I-79 — 35 miles from home — and encountered a deer standing in the middle of the road.

It’s way too soon to say what I learned about America, its people, its highways, its mood.

And as far as I can tell, I learned nothing about my puerile self except that I can take pictures, take notes, dial the phone, look at a map and drink coffee pretty much simultaneously while driving at 75 mph.

I will say this about my trip around the USA chasing Steinbeck’s 50-year-old ghost. It did nothing to contradict what I already knew — America is huge, empty, beautiful and ridiculously over-blessed with everything nature and man can produce.

It’s also filled with nice, friendly, hardworking people and, except for Louisiana, pretty good drivers.

Steinbeck went in search of America and its people. He admitted in “Travels With Charley” that he didn’t find either of them — no one person, not even John Steinbeck, could or can. America’s too big, too complex, and, anyway, every observer will find his/her/its own America.

Though he pulled his punches in “Charley,” Steinbeck was not pleased with the country he saw — when he wasn’t relaxing in bathtubs at fine hotels or attending orgiastic Thanksgiving bashes with rich Texans.

But Steinbeck deserves a lot of credit and a lot of slack. He mapped the Steinbeck Highway. He did his 10,000 miles on roads that were narrower, slower, more crowded and far more dangerous than the ones I traveled.

And he couldn’t help being so cranky and pessimistic about the 1960 America he saw. He had been living in New York for 20 years. Plus he was in lousy health. Plus he had a dog.

PS: I’m done driving. But I’m not done blogging/babbling about my trip — or trying to find some ex-post facto subsidies for it.

Sorry, President Obama, no government stimulus money accepted. Private sector only.

Afterthoughts & Shameless Pitches

Tuesday, 09 November 2010 08:49 PM

EIGHTY-FOUR, Pa. — My houseI’m slowly decompressing, slowly becoming less insane.

But I keep thinking I need to be driving somewhere far away — Maine, Montana, Seattle.

I’m amazed at all the places I went and the wonderful people I met only because I’m a journalist and get to drop into their lives and interrogate them.

I keep remembering people I met but had forgotten about or have never written anything about yet — like the wonderful German, Rolf Kurandt, of Camp Douglas, Wisc.

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Rolf owns a German roadside restaurant, the Target Bluff German Haus, on US 12 in the dark hills of central Wisconsin.I sat with him for an hour and in his heavy German accent he told me stories about how as an 11-year-old he watched Allied bombs fall on his hometown of Frankfurt.

His father, who owned a restaurant in Frankfurt, was drafted into the Germany army as a food worker. He was captured by the Russians in 1944 and declared dead by the Germans.

Rolf’s mother refused to believe it. She was still insisting he would come home a year after the war ended. The people in Rolf’s village thought his mother was nuts. But then in the summer of 1946 she got a phone call.

“Your husband will be getting off the bus in a hour,” she was told.

The Russians had decided to let him out of a POW work camp because they had worked him almost to death and he was of no further use to them. Rolf’s father lived to see old age.

***

DSC_1889_2_copy_copy_copyI’m also sending out shameless, begging email pitches to Toyota, the great car company, and Keen, the great shoe company, to see if they’d like to boost their profits or enhance their reputations by exploiting my daring circumnavigation of America in a marketing campaign.

How could Toyota not want to pay me millions for my testimonials about how perfectly their gas pedal worked or how soundly I slept in the back of a RAV4 in 10 Walmart parking lots from Bangor to Salinas?

As for Keen, how could they not be impressed  — honored, even — to know that I wore their fine eco-friendly and comfortable shoes for my entire trip?

I didn’t plan it that way.

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I packed five pairs of shoes — hiking, dress and running.

I never even touched them.

I only wore my Keens.

For 41 straight days and 11, 276 miles on the Steinbeck Highway.

On the beach, on the mountain tops, in the lobby of the Albuquerque Hyatt Regency.

With no socks.

Gas, Food, Lodging

Wednesday, 10 November 2010 11:18 PM

EIGHTY FOUR, PA. — My house
20100919sundaymagfix_si_330_copyHere are some unofficial stats for my recent trip on the Steinbeck Highway from Sept. 21 to Nov 7.

I didn’t keep careful track, but I’ve got all the receipts in case the IRS comes calling.

GAS: In 43 days on the road from Pittsburgh to Long Island to Maine to Chicago to Seattle to San Francisco to Amarillo to New Orleans to home  I drove 11,276 miles.

I averaged about 24 miles a gallon, even with a cargo pod on the roof of Toyota RAV4. That’s 469 gallons of gas. I paid as much as $3.69 a gallon n California, where everything is more expensive, and as little as $2.59 a gallon in Tennessee.

Let’s say I averaged $2.80 a gallon. That’s $1,313 for gas — my major expense.

FOOD: I usually ate a big breakfast. My regular meal was two eggs over easy, sausage, home fries, wheat toast, coffee. By the time I paid a tip, it usually came to $10.

I skipped lunch most days and then ate a decent dinner — when I could find one. I never paid more than $16 for a dinner and that was a mistake — a crab roll in Stonington, Me. I figure I averaged $10 a dinner, so that’s $20 a day for 43 days or $820.

LODGING: Thanks to Walmart’s sleepover policy, what I thought would be my greatest expense wasn’t. I was gone from home for 43 days. I slept seven nights for free at my daughter’s house in California.DSC_2076

Of the 36 nights I needed a place to stay the night, I paid to sleep in 15 motels (one motel was free). My highest price was $80 at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Albuquerque (including $20 for parking) but otherwise I was always around $60.

My total bill for lodging was $936 — or $22 a night over 43 nights. Of course, in order to get that average down that low I had to sleep in the back of my car at 10 Walmarts, plus sleep on a pier, on the beach, by a river, at several interstate rest stops, by the side of the road, in a used car lot, etc., etc.

ESTIMATED TOTAL BUT STILL UNOFFICIAL BILL (excluding phone bills, new Smart phone, tolls, depreciation of my car, etc.): $3,169.

Let’s add another $831 for all that other stuff and make it an even $4,000. It’s still a small price to pay for such a great joy ride.

Nice French Connections

Thursday, 11 November 2010 10:14 PM

EIGHTY FOUR, PA. — My house

Someone alert Homeland Security.

America is being infiltrated — perhaps overrun — by French people.

That’s a conclusion based not on paranoia or logical hatred of France, but my recently completed spin around the USA.

For some strange reason I met more French people than any other ethnic group.

Maybe it’s fitting — after all, John Steinbeck took a French companion on his “Travels With Charley” trip. But in 43 days of driving along the Steinbeck Highway I met exactly 58.5 French people.

I met two in Maine, one in Oregon, two in Albuquerque and 53 in California in the middle of the Mojave Desert. If you count a French Canadian customs officer I encountered when crossing into Canada at Niagara Falls, I met half a French person.

They were all nice as can be — especially the border guard who let me in without a passport.

The two nice French people in Maine, Veronique and Dominick, were from French Polynesia but were living in Quebec. They were renting a rustic little cottage by the sea on Deer Isle, the lovely island south of Bangor where Steinbeck stopped for two days in 1960 on his “Charley” trip. DSC_1945_2

When I drove down the long secluded driveway looking for the woman who owned the tiny cottage and the fabulous house it belonged to, Veronique and Dominick and their dogs greeted me.

They barely spoke English, and though I resisted, they treated me like I owned the place. They insisted on giving me a full tour of their tiny rented cottage — the same one Steinbeck’s New York City agent rented for 30 years.

It wasn’t until almost 3,000 miles later, along the Oregon coast, that I met my next nice French person.DSC_2043_copy

Boris Skrobek, to be technical about it, was Polish. But he lived in Normandy, France. He had a French accent. He had been riding his bicycle all over French Quebec. And he measured his bike trip in kilometers — and what’s more French than the metric system?

The biggest batch of nice French people I ran into was two Sundays ago in Newberry Springs, Ca., which used to be an oasis in the Mojave Desert.

Newberry Springs has two things that attract French people by the busload from around the world: the Bagdad Cafe and old U.S. Route 66, the dusty/lonely stretch of road the cafe sits on.

The Bagdad Cafe is a restaurant, but mostly it’s a shrine to both Route 66 and the German movie “Bagdad Cafe.”

You may not have heard of that 1987 independent film, but most Western Europeans have — especially the French.DSC_0525_copy

Nominated for an Oscar, and featuring Jack Palance, “Bagdad Cafe” is a huge cult favorite in France.

It was filmed in and around the Bagdad Cafe, which is why during the summer 10 to 15 tour buses a day stop there.

Ten to 15 times a day 50 excited Euro-tourists pop out a bus in the American desert, load up on Bagdad Cafe/Route 66 merchandise, pose for pictures behind the counter and stand in the middle of Route 66 taking photos of each other. DSC_0506 The Bagdad Cafe, which nobody seems to care is not the original Bagdad Cafe, is owned by Andrea Pruett (left).

Andrea is not French. She’s Southern American, based on her twangy accent. But she loves the French, who make up 75 percent of her customers and keep her in business.

“The French keep my doors open,” is how she put it, which now sounds a little sexier than it should for a family blog site.

I ate lunch with the bus driver and Sonia the tour guide as 52 nice French tourists of all ages from Marseilles jammed the cafe’s dining room.

It was crazy.  The Bagdad Cafe — wallpapered to the ceiling with movie posters and Route 66 signs and T-shirts and photos and foreign currency and letters from around the world — was standing-room only. DSC_0502

Sonia the tour guide was the only person in the place who could speak both French and English, but the French people were nice. They wolfed down their American road food — chicken, mashed potatoes and broccoli. Then they shopped like crazy French people starving for stuff printed with the American road culture.

As the French people boarded their tour bus (next stop Grand Canyon), another bus pulled up.  I headed east on crumbly Route 66. In my rearview mirror I watched 50 more French people taking pictures of each other in the middle of an old highway in the American desert.DSC_0475_copy

Two days later I met my final two nice French people.

I was in downtown Albuquerque, a block from Central Avenue, which is old US Route 66. I was looking for a morning bagel. I left the Hyatt Regency and walked into the first likely storefront I saw — La Quiche Parisienne Bistro.

To be honest, I didn’t notice the French name. It just looked like a coffee & bagel shop to me. But Bruno, the proprietor/baker on duty behind the counter, said there were no bagels — just French pastries and his quiche. DSC_0710

By the time I was finished eating my tasty quiche lorraine I had told Bruno I was from Pittsburgh and he had told me his wife used to live in Pittsburgh.

Meet Sabine Pasco.

In 1990-1992 she ran Julien Pastries on Penn Avenue in the Strip District and lived in Mount Lebanon. Before that she and a previous husband had a smaller French bakery in Sharpsburg.

Things didn’t work out too well for Sabine business-wise in Pittsburgh. It was a town of too many Italian bakeries. She went bankrupt and moved on to other cities.

Now she and Bruno are holding their own in a so-so location in downtown Albuquerque, which is haunted by day and ruled by night by homeless people.

Sabine and Bruno were the last nice French people I met on my trip. Texas had lots of nice people, but they weren’t French, they were Texans.

‘Charley’ & the Critics

Friday, 12 November 2010 10:33 PM

EIGHTY FOUR, PA. — My house

In “Travels With Charley” John Steinbeck says his trip ended on US 11 in Abingdon, Va., as he and Charley pushed hard for home in early December, 1960.

But his trip — and his ambitious mission to reacquaint himself with America and its people at the grass roots and rediscover the soul of the country he loved — was over long before then and he knew it.
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Steinbeck realized he had failed to uncover any great truths about the country or its people and said so in “Charley.” But it didn’t matter to the reading public what he found or didn’t find on his trip. He was Steinbeck, the great and popular American writer. Whatever he published, readers bought.

With few notes from his trip to work from, Steinbeck began writing “Charley” in February of 1961 during a vacation in Barbados, then put it off until May. After much struggling, he completed it around the first of September, 1961, nearly a year after he left on his trip.

“Travels With Charley in Search of America” was published by Viking Press in July of 1962 and it sold fast and furiously from the start – 250,000 copies.

Before coming out as a book it was serialized in abridged form in three parts by Holiday magazine, where it bore the title Seinbeck originally gave it, “In Quest of America.” Later it was a Book of the Month Club selection. Today it’s the best-selling book at the National Steinbeck Center’s book store.

The original Viking Press hardback edition of “Travels With Charley” was only 246 pages and Charley, who stole the show from his master and saved the book from being a disaster, is mentioned on almost half of them. Steinbeck’s wife Elaine, who spent at least 45 days with him on his 11-week trip and was a major presence in his first draft, is barely mentioned.

Steinbeck was never liked by the East Coast literary Establishment, which alone is a good reason to like him.

The big critics disliked Steinbeck for snobbish intellectual reasons — he  was from out West. He had a sense of humor. He was too popular, too sentimental, too accessible and insufficiently political (i.e., he didn’t keep writing “The Grapes of Wrath” over and over).

Nevertheless, the reviews for “Charley” ran the gamut from favorable to ecstatic. The New York Times, Newsweek and the Atlantic loved it.

The Times’ reviewer lost his grip, effusing that it was “a pure delight, a pungent potpourri of places and people interspersed with bittersweet essays on everything from the emotional difficulties of growing old to the reasons why giant Sequoias arouse such awe.”

Newsweek called it “affecting and highly entertaining.” The Atlantic’s August issue wrote that it was a book “to be read slowly for its savor, and one which, like Thoreau, will be quoted and measured by our own experience.”

The Boston Herald enthused that “Charley” was one of the “the best books John Steinbeck has ever written. Perceptive, revealing, and completely delightful.” The San Francisco Examiner deemed it “profound, sympathetic, often angry . . . an honest and moving book by one of our great writers.”

Time magazine, which never forgave Steinbeck for “The Grapes of Wrath’s” attacks on capitalism, was almost alone in trashing what would be Steinbeck’s last major book. henry-fonda-in-the-grapes-of-wrath_copy

It ridiculed “Charley” in a brief review on Aug. 10, 1962.  Calling it “One of the dullest travelogues ever to acquire the respectability of a hard cover,” it said ultimately Steinbeck’s attempt at reacquainting himself with America “reveals nothing more remarkable than a sure gift for the obvious observation.”

After Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize, Time magazine piled on with a nasty Nov. 2, 1962, article that further dissed the author and his entire body of work.

Time sniped that the decision of the Nobel judges “was also reportedly influenced by Steinbeck’s latest, bestselling ‘Travels with Charley,’ which manages to recapture the banality, mawkish sentiment and pseudo philosophy that have marked Steinbeck at his worst.”

Steinbeck was extremely sensitive to reviews, even favorable ones. But he got the last laugh on Time, all the way to the bank.

For more than a year Time’s editors and Steinbeck-hating owner Henry Luce had to watch “Charley” mock them from their own top-10 nonfiction best-sellers list.

“Charley,” which was also on the New York Times best-sellers list for 57 weeks, has never fallen from the culture’s consciousness.

In 1968, shortly before Steinbeck died,  it was turned into a horrible and hokey hour-long “documentary” for NBC that used actors to play people Steinbeck said he met on his trip. Its producers paid $1,000 to rent a poodle to stand in for dead Charley.

The book “Travels With Charley” gave Charles Kuralt his idea for his famed “On the Road” segments for “The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.” In the 1990s Kevin Costner had an option on “Charley” with plans to shoot an eight-part miniseries. Fortunately, it was never made.

“Travels With Charley” is everything the critics said and more. Timeless in many ways, dated in others, it’s obviously padded and silly in spots — and a lot of it is just plain made up. Despite its shortcomings, “Charley” flashes with Steinbeck’s great writing, humor and semi-cranky personality. travels_cove_copy_copy

Big-time critics like Peter Lisca ripped “Charley” for representing “all the baggage of the third-rate journalist who sees only the stereotype and the cliché.”

But Steinbeck’s drive-by accounting of 1960 America was never meant to be serious journalism or deep social commentary — and it wasn’t. He considered “Charley” the account of one man’s unique, subjective and unrepeatable trip — and it was.

John Steinbeck Heads for Home

Thursday, 02 December 2010 

EIGHTY FOUR, P.A.  — My house

It’s time to bring poor John Steinbeck in out of the cold and put an end to his punishing 75-day, 10,000-mile circumnavigation of America’s finest hotels, motels and resorts.

That’s mean, but not inaccurate.

Fifty years ago right now Steinbeck was pushing hard for home in Rocinante. He was probably crossing Mississippi or already in Alabama. Because we have no choice, we have to believe, as he says in “Travels With Charley,” that Charley was still riding with him.

Fifty years ago yesterday morning, Thursday, Dec. 1, 1960, I figure Steinbeck was in New Orleans’ Upper Ninth Ward watching the racist circus in front of the William Frantz Elementary school. DSC_0998_copy

The grade school, then in an all-white neighborhood, became the first New Orleans public school to be integrated when six-year-old Ruby Bridges showed up Nov. 14, 1960.

The scene was ugly and nuts, as CBS showed us last month in its good 50-year retrospective about Bridges.

Steinbeck was sickened by the sights and sounds of white mothers shouting crude things at any white parent who defied their boycott by bringing their kids to the newly integrated school.

But his angry description of the “Cheerleaders” protests and his attempt to convey the nastiness of their foul-mouthed harrangues became the most powerful part of his book and gave it the  strong ending it needed.

Steinbeck says in “Charley” that he got out of New Orleans as fast as possible, stayed at a motel somewhere and drove north into Mississippi.DSC_1069_2_copy

The last credible word we ever hear from him on the Steinbeck Highway is the post-card he mailed to his agent on Dec. 3, 1960, from the Pelahatchie, Miss., post office on US 80.

At the end of his note he scrawls,  “Darned if I know whether I’m getting anything. At least I’ll know what is not so.”

Then he signs off with, “See you. It’s been a long haul.”

John Steinbeck Gets Home Again

Tuesday, 07 December 2010

EIGHTY FOUR, P.A.  — My house

According to my best guess, it was 50 years ago Dec. 5th or Dec. 6th that Steinbeck staggered into New York City and ended his 75-day, 10,000-mile circumnavigation of the USA.Steinbeck, who in “Charley” says he sprinted to the finish line in a road-bleary blur, was out of gas physically and spiritually and he knew his search for America had been mostly a bust.images_copy_copy_copy

While he was away from his homes in Manhattan and Sag Harbor Nikita Khrushchev had made a fool of himself at the United Nations, the Pirates had shocked the Yankees in the World Series and JFK had out-debated Nixon to become boss of the Free World.

For reasons that should be obvious to anyone who’s read this blog, it took Steinbeck more than a year of struggling to finish “Travels With Charley,” which didn’t come out until the summer of 1962. Of his 16 novels, six nonfiction books and five collections of shortstories, it was his last major work and reportedly his best-selling.

Six weeks after Steinbeck returned to New York he would attend JFK’s inauguration day festivities and share a limo with JFK insider/advisor John Kenneth Galbraith.

In less than two years he’d win the Nobel Prize for Literature and be reminded by a creepy New York Times editorial the next day that he hadn’t written anything important for 30 years.

In less than four years he’d be writing speeches for his new buddy President Lyndon Johnson.

In six years he’d be supporting the war in Viet Nam in public and doubting it in private.

In eight years, on Dec. 20, 1968, at age 66, the author of some of the most popular books ever written by an American would be dead.

And in 50 years I would drive 11,276 miles chasing and fact-checking his ghost.

***

Epilogues & Add-ons

Cruising Steinbeck’s ‘Mother Road’

Sunday, 14 November 2010

EIGHTY FOUR, PA.  — My house

Today in the Post-Gazette is my travel article about my adventure on a stretch of Historic Route 66 in the Mojave Desert when I bumped into a busload of French pilgrims who’d come to worship American culture at the Bagdad Cafe.DSC_0530

In 1987 the cafe and the old motel next to it were used as the location for an independent German/American  movie, “Bagdad Cafe,” which has become a cult classic in Western Europe, especially France. Here’s the trailer.

179667-1Until two Sundays ago I had never seen the movie or even heard of it. That’s particularly embarrassing for me, since I was working for the entertainment section of the L.A. Times when it came out.

Courtesy of Netflix, I saw the movie the other night. It’s not a typical Hollywood movie; it’s strange and slow at times, but it’s also funny and sweet. It’s not likely you’ll like it. But it’s easy to see why it is so beloved by those nutty Europeans who come to the cafe by the thousands each year.

America on 313 miles a day

Monday, 15 November 2010

EIGHTY FOUR, Pa. – My house

JOHN STEINBECK WATCH:

On this date 50 years ago John Steinbeck ended a two-week pitstop at his family cottage in Pacific Grove on the Monterey Peninsula and headed east in Rocinante.

Steinbeck would take more than three weeks to work his way back to New York City via New Orleans, which Google Maps says is 3,496 miles. He took so long mainly because he spent about 10 days in Texas with his wife Elaine.

As he describes in “Charley,” he stayed for three days at “a beautiful motor court” in downtown Amarillo while Rocinante’s broken front window was fixed. Then, before visiting his Texas-born wife’s relatives, the Traveling Steinbecks celebrated Thanksgiving at this fancy Texas cattle ranch.

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I recently drove my 3,278-mile California-Texas-New Orleans-Pittsburgh leg in nine days – which comes out to a ridiculous 364 miles a day.  That’s the distance from Pittsburgh to New York City.

The scary thing is that I averaged almost that many miles a day during my retracing of Steinbeck’s entire 1960 “Travels With Charley” road trip.

I was gone from home 43 days. But only 36 of those days were actually spent driving 11,276 miles. I racked up an average of 313 miles a day. That’s like driving from Pittsburgh to Philly. Every day. For 36 straight days.

Only a crazy person would do something like that at age 63, which explains why I did it. But I had driven around the USA too fast and furiously once before.

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My brother Paul grew up and became a Pittsburgh Penguins play-by-play man.

In the summer of 1974, when I was a bartender/weekly newspaper editor in Cincinnati, my brother Paul and I decided we needed to see the western USA by car.

For a bunch of crazy reasons, we started in Buffalo and drove to Philly to Chicago to Denver to Yellowstone to San Francisco to L.A. to Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon to Cincinnati.

All we had to guide us, besides the setting sun, was a single Rand McNally road atlas.  If we did that road trip today without a GPS or the help of Google Maps, we’d be on Oprah and treated like Lewis & Clark.

It seemed a lot longer at the time, maybe because Nixon and Congress had imposed their idiotic 55-mph speed limit on the country. But Google Maps tells me our trip was only 6,400 miles.

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This could be the Datsun 510 I drove across the USA in 1974, but probably not.

At any speed, our crosscountry drive wasn’t very comfortable in a tinny little 1972 Datsun 510 with no AC. We thought we were really lucky because the front seats folded back.

Paul was 19. I was 26. We were so happy to be free and on the road and exploring the West for the first time we didn’t notice we were essentially two young bums in a car.

We were totally unequipped for life on the road.  We slept in the car a lot and I remember spending a chilly night under the stars in Elko, Nev., on top of a picnic table.

Of course, we had a blast.  We chased the usual American road-dreams – girls, music and beer.

In San Francisco, where two of my friends from Cincinnati flew out to join us, I remember sitting on a wall in the sun with my shirt off in Ghirardelli Square next to a cold six-pack of Coors. We thought we were in heaven and for an afternoon we were.Steigerwald-296_copy

By the time we hit Yosemite National Park, however, Paul and I had clearly overdosed on big sky and natural wonders and scenic overlooks.

Here, at the right, from the archives of the Steigerwald Media Dynasty, young brother Paul entertains our Cincinnati pal Bob Weir with his reaction to yet another scenic wonder we had dubbed “Ho Hum Falls.”

We finished that 1974 trip the same way Steinbeck finished his 1960 trip and the same way I finished my trip eight days ago– in a mad dash for home.

We drove non-stop to Cincinnati from Las Vegas, with a quick detour to the Grand Canyon, where we jumped out of the car for 10 minutes and peaked into that amazing chasm.

Four of us packed into that Datsun 510 for almost 30 straight hours was not something I’d recommend to anyone over 20. But 36 years later I can see that it prepared me well for my solo trip down the Steinbeck Highway.

Travels With Steigy

Saturday, 13 November 2010

EIGHTY FOUR, PA. — My house

As I chased John Steinbeck’s ghost around the USA from Sept. 23 to Nov. 7, I wrote seven travel stories for the Sunday Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s travel section, plus a sum-up of the 2010 America I saw on my trip.

Maine:

Travels Without Charley:

Steinbeck’s trail leads to 2 great stops in New England

Sunday, October 03, 2010
Van Buren, Maine

By Bill Steigerwald

John Steinbeck stopped in Stonington, Maine, at the insistence of his agent. The author was glad he did, as he found it enchanting. Stonington is an important fishing port on a beautiful and largely empty island. Tourists come to hike, take boat trips to the outer islands or watch some of the island’s several hundred lobster fishermen bring in their catch each afternoon.

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.

I’ve been retracing the 10,000-mile circumnavigation of America that John Steinbeck took in 1960 for his book “Travels With Charley.”

Obviously, I have no useful advice for anyone planning a relaxing, leisurely, enjoyable car trip to New England or anywhere else. I’m not stopping to savor the sights or soak up the local color or gather interesting facts to tell my mother. I’m doing drive-by journalism, not vacationing.

I’m traveling the exact route Steinbeck took 50 falls ago, when he and his poodle Charley drove in his pickup truck/camper from Sag Harbor on the tip of Long Island to Maine, Chicago, Seattle, Northern California and back to New York. You can read the exciting/gruesome details of the first leg of my adventure in my PG blog, “Travels Without Charley.”

It’s not that I’m not having fun. In the past week, I have driven my RAV4 from the eastern end of Long Island (I know; I took three ferries) to the very top of Maine. That’s 929 Steinbeck Miles so far and 1,461 total from Pittsburgh.

I’ve seen the gorgeous old towns and countryside of rural Connecticut and Massachusetts, where hundreds of big, handsome, Mark Twain-vintage white wooden homes line both sides of U.S. 5 for miles and miles.

I’ve seen the green mountains and endless thick forests along the beautiful Connecticut River valley as the river runs between Vermont and New Hampshire.

I’ve seen the rough and intimidating White Mountains of New Hampshire and the endless pine, oak and maple forests of Maine on U.S. 2 to Bangor.

Unfortunately for my career as a travel writer, most of what I’ve seen has been out my window at 50 mph. But there are two timeless places I saw enough of that I can credibly recommend to anyone thinking of heading for New England.

Deerfield, Mass.

All of New England is historic or quaint or Town & Country beautiful. But Deerfield, Mass., where Steinbeck stopped to visit his son John at the Eaglebrook boarding school, has turned part of itself into an especially impressive 18th-century time capsule.

Few of Deerfield’s 5,000 people actually live in the huge colonial and federal mansions of the historic district, which preserves “authentic New England” with 11 house museums on an original mile-long street and offers an endless array of programs and exhibits to bring you up to date on several hundred years of local history and lifestyles.

Although Deerfield is in western Massachusetts, it’s easily accessible via Interstate 95 or U.S. 5, a much more interesting parallel route that Steinbeck and I used. You could spend two hours at Deerfield or two days, depending how much time, curiosity or money you have.

A room at the Deerfield Inn, built in 1884, goes for between roughly $170 and $290 a night, depending on how deep the snow is and how many leaves are on the trees. Motel rooms in the area are numerous but fill up early during leaf-peeping season, as I discovered when I was lucky to land a $71 room at a nearby Days Inn where the only thing historic was the bad plumbing.

Stonington, Maine

Four hundred miles to the northeast of Deerfield in Maine — about as far “down east” as you can get without sleeping with the lobsters in the cold Atlantic — is the village of Stonington. Another stop on the Steinbeck Highway, it clings to the southern edge of Deer Isle about 60 twisty-turny miles south of Bangor at the end of state route 15.

Although Stonington is an important fishing port on a beautiful and largely empty island of about 2,500 permanent residents, it’s historic and quaint. Tourists come to hike, take boat trips to the outer islands or watch some of the island’s several hundred lobster fishermen bring in their catch each afternoon.

I stayed one night in Stonington for $60 at a small but comfortable and impeccably clean room at Boyce’s Motel, a family-run place on narrow Main Street.

Steinbeck loved the sea and lived by it most of his life. He reluctantly diverted to Deer Isle on his “Charley” trip at the insistence of his agent, who had been vacationing at an astonishingly beautiful home there for 30 years.

Steinbeck wasn’t sorry he trucked down to Deer Isle. He loved Stonington’s architecture and “enchanting” feel — small wooden houses with decks and big windows hanging on hillsides over the harbor– and said it reminded him of an English fishing village.

Deer Isle is much more than just “downtown” Stonington; it’s a mix of natural and manmade beauty (juxtaposed with the working-class funkiness of lobster traps, dead fishing boats, junk and fishing gear stored in front and side yards) that is a photographer’s dream. Ditto artists.

Hikers, kayakers, birders, sailors, painters, naturalists also will be pleased by a stay on Deer Isle.

A final tip to anyone who goes the extra mile to get to Stonington — and possibly another reason to go: Cell phone signals can’t make it down there. If you really must keep in touch with your broker or baby sitter, bring lots of quarters. You’ll need them for the two pay phones in the town square.

New England:

Travels Without Charley:

Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont: empty but beautiful

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Traffic jam on Route 11 in Maine.

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.

I stayed off interstates, so maybe that’s where all the indigenous Yankees and hordes of visiting “leaf peepers” were hiding from Sept. 23 until Oct. 1.

I stuck faithfully to two-lane roads — U.S. 5, U.S. 2, U.S 1 and Maine’s beautiful state Route 11. Not because I dislike interstates and love blue highways for political, moral or religious reasons. But because it was my job to follow the exact route Steinbeck took in the fall of 1960 when he circumnavigated the USA for his best-selling road book “Travels With Charley.”

The Connecticut River valley between Vermont and New Hampshire is every bit as peaceful and rural and undeveloped and unchanged and under-populated as it was when Steinbeck drove up U.S. 5. Like the rest of the back-road New England that I saw — except for a few malls, a Petco or a Hyundai dealership near major cities such as Bangor, Maine, or Burlington, Vt. — 95 percent of what I saw Steinbeck saw out his windshield.

Upper Middle Maine, meanwhile, is nothing but empty. Traveling through the vast forest from Fort Kent to the mill town of Millinocket was like being alone in outer space, except everything was colored pine green or flaming orange and yellow.

About all I saw on Route 11 between the few crossroads and collections of buildings that called themselves towns were trees and “Moose” warning signs — but no moose. I also saw my life flash before me every 10 minutes or so when a double-trailer logging truck thundered over a hilltop and passed 5 feet to my left at hypersonic speed.

On Route 11 you can get real hungry looking for a place to eat. I would not have been offended a bit if a few hundred more chain restaurants had assaulted my eyes in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.

McDonald’s, Subway and Dunkin Donuts were about all the franchise chains most small towns could support. Even the Verizon Wireless stores are not company-run. All of rural New England, as far as I could tell, is not zoned for Bob Evanses or Cracker Barrels.

When it came to chain motels, for which I also harbor no grudge, I saw the familiar ones crowding the interstate exits. I stayed at a Days Inn out of desperation in western Massachusetts. It cost $70, the most I spent for lodging in 10 days, and I got it through Hotwire.com after finding no vacancies at three other independent motels near Greenfield.

Other than that Days Inn, where the bar of soap was so ancient it crumbled in my hand, when I wasn’t sleeping in the back of my car I stayed cheaply and happily at three mom & pop hotels. New England has hundreds of them.

A random choice for affordable independent lodging near the Canadian border in Aroostook County was the Aroostook Hospitality Inn in Van Buren, Maine.

Located on Main Street (U.S. 1), it cost about $69 instead of $155 at a nearby Hampton Inn or $97 at another chain motel. My room was perfect, which translates to clean, no frills but no surprises. It had all the important amenities I required — strong Wi-Fi, lots of wall plugs and a good shower — and it had a lot of Nixon-era character.

Speaking of the ’60s, when I went through Lancaster, N.H., going west on U.S. 2, I stayed at the no-nonsense and affordable Lancaster Motor Inn for $62.

I chose it instead of the Spalding Inn, an exclusive motel about eight miles away where Steinbeck spent a night while on his “Charley” trip.

The Spalding Inn, a 36-room retreat/getaway in the White Mountains with a 1940s feel, is not the least bit modern; it is where you take your wife or boyfriend to impress them, not a place to crash on a whirlwind road trip.

It looks like it would be something only a Steinbeck could afford, but the inn’s rates start at a low-low $99 in the spring and $179 in the fall. Built in the 1800s in Whitefield, N.H., and owned by the chief investigators of “Ghost Busters,” it exudes character and was virtually unoccupied the night I was given a tour of its rooms.

The Lancaster Motor Inn, where I stayed a week ago Thursday, is a popular place for more price-conscious leaf-peepers. Built in 1954, it became my unofficial regional office when I went east through Lancaster. I ate breakfast there and the friendly managers let me sit on a couch in its Wi-Fied lobby for hours.

Friday morning, before I took the highway west for a tour of the flooded rivers and valley in northeast Vermont and upstate New York, I headed for the Lancaster Motor Inn’s dining room at 6:15 to get a hearty breakfast.

In the lobby I found the cook, Donny Jacobs, lying on the couch. He jumped to his feet and disappeared into the kitchen, where he whipped me up a perfect $7 meal of eggs over medium, sausage and home fries. That kind of personal service you’ll never find at a chain.

Wisconsin :

Travels Without Charley:

A beautiful lake and a movie palace await in Baraboo

Sunday, October 17, 2010
Baraboo, Wisconsin

The Al. Ringling Theatre, built in 1915 in Baraboo, Wis., has been restored to its original grandeur.

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.

Steinbeck saw no more of the “Wis Dells,” as the road signs say, through his windshield than I did. He didn’t take a boat ride on the Wisconsin River and enjoy 15 miles of pristine river and hemlock forests or gawk at the river’s tall sandstone cliffs that were carved by Ice Age glaciers on their most recent visit.

He didn’t ride Wisconsin’s rapids — that’s “dells” for us uni-linguists (after the French word “dalles,” which means “a fast-moving stretch of water”). And he didn’t stop at one of the many waterparks on U.S. 12 and elsewhere that make the Dells the alleged waterpark capital of the world.

I didn’t do any of that touristy stuff either as I continued to doggedly retrace Steinbeck’s 10,000-mile circumnavigation of America without a dog to slow me down. But on the afternoon of Oct. 9 it seemed as if everyone within 150 miles had decided to drive up or down U.S. 12 to peep at the fabulous fall colors or visit Devil’s Lake, the beautiful state park in the exurbs of Baraboo.

It’s not hard to see why Devil’s Lake is the most popular state park in Wisconsin. A relatively small and shallow lake created by glaciers, it’s surrounded by cliffs as high as 500 feet and has miles of hiking/biking/skiing trails, hundreds of campsites and two small sandy beaches.

On a perfect fall Saturday afternoon, I drove over from the arts fair that was occupying several streets in downtown Baraboo to check out the lake that everyone I met said I had to see. Using the North Shore entrance, I tunneled through a forest of red, orange and yellow oak, ash and maple trees until the compact 360-acre lake appeared in the middle of the Baraboo Hills.

The trees were so thick they hid the people and the cars they came in. It seemed like half of the 1.6 million people who visit the park each year were already there. It took me about 20 minutes just to drive into and out of the small park, and I didn’t have to wait in a line of 12 cars to buy a parking ticket.

The grassy lakeshore was teeming with families and couples. But if you wanted to be alone you could get in a kayak or a (non-carbon-spewing) boat or scale a cliff that, thanks to all the hard work of those glaciers did 10,000 years ago, is made out of some of the hardest rock on the planet.

Devil’s Lake is reason enough to spend half a day in greater Baraboo, but there’s more. Based on the classy fall arts and crafts festival I saw on its downtown streets, the city of nearly 12,000 knows what it’s doing. Its business district looks healthy, and its side streets are filled with lovely homes.

The tourist draw in downtown Baraboo is the Al. (don’t leave out that period) Ringling Theatre. A beautifully restored movie house built in 1915 by Albert Ringling of Ringling Brothers Circus fame, it was designed like a grand French opera house with a fancy drapes, plasterwork and a ceiling fresco.

The “movie palace” where Lionel Barrymore and Mary Pickford performed has been faithfully restored to its original grandeur by a community effort and still shows movies like “the Wizard of Oz” on Saturday afternoons.

It’s no accident that a Ringling Brother forked over $100,000 to build the town’s theater. The Ringlings were raised in Baraboo during the second half of the 1800s and started their famous business there before taking it around the world.

Baraboo used to be the home base and wintering headquarters of what became one of the largest circuses in the world when it merged with Barnum & Bailey in the early 1900s. Ringling’s former facility now houses the Circus World Museum, where you can find exhibits, circus wagons, artifacts and the planet’s largest library of circus information. The museum complex was closed when I blew through town, but during the summer it puts on daily circus performances.

Albert Ringling — who used the period after Al. to distinguish himself from his other brother Al (Alfred) — had his mansion in Baraboo on the stretch of U.S. 12 that cuts through town. Steinbeck passed that stout brick house in his pickup truck-camper combo 50 years ahead of me on his way north.

When I walked by it on Oct. 9, the Elks of Baraboo, who’ve owned the mansion since 1936, were out on their front lawn selling brats to the hordes streaming over to Baraboo’s arts and crafts fest. They were raising money to fix the mansion’s leaky “ruff,” someone said.

When I stopped to take some photos, I made the inevitable Pittsburgh connection. It turned out that the hulk in the Vikings cap grilling the brats worked for the company that distributes the Steelers’ No. 1 psychological weapon, the Terrible Towel. It’s always a small world when you’re from Pittsburgh and on the road — even in a place called Baraboo.

Montana:

Travels Without Charley:

 Montana: Love at first sight

By Bill Steigerwald

“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”

DSC_1983_copy

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.

Though he said in “Travels With Charley” that it was his favorite state, he was inside Montana’s borders for only about 60 hours during his iconic road trip in the fall of 1960. He slept in the state only two nights — both in or near this town of about 7,000 on Interstate 90.

As Steinbeck streaked across the state from east to west on old U.S. Route 10, a two-lane highway now mostly buried under I-90 and I-94, he stopped a few times along the way.

He bought a hat in Billings and a gun in Butte. He took a side trip to pay his respects to Gen. Custer and Sitting Bull at the windswept Custer Battlefield site — a simple but powerful and somber place that’s well worth the detour. And he motored down to visit Yellowstone Park.

Otherwise, Steinbeck did little more than drive down the main streets of Montana’s small cities on U.S. 10. He didn’t go fishing for trout in the cold rivers that run through the Treasure State. He didn’t go hunting for elk or go bird-shooting with his dogs, as Michael Keaton of suburban Pittsburgh has learned to love to do since he immigrated to Montana.

Steinbeck didn’t go skiing, snowshoeing or snowmobiling — the transportation modes of choice and sometimes necessity during Montana’s long winters. He didn’t climb a random mountain peak in the Little Belt Mountains. Or visit the ruins of an old silver mine. Or drive 10 miles on a logging road and picnic in a meadow at 7,000 feet — any of the things you can do for free on any given day in the country’s fourth biggest and arguably most beautiful state.

Steinbeck had an excuse. He was making time on the highway, he wasn’t vacationing. But he chose a good spot to sleep. Livingston, on the quiet Yellowstone River, is a great place to stay overnight even if you aren’t using it as a base camp for fishing and hunting expeditions.

Livingston boomed into existence in the late 1800s after the Northern Pacific Railroad built it as a place where it could put repair shops for its trains headed into the Rockies. When Yellowstone opened and a rail line connected the park to the town in 1883, tourists started coming through Livingston and have never stopped.

Livingston’s attractions include everything from a railroad museum and a fly-fishing museum to the preserved little houses used by the “ladies of the night,” circa 1900.

But it is the turn-of-the-century buildings in Livingston’s historic downtown that alone are worth a visit there. Striking testimony to Livingston’s early wealth, they hold art galleries, coffee shops and western clothing stores like Bob’s Outdoor, where Steinbeck might have bought a jacket. Around the corner is Sax & Fryer, a stationery and bookstore that’s been in business for 127 years and still uses mechanical adding machines and cash registers.

The Murray Hotel on old U.S. 10 is probably the most famous of Livingston’s old buildings, thanks to its flamboyant neon sign, its crazy Western decor and its wild 106-year-old history. Calamity Jane and Buffalo Bill stayed there — not together as a couple, mind you. And there are tales of cowboys riding horses into the bar and movie producer Sam Peckinpah shooting holes in the ceiling of his room.

An old-time Western hotel with all the modern necessities, the Murray’s 30 rooms start at $89 a night and are decorated with original or vintage furniture. There’s fine grub and good wine on the hotel’s ground floor at the 2nd Street Bistro. The bistro wins awards and has become a mini-hangout for Livingston’s colony of artists, authors and actors, who include lithographer extraordinaire Russell Chatham, writer Tom McGuane and that ex-Pittsburgh guy who played Batman but never went Hollywood.

If going to a bistro in Montana doesn’t sound quite right, around the corner is the less-refined Murray Bar, where on Friday nights local bands such as the Fossils rock the joint and single cowboys play pool hoping a bored movie starlet will walk in.

Livingston is great, but it’s not much like the rest of Montana I’ve seen. I’m a Montanan by marriage and have spent about two summer months of my life there. I’ve seen cities such as Great Falls and Bozeman and crossroads towns such as Roundup and Cut Bank, but I’ve seen a pittance of the state.

As Steinbeck did 50 years ago, I saw what Montana is famous for when I drove across it last week at 70 mph — big sky, big land, endless sunsets and not enough humans to form a Wednesday night basketball league. But to really see Montana — and understand why everyone loves her — you have to get out of your car and stay a few decades.

Oregon:

Travels Without Charley:

Riding the Oregon-California coast truly mesmerizing

DSC_2053Scotty 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.

Southern Oregon/Northern California has been branded “America’s Wild Rivers Coast” by the region’s marketeers. Lined with hundreds of mom and pop motels, beach resorts, campgrounds and B&Bs, the mostly two-lane route takes you past the wide beaches, steep cliffs and massive sand dunes of Oregon’s hilly coastline and then straight through the heart of California’s redwood country.

The biggest downside to driving this leg of the Steinbeck Highway — besides the traffic during summer and hundreds of scary Tsunami Hazard Zone signs pointing to higher ground — is that it’ll take you a lot longer to finish than you think.

You’ll find yourself pulling off the road every 10 minutes to view yet another absurd rocky cove or magnificent redwood grove. It’s also dotted with picnic areas, nature trails, boat docks, a pair of casinos and lush golf courses so devoid of duffers they looked closed when I buzzed past but weren’t.

The Oregon coastline is accessible at hundreds of small turnouts, and if you drive slowly enough sometimes you can hear the pounding of the heavy surf or the barking of California sea lions.

Getting out and hiking along the empty beaches or climbing around on the basalt sea-stacks — cathedral-size boulders sticking out of the sand or shallows — is a snap. Just park your car.

At Acadia Beach, where you could land a 747 if it weren’t for the sea-stacks, I counted eight cars, 15 people and four dogs.

Traffic was heavier than you’d expect for mid-October, but once I passed through the hippie/funky downtown of Coos Bay, the road was suddenly straighter and lonelier.

Not long after I tunneled through a pine forest at 70 mph, I bumped into Mr. Mathess and two other bicyclists scarfing down Pringles and other junk-carbs at a general store in the village of Langlois, Ore.

A biker like Mr. Mathess — who left Denver in late August and was headed to San Diego — has some advantages over someone driving on U.S. 101.

Mr. Mathess, 32, only averages about 50 or 60 miles a day. But since he sleeps in campgrounds, RV parks or, when necessary, the bush, he never has to worry about finding a motel.

At this time of year, though, finding a motel room is easier than finding a bush. The Proposal Rock Inn in Neskowin, Ore., on U.S. 101 within 1,000 feet of the beach, charged me $50 for a small room-without-a-view. An ocean view would have been about $90 — a $30 discount from summer.

Proposal Rock, though a little quaint for a tough guy used to sleeping in his car at Walmart, was perfectly fine. But it couldn’t begin to compete with the 1950s’ character of the Curly Redwood Lodge, where I spent the night in the fishing port of Crescent City, Calif.

The Curly Redwood sits across U.S. Route 101 from the Crescent City harbor. It’s not the place you’ll want to spend your first or even third honeymoon. But what it lacks in charm is more than made up for by its affordability and by what the motel is made from — a single redwood tree.

Redwood is the motel’s only motif — 57,000 board feet of it. Redwood paneling, redwood roof posts, redwood siding, even solid redwood closet doors. I paid $55 (instead of the summer rate of $67) and only had to dash across U.S. 101 to eat breakfast with local fishermen at the aptly named Fishermans Restaurant.

It’s no accident the Curly Redwood is made of redwood. It sits on the front door of Redwood National and State Parks on U.S. Highway 101 — aka the Redwood Highway.

Old-growth redwood with hiking trails are just minutes from Crescent City. And if you take old U.S. Highway 101 south through the federal and state redwoods, which is what John Steinbeck and all trucks had to do in 1960 before a bypass was constructed, you can drive at 45 mph for 15 minutes through a forest of giants. Ten or 15 feet wide at their base, up to 300 feet tall, the coastal redwoods can be 1,500 years old.

If you cynics think you’d be bored with redwoods by the time you got to the Avenue of the Giants, you’d be wrong. The narrow road — also once a part of U.S. Highway 101 — snakes for 33 miles through 51,000 acres of redwood groves.

Often impenetrable to sunlight and the signals of cell phones and satellite radio, and connecting a chain of small communities such as Pepperwood and Miranda, the avenue is surrounded by a state park that contains the largest stand of virgin redwoods on the planet.

The Avenue of the Giants is an amazing place that everyone should see at least once. With plenty of small places to pull over, you can shut off your engine and just listen to the sound of silence or walk into the darkness.

A million people visit the Avenue of the Giants every year, yet on the afternoon I was there traffic was so light I stood in the middle of the road and took photos.

The curvy two-lane highway is so narrow, the monstrous tree trunks often touch the edge of the pavement. It doesn’t seem possible that until the mid-1960s, when the bypass was put in, it was a major route for truckers and the only road to the outside world for Humboldt County.

The Avenue of the Giants is much better suited to bicyclists such as Scotty Mathess — but I don’t think he’ll be allowed to sleep in the bushes.

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.

The Monterey Peninsula:

Travels Without Charley:

Getting high on Steinbeck at Fremont Peak

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Full-size bust of John Steinbeck at Cannery Row.

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.

San Francisco, L.A. and San Diego get most of the ink and most of the tourist trade. But the Monterey Peninsula is no slouch. It attracts more than 4 million visitors a year to its beaches, mountains and man-made attractions such as the renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium.

The rich come to play golf at Pebble Beach, rent a mountainside condo in Big Sur or visit Clint Eastwood in Carmel. But the tourist masses have many other cheaper ways to exploit Monterey’s riches.

Many merely jump in their cars and tool down the coast past Big Sur on Highway 1. Or take the famous 17-mile drive from Pacific Grove to Carmel. It’s a privately owned road by the ocean that runs through neighborhoods of mansions and past golf courses you’re probably too poor to caddie for. But it’s worth doing once in case you ever win the lottery and are looking for the perfect place to live.

Most tourists visit family-friendly Monterey Bay Aquarium, Fisherman’s Wharf and Cannery Row in the old Spanish colonial port city of Monterey. Or they take tours of the wineries in Carmel Valley, Soledad or the Salinas Valley, whose nature-given fertility have made it the lettuce and strawberry capital of the world.

Monterey is a temperate year-round game room. So it also pleases kayakers, hikers, surfers, bicyclists and people who just like to watch surf crashing against rocks or hang gliders trying not to kill themselves.

On my visits to the Monterey Peninsula, I’ve been focused on John Steinbeck stuff. I’ve hit all the spots that made it possible for the local visitors and tourists bureau to slap the “Steinbeck Country” brand on an entire peninsula.

You don’t have to be a Steinbeck nut to enjoy the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas. A museum/shrine, in the best sense, its well-designed exhibits feature Steinbeck’s books and the movies that have been made from them. It’s one of the least boring museums you’ll ever visit. Rocinante, the pickup truck-camper shell combo Steinbeck used for his 1960 “Travels With Charley” trip, is permanently parked there.

A few blocks from the center, Steinbeck’s boyhood home is preserved and open for touring. You can visit Steinbeck’s grave, too, though it is so modest and hard to find that the cemetery needs a colorful sign to help Steinbeck fans locate it.

Steinbeck’s brand name is most blatantly exploited in the city of Monterey on Cannery Row. About 20 miles from Salinas, on the shore of ice cold Monterey Bay, it has become a veritable theme park to Steinbeck and his works. In 1945, Steinbeck made the street, its homeless denizens, rough bars, whorehouses and 19 stinking, noisy sardine canneries famous in “Cannery Row.” By 1958, the canneries were closed and the former “Sardine Capital of the World” was essentially a blighted slum-by-the-sea.

Desperate city fathers renamed the street Cannery Row and went fishing for tourists. Five decades later, thanks to a collection of entrepreneurs, developers, foundation money and enlightened government policies, it’s become a gentrified tourist trap for families to eat and shop for Steinbeck refrigerator magnets after they go to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It’s a street of spas, wine-tasting rooms and upscale ocean-view motels.

I traveled to Steinbeck Country two Saturdays ago as part of my crazy journalism project to retrace the road trip Steinbeck made 50 years ago for “Travels With Charley.”

It was my third time there in eight months. After watching the sun come up over Monterey Bay from Cannery Row and genuflecting at Steinbeck’s grave in Salinas, I drove straight to Fremont Peak.

That’s actually a lie. It’s impossible to drive straight to Fremont Peak from Monterey, Pacific Grove, Salinas or anywhere else.

First you have to drive 20-some miles around the other side of the rugged Galiban Mountain range. Then you have to drive up a twisting-turning-harrowing-skinny-cliffside-hugging road for 11 miles to Fremont Peak State Park. Then you have to walk uphill for a mile. Then you have to actually scale the peak, which is like an upside-down cone of marble boulders with a craggy platform-top smaller than a tennis court.

Fremont Peak is worth all that time and effort. I’ve been to its top twice and I’d go back again tomorrow. But don’t believe me, believe John Steinbeck — the guy they named the peninsula after.

He loved the little spiky peak. It’s the highest point in Steinbeck Country and the star attraction of little Fremont Peak State Park’s collection of steep ridges and wooded canyons. Its 360-degree view is the closest you can get to an aerial view of the peninsula without putting on a pair of wings.

The view is amazing. Twenty miles away is Monterey Bay, where the sun disappears spectacularly every day. At your feet are the city of Salinas and the fertile Salinas Valley. Behind the low mountains on the far horizon are the cities of Monterey and Pacific Grove.

The first time I was on Fremont Peak, in March, I had the peak-top all to myself for two hours. (It’s my kind of state park: There are no rangers, no safety fences, no signs prohibiting you from enjoying or killing yourself.) It was great owning your own mountaintop, but it got lonely that afternoon as I shivered and waited for the sun to sink into the bay.

Two Saturdays ago my solace was short-lived. I was joined by 10 other peak-climbers from age 11 to 60-something. We had our own little party. We took each other’s pictures. We enjoyed the incredible view of Steinbeck’s country, but we were too high to see his ghost.

Route 66:

Travels Without Charley:

Parisians still get their kicks on Route 66

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Bill Steigerwald Old Route 66 is pretty beat up in the Mojave Desert near Newberry Springs, Calif.

By Bill Steigerwald

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.

If any road deserves to be worshipped, it’s old U.S. Highway 66.

Before the last stretches of the western interstates were completed in the 1970s, it was the main road from Chicago to L.A. A two-lane driveway to the Grand Canyon, Meteor Crater and the Painted Desert, it served the needs of travelers before chain motels and restaurants were invented.

It was like a 2,000-mile theme park, lined with wacky restaurants, wild Art-Deco architecture and tourist-trapping gimmicks such as reptile farms and motel rooms made out of teepees. It was the main street of New Mexico towns such as Gallup and Barstow and Flagstaff, Ariz., which today contain $40-a-night motels and restaurants that are time capsules of 1950.

Travelers, truckers and migrants of every socioeconomic class heading for the promises of California drove west on Route 66, including the poor bedraggled Oakies in John Steinbeck’s 1940 classic “The Grapes of Wrath.”

John Steinbeck called Route 66 “The Mother Road,” a name that stuck.

But it was the lyrics of the catchy 1946 jazz tune “Route 66” by songwriter Bobby Troup that really mainlined U.S. 66 into the bloodstream of American culture.

During my recent circumnavigation of the U.S.A. to follow the route Steinbeck took 50 years ago and chronicled in his book, “Travels With Charley,” I came upon my first stretch of old Route 66 about 23 miles east of Barstow, Calif.

At Newberry Springs I exited I-40, the interstate that has made making Troup’s “California trip” less romantic but a whole lot faster, easier and safer, and was soon driving on flat, empty, crumbly Route 66.

When I pulled off the road — which you can do anywhere in a desert — and got out to take photos of the ruins of a motel, I had one of the most surreal experiences of my 45-day-long, 11,276-mile road trip.

A sleek white bus with “Divine Transportation” written on its side suddenly appeared in the parking lot behind me and began disgorging French people. Real French people — from Marseilles, France.

They immediately swarmed out into the middle of old Route 66 in groups of two and four and began taking pictures of each other.

It took me a while to learn they were French tourists — 52 cultural pilgrims, really. They had come to visit the world-famous Bagdad Cafe, which I had never heard of before and hadn’t even noticed was 50 yards behind me and open for business.

My bad.

The Bagdad Cafe, as apparently every hip French person knows, is two culturally important things in one: It’s a living shrine to the memory of beloved Route 66 and it bears the name of an independent 1987 German/American movie that has become a cult classic across Western Europe.

Nominated for an Academy Award, featuring Jack Palance, “Bagdad Cafe” is described by the International Movie Data Base as a film about “A lonely German woman” who “ends up in the most desolated motel on earth and decides to make it brighter.”

The movie was shot in Newberry Springs, but not in the Bagdad Cafe. Like so much else on Route 66, the original cafe is long gone. But that little detail doesn’t matter to the faithful of Europe.

They come by the thousands to the California desert to buy Bagdad Cafe/Route 66 T-shirts, sweatshirts and caps. They also come to visit a crazy oasis of American culture that’s wallpapered with movie posters, banners, articles of clothing and thousands of letters and post-cards scrawled in dozens of foreign languages.

For them the Bagdad Cafe/Route 66/Jack Kerouac/”On the Road” thing is all part of the American myth, said Sonia, the tour guide who’s been to the isolated cafe 40 or 50 times. It’s the first stop on a popular 10-day tour that begins and ends in Los Angeles and includes the Grand Canyon, Vegas and San Francisco.

Cafe owner Andrea Pruett and her staff were waiting for the French mob with a lunch of chicken, mashed potatoes and broccoli. She said she gets 10 to 15 busloads of tourists a day between March and October, her peak season. Foreigners keep her doors open, she said, with 75 percent coming from France and its former colonies, 20 percent from places such as Brazil and Japan and only 5 percent from the United States.

The French were wonderful and enthusiastic guests, even if few could speak English. They wolfed down their meals, posed with Route 66 shields behind the cafe counter and tried on anything that had Route 66 printed on it.

As I was leaving the Bagdad Cafe, and as the French were reluctantly boarding their bus, Sonia the tour guide pointed to my red Toyota RAV4 and announced something, in French, of course.

She said something about a “journaliste.” A dozen Frenchmen and women with cameras bunched around the rear end of my car and began taking close-ups.

“What’s the big deal,” I asked Sonia. “Did you tell them I was famous or something?”

“Pas excitement, mon ami,” she would have said if she thought I understood four words of her native tongue.

It turned out that the French are not just crazy about Jerry Lewis, Louis Armstrong and American road culture. They also have a thing about our fancy license plates.

In France, Sonia explained, license plates are just a series of boring numbers. America’s are thought to be much more interesting, she said, as another busload of French tourists pulled into the Bagdad Cafe. This time they came to Route 66 just to shop and soak up a part of American culture that isn’t completely dead yet, just harder to find.

America Looks Good From Steinbeck’s Highway

Sunday, 21 November 2010

By Bill Steigerwald

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Maine.

“Big.”

“Empty.”

“Rich.”

“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.

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Montana.

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.

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The Oregon coast.

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.

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The Bay Area.

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

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Fremont Peak and Monterey County.

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

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North Texas.

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.

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Sabine Pasco

In Albuquerque, N.M., I bumped into Sabine Pasco, a French baker who in the early 1990s used to live in the Pittsburgh suburb of 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.DSC_0892

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 Upper 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. DSC_0997

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.

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Walmart, Bangor, Maine.

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.

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Cannery Row.

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.

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Stonington, Maine.

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.
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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.

 

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