Book Review: Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck

It is with pleasure and nostalgia, and quite by accident I came back to this modest travel book after so many years. One of my sons had checked it out of his college library, and I picked it up and gave it a read.

The last time I read Travels With Charley was during my John Steinbeck phase, which was about fifty years ago. Steinbeck was the first author I followed passionately, first stumbling upon The Pearl as a school requirement, and then going on to Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row, Sweet Thursday, and several other volumes. I read Travels With Charley along with all the others, but it didn’t make much impression on me at the time. My lust to travel phase was yet to come, and I was mainly into Steinbeck’s fiction.

Steinbeck wrote this book late in his career, when he was 58 years old. He got the wanderlust, he says, and decided to take off on his own in a pickup with a camper back, his only company being a large poodle named Charley. The camper he dubbed Rocinante, after Don Quixote’s horse. He was living in New York at the time. He headed up north into Maine, cut across the country through Wisconsin, North Dakota, Montana, and other states. I mention these because he writes about them; others he crosses through without much of a description except to decry the busy freeway systems. In Seattle he turned south and headed down through the redwood forests to the Monterey Peninsula and Salinas where he grew up. From there he forayed across the desert to Texas, where he partied with his wife’s relatives. His final stop was in the deep South, where in Louisiana he witnessed an incident of horrific racism.

As far as travel books go, this one is fairly lightweight. He writes particularly about Maine, North Dakota, Montana, Seattle, the Monterey area, Texas, and the South, but he skims through other parts almost without noticing. The value of this book is not so much in the travel descriptions but in the portrait of Steinbeck himself: a writer in late middle age pondering past and present in the isolation of a lonely journey.

I have to admit that it reawakened the travel lust in me. Well, let me clarify that: the travel lust has never been asleep. Let’s say instead that it caused the smoldering coals of the urge to travel to burst forth into open flame. Almost daily I dream of taking off in a camper again, either here in the States or in Europe, and wandering around with no set itinerary. If I had the funds and no pressing responsibilities, you can bet that’s what I would be doing. Alas, at this time neither precondition is met. And so I dream. It’s not like in the past, when I was a young writer struggling to find my own voice. After deciding that I needed life experiences about which to write, I packed a bag, walked to a freeway entrance, and stuck out my thumb. Eventually I went overseas and stayed gone for thirty-five years. I’ve circled the globe twice, set foot in over fifty countries, and lived in about half a dozen for extended periods of time. You would think that my thirst for the road would have been satiated by now, but that’s not how it works. I always long for the road. Always.

As I read this, I was also reminded of one of my sons who recently got out of a four-year stint in the Army. He caught the travel bug too. During leaves he didn’t head off to party like so many of his compatriots; instead, he took off on the road in his battered old car and started visiting all the eastern states. He made it his goal to visit all fifty states. So when he got out and headed west from where he was stationed in North Carolina, he traced a convoluted path that took him in a zigzag course through the states he had missed. And he made sure not to skip Hawaii and Alaska. He’s got me there; I haven’t seen all the states yet.

In conclusion, Travels With Charley is a fun read, if somewhat anachronistic as I mentioned. It’s not just that there are no cell phones or GPS trackers to help the way – it’s also in some of Steinbeck’s impressions, expressions, and attitudes. Still, it’s worth reading if you like a well-written memoir.

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