Travels with Charley

In preparing for this trip MsBoyink and I have read a number of books.  Most of these have been of the “how-to” variety—how to finance a year long road trip, how to choose the right RV, how to find places to stay, etc. 

I’ve just finished a book that stands apart from that group however - and that book is John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, subtitled In Search of America.

The Wikipedia entry describes the book:

Travels with Charley: In Search of America is a travelogue by American author John Steinbeck. It documents the road trip he took with his French standard poodle Charley around the United States, in 1960. He wrote that he was moved by a desire to see his country on a personal level, since he made his living writing about it. He had many questions going into his journey, the main one being, “What are Americans like today?” However, he found that the “new America” did not live up to his expectations.

Steinbeck traveled throughout the United States in a specially-made camper which he named “Rocinante” after the horse of Don Quixote. He started his travels in Long Island, New York roughly following the outer border of the United States, from Maine to the Pacific Northwest, down into his native Salinas Valley in California, across to Texas, up through the Deep South, and then back to New York, a trip encompassing nearly 10,000 miles.

This book resonated with me because now that we’ve formally made the decision to take this trip my mind has wondered from the “how” (although many of those questions aren’t answered yet) to the “why?”.  Why would we do this - do we have questions of our own that we are looking to answer, and what might we expect to have happen to us while searching for those answers?

My motivations aren’t a 1:1 match to Steinbeck’s - and the America we’ll explore has changed radically since he shifted into “Park”.  Still, there is some overlap in that we are curious to more fully experience what “Americans are today”—past our experience mainly with the West Michigan Dutch culture.  I’m also curious to see what America itself is today.  With today’s highways we’ll have to work harder to do that - in 1960 Steinbeck was already lamenting:

When we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing.

And when we do get off those thruways to take the less-traveled path, will we find still-remaining pockets of regional uniqueness?  Or is Corporate America the new-age Johnny Appleseed, striding across the land leaving a trail of look-alike strip malls and big-box retailers in it’s wake?  Will we find the local diner or coffee shop with it’s community table serving to replace the porch and cracker barrel of the old general store?  Will we hear regional accents, dialects and idioms or will we confirm Steinbecks fear?

One of my purposes was to listen, to hear speech, accent, speech rhythms, overtones and emphasis. For speech is so much more than words and sentences. I did listen everywhere. It seemed to me that regional speech is in the process of disappearing, not gone but going. Forty years of radio and twenty years of television must have this impact. Communications must destroy localness, by a slow, inevitable process. ...with local accent will disappear local tempo. The idioms, the figures of speech that make language rich and full of poetry of place and time must go. And in their place will be a national speech, wrapped and packaged, standard and tasteless.

Mainly, though, this book helped me think about and define the trip itself and confirm my reluctance to try and over-plan the schedule and route:

A trip, a safari, an exploration is an entity, different from all other journeys.  It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness.  A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike.  And all plans, safeguards, policing and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.  Tour masters, reservations, brass-bound and inevitable, dash themselves to wreckage on the personality of the trip.  Only when this is recognized can the blown-in-the-glass bum relax and go along with it.  Only then do the frustrations fall away.  In this a journey is like a marriage.  The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.

He also helped give voice to a desire I have for my kids:

...many a trip continues long after movement in time and space have ceased.

One of the most common reactions to our telling our plans to others has been “How lucky your kids are to have such an experience.”  I sincerely hope this comes true, and no matter where they go in life after we do this that the trip does indeed continue on.

While ultimately I’m not sure Steinbeck was happy with what he found on his trip, Travels with Charley is still required reading for those pondering their own road trip.  I’m sure there is no better “Road Scholar’s Philosophy Handbook”.

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