Travels with Charley
Posted on May 31, 2019
John Steinbeck is not a famous author by mistake. He’s written a fair few books. During his 66 years in this Earth, he gave us 27 books, some I’m sure you’ve heard of like “Of Mice and Men”, “East of Eden” and his Pullitzer Prize winner, “The Grapes of Wrath”. I came upon another of his titles, by accident, when I was browsing in my local library. I was scanning various shelves and subjects, looking for books about hiking and camping and traveling – not guidebooks, or how-to’s; I wanted stories, real or fiction, about the adventures of others – when I saw John Steinbeck on the spine of a book. I read both “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Of Mice and Men” when I was in school and I’ve been a Steinbeck fan since, although I’ve never read any of his other works. Published in 1962, “Travels with Charley” tells about Steinbeck’s road trip around America, with his dog, Charley. I was hooked from the very beginning, as he described his truck, Rocinante, and its custom camper top, which would be his home for the two and a half month trip.
As I read about his experiences as he drove around the country, there were so many glaring differences between the world in the 60’s and the world today. Some of his words made me nostalgic, even though the era he described was all well before my time. The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows calls this feeling “anemoia”. Despite all the differences, I feel there were some observations he made that still stand true today. For instance, the way little mom-and-pop stores so often go out of business when a large chain store comes to town. I wonder what he would say today, about stores like Walmart and Meijer. When Steinbeck died in 1968, Walmart was just starting to test the waters of the business world outside it’s home state of Arkansas. Of course, Walmart is in every state. Seems like everywhere you go, there’s a Walmart, not too far away. I wonder how many mom-and-pop shops have gone out of business as a result.
When I picked up this book, I was expecting a tale of a man’s road trip around the country; of fantastic places he went and beautiful scenery he saw. I expected to have lengthened my bucket list of vacation spots by the time I was done. This book is so much more than that. Yes, he talks a bit about the places he visits, but it’s really a telling of his experiences with American humanity. He encountered people who were suspicious of him, simply because he was a stranger. People who welcomed him, and his conversation, with open arms and a cup of coffee. He witnessed the crowds of people that would gather to throw horrible insults at 6-year-old Ruby Bridges as she arrived at school, when William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans was ordered to desegregated. He picked up a hitch-hiker who was fearful during the entire ride because of the difference in the color of their skin, and another who he kicked out of his vehicle suddenly because of his disparaging opinions of people of color. I’d like to say things on that frontier are better. Some days, I feel like we’ve come a long way since the Civil Rights Movement. Some days, I feel like we’re still there, fighting for equality for minorities.
Travels with Charley was shelved in the non-fiction area of my library. There are critics out there who believe that many of the things in the book are made up. Newer copies even have an introduction that says “it would be a mistake to take this travelogue too literally, as Steinbeck was at heart a novelist.” Fiction or not, I found it to be a good read, inspiring from a road trip point of view and very thought provoking from the humanity side.
Have you read “Travels with Charley”? Share your thoughts in the comments. Also, if you know of a good camping, hiking, or traveling book, drop the title in the comments. I’ll add it to my “to read” list! Don’t forget to like, comment, share, and follow me – here and on social media – all the links are up at the top!