Travels with Charley

By John Steinbeck  

In 1960, a 58-year-old John Steinbeck took off from Long Island, New York, to circumnavigate the U.S. He had ordered a new pick-up truck with a camper on it, a camper that he called Rocinante after Don Quixote’s horse. He went alone except for his large French poodle, Charley.


Steinbeck set out to understand America, to listen, to get a feel for the people. The story is fascinating. He goes slowly for most of the trip, taking his time, camping out at night, visiting with people. He talks about stops in Maine, across New York State and the Midwest. He describes going into Yellowstone and Charley going berserk at the sight of bears, and having to leave the park quickly. He describes the Badlands of South Dakota, driving across Washington State and Oregon and the Redwoods. And his town of origin, Salinas, California.


He has a superb chapter on Texas, which he says is different than any other state, and describes a quail hunt and Thanksgiving feast on the ranch of a rich Texas friend. Most memorably, he describes being in New Orleans, when the angry crowd gathered and shouted as the marshals walked a little African American girl to school. By the time he makes his way to Virginia, he is thoroughly spent and has no more to see and write about.


I’m not sure why the book is so good. Certainly Steinbeck is a fabulous and easily readable writer. His powers of observation about the land, about people, about life, is a picture of 1960 America. From time to time he will wax philosophical and write a few pages on a topic – a preacher in Maine doing a healthy job on the judgment of God, the proliferation of mobile homes, the majesty of the Redwoods, changes in Seattle, his homecoming in the Bay Area, the racism of the Deep South. He has a marvelous section at the outset of the book on not pampering yourself as you get older.


You will give yourself a great gift if you read this book. If you choose not to read the whole thing, at least read the superb chapter on Texas, beginning on page 227 of the Penguin paperback.