The best gift Chef David gave me this past Christmas is a beautiful little piece of non-fiction writing by John Steinbeck called Travels with Charley: In Search of America (Charley being a colorful and personable Standard Poodle). I’ve always loved me a good Steinbeck story, but ‘til now have read only his novels. Travels with Charley is a short work, a first-person narrative in which Steinbeck describes a journey in the early 1960s where he more or less circumnavigates the United States in a tricked-out camper truck ordered new, especially for this trip; he calls it Rocinante, after Don Quixote’s horse. The book bubbled to the top of my pile a few weeks ago, and I’m working my way through it slowly on purpose, because I know I’ll be so sad to finish it.
A few items are worth a gander. First, I love how Steinbeck spends fully a third of the book as a preamble, more or less, to the rest of it, where he gets properly underway. In much of the first part of his narrative he instead describes the process of equipping his camper and making his plans, and simply getting to his starting point in northern Maine (this is the Vermont-ish part of the story). In this he’s methodical bordering on manic—he intends to start this bucket list-style trip at the top of Maine come hell or high water, and then more or less to follow a counter-clockwise pathway around the country. I find reassuring somehow that this brilliant writer takes so long to get up a full head of steam.
I also love how many of his observations more than a half-century ago are so prophetic, if not in whole, at least in part. I’ll give you a couple of examples. First, migrant laborers: Steinbeck spends some time talking about the French Canadians who come down into Maine to harvest potatoes, a little social studies lesson packaged beautifully in the story of an entire multi-generational ‘Canuck’ family who spend an evening drinking an exceptional bottle of Cognac with him in the back of Rocinante (the children won’t fit and instead stand outside peering in through the open doorway), a libation he’d brought along hoping for just such a celebratory occasion to drink it. Before this joyous occasion he wonders whether a time will come when Americans have simply grown unwilling to perform menial labor, and all those kinds of jobs ultimately fall to a migrant population more than happy to have the work: He calls them “…peoples not too proud or too lazy or too soft to bend to the earth and pick up the things we eat.” (Mr. Steinbeck, you’re spot on, and yet it’s more complicated than you could have known.)
Here’s another. He speaks romantically about the joy of traveling a rural highway, and then at some point finds he must relent and travel some part of his trip on the newfangled Interstate, a thing he finds especially hellish in and around big cities (I feel his pain). Navigating through the traffic congestion at high speeds on these massive new ribbons of highway in our country demands one’s full attention, he observes, so that there’s no real opportunity to look around and take in the landscape. And almost in the same breath, he suggests the Interstate road system is so completely sanitized in the first place, it’s entirely possible to travel a great distance from point A to point B and see absolutely nothing of our country at all. (Mr. Steinbeck, I could not agree more.)
Which brings me to another related point: Steinbeck has no GPS for his travels, but ordinary road maps, and with only Charley riding shotgun to navigate, finds himself lost on occasion, and driving in circles often. (Charley redeems himself as ambassa-dog, more than willing for his human to allow him to wander purposefully into neighboring encampments, the perfect excuse for an ice breaker with other travelers. Now that is some artful work for a dog.)
On Friday I listened to Dan Damon’s BBC interview with Nick Giles, the managing director of Britain’s Ordnance Survey, who opined thoughtfully about the lost art of map reading; in the crosshairs were younger generations who rely almost exclusively these days on GPS for directions. His point was not so much to condemn the practice as to point out the benefits and limitations of each navigational tool, best used together. Still, I loved his depiction of pulling over on the side of a road to unfurl a map on the car ‘bonnet’ on a warm summer’s day.
This imagery brings me at last to a thing I’ve learned reading Travels with Charley: during the Works Progress Administration days of the Great Depression, a number of noteworthy (unemployed) writers found work writing The American Guide Series, one guide for each of 48 states and the District of Columbia—these were weighty tomes, part almanac, part history, and part travel guide. Steinbeck suggests some of the most talented writers at the time wrote these books, lamenting he’d waited too long to obtain the copies he really needed for his trip, by then already long out of print.
I must have these books, and that is all. And not simply because we’ll soon point the car south for our annual sultry summer travel to see family and friends, but because, well, so many reasons. I found this note about the project on the web: “[The American Guide Series] employed out-of-work writers, fostered a sense of local pride, and promoted much-needed tourism.” Evidently they were reprinted in paperback in 2014, but I must have the originals, as many as I can lay my hands on. (Chef David grimaced when I mentioned this to him recently.) I’ve already started poking around and found a few copies online, but what a joy it would be to come across one somewhere, at the bottom of some tag sale box or in a dusty bin at a flea market. It’s my new agenda, along with choosing state highways for some of our upcoming trip, instead of the sanitized Interstate. This will be a tough sell for a person who likes to get there, and we have over a thousand miles to travel to reach our southernmost destination.
I shall remain resolute. And the Chef will grimace at this notion also, until I remind him of the culinary possibilities in rural America. And anyway, grimacing never bothered me.