Chasing John Steinbeck's Ghost

Thursday, 16 September 2010 11:45 AM Written by 


September 16, 2010

The book “Travels With Charley” is my map, timeline and guide to where John Steinbeck was, when he was there and what he was thinking about during his spin around America in the fall of 1960.  

But Steinbeck's book is often vague and confusing about time and place. And it doesn't include a number of places Steinbeck went but did not include in his book.

Since Steinbeck took few notes and left no maps, itinerary or expense vouchers among the tons of written material and memorabilia he left us, I have had to rely on other sources to follow his cold trail.

I’ve used clues from letters he sent from the road, newspaper articles written in 1960 (and later) and TV-detective logic to make the best guesses I can.

I am going everywhere Steinbeck actually went on his 10,000-mile trip across 34 states, I think.  I’m taking the same U.S. highways he took – except where they’ve been buried under interstates.

I'm leaving from Sag Harbor, Long Island, on Thursday, Sept. 23 -- 50 years to the day after Steinbeck and Charley set out in their overloaded pickup-truck/camper hybrid.

I won’t take nearly three months to circumnavigate the country, as he did, however, because I won't be spending nearly five weeks off-road staying at posh hotels or visiting friends and family -- as he did.

I'll be moving quickly in my red Toyota RAV4, practicing drive-by journalism at its finest or worst. I’ll report and opine on what I see along the Old Steinbeck Highway in 2010 and try to discover, document -- or imagine -- what Steinbeck saw on his journey in 1960.

 I'll also try to find out how the simpler, less prosperous and less lovely America that he observed, critiqued and worried about has changed or not changed in half a century. And whether those changes have turned out for the better or the worse.

Oh, yeah. About the dog.

I’m not taking one.  

Not because I don't like dogs.  My big joke -- which I won't repeat again -- is that I just couldn’t find a dog that knows how to read Google maps and Twitter at the same time.

But even  if I had our family dog, the late, great Alex, I wouldn't subject him to the long and crazy road ahead.  

First stop is Sag Harbor, where Steinbeck loafed when he wasn't living in his Manhattan brownstone and where his backyard ended at the ocean's edge.

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