LANCASTER, N.H. -- Lancaster Motor Inn
Steinbeck wrote in "Travels With Charley" that he slept in or near this lovely town on the border with Vermont two times during his trip.
The first time was Sept. 25, 1960, when he was going east on US 2 to the top of Maine and he said he camped on a farm by a stream in the White Mountains.
Then, a week later, when he passed through here again on his way west, he wrote that he slept in his camper in the parking lot of a "ghost" motel on the banks of the Connecticut River that was open for business but had no one around to rent him a cabin.
Yesterday, as I followed Steinbeck's route out of Maine, I came back here intent only on finding out as much as I could about the riverbank motel he stayed in on Sept. 30, 1960.
Instead, thanks to the spade work of a local writer, I think I found out where Steinbeck really slept on his first stop.
Not in the woods in his spartan camper shell, but at a cushy mountain-top inn near here that catered to the rich and privileged of New York and Europe.
How I learned this scandalous piece of Steinbeck news is a good lesson in the magical and serendipitous workings of drive-by journalism.
About 2 p.m. Thursday, I drove about six miles west of here to Lunenburg, Vt., where Scott Simon of NPR's "Weekend Edition Saturday" was going to call me and interview me.
I needed a land line so the quality would be OK for radio and I wanted to be near Concord, Vt., where a woman I met last week told me I'd find the actual location of the motel/cabins Steinbeck described in "Charley."
It was pouring rain. The pay phone outside the Lunenburg Variety Store was not only like a public shower, it had no phone number that I could give to NPR's producer so Simon could call me.
With only minor weeping and explaining, I persuaded variety storeowner Mary Lou Ingalls to let me use her phone.
After the interview, which went well and which I presume NPR will air tomorrow morning, Mary Lou told me there was no way that the motel Steinbeck stayed at was in Concord, Vt.
She was almost certain it was back in Lancaster along US 2, near the iron bridge over the Connecticut River. She said it was where I had always assumed it once was -- where a sprawling RV park, gas station and truck stop are now (The Beaver Trails RV Park and Munce’s Convenience store.)
Back to Lancaster I went.
I found the owner/operator of the RV park. She was too young to remember the scene in 1960, since she didn't exist then. So she sent me across the street to talk to Mike and Sally Beattie, who once owned the property.
Sally and Mike told me that yes, the "ghost" motel -- the Whip 'o Will -- was there in 1960.
I handed Sally my copy of "Charley" and had her read the pertinent passages. That's the Whip 'o Will, she said.
Mike Beattie said there were six small cabins, a small office, a larger house and a barn. Everything is long gone now -- except one of the cabins, which was out in the swamp forming in the back of their house/farm/business complex.
The cabin had been moved across the road from the Whip o' Will site decades ago and was being used as a storage shed. I asked if I could check it out.
They said sure, so out into the deluge I went to take photos of a cabin Steinbeck didn't sleep in in 1960. Here's what it looked like:
Sally Beattie was just another in a series of fine New England women who've helped me on my insane quest to follow Steinbeck's trail and tell the whole/truer story of his road trip.
She grabbed a phone book, flipped through it and handed me the phone numbers of three locals who could tell me more about the motel's history.
One number was Jeff Woodburn's. He's a local free-lancer, ex-politician, sometime social studies teacher and rental property owner who's been asking questions about the old motel for months.
I called Jeff's number last, fearful that he might not want to share what he found after months of digging with a pushy journalist who had just parachuted into town.
But Jeff couldn't have been nicer or more generous. He quickly began adding to what I already knew about the old motel and the cabin behind the Beattie's house.
Then he dropped the bombshell/newsflash:
On one of Steinbeck's stops in the Lancaster area in the fall of 1960 it is very possible that Steinbeck, and presumably poodle Charley, stayed overnight at the Spalding Inn, a super-exclusive mountain-top hotel/retreat of the era.
Yes, the Spalding Inn still exists, Jeff said, offering to meet me there, which he did.
The Spalding Inn, in Whitefield, N.H., is perched high in the woods of the White Mountains about 7 miles south of Lancaster on state Route 3.
It describes itself, without doing its glorious and old-fashioned self justice, on its Web site thusly: "Surrounded by manicured lawns, orchards, perennial gardens and a 360-degree view of the Presidential Mountain range, it offers you the perfect escape from city life."
The true story, as Jeff learned through his digging and will reveal in his upcoming article in New Hampshire Magazine, is that Steinbeck stayed at the Spalding Inn for a night 50 years ago this week.
He had a room there. He ate dinner there. He didn't socialize and kept busy with some writing.
When he tried to enter the dining room he was refused entrance. He lacked the proper attire, as they used to say at such fancy old-fashioned places. When he told them who he was, however, they quickly rounded up a coat and tie.
Jeff learned about Steinbeck's stay at Spalding Inn innocently and by accident.
After he looked for but did not find the local farm Steinbeck said in "Charley" he camped on, and realized it did not exist, he posted a note on a local Facebook page asking if anyone remembered Steinbeck passing through the area in 1960.
Jeff got a handful of responses. He heard the same Spalding Inn story independently from several people, plus reports of Steinbeck sightings in the old Lancaster Diner on Main Street (U.S. 2).
Jeff followed up his leads and said to me there is no doubt Steinbeck stayed at the inn -- there's even supposed to be a file card somewhere in the hotel's archives that records his stay. Until that card is exhumed, exactly when Steinbeck stayed at the Spalding Inn will remain uncertain.
Jeff and I, two journalists who are digging up different ends of the same esoteric old bone, shared our inside-Steinbeck knowledge over a beer in the dank bar of the otherwise totally empty inn.
Despite its many charms and reasonable $140 per-night price, it had no diners in its spacious and fancy dining room and had more friendly employees than overnight guests. The movie "The Shining" came to mind as we were shown a room they might have given Steinbeck.
Jeff and I don't know for certain, but we think Steinbeck stayed at the Spalding Inn on his swing east and slept in his camper at the "ghost" hotel by the river on his way west. It could be the other way around.
It doesn't really matter. It's clear evidence -- and further proof, considering what I and others already know and anyone who reads "Travels With Charley" with a critical eye should suspect -- that the book is not nonfiction but a creative mix of fiction and nonfiction.
It's not close to being a true account of Steinbeck's 10,000-mile journey, as Steinbeck himself virtually comes out and says several times in the book.
But so what?
What Steinbeck did or did not really do on his trip doesn't change anything. "Charley" is still an entertaining work that continues to be read and loved by new generations -- not for its accuracy or literal truth, but for what it says about America, its people and the guy who wrote it.
Is it his fault it's considered nonfiction?
Update, Nov. 26, 2010:
Journalist John Woestendiek, following behind me on the Steinbeck Highway with his super-dog Ace, also talked to good-guy Woodburn and took his picture with Ace.
John visited the Spalding Inn -- owned by the producers of the "Ghost Hunters" TV show -- and did a nice job of weighing the whole "Charley" fiction/nonfiction issue.
John also talked to a professor who teaches writing about Steinbeck's pioneering work in what one day would be termed "creative nonfiction" -- aka "the literature of reality."
He started the first creative nonfiction writing program at a university in the 1990s at Pitt. And if I ever do a book around how Steinbeck rearranged reality -- and enhanced it -- in order to write "Charley," I'll be talking to Lee Gutkind.
Update Update: Jan. 23, 2011:
Drive-by journalism has its obvious limitations.
Especially when you are trying to reassemble the half-century-old road trip of a famous author who didn't keep notes and didn't tell the truth in the nonfiction book he wrote about his journey.
Now, after recently talking again with Jeff Woodburn, the two of us aren't sure if Steinbeck slept at the Spalding Inn or just ate there.
Steinbeck's actual sleeping arrangements for his two passes through Lancaster remain tangled and confused.
He was definitely seen by several local people there in the fall of 1960, eating and sitting in the lobby. But until we find Steinbeck's name on the unlocated guest register -- if he used his real name -- we don't know if he stayed at the Spalding Inn overnight.
On his way east on U.S. Route 2 to Maine, he says in "Charley" that he slept in his camper on a farm. That's not true, according to Woodburn, who looked hard and long and futilely in the White Mountains for the farm and its mythical owner.
But where did he sleep?
The often detailed letters Steinbeck wrote to his wife Elaine while he was on the road -- which are credible/truthful and which served as his only notes for "Charley" -- provide clues but no answers. (You can read most of Steinbeck's "Charley" road letters for yourself for free if you go to Amazon.com and search inside the 1975 book "Steinbeck: A Life in Letters," which Elaine co-edited. Search for the word "Bangor.")
Steinbeck wrote a letter to his wife Elaine on Sunday, Sept. 25, 1960, from St. Johnsbury, Vt., which is 30 miles west of Lancaster at the intersection of U.S. Routes 5 and 2. (On the top of the letter he wrote that it was Sunday evening, which was correct, but he incorrectly wrote that it was September 24.)
He said in the letter that he was going to try to get as close to Deer Isle, Me., as he could the next day.
Deer Isle, which is south of Bangor, was 236 miles and six hours away from St. Johnsbury. It makes no sense that he'd hit the hit highway the next morning and stop 40 minutes later in the Lancaster, N.H., area, then wait around all day and go to dinner at the Spalding Inn or sleep there.
When Steinbeck went through Lancaster again a week later on his way west, things are more clear.
Based on a Friday, Sept. 30 letter to his wife, Steinbeck stopped at was undoubtedly the Whip o' Will. In the letter he details where he was (roughly) and what he did after arriving at 4 p.m. on the border of New Hampshire and Vermont and camping by a stream (the Connecticut River).
He tells his wife he fixed a dinner for himself and went to bed early after a long day of hard driving. Unless he was telling his wife fibs, it doesn't sound like he went to the Spalding Inn for a nice dinner or to sleep.
The next day, Steinbeck was moving west, heading for Niagara Falls and ultimately to Chicago for his meeting with Elaine.
A postcard he wrote to his agent Elizabeth Otis on Sept. 30 was postmarked Oct. 1 by the Concord, Vt., post office -- which is 20 miles west from Lancaster on U.S. Route 2.
So what did Steinbeck do at the Spalding Inn? And when did he do it?
Woodburn and I don't know, but he's going to do a little more sleuthing before we call in the FBI.
Update Update Update, March 24, 2011:
The manager of the Spalding Inn, Jared Rice, is going to dig around among his inn's thousands of old guest registration cards to see if he can find Steinbeck's name on one of them.
In the next week or so, he'll look at dates between Sept. 25 and Oct. 2, 1960. The inn only has 36 rooms so it won't take long to check. If Steinbeck signed a card using his real name, the mystery will be solved. If he didn't sign a card, or if he used a fake name, we'll probably never know where he slept when he passed twice through this area like a phantom.
Update Update Update Update, March 30, 2011:
Iris Glidden, 87, was a secretary for the owner of the Spalding Inn in the fall of 1960. She did not see Steinbeck himself, but in a phone call she provided me with this information:
Steinbeck showed up in his shorts and plaid shirt and expected to be able to eat dinner in the dining room. "The story is," Iris said, "he was told he had to dress properly if he wanted to eat. It's probably true. It was a very exclusive place for the wealthy in those days."
Iris said it was definitely in late September of 1960 -- "It was foliage season." She said Steinbeck had a dog with him and that it probably had to stay in Steinbeck's car (camper) overnight.
Did Steinbeck definitely sleep overnight at the Spalding Inn? "Oh yes, he did. I'm sure of that. Only one night. He probably stayed through breakfast and cleared out. "
A few hours later Donald Spalding, the son of the original owners and operators of the inn, confirmed Glidden's account. He said there is no doubt that Steinbeck ate dinner and slept at the inn during "foliage season" 1960. It's a 50-year-old story, part of the inn's rich lore, he said.
"I heard the story from my parents," Spalding said. "He was traveling with his dog Charley and didn't socialize. He checked in, ate and kept to himself. He stayed the night."
Spalding Inn General Manager Jared Rice never got around to looking for a Steinbeck-signed guest card. But based on two well-placed sources, it's safe to conclude that Steinbeck slept at the Spalding Inn during his "Charley" trip.
It's not clear what date it was. But my best guess is that he stayed there Sept. 25, 1960, on his way east to Bangor. He wrote a letter to his wife from St. Johnsbury, Vt., that evening but provided no clues about his lodging. He easily, and logically, could have driven another 30 miles to the Spalding Inn.
Also, upon further review, there's little question Steinbeck was at the Whip 'o Will Cabins by the Connecticut River on Sept. 30, 1960. He all but says so in his letter to his wife that night. The next night he wrote to his wife that he was staying at a trailer park, probably in Upstate New York.