John Steinbeck's Non-Nonfiction

Wednesday, 06 October 2010 07:12 AM Written by 

EIGHTY FOUR, PA. -- My house

 So far I've retraced the New England leg of Steinbeck's "Travels With Charley" trip -- about 2,200 miles of his 10,000-mile total.

It took me 10 days -- Sept. 23 to Oct. 3 -- to go from Long Island to the top of Maine to Erie, Pa. That's about how long it took Steinbeck, who got to Chicago on Oct. 5 or 6 and stayed there until Monday, Oct. 10, 1960.

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I drove exactly the same New England highways he did.

 I revisited some of the same places we know for certain he did -- his son's boarding school in Deerfield, Mass., the gorgeous house he visited for two days on Deer Isle, the exclusive inn he stayed at near Lancaster, N.H., and the bridge to Canada where he learned Charley needed rabies inoculations.

But even with the help of dates and locations provided by his letters from the road, it is impossible to sort out what he actually did on his New England road trip from the account he gives us in "Charley."

Most of what he really did on the first leg of his trip remains a mystery.

We'll never know if he really camped on a farm in the White Mountains, really stayed at an over-sanitized motel near Bangor, really entertained a family of Canuck potato pickers in Aroostook County, really went to a white church in Vermont on Sunday, Oct. 2, 1960.

We have only his book to rely on and, sorry, "Charley" fans, it's not reliable.

As we shall see when I follow his trail from Chicago to the West Coast and back, the more closely you try to trace the timeline and place-line of "Travels With Charley," the more obvious it becomes that Steinbeck's beloved account of his journey is as much fiction as it is fact.

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