Steinbeck's Ratty Cabins

Monday, 18 October 2010 06:20 PM Written by 

SEATTLE-RENTON -- Holiday Inn near the airport

John Steinbeck probably arrived here 50 years ago either yesterday or today. It's impossible to be precise because we only know what we know from what he says in "Travels With Charley" and that's not trustworthy.

Because he mentioned it in a letter to his wife, we know he and Charley spent Friday night encamped somewhere along US 10 about 40 miles west of Missoula. On Saturday morning, Oct. 15, 1960, they would have continued their 7-day sprint to Seattle. From then on, all we have to go on is "Charley."

Steinbeck says in the book that he stopped Saturday night near the Idaho-Washington border at a ratty motel/gas station combo.

He spends several pages discussing how he got in the middle of a long-running argument between a he-man father and his 20-year-old son, who Steinbeck said had a light male voice, dressed flamboyantly (he had an ascot) and was interested in theater, fashion and becoming a hairdresser. His father was interested only in hunting, fishing, drinking and not seeing his son become a hairdresser.

If this caricature of a young gay man sounds like something Steinbeck-the-great-novelist might have made up, it's because it almost certainly is. Steinbeck said the young man even subscribed to The New Yorker, which to me is the most unbelievable thing of all.

I have little doubt that the kid was a dramatic invention -- just like the itinerant actor in "Charley" that Steinbeck said he met while camped overnight near Alice, N.D. (where Steinbeck did not really camp overnight).

Despite my doubts, last night before sunset I tried to find Steinbeck's ratty cabins. Not far from Cataldo, Ida., right next to where I-90 arced over the mountains toward Washington, I looked along a several mile stretch of old US 10 for the place Steinbeck described in such vivid detail.DSC_2047_copy

 In the Mission Inn I read locals the description of the cabins from "Charley." I followed up a tip from a long-time resident. I knocked on the doors of several old houses. I peered into the heavy underbrush looking for the ruins of a gas station or a collapsed tourist cabin.

No luck. Steinbeck had to stop somewhere for the night on his way to Seattle, which is 450 miles from his last known campout west of Missoula. The unpopulated two-lane remnant of U.S. 10 north of Cataldo fits Steinbeck's description. But if the cabins really existed, they shouldn't be so hard to find.  

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