Bypassing the Steinbeck Highway

Sunday, 07 November 2010 06:45 PM Written by 

TAZEWELL, VA. -- McDonalds, Route 19 South

John Steinbeck and I have a few more things in common today than we did six weeks and 11,000 miles ago.

One of them is that we both wanted to get home ASAP after we left New Orleans.

Too bad for him, but he had to do it on busy two-lane roads without the aid of Ike's interstates. It wasn't easy and his finishing kick kind of drove him crazy, as he admits at the end of "Travels With Charley." 

After taking in the scene at the William Frantz Elementary school in New Orleans, Steinbeck drove north on US 61 to Natchez and Vicksburg, Miss., then headed east on US 80 toward Alabama. 

We know that was his route because on Dec. 3, 1960, he wrote his itinerary on a post-card he sent to his agent from Pelahatchie, Miss.DSC_1069_2

US 80, which I drove last year when I was chasing the 60-year old ghost of great P-G reporter Ray Sprigle, is pretty much the same as it was before it was bypassed by I-20. It's smooth but it's rural, bermless and slows you down with its little towns.

When Steinbeck hit US 11, in Birmingham, Ala., he started northeast on an angle that took him parallel with the Appalachian Mountains. He went through the heart of Tennessee, the western tab of Virginia, pieces of West Virginia and Maryland and into Pennsylvania at Carlisle and the PA Turnpike.

Yesterday, I took the Steinbeck Highway on my flight from southern Louisiana.  I followed US Highway 61 north. I don't know how it was in 1960, but yesterday it was smooth, wide, beautiful and empty all the way to Vicksburg.

It's one of the prettiest roads I've ever driven -- and, unlike most of my opinions, that is based on experience.

I took a token spin on old US 80 to take a picture of the Pelahatchie post office, then hopped back on I-20 to Tuscaloosa. While the Alabama Crimson Tide faithful were crying in their beers over their loss to LSU, I slept soundly in the town Walmart.

Today, I put on my push for home -- more than 700 miles away.

I took a series of interstates to Abingdon, Va., which is where Steinbeck said his trip ended in a kind of road-weary amnesia. His journey actually ended weeks before when his wife Elaine joined him in Seattle, but let's not go down that bumpy road now.DSC_1107

If Abingdon is a good enough place for Steinbeck to call it quits, it's good enough for me.

My old friend and former Pittsburgher John Schardong, who was serving as a kind of remote navigator for me by phone from Cincinnati this afternoon, noticed something as he was helping me negotiate the spaghetti of Tennessee's interstate highways.

The Steinbeck Highway's US 11 route converged at Abingdon with US 19 -- yes, that same north/south Route 19 that northern Pittsburghers and southern Pittsburghers share with equal love and congestion.DSC_1105_2

I decided that was the best way home for me -- north on Route 19, which run just three miles west of my home in Washington County.

I don't think the selection committee for the Noble Prize for Literature will hold it against me that I didn't finish every last mile of the Steinbeck Highway as I chased the great author's 50-year-old ghost around America for what will ultimately be more than 11,000 miles.

I'm still 300 miles and 5 hours from home. I should be there by midnight. All I have to do is take Route 19 -- the Steigerwald Bypass.  

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