Sprinting with John Steinbeck

Monday, 11 October 2010 03:03 PM Written by 
ANOKA, MINN. -- Sparky's Cafe
John Steinbeck wrote a number of letters to his wife Elaine from the road, so for most of the week of Oct. 9-16, 1960, it is fairly easy to pinpoint where he actually stayed each night as he sprinted from Chicago to Seattle.
Steinbeck and Charley left the Chicago area in his pickup-camper truck Rocinante on Monday morning, Oct. 10, 1960. Elaine flew back to New York.
Based on his road letters and the logic of space and time as we earthlings know it, and not what he wrote in "Charley," he slept:
     Monday night  (Oct. 10, 1960) -- Mauston, Wisc.
     He camped at a truck stop on US 12, possibly at Ernie's Truck Stop.
     Tuesday night (Oct. 11, 1960) -- Near Detroit Lakes, Minn. (east of Fargo, N.D.). 
     He camped at a truck stop among a bunch of trucks that handled cattle and he looked down on a valley filled with turkeys. (In "Travels With Charley" he seamlessly combines the Wisconsin and Minnesota stops into one night.)
     Wednesday night (Oct. 12,1960) -- Beach, N.D.
     In a letter to his wife from Beach he said he was staying in Beach in a motel called "the Dairy Queen." 
      In "Charley," however, he claimed he camped overnight by the Maple River near Alice, N.D., southwest of Fargo, where he met an itinerant Shakespearean actor. He also claimed that on the next night that he camped overnight in the Badlands, where he heard the coyotes howl. He couldn't have camped overnight at either place because he was in a motel in Beach.
     Thursday night (Oct. 13, 1960) -- Near Bozeman, Mt.
     He stayed either at a motel or trailer court, probably in or near Livingston,  and watched the third televised JFK-Nixon debate.
     Friday night (Oct. 14) -- In Montana, west of Missoula, in Rocinante on a private farm.
     After deciding Friday morning in Livingston that he was too close to Yellowstone Park to not go there, he went south to the park's northern entrance.  He didn't spend more than an hour in Yellowstone, he wrote in "Charley," because of Charley's fierce reaction to the bears, which in those days stood by the roads looking for handouts. He retraced his route to Livingston and drove west on US 10.
     Saturday night (Oct. 15) -- Somewhere between northwest Montana and Seattle.
     This is impossible to pin down. In "Charley" Steinbeck claims he stopped in the mountains near the Idaho-Washington border at a crummy gas station/cabin combo and met a young man who subscribed to the New Yorker, liked fashion and wanted to be a hairdresser. But given his eagerness to meet Elaine again in Seatttle, it's unlikely that he drove such a short distance that day and stopped. He had to sleep overnight at least once somewhere on the way to Seattle, but I've no clues.
     Sunday night (Oct. 16) or Monday (Oct. 17) -- Seattle, at a modern motel at the Seattle-Tacoma Airport.
     He could have stopped and spent the night somewhere short of Seattle, but he certainly would have arrived in the city no later than Monday. He was hurrying there because Elaine was going to jet out to meet him and drive down the Pacific Coast with Steinbeck and Charley.
     These are the facts of Steinbeck's Chicago-to-Seattle sprint as far as my research/reporting has found so far. As part of my mad obsession, I will be going to each of these stops this week. I hope to be in Seattle before Monday.
      Next stop on the Steinbeck Highway is Detroit Lakes, Minn.
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