Travels Without Charley

It's Friday, right?

Friday, 15 October 2010 08:33 AM Written by

I-94, MT. -- Buffalo Country rest stop

Thursday, right? I'm starting to lose track.

I pulled in here last night at about 10. I'm not far from the exit to the Custer Battlefield, which is about 50 miles south. John Steinbeck went there -- he said so in a letter to his wife -- but hardly talks about it in "Travels With Charley." I'll go there now.

It's been quiet all night. Just the sound of trains rumbling by somewhere in the dark. They sounded like tornados. That's a weather joke.

No one's on the road so no one stops here to use the bathroom. Another four or five RVs and cars were scattered around the parking lot last night but they've already cleared out.

The official signs only care about where you let your pet poop. And watch out for those rattlesnakes.

Sleeping here is not restricted, therefore it is permitted. What a concept.  What if a whole country worked that way? That's a libertarian joke.DSC_1957_copy_copy

The lighting is subdued -- just enough to make you feel secure without making it seem like you're sleeping in a dentist's chair.

John Steinbeck moved so fast he made it from Beach, N.D., to Livingston, Mt., by Thursday night -- AGGGHHH.

It's Friday! My computer says it's Friday. This is 2010, right? Earth, right?

I fooled around in Beach too long yesterday morning. Or maybe it's the size of these states out here.

I don't know how Steinbeck made it from Beach to Livingston so quickly -- on old, skinny US 10 and through the middle of towns like Miles City and Billings -- and still did so much stuff in one day.

He stopped at the Custer memorial and told his wife he stopped at about six bars in towns along US 10 -- not to drink but to gather information.

He bought a stockman's hat in Billings. And he arrived  at a motel or trailer court near Livingston in time to watch the third Nixon-Kennedy TV debate.

So I may not know what day it is, but I know where Steinbeck was on Thursday, Oct. 13, 1960 -- the day he probably heard Bill Mazeroski hit his historic home run to win the World Series.

The next morning -- Friday, right? -- Steinbeck dropped down to Yellowstone Park where Charley went nuts barking at the bears.

I'm not trying to race or pace Steinbeck, but I have a lot of driving to do. The sun's coming up.

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Where John Steinbeck had his bath

Thursday, 14 October 2010 07:44 PM Written by

BEACH, N.D. -- Flying J Restaurant  

I don't know what John Steinbeck did for laughs on the night of Oct. 12, 1960, when he slept in this agricultural town of 925 people on his way to Montana and Seattle.

In a letter to his wife Elaine he said he was about to take a bath in a motel he jokingly called "the Dairy Queen."

That night in Beach he could have gone to the Bijou Theater a few blocks away and seen Alec Guinness in "Our Man In Havana," a good little movie that was shot in oppressive Havana shortly before Fidel Castro came to power and made everything perfect.

Steinbeck probably didn't go to see a movie for the same reason I didn't go to the Bijou last night to see Angelina Jolie star in "Salt." We had both spent our days driving almost 408 miles across North Dakota and we were both beat.DSC_2026

I spent this morning checking out Beach and trying to pin down where Steinbeck slept as part of my insane one-man, no-dog quest to separate fiction from fact in Steinbeck's classic "Travels With Charley."

Based on my quick spin around town, Beach is a mix of perfectly nice homes and some shabby ones, old neighborhoods and new.

Beach seems to have everything it needs -- several churches, a couple of banks, a county courthouse, a hardware store, a pharmacy, a supermarket, a few shaky restaurants, a busy railroad line in its city-center and one of those cool town water towers that looks like a rocket taking off.

Beach is in no way quaint or charming or hip or artificially polished by local boosters to appeal to tourists. It is what it is and it looks to a parachuting journalist like what it is -- a working-class town.DSC_2061_copy

Susan Davidson, the Golden Valley County recorder, prefers the term "blue-collar."

I had stopped in her office at the courthouse shortly after 8 this morning. I explained what I was doing, begged forgiveness for my superficial assumptions about her fine town and got the names of some local historians.

I also found out a few things I could never have learned just from driving around town:

-- Beach's economy, like the rest of North Dakota, is doing better thanks to the regional oil boom. Unemployment is down. A local entrepreneur was starting up a vineyard east of town on old US 10.

-- You should eat at the La Playa Mexican restaurant downtown, not at the Flying J at the I-94 exit -- where I ate two perfectly fine breakfasts.

-- And you should go to the Prairie Fire Pottery, where Tama Smith's beautiful high-kiln pottery creates little traffic jams during the summer by pulling thousands of cars and RVs off I-94.


By noon, I had stopped by the Prairie Fire Pottery and the office of the Golden Valley News newspaper. I had also snooped around some shrub-strangled tourist cabins behind the liquor store on Old Highway 10.

I also talked to Harold Lassell, a lifelong Beach resident who said he was the oldest living mechanic in the county.

Lassell, 86, instantly became the last word on what the intersection of US 10 and 1st Avenue NW looked like 50 years ago.DSC_2071

He didn't just know the names of the owners of the Westgate Motel, the owners of the Dairy Queen that sat diagonally across from it and the owners of the long-gone tourist cabins on the empty lot across the street from the Westgate. He also knew whether they were dead or alive.

Lassell looked at my crude map of the intersection. He listened patiently to all the evidence I had marshaled: 

John Steinbeck came into town from the east on US 10. The Westgate was the only modern motel near enough to the Dairy Queen to become a joke. Steinbeck called it a "motel" in his letter, not a "cabin."DSC_2054

Lassell agreed with my TV-detective logic and my conclusion -- it is almost certain that Steinbeck slept in one of the Westgate's 11 motel rooms exactly 50 years and one day before I happened to stay there myself after a series of coincidences.

I don't know what room he and Charley stayed in. But I was in Number 5 and I slept well and encountered no ghosts.

UPDATE, Dec. 7, 2010: Doug Davis of Bozeman, Mt., was only eight in 1960, but his father owned the Westgate Motel and the Mobil gas station and small picnic grounds next to it.

Davis, who called me from Bozeman after hearing I was looking for information,  grew up helping his mother run the Westgate. He did everything from cutting the grass and cleaning rooms to "mangling" sheets in the motel's basement.

After Davis' mother died in late November, he said, he and his older brother found all the motel's registration books, including those from the fall of 1960, stored at her house -- and threw them all out in the trash.

No Davis-family lore talks about John Steinbeck visiting the motel, which his uncle designed and his father built in 1949. But Davis believes the Westgate was Steinbeck's "Dairy Queen" motel.

It was the only "modern" hotel in Beach in 1960. Across the street were "It Happened One Night"-style cabins, but they wouldn't have had what the Westgate definitely had in each room on Oct. 12, 1960 -- a bathtub.



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Steinbeck's 'Dairy Queen' motel

Wednesday, 13 October 2010 09:30 PM Written by

BEACH, N.D. -- Flying J Restaurant

John Steinbeck moved fast for an old guy.

Three days of driving from Chicago brought him to the center of this small agricultural town near the Montana border on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 1960. He traveled about 1,000 miles on roads that were not as smooth or safe as the ones I have.

We know he slept in Beach because he wrote a letter from here to his wife Elaine, saying he was staying "in a motel called the Dairy Queen."

That was most probably a joke based on the fact that a Dairy Queen franchise was across the street. It's not likely he really thought his motel was named the Dairy Queen.

But what motel was it?

Was it the diminutive Westgate Motel on old US 10 -- where I'm staying tonight?DSC_2071_copy_copy

The motel, built in 1949, still sits diagonally across the intersection from where the Dairy Queen franchise was in 1960.

Or was Steinbeck actually staying in one of the small motel cabins that are long gone but once stood in the empty lot across the road from the Westgate?

Tomorrow, with the help of Westgate manager Sandy, I'll do some reporting/research.

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Wayside of the Dogs

Wednesday, 13 October 2010 05:20 PM Written by

I-94 WEST -- By the Wayside

 It was so considerate of the North Dakota Department of Transportation to put this rest-stop here just for me.DSC_1967

The only vehicle here when I pulled up at about noon belonged to a hunched over little North Dakota grandma with a cane and a friendly attitude toward strange men who ask her questions.

When she pulled away, the place was all mine for the next 10 minutes. 

Reddish sand stone, architecturally in synch with the empty windswept universe, this "wayside" (that's the quaint term for rest-stops in these and others parts) looks more like an art museum than a place to answer nature's call or grab a tourist brochure about the culture of North Dakota's western edge.DSC_1962_copy

The grounds -- teen-age pine trees and thick country-club grass and picnic tables like the one I'm sitting at -- are as spotless as the rest-stop's bathrooms and chapel-like lobby.

In the interest of good journalism, however, I do have to report a disturbing incident that could have ruined my entire trip.

Going to my car to get my camera, I almost stepped in a little pile of dog poop.

Maybe I'm catching up to Steinbeck and Charley. Or maybe my new buddy John Woestendiek -- ex-journalist and owner/operator of the beautifully written blog -- passed me up last night while I was sleeping at the Bismarck Walmart.

John, who won a Pulitizer, is somewhere behind me and is doing dog-related things as he works his way down the Steinbeck Highway in a less investigatory way than I am.

While I sitting in the sun pecking away at my keyboard, my wayside has been jumping.

A monstrous truck has parked itself across the way and at least a dozen cars have stopped -- half of them containing dogs like Sam Iversen, 12, and Jack Graff, 5.

Actually Sam the gentle Lab and Jack the wired-up pointer belong to a pair of Minnesota pheasant hunters, Eric Iversen and Jason Graff.

It's pheasant hunting season this week and they stopped their overloaded DSC_1956_copy_copy_copy_copySuburban here so their bird dogs could have a pitstop.












Iversen and Graff are headed west to their secret hunting grounds in Scranton, N.D. -- which they want other hunters to know is not really that great for pheasant hunting.  Really.

They just drive 400 miles to go there every year in hunting season because the burgers at the Main Bar & Grill are the best in the state.

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Lonely (Steinbeck) Highway

Wednesday, 13 October 2010 01:11 PM Written by

I-94 WEST -- 122 Miles East of Beach, N.D.

DSC_1968_copy How empty is North Dakota? How big? Let me try to give you an idea in case you ever want to be totally alone.

I'm cruising at 70 mph on I-94, five miles below the speed limit. My Professional Reporter's Notebook is on my right knee.

My laptop, my cell phone and my camcorder are being fed their morning breakfasts of juice from the cigarette lighter and the RAV4's 120-volt plug, which I never thought I would come to depend on so much.

It's a beautiful day to be driving west on the Old Steinbeck Highway.

The sun is behind me. The sky is blue with only the thinnest gauze of high white clouds. It's 54 degrees. The wind, though carrying a chill, has not yet risen to its usual afternoon car-pushing intensity.

As I drive, I have nothing to do but listen to CNBC on my blessed satellite radio and steer with one finger. I watch the local universe come and go, rolling by unchangingly, as if it is an abstract painting on a video loop.

I can see probably two miles of four-lane road ahead of me and a mile behind.  I count five cars or trucks.

I see one farm. I see one tree bigger than a house.

Everything else is bald rolling light-green grassland with plump rolls of hay strewn randomly and maybe a stray fence line.

The black spots on the horizon to my left are cows,  I think. 

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