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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Town Without People

Wednesday, 13 October 2010 08:29 AM Written by

BISMARCK, N.D. -- McDonald's

 One minute I was in Moorhead, Minn., the next I was in deepest downtown Fargo.

I can see how John Steinbeck missed out on seeing much of Fargo because he was sort of swept along by the traffic. Just keeping track of US 10 -- those dumb one-way city streets again -- was too hard for me.

 I lost its signs and then found them again just as US 10 disappeared under the interstate that was built on top of most of it all the way across North Dakota and Montana all the way to Seattle.

 DSC_2011_copyI got to metropolitan Alice, N.D., via I-94 and County Road 38 about 1:30 p.m.

Not a soul was there to greet me. Hardly a soul is left in Alice, which sits in the middle of a flat agricultural zone -- what 99 percent of North Dakota apparently is.

 The town, like some big cities Back East we know and love, has bled population since 1960, but it started out with about 150 people. Now it's closer to 50 and the post office is gone, the grain silo is gone, the school is gone and the Catholic Church, St. Henry's, is gone.

There's still plenty of room in the town cemetery, though.DSC_2015

 To find out this sad local history, I needed a human. To find one of those, I had to hail a farmer who was running a big tractor on the edge of his 1,400 acre farm. His wife -- he pointed to a dust cloud half a mile away -- was running the family combine.

 The farmer, who didn't want the whole world wide web to know his name, grows wheat and soybeans and not corn (like most of his neighbors) because wheat doesn't take as many people or tractors to produce.

 I told him the story about Steinbeck coming to his flat corner of the world to camp out by the Maple River 50 years ago and asked if he knew a spot where Steinbeck could have pulled off the road. It turns out there could be a dozen such spots.DSC_2004_copy_copy_copy_copy_copy_copy_copy_copy

The friendly farmer went back to his disking.DSC_2024

I drove around the endless sea of dense yellow cornstalks that rattled in the relentless, not very friendly wind.

 I went to several places where the gravel farm roads intersect the meandering Maple River -- creek, really. But I had to give up and -- as my GPS Girl always says -- "take the highway."

 Contrary to what he wrote so nicely and in such detail in "Charley," Steinbeck didn't camp overnight near Alice on the Maple River or anywhere else on the night of Wednesday, Oct. 12, 1960.

As he told his wife in a road-letter, he stayed at what he called the "Dairy Queen Hotel" in Beach, N.D., some 300-plus miles to the west. That's where I'm headed -- the Beach -- after a 39-degree overnight sleep in my RAV4 in the Bismarck Walmart parking lot.

 I was fine under my blankets and sleeping bag and actually slept too late. I had tried to get a motel room under $125 in this oddly popular filled-up town, but there was none available in an affordable place I could trust.

The Dairy Queen Motel in Beach -- or whatever it was really called -- apparently is gone now. But maybe I can find some of its remains when I get there later today -- as soon as I defrost my laptop.

UPDATE, Dec. 8, 2010: The downside -- and danger -- of doing drive-by journalism is that you don't take the time to do all the reporting you should.

I should have realized then, but didn't, that the Maple River flows south past Alice on the west side of town but then doubles back and swings northeast and passes to the east of the town.

Steinbeck didn't camp overnight at Alice. But he could have stopped by the edge of the Maple River somewhere for a few hours.

If he did, there are several places about 4 to 6 miles to the southeast and east of Alice where local roads intersect the snaking, tree-lined Maple River.

Did he pull over at one of those quiet spots to eat his lunch? Maybe. Did he meet an itinerant actor there? Possibly. It's just not very probable -- east or west of Alice.

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Where Steinbeck Slept Oct. 11, '60

Tuesday, 12 October 2010 12:53 PM Written by

FRAZEE, MINN.  --  Daggett Truck Line

Here, in 26 easy steps, is how to find out where John Steinbeck slept on the night of Oct. 11, 1960:

1-- Drive from St. Paul to Sauk Centre to Detroit Lakes.

2 -- Get at least 6.5 hours of sleep in a Walmart parking lot.

3 -- Get up early and go to the nearest McDonald's for coffee.

4 -- Sit in a booth next to the oldest guys in the restaurant (you can find four or six of them drinking coffee and shooting the breeze every morning in every McDonald's in America).

5 -- Wait patiently until there's a lull in their conversation about the nearest pro football team (in this example, the Vikings).

6 -- Introduce yourself, tell them you are a traveling journalist (wave your Professional Reporter's Notebook to prove it) and explain that you are chasing the ghost of John Steinbeck, who came by here exactly 50 years ago. 

7 -- Explain who John Steinbeck is.

8 -- Tell them you're looking for a truck stop on US 10 near Detroit Lakes that handled cattle trucks and was near a turkey farm.

9 -- Go where they agreed the place I was looking for definitely was -- Daggett Truck Line's home operations in Frazee, Minn.,  aka, "Home of the World's Largest Turkey."DSC_1966

10 -- Thank the senior citizens for their time and help.

11 -- Drive eight miles back the way you came the night before to Frazee, pop. 1,377, which is just off new US 10 and was once sliced in half by old US 10.

12 -- Take pictures by the Frazee exit of one of the dozens of turkey barns there and wonder how many turkeys can be packed in a building that looks half-a-mile long.

13 -- Drive around the town's major detour, cruise the modest-to-shabby main drag,  stop on a side street  and ask a guy building something in his garage where Daggett trucking is.

14 -- Follow his directions to just north of downtown Frazee on old US 10, where Daggett Truck Line has been since the 1930s and where its office and cattle-truck operations were in 1960.

DSC_1977_copy15 -- Stick your head in the secretary's office and ask if there's a Daggett you can talk to.

16 -- Meet Chris Daggett, the fourth generation of his family to run the medium-sized company that now has about 95 refrigerated trucks and no longer hauls cattle, which it did exclusively in 1960 when Chris' grandfather Vern was running things.

17 -- Read Chris the part in "Travels With Charley" where Steinbeck describes his night at a truck stop; then read Chris part of the letter Steinbeck wrote to his wife on Oct. 11, 1960, where he talks about cattle trucks, piles of manure and a small valley filled with thousands of turkeys.

18 -- Explain that Steinbeck's letter is credible but that what he writes so beautifully in "Charley" is a fictionalized composite of his overnight stays at a truck stop in Mauston, Wis., and one "not far from Detroit Lakes."

19 -- Write down in your  Professional Reporter's Notebook exactly what Chris Daggett says: "This was the place he's talking about. Absolutely, it was."

20 -- Take pictures of the great old pictures and the 1960 magazine article hanging in the hall that tell the 80-plus year history of Daggett Truck Line.DSC_1988

21 -- Take pictures of Daggett's building, whose siding now hides the brick Steinbeck would have seen.

22 -- Take pictures of the cow head -- cattle head? -- over the front door.

23 -- Forget to take Chris Daggett's' picture standing by his front door with the cow's head above him.

24 -- Thank Chris and tell him if he sees you again it'll be because you've got a book deal.

25 -- Say goodbye.

26 -- Drive 100 yards west on old US 10 and take pictures of the turkey barns that sit next to Daggett's big parking lot.

Extra credit:

Write this account of your adventure in drive-by journalism.

Drive 100 miles west on US 10 to the next stop on the Steinbeck Highway -- Alice, N.D. That's where the ghost you are following said he stopped to camp by the Maple River on the morning of Oct. 12, 1960.



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Return of the Steinbeck Highway

Monday, 11 October 2010 10:15 PM Written by

DETROIT LAKES, MINN. -- Walmart Store # 2957

It's too dark to poke around this lighted up town of  8,300.

But with all the neon, motels, malls and billboards along the road, it's already pretty clear this community 40 miles east of Fargo is nothing like it was on Oct. 11, 1960, when John Steinbeck camped here at a truck stop. Today it's a recreation mecca, swelling in summer and winter.

The drive from St. Paul, Anoka and all points south was nothing like what Steinbeck saw, either.

US 10 and Route 52 have been replaced or covered over almost entirely by I-94. It is really only in Sauk Centre, where Steinbeck picked up Route 71 to take him back to US 10 at Wadena, that the Steinbeck Highway returns.

Sauk Centre, Sinclair Lewis' hometown, looked pretty nice to me. Perfect, almost.

It's got old houses, old neighborhoods, old sidewalks and tall old trees. The business district looks healthy. There's a giant church.DSC_0045

It's another one of those Norman Rockwell-brand pre-zoning towns that planners want to recreate from scratch today from the top-down but never can.

As Jane Jacobs knew,  towns like Sauk Centre grew organically and spontaneously from the bottom-up, not from some genius' master plan or from zoning laws.

Anyway, I didn't have time to visit Sinclair Lewis' home or the Sinclair Lewis interpretation center. And I forget what local crimes and hypocrisies he was all worked up about in his books.

Based on my drive-through, though, it doesn't look like he had much to complain about.

You can get cute little homes on Original Main Street for way under $100,000, a guy who lives in one of them told me. And even the two-story beauties are in the $150,000 range.


The drive from Sauk Centre to here was a return to the look and feel of the Steinbeck Highway I saw in New England and Ohio.

Almost nothing new was along Route 71 -- just farms and a few small towns of 595 like Eagle Bend. The two-lane road is smoother and wider and safer than in Steinbeck's time.

Steinbeck would probably have seen more trucks, because there were no interstates.

But they couldn't possibly have been as gigantic and loud as the 18-wheel beasts that came thundering toward me as I cruised at 70 through miles of slightly tilted or barely rolling farmland and woods.

Steinbeck would have seen most of what I saw through my windshield. That includes an impressive auto junk yard outside Eagle Bend.

It had at least a dozen cars from the 1940s and '50s that I counted as I flew by. They were neatly pointed at the highway like they were on a used car lot that time forgot.DSC_0060_copy_copy

The one thing new that Steinbeck would have been really shocked by on his ride from Sauk Centre to Wadena on Route 71  is the graceful monster that suddenly appears on the horizon near Hewitt, population 267. 

I'm sure there's an outrageous story to be told about how that boondoggle of a wind turbine ended up being built right smack in the middle of nowhere. 

No matter how uneconomic wind turbines are, or how much in government subsidies they waste, or how many birds they kill, or how much noise and vibration they make, they sure are pretty when they're standing all alone where they ought not to be.


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