Travels Without Charley

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.  

Join the conversation:

John Steinbeck Got it Right

Sunday, 07 November 2010 01:12 PM Written by

Chattanooga -- US 11, McDonalds

John and Charley Steinbeck got out of New Orleans as fast as Rocinante could lug them, and I don't blame them.

I'm sorry, but if the entire bottom half of Louisiana sinks beneath the sea -- from natural causes or from Army Corps of Engineers causes -- I won't shed a tear.

Of the 30-plus states I have spent any time in on this trip, it is by far the most annoying. It's dirty, it's overcrowded, its roads are horrible and it's already below sea level anyway.

I don't care if Louis Armstrong and jazz did come from there.

In 1960 on Nov. 7, the Traveling Steinbecks were still in Pacific Grove at the family cottage. John and Charley didn't arrive in New Orleans to check out the racist dramaturgy at the William Frantz Elementary school until about Dec. 1, 1960.

In "Travels With Charley," Steinbeck, after being crippled with sorrow at the ugliness he had witnessed in New Orleans, described his meetings with four Southern men.

The writing is great, of course. And Steinbeck does a nice job of trying to sort out the rights and wrongs and complicated realities of an issue that would tear apart the country for the next decade or more.

Knowing what we know now about what Steinbeck did and did not do on his "Charley" trip,  however, and not knowing for sure whom he did or did not meet, the likelihood that he actually met the four Southerners  is pretty slim.

One white man is a wise philosophical Southerner  who defies the definition of the North's stereotypical moron/racist Southerner.

One is an old black field hand who's wary of white men asking questions.

One is an archetypal white bigot, a poster cracker for the segregation-forever crowd.

The last man is a  smart young black student who thinks Martin Luther King's methods were too slow.

Steinbeck, as he often does, offers a realistic disclaimer in "Charley."

He says he doesn't pretend to have offered a true cross-section of the South. He comes to no conclusions, he says -- just that integration is inevitable; it was only the means of achieving that end that were in question.

He never lived to see it, but Steinbeck got that right.

Join the conversation:

Homeward Bound

Sunday, 07 November 2010 05:53 AM Written by

TUSCALOOSA, ALA. -- Walmart parking lot

That's it. No more sleeping in Walmart parking lots in this lifetime. Not that there's anythng wrong with it. I had six good, safe hours of sleep. It's 37 degrees, the coldest night of my trip.  Total Steinbeck Highway mileage from Pittsburgh since Sept. 21 is 10,460. Only 795 to go.

Join the conversation:

The Day Steinbeck Went to School

Saturday, 06 November 2010 10:22 PM Written by

NEW ORLEANS -- Upper Ninth Ward

It's 8:57 in the morning.

The sun is out and the birds are chirping. The William Frantz Elementary school is as quiet and dead as it was Friday night when I first visited it. DSC_0992

Its windows are still broken and boarded up. Its sidewalks are still closed.DSC_0998

Its barbed-wire fence is still protecting the brick school building and its entire block from vandals and thieves who'll break into any structure that doesn't have someone living in it or isn't protected by strong barbed-wire fences.

The neighborhood of small houses around North Galvez and Pauline streets doesn't look so dangerous in bright sunlight. There is a freshly broken beer bottle on the sidewalk -- next to the BMW at the curb. And in daylight it doesn't look at all like a waterlogged slum.  

If you don't count the moldy houses that are  boarded up with plywood, or are gutted and doorless and windowless, or are still landscaped with the debris of the flood that Katrina brought five years ago, the ward was perfectly tidy and full of nice, small, well-kept homes. DSC_1014

The Upper Ninth Ward, like its much more Katrina-battered sister, the Lower Ninth Ward, is inordinately poor and 98 percent black today. It is still barely above sea level and vulnerable to the next Katrina. But probably 90 percent of the homes in the Upper Ninth that were once up to their roof gutters in polluted seawater have been fixed, rebuilt or replaced.

Fifty years ago, John Steinbeck stood somewhere along these same sidewalks at 8:57 in the morning. But on that day -- probably Dec. 1, 1960 -- the sidewalks were crowded with an angry mob, police and news people.

The whole country had its eye on William Frantz Elementary. The New Orleans public schools were being integrated and Frantz was the guinea pig that was going to make history.

When little Ruby Bridges showed up to attend kindergarten there on Nov. 14, 1960, it caused such an uproar you'd have thought the whole crummy institution of Jim Crow was about to be destroyed by a six-year-old girl.rubybridges_rockwell_copy

Frantz then was an all-white school in an all-white working-class neighborhood. Local mothers didn't take kindly to a black kid learning her alphabet while sitting next to their kids and so most of them pulled their children out of school.

Along with the boycott by white parents came the daily circus of ugliness -- what Time magazine on Dec. 12, 1960, called "an ecstasy of hatred."

19601212_107White parents screamed crude things at anyone going in the school and carried homemade signs that said "Integration is communism" and "Communists & Jews Behind Race Mixing." 

Local and national media were encamped there each morning as Ruby arrived to take classes in a nearly empty school. State and federal authorities kept people from killing each other.

Steinbeck went to Frantz elementary at the tail-end of his "Travels With Charley" trip because he wanted to see "The Cheerleaders," a chorus of haters who specialized in shouting vulgarities that were so crude no news media would dare to repeat them then or now.

He was appalled and disgusted by the nasty freak show he saw and heard.

In the original draft of "Charley," Steinbeck wrote that he felt that the ugliness of the scene could not be truly conveyed unless the actual words the women screamed were put down. He wrote that he knew that the publisher would never print those words, but he wrote them in the manuscript anyway.

Steinbeck noted that no paper in America ever printed the actual words the women used; they just hinted that they were "indelicate" or obscene.

In its Dec. 12, 1960, article, Time magazine used only the "n"-word and "Jew" and "bastard" in a lame effort to depict the level of crudity and hate. But Steinbeck didn't pull any punches in his manuscript.

In a blistering, graphic paragraph, which was cut from his book, he quoted exactly what he said the Cheerleaders yelled at a white man who defied the boycott and brought his kid to school.

I can't repeat the dirty words and phrases Steinbeck wrote. Let's just say they included a lot of four-letter words sailors and athletes use, plus a lot of -ings.

If you want specifics, you'll have to go to the Morgan Library in New York and read the original manuscript.

Steinbeck didn't stay long in New Orleans. He jumped back in Rocinante and did what I did 50 years later -- he headed for home.

When I left the Upper Ninth Ward, my odometer read 12,415 -- exactly 10,003 more miles than when I left home for Sag Harbor on Sept. 21 six or seven years ago.

Join the conversation:

Steinbeck's Rendezvous With Racism

Saturday, 06 November 2010 02:03 AM Written by

NEW ORLEANS --  William Frantz Elementary

Remember this
Norman Rockwell painting?rubybridges_rockwell

It was called "The Problem We All Live With." It was based on historical events that occurred at William Frantz Elementary school on North Galvez Street 50 Novembers ago, when the New Orleans public schools were first integrated.

The little girl is Ruby Bridges. The men are federal marshals. Ruby was the first black child to attend the all-white New Orleans schools.

The ugly racial circus that formed each morning in front of the neighborhood school in  New Orleans made national headlines for months. It also attracted the attention of John Steinbeck, who was in Amarillo on his "Travels With Charley" trip and still had to drive home to Long Island.

As he explains in "Charley," Steinbeck went to North Galvez Street in early December of 1960 because he wanted to observe the "Cheerleaders."

They were the white bigoted mothers who stood across the street from the sidewalk Ruby so innocently walked each morning and yelled obscenities at the few white parents who did not "honor" the white boycott of the school.

In his handwritten manuscript, Steinbeck wrote exactly what kind of foul things he heard the women shout. It couldn't be printed in a book in 1960, and he knew it. And it can't be revealed today in this blog or anything this side of Hustler.

Ruby Bridges' name did not become public knowledge until years later.

Here, in a nicely written article by New Orleans Times-Picayune writer Chris Rose, is her story from start to finish, from innocent child to motivational speaker who travels the country talking to school kids about the lessons she learned from her experience.

Last night I plugged the address of the William Frantz school into my GPS and let it guide me to the school's shabby-to-desolate New Orleans neighborhood.

I don't know what neighborhood it is yet, but at night it looked like parts of it might have been underwater not too long ago.


The stout brick school that made history in 1960 is closed, locked, boarded up and surrounded by a tall fence today. It's one of the many victims of Katrina -- the "storm" it's simply called -- that has never recovered.

Bridges and others are trying to reopen Frantz as a charter school. Meanwhile, ironies abound.

Some of the sidewalks and the school steps Ruby walked into history on are blocked today by fences topped with barbed wire -- protected not from angry white racists but from the school's own neighborhood.DSC_0923_copy


Note: Here is the note I sent to the person who wrote the comment below:

Thanks for the note. I don't have any sympathy for them (the mothers). They were racist pigs -- the Cheerleaders. They were also largely morons. They foresaw nothing. Just because integration had its obvious downsides/failures doesn't mean they were right about anything or that their primitive hate was any less irrational or more justified.

bill s

Join the conversation:

New Orleans' Moronic Drivers

Saturday, 06 November 2010 12:09 AM Written by


I've driven around
the block a few times.

I've driven in Boston, New York City and San Francisco.

I drove in L.A. for 12 years.

I'm a aggressive but safe driver. I never tailgate, drive too fast for conditions or speed recklessly.

With the above credentials, and after driving nearly 10,000 miles on American highways in the last six weeks, I think I am qualified to say this about New Orleans' drivers: They are disproportionately moronic.

I have never seen so many jerks (I'd like to use the a-word here but I'll be good) behind the wheel in one city in my life.

Aggressive, nasty, stupid, they are mostly young, always male and either drive pickup trucks with extra-loud engines or cheap sports cars. DSC_0915

If you are going 70 in the fast lane behind a line of cars, one of these Louisiana losers will suddenly appear in your rearview mirror 12 feet from your bumper. 

They will then tail your gate as if you have somewhere to go. If you so much as leave three car lengths between yourself and the car in front of you, one will fly up the slow lane and jam themselves into the space.

Not four hours before I hit I-10 to New Orleans I had told my wife that from Maine to Amarillo I could't remember being tailgated once.

(I get tailgated in Pittsburgh all the time; it's a combination of dumb and/or creepy drivers and too many highways and freeways with only two lanes.)

I also told my wife I had not flashed anyone a certain rude hand signal -- which I do about twice a day in Pittsburgh.

All that nice driving stuff ended in southern Louisiana during three hours of driving down lumpy/bumpy rough I-10 and in the city.

At first I thought it was just a few hotheads. Then I realized this moronic-aggressive driving is a cultural thing.

We're not talking about one or two cases. We're talking 20 or 25 in three hours. 

Everyone here tailgates at 70 mph -- including Louisiana Highway Patrolmen. This photo is out of focus because I was going 70, too, but you get the idea.DSC_0919

Join the conversation:

A Ranch Fit for the Steinbecks

Friday, 05 November 2010 03:21 PM Written by

APPALOOSA, LA. -- McDonalds

For the record, as we say in the news biz, let's clean up the confusion about that fancy ranch John, Elaine and Charley Steinbeck went to for a prolonged, orgiastic Thanksgiving vacation in 1960.

First, it is not this place -- which I found all by my slightly trespassing self Wednesday afternoon:DSC_0798_copy_copy

This lovely white stone house with eight barking dogs, a few vehicles and nobody home was seven miles inside a ranch in Moore County north of Amarillo.

Because it was once owned by the family of Zachary Scott, the actor who was Elaine Steinbeck's first husband, I thought it was the place I was seeking.1578068371

If I had been on the ball, or if I still trusted anything Steinbeck wrote in "Travels With Charley," I would have re-read how he described the place.

Steinbeck described it as "a beautiful ranch, rich in water and trees and grazing land." The one-story brick house "stood in a grove of cottonwoods on a little eminence over a pool made by a dammed-up spring."

Hmm. Cottonwoods and a pond.

If I had re-read that passage beforehand I would have realized right away that the white house was not the right one.

Steinbeck provides lots of concrete detail about the Thanksgiving place. As you can see below in the photos I took of it yesterday afternoon on my self-guided tour, it is not your typical cabin in the woods.

It wasn't until Thursday morning -- after I had driven 140 miles south to Lubbock -- that I was reminded why presumption is a mortal sin in journalism.

A man who was once a member of the family that owned the ranch when the Steinbecks stayed there called me back and told me I was looking for the Bitter Creek Ranch.DSC_0863

He gave me the new owner's name. I called him, gave him my traveling journalist/Steinbeck pitch and as fast as you can say "Texas hospitality" he gave me directions to the ranch.

The bad news was that the place was 156 miles from where I was parked in Lubbock.

It was located in the middle of a medium-sized cattle ranch --  about 40,000 acres -- east of Amarillo near Clarendon, Texas.

I had only been off by 120 miles, two hours and two counties. In the Texas system of measuring, though, that's a near miss -- just 3.5 cattle ranches. DSC_0876_copy_copy_copy_copy

When I drove through the gate to the ranch compound about 2 p.m., there were four or five cars and trucks parked, several brick houses, a maintenance garage with the lights on, horses in a corral -- but no one home.

Though two buildings are new, and there have been upgrades to roofs and plumbing, the place is much as it was in the fall of 1960.

The main structure has a big screened-in porch overlooking a pond and three bedrooms, each with a door to the outside. It is like a little motel, only in 1960 the regular guests were usually members of Texas richest cattle families. The porch furniture is worth more than Dormont.


I poked around taking my photos, enjoying the sun and wind and parklike setting.

I didn't have to imagine what it was like to hang out there for a week or 10 days, because Steinbeck did a thorough job of doing that in "Charley."

After having the ranch and its ghosts to myself for half an hour, I did what I had to do -- hit the Steinbeck Highway for New Orleans.

PS: I've since learned the ranch was never actually owned by the Scott family, which I was led to believe in a way which I don't remember. But the owners and the Scotts -- including ex-Scott-by-marriage Elaine -- were all intertwined by marriage and money, which, according to one of my new sources in the cattle sector, is the way things work in the upper demographics of Texas.

Join the conversation:

Slogging Through Louisiana

Friday, 05 November 2010 12:59 PM Written by

Appaloosa, La. -- McDonald's

How the heck did Louisiana get so big? So deep?

I thought it was losing land to the Gulf of Mexico because of stupid management of the Mississippi River by the Army Corps of Engineers.louisiana-road-map

When I woke up this morning I was 415 miles from New Orleans. After driving all morning at 75 mph, I'm still 130 miles short. I'm going to miss Mardi Gras.

McDonald's, by the way, is -- along with Walmart -- an unofficial sponsor of this trip down the Steinbeck Highway. (Steinbeck didn't actually take this route to New Orleans, but at this late date let's not be picky.)

McDonald's is the only place where I can always find fast, reliable wi-fi (and decent coffee). But I don't even half to buy a coffee and sit inside.

I'm in the parking lot now and the signal is 10 times better than the Mobile Not Spot on my Verizon phone.

Loading and sending stuff by phone involves such torturous waits that sometimes I think I went through a tme warp and I'm back in 1960 with the Traveling Steinbecks.

Join the conversation:

Page 7 of 16