Travels Without Charley

Steinbeck's Walk in the Woods

Friday, 29 October 2010 12:05 AM Written by

MARIN COUNTY, CA. -- Muir Woods

 While John Steinbeck was in San Francisco exactly 50 years ago, he took Charley across the Golden Gate Bridge on US Highway 101 to Muir Woods.

As it is now, it was a beautiful place -- 240 dark and damp acres of old growth Coast Redwoods only 12 miles north of downtown.

Why he wanted to see more giant trees after having seen so many on his slow drive through Oregon and California redwood country is a mystery.

Maybe he just wanted to get away for a few hours to a cool, quiet place that was neither a church nor a bar.ca_558

When Steinbeck visited  Muir Woods in 1960 a lot of things were different. It may or may not have been officially called Muir Woods National Monument then. But the same 500-year-old trees he saw are still standing tall.

No visitor center was there in 1960 to sell him nature books, organic local salads, coffee and gluten-free pastries. And instead of two miles of boardwalks and paved walkways, he'd have had only dirt paths to walk on with Charley.

 Muir Woods was purchased by a private individual more than 100 years ago and given to the federal government for safekeeping -- exactly the opposite ownership arrangement I and my free-market brethren would prefer.

ca_564_copySo far, Muir Woods appears to be well maintained and carefully protected. But it's no place for silently communing with nature.

It's a place for weddings and tour groups. On a Monday morning at 10, five sightseeing buses and 30 cars had already delivered more than a 100 people through the front gate.

 And, sorry, Charley, today it's no place for dogs. Not even on a leash.

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John Steinbeck, Individualist

Thursday, 28 October 2010 06:32 PM Written by

MILL VALLEY, CA. -- Election Day, plus 4

A few people who probably belong to the Tea Party that's going to shake up Washington on Tuesday have questioned why I, a devout libertarian, would want to waste my time on a lousy left-wing writer like John Steinbeck.ist2_4371390-steinbeck-stamp_copy

First of all, if I only wrote about people whose politics I agreed with even 50 percent of the time, I would have had few people to write about during my journalism career.

Second, Steinbeck was no more to the left than Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern or Teddy Kennedy were. In fact, in some ways -- specifically his animosity/bellicosity toward the Soviet Union and communism and his hawkish position on Vietnam -- Steinbeck was to the right of McGovern, Teddy Kennedy and most of his fellow liberal artists and celebrities.

Steinbeck was a highly partisan Democrat, a New Dealer, a huge fan of FDR; he was especially fond of Adlai Stevenson, the great egghead Steinbeck thought could save the nation from country club Republicanism, Tricky Dick Nixon and Ike's poor syntax.

Though he cast an absentee ballot for John F. Kennedy from Pacific Grove, Ca., on Nov. 8, 1960, Steinbeck was leery of JFK. He didn't like JFK in part because, as Steinbeck wrote in a letter before the 1960 election, JFK was "a bed hopper" and bed-hoppers were not trustworthy.

Here, below, is something lefty Steinbeck wrote that endeared him to libertarian me. He mistakenly believed that a bigger federal government could fix social problems or micromanage the economy without making things worse or diminishing its citizens' freedom.images_copy_copy_copy

But Steinbeck was no commie and no fool. He knew what was wrong with the Soviet Union. He proved it in this wise and prescient message he delivered over Radio Free Europe in 1954 to the peoples of Eastern Europe who looked then like they would be trapped forever behind the Iron Curtain.

"To my friends,

"There was a time when I could visit you and you were free to visit me. My books were in your stores and you were free to write to me on any subject. Now your borders are closed with barbed wire and guarded by armed men and fierce dogs, not to keep me out but to keep you in. And now your minds are also imprisoned. You are told that I am a bad writer but you are not permitted to judge for yourselves. You are told we are bad people but you are forbidden to see and to compare. You are treated like untrustworthy animals, subjected to conditioning as cold and ruthless as though you were rats in a laboratory. You cannot travel, you cannot read freely and you cannot work at the profession of your choice. Your writers are the conditioned servants of a regime. All of this is designed to destroy your ability to think.

"I beg you to keep alive the integrity of the individual in his ability to judge and compare and create. May your writers write secretly and hold their writing for the time when this grey anesthetic has passed as pass it must. The free world outside your prison still lives. You will join it again and it will welcome you. Everything around you is cynically designed to destroy you as individuals. You must remember and teach your children that they are precious, not as dull cogs in the wheel of party existence, but as units complete and shining in themselves."







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John Steinbeck's 'Low Profile'

Thursday, 28 October 2010 01:31 PM Written by

SAN FRANCISCO -- North Beach, Broadway & Columbus

In 1960 John Steinbeck was able to travel the backroads of America anonymously, even though he was world famous. 

But in his old backyard -- San Francisco and later in the Monterey Peninsula, aka "Steinbeck Country"  -- his presence was quickly detected by the local media, which in those days meant newspapers.

Steinbeck, though known for being publicity shy, certainly was not keeping a very low profile during his stay at the St. Francis Hotel 50 years ago.

He and his wife Elaine -- even Charley -- were spotted as Steinbeck ate and drank with his friends in Enrico's, one of the hot spots in town in 1960 and still open today.DSC_2049

In the San Francisco Chronicle of Sunday, Oct. 30, 1960, the paper's popular city columnist Herb Caen wrote a long item about his recent afternoon encounter  with "well-nigh immortal author" John Steinbeck at "Enrico's Coffee House."

Enrico's was on Broadway in what was then the culturally hip/happening neighborhood of North Beach in downtown San Francisco. Now its neighbors are mostly strip clubs.ca_566

But 50 years ago Enrico's was flanked by jazz and comedy clubs and just around the corner from the City Lights bookstore in what Caen called "Beatland."ca_588

Caen, who is said to have coined the term "beatnik" to describe Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsburg and their fellow literary travelers, ate lunch at Enrico's sidewalk cafe nearly every day.

Steinbeck and his beard and costume were not too hard for Caen to spot. He was looking "terribly distinguished like/as a writer should," Caen wrote. "Pinstriped suit. Black hat. Silver-topped cane."

Steinbeck ordered a beer, took one bite of a fruit salad and pushed it away, Caen reported in his column.

He told Caen he had just driven across the country in "a campwagon. Alone. My wife met me in Seattle. I've been living in New York -- that's not America -- and Europe. I hadn't seen my own country in twenty years. I wanted to get to know the people again, hear how they talk and feel. You can't live on memories."

Steinbeck told free-lance writer Curt Gentry in an interview for the Chronicle that he didn't want to try to guess who'd win the presidential election, which was less than 10 days away. But he told Caen he thought Kennedy was going to win.

"It's like writing a play -- you can't fool people. You can get away with a sensational play, maybe, but not a bad one. Nixon is a bad play, the kind you don't believe."

Steinbeck also offered Caen his drive-by assessment of where the American people were politically.

Steinbeck was a devout New Dealer, a partisan Democrat, a proud FDR/Adlai Stevenson liberal. But what he said could have been said yesterday by a Tea Partier -- or by almost anyone at any time in the last 50 years:

"The people are disturbed, plenty. They feel nobody in Washington has been telling them what's going on."

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The Local Media Discover Steinbeck

Wednesday, 27 October 2010 10:23 PM Written by

San Francisco -- St. Francis Hotel, Oct. 27, 1960

Fifty years ago today, when Curt Gentry got a tip that John Steinbeck was in this town, he did what any hustling free-lance writer would do -- he called the famous author in his hotel room and begged for an interview.sanfrancisco05

Gentry got his interview with Steinbeck in the St. Francis Hotel at 11 a.m. the next day, Oct. 28, 1960. 

Steinbeck had put his "Travels With Charley" trip on hold and was socializing with friends at the city's top bars and restaurants.

He talked with Gentry about presidential politics, Ernest Hemingway, the novel he just finished ("The Winter of Our Discontent") and the immorality of an America whose people Steinbeck thought were growing soft and unwilling to do the hard work necessary to survive.

Gentry, then 29, would go on to write more than a dozen books, including "Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders" and "J.Edgar Hoover: The Man and His Secrets." 

But in 1960 he was a struggling writer and bookstore manager who lived in North Beach, the Italian neighborhood in downtown San Francisco where the hip jazz culture of the Beats would soon give way to the hippie rock culture of the 1960s.DSC_2029

Gentry knew Kerouac, Allen Ginsburg and other writers whose headquarters were in North Beach at Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights Bookstore at the corner of Broadway and Columbus.

He also was a big admirer of Steinbeck, an author who had no connection with the Beats, and vice versa.

When Gentry went to interview Steinbeck, he brought along a shopping bag with every Steinbeck work he could carry -- 21 books. He asked Steinbeck to sign them, which Steinbeck did.

Gentry told me last spring that when he got to Steinbeck's room at 11 a.m. Elaine Steinbeck was still in bed and she and Steinbeck looked like "they both had quite a night." Charley was not to be seen and Gentry assumes he had been checked into a kennel.

As soon as his interview with Steinbeck was over, Gentry typed up about 10 pages of notes. In the notes, Gentry wrote that Steinbeck was friendly, talkative and politically partisan. He told Gentry he was driving across the country in an attempt to find out what the people think about politics.

"Everywhere he has traveled," Gentry wrote in his notes, "there is fantastic interest. People are not indifferent, or undecided. They just won't say."

Steinbeck, who told Gentry he thought a Kennedy victory was imminent, made fun of Eisenhower and lamented that for the previous eight years the Republicans had "made it fashionable to be stupid." Gentry also wrote that Steinbeck "had much to say on Richard Nixon, a great part of it unprintable."DSC_0002_2_copy_copy

Gentry's subsequent article, headlined "John Steinbeck: 'America's King Arthur is Coming,'" ran in the San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday, Nov. 6, 1960.

The Chronicle, which along with the San Francisco Examiner supported Nixon against Kennedy, had the final political word, as newspapers always do. It cut out all the nice things Steinbeck said about his hero Adlai Stevenson.


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John Steinbeck, Baseball Fan

Wednesday, 27 October 2010 03:32 PM Written by

San Francisco -- Westin St. Francis Hotel

 John Steinbeck was a big baseball fan.

We know he listened to the Yankees-Pirates World Series on his AM car radio during his "Travels With Charley" trip. What else was there before talk-radio was invented? 

Steinbeck was also wealthier than a left-handed major league starting pitcher, which is why he stayed at palaces like the St. Francis Hotel, where he arrived 50 years ago yesterday. San Francisco city columnist extraordinaire Herb Caen, a friend of Steinbeck's, wrote in his Oct. 28, 1960 column in the San Francisco Chronicle that Steinbeck had "chugged" into town on Wednesday, Oct. 26, "from New York." Actually, Steinbeck and wife Elaine had driven down the coast from Seattle.  


But would Steinbeck fork over $15,500 for a single ticket to tonight's opening game of the Giants-Rangers series? 

That's the asking price right now for one seat on StubHub! -- Infield Club 215, Row F, to be exact.

Of course, since the U.S. dollar was worth about seven times more in 1960 than what it is today, $15,500 in our inflated currency would have been about $2,000 for Steinbeck out-of-pocket -- about the cost of his new 1960 GMC pickup truck Rocinante, not counting the $750 camper shell.


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John Steinbeck's Heart Was in SF

Tuesday, 26 October 2010 07:56 AM Written by

San Francisco put on a show for me. I saw her across the bay, from the great road that bypasses Sausalito and enters the Golden Gate Bridge. The afternoon sun painted her white and gold -- rising on her hills like a noble city in a happy dream. A city on hills has it over flat-land places. New York makes its own hills with craning buildings, but this golden white acropolis rising wave on wave against the blue of the Pacific sky was a stunning thing, a painted thing like a picture of a medieval Italian city which could never have existed. I stopped in a parking place to look at her and the necklace bridge over the entrance from the sea that led to her. Over the green higher hills to the south the evening fog rolled like herds of sheep coming to cote in the golden city. I've never seen her more lovely.

-- Travels with Charley

SAN FRANCISCO -- Marin Highlands

 San Francisco did nothing special to seduce the eyes and heart of John Steinbeck that October afternoon half a century ago.

Few humans could describe it so artfully in one paragraph.

But San Francisco has put on that same lovely show for millions of people who were not famous writers or were not already in love with her, as Steinbeck was.

 As I saw yesterday afternoon, thousands of tourists, day-trippers, photographers, hikers and bicyclists from around the world enjoy the beauty of San Francisco from the hills above the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge every day.DSC_2098_3

I spent half my time taking pictures of couples from Australia, Florida, France, Japan and Berkeley with their cameras so they could prove they were together in San Francisco.

The details of light and color can differ wildly from season to season, day to day, even hour to hour. It depends on the predictably unpredictable whims of the clouds, wind and rain.

But from the Marin Highlands the basic view of San Francisco and the bay and the islands and the mountains and the great bridges that tie them together has not changed since Steinbeck took his stunning verbal snapshot on his “Charley” trip in 1960.

 It’s an absurd panorama, a prime example of man and nature collaborating at their best – at least until the same slow-motion tectonic violence that took eons to create the spectacle gets around to destroying it.DSC_2134_2

 Where did John Steinbeck stop to gaze so lovingly upon the city he never fell out of love with? Was it Vista Point, the popular scenic lookout at the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge, or high atop the Marin Headlands?

It doesn’t matter. From either spot, where I have probably stood 20 times since 1974, San Francisco is a post card of beauty and goodness that can offend no one’s politics or morals.

 You can’t tell it’s the most liberal city in America or that it voted 84 to 14 percent for President Obama in  2008.

You can’t tell it has criminally high housing costs, a permanent parking shortage and an intractable homeless problem that costs its taxpayers $200 million a year.DSC_2035_copy

You can’t tell it's the second-most densely populated city in the USA -- with 815,000 people packed into an area smaller than the City of Pittsburgh, which has 308,000.

You can't tell 37 percent of its residents are immigrants or that it has the highest percentage of gay people of any city in the country.

 Did Steinbeck stop at Vista Point to gaze upon his beloved city and reflect upon his time there as a young struggling writer? Probably.

Essentially level with the north end of the Golden Gate, only 200 feet above the water, the Vista Point lookout was already open in 1960. 

It doesn’t sound like he, Elaine and Charley drove up Conzelman Road to the top of the Marin Headlands, where the concrete ruins of defanged artillery batteries and crumbling coastal defense forts peek over the cliffs, guarding the narrow entry to the bay from enemy fleets that never came.

Of course it didn’t really matter where Steinbeck stood.

He could have described the scene from memory. He had been in San Francisco many times and knew it well. As a kid growing up 100 miles to the south in the lettuce fields of the Salinas Valley, San Francisco was known to everyone simply as “the city.”DSC_2057

 As he wrote in “Charley,” it’s where he spent his “attic days” struggling to become a writer.

During the 1920s, while Hemingway and the other literary giants of his generation were losing themselves and becoming rich and famous in Paris, Steinbeck said he “fledged in San Francisco, climbed its hills, slept in its parks, worked on its docks, marched and shouted in its revolts.”

In both miles and time, Steinbeck was almost exactly halfway through his trip when the Traveling Steinbecks arrived in San Francisco on Oct. 26, 1960, via U.S. Route 101. Despite his fondness for San Francisco, Steinbeck had little to say about it in "Travels with Charley.”

After describing the city so perfectly from across the Bay, he wrote, “Then I crossed the great arch hung from filaments and I was in the city I knew so well. It remained the City I remembered, so confident of its greatness that it can afford to be kind. It had been kind to me in the days of my poverty and it did not resent my temporary solvency. I might have stayed indefinitely, but I had to go to Monterey to send off my absentee ballot.”

 That’s it for San Francisco in "Travels With Charley." Steinbeck’s next paragraph is about the politics of Monterey County, “where everyone was a Republican” including his family. 

But in the real world, Steinbeck spent four busy days in San Francisco, staying at the handsome and very celebrity-favored St. Francis Hotel in Union Square. He hung out with his friends at some of the city's top bars and restaurants -- and, as we shall see, his famous presence was quickly discovered by the local media.

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The Traveling Steinbecks

Monday, 25 October 2010 02:13 PM Written by

MILL VALLEY, CA. -- Daughter Michelle's house

It feels strange sleeping in one place for so long -- three days. I got used to moving fast, which is what I had to do to keep pace with John Steinbeck on his seven-day dash from Chicago to Seattle (Oct. 10-17, 1960). 

I'm waiting for the Traveling Steinbecks to catch up to me, so you can't accuse me of dogging it.

John, Elaine and Charley didn't get to San Francisco until Wednesday, Oct. 26, 1960.  We know this because the San Francisco Chronicle's Herb Caen wrote in a columnon Oct. 28 that Steinbeck had arrived in town from New York. Also, writer Curt Gentry (future "Helter Skelter" author) interviewed Steinbeck in his suite at the St. Francis Hotel on Oct. 28 for a San Francisco Chronicle article.

In the published version of "Travels With Charley," most of Steinbeck's trip from Seattle to the Monterey Peninsula was left out entirely or edited to remove evidence of Elaine's presence.

Steinbeck's four or five day stay at the St. Francis Hotel in downtown San Francisco is never mentioned at all in the manuscript or the book. And as far as the reader knows, it was just Charley and his master who visited the great redwood groves on the drive from Seattle.

But the original handwritten manuscript, which is kept like a sacred scroll at the beautiful Morgan Library in New York City, tells a more complete story.

It contains a handful of scenes Steinbeck wrote about his three-day wait for Elaine in a motel near the Seattle airport and their slow trip down the Pacific Coast.DSC_1033

The manuscript, which has been at the Morgan (pictured at right) since Steinbeck gave it to them in 1962, is broken up into five or six chunks that Steinbeck wrote over a period of almost a year.

Always written in his barely decipherable scribble, always written from top-to-bottom and edge-to-edge of the page, it contains virtually no edits or changes (the editing changes were marked on a typewritten version of the original draft).

The manuscript is handwritten mostly on carefully page-numbered yellow or white legal pads. One part -- which Steinbeck wrote while vacationing in Barbados in February of 1961 -- is in a ledger-like book that also includes a daily journal he kept. One day he notes that he got a card from JFK, whose inauguration the Steinbecks attended with the Kenneth Galbraiths.

For someone trying to follow Steinbeck's trail, the "Charley" manuscript is not a big help. Steinbeck is no more or less specific about where he was or when he was there than in the published book.

The manuscript does prove two things, however -- that Elaine was with him the whole time he cruised down the Pacific Coast and that the Traveling Steinbecks knew how to enjoy themselves on the road.

They had every right to enjoy themselves, obviously. It's just that detailing their fine lodging accommodations and uptown-manhattan lifestyle didn't exactly support the book's roughing-it-on-the-road theme, which no doubt was one reason the scenes were cut.121003_copy_copy_copy_copy_copy_copy

(In a sloppy piece of editing, Steinbeck's line that "Quite naturally, as we moved down the beautiful coast my method of travel changed" was left in the book; reading that line in the manuscript, it's clear that the "we" who slept in a "pleasant auto court" each night was not referring to Steinbeck and poodle Charley but Mr. and Mrs. Steinbeck.)

One scene edited out of the final draft mentions "the several days" Mr. and Mrs. Steinbeck stayed "in a cottage at the base of a cluster of monster trees."

Steinbeck was sore and scraped up from having to fix Rocinante's flat tire in a rainstorm in southern Oregon (an adventure he apparently really had), and he said the cottage and its bathtub of near-boiling water seemed like "the perfect place to rest and refurbish our souls."

Another scene Steinbeck wrote in the manuscript does not reflect well on his love for the common man, which apparently cooled in late middle age. After he and Elaine heard about a good restaurant on the road up ahead, they decided to get dressed up and do the "town."

They were bummed out to find that the eatery in the middle of nowhere was not a Trader Vic's franchise but a neon hellhole.

Steinbeck wrote that it possessed "every damnable feature of our civilization -- cold glaring light, despondent roaring music from a cathedral juke box, batteries of coin machines, formica counters and tables. One wall was a cemetery of ugly … pies."

Great writing.

But the elitist/snobby tone -- and the fact that Steinbeck later makes fun of the waitress for saying "We ain't got no (liquor) license" -- is not flattering to Steinbeck, the appreciator of the common man. Some editor knew it obviously didn't belong in the final version of "Charley."

Another couple of wisely expurgated scenes involve the Steinbecks' attempts to get a hotel room in San Francisco. Elaine's calls ahead from roadside pay phones as they drove were for naught at first, but then they landed a room at the St. Francis Hotel in downtown.Westin-St-Francis-4_copy_copy

Steinbeck, as he described it, parked Rocinante at the luxury hotel's entrance -- and blocked traffic, as the doorman later complained to him.

Steinbeck went straight to his hotel room and jumped in the bathtub with a whisky and soda. He really enjoyed sitting in bathtubs.

Steinbeck purred that the suite was "pure grandeur." He was pleased to find no formica, no plastic, no cheap ashtrays in the already old and prestigious St. Francis.

As for Elaine, who preferred well-staffed English country inns to the "do-it-yourself" style of the modern American motel, Steinbeck said: "My lady wife was very pleased."

Later today I'll visit the handsome St. Francis Hotel that so pleased the Traveling Steinbecks -- if they let a Walmart frequent-sleeper like me in the lobby.

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Me & My GPS

Sunday, 24 October 2010 01:04 PM Written by

MILL VALLEY, Ca. -- Daughter Michelle's House

Based on a couple of emails I've received, I may have given the impression that I am relying heavily on my GPS to guide me on this trip.

I'm not.DSC_2069_copy_copy

Following the Steinbeck Highway for 10,000 miles is as easy as following the signs of US 5, US 2, US 1, US 11, US 20, US 10, US 101 and US 66 (if you can still find Route 66's few remaining old signs).

 Most of the time my GPS has been turned off or on mute. But I don't know how many times I have rudely told my GPS Girl to shut up when she insists over and over that I make a right turn and get back on the interstate.

The GPS has been invaluable -- and worth its weight in silver -- when I am in a strange town like Bismarck or Seattle at the end of a long day and I'm looking for a Walmart Sunspot Inn or a motel I've booked through 

(The cheering and hooting you hear in the background is the local populace still celebrating the Giants victory over the Phils last night. Watching that great baseball game -- a game that meant so much to people here -- reminded me why I used to be a big fan of Major League Baseball.)

INTER-MEDIA CORRECTION: In my travel article about Montana in today's Post-Gazette, I referred twice to that beautiful state as "The Gem State." Everyone but me knows that Idaho is "The Gem State." Montana's nickname, of course, is "The Treasure State." 

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