Six Spots to Relive ‘Travels With Charley’
Lists: Fifty years ago John Steinbeck began the road trip that begat a travel classic. Robert Reid unearths the spots where you can still make like the author -- minus the poodle.
09.23.10 | 10:43 AM ET
Fifty years ago, John Steinbeck took his poodle and a camper and set off on, debatably, the most famous American roadtrip since Tocqueville’s 19th-century romp. Steinbeck was feeling out of touch with his country, so he went to “rediscover this monster land” on a four-month counter-clockwise loop.
In his resulting Travels with Charley—more a document for himself, he claimed—he wrote that he had “no conception” of what life would be like in 50 years. Yet looking back, his version of 1960 America isn’t far removed from the 2010 version as told by the current generation of travel writers. Steinbeck preaches of avoiding maps and interstates, over-exposure to TV, declining quality of American food, the benefits of getting lost (or being a vacilador—Spanish for wanderer with direction) and the crass commercialization of places like the Wisconsin Dells—or as he put it, “the litter of our time.”
Maybe he had a better idea of 2010 life than he realized.
Travel tempts us to follow the great ones who go before us, but it’s nearly impossible to literally retrace Steinbeck’s tire tread (this writer is trying). Much has changed, of course. And there’s the issue of Steinbeck’s spotty references to the roads he’s on, sometimes even the states he’s in.
But it’s still possible to find traces of Steinbeck’s trail. Here are the six best spots to relive one of the country’s travel literature classics.
1) Deer Isle Lobsters
While Steinbeck crossed New England, the region to which he devoted the most pages, locals would tell him, “of course you’ll stop at Deer Isle.” It wasn’t a question, and indeed Deer Isle’s rock-strewn shoreline in Maine was where he was headed.
Steinbeck stayed with friends at Dunham’s Point, but what struck him most were the area’s dark-shelled lobsters, which he described as “the best in the world.”
He may have picked them up at Stonington Lobster Co-op, open since the 1940s. You’ll still see the fishers with loads at the docks; tell them what you want, then pay up at the co-op. “Any time is the right time for one,” a co-op clerk told me. “Lobsters don’t keep time.”
2) Chicago’s Ambassador East
Steinbeck warmed to the “Middle West” immediately—where the people seemed like the earth itself, “generous and outgoing,” and asked how you liked your breakfast because they wanted to know. After a blur of industrial towns (Youngstown, Akron, Flint), he took a camper break in Chicago and checked into the swank Ambassador East. Maybe he picked it because the year before Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint used it as a hideaway in Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest.”
It’s been a Gold Coast staple since 1926—and it holds on to its past purposely, as tributed by photo-snapping visitors in the celeb-photo filled Pump Room bar, running since 1938.
Hardcore Steinbeck tourists should ask for an unmade room. Steinbeck’s was, and he poked about the evident clues of a tryst left by its previous occupants, a couple he dubbed “Harry and Lucille.” (The hotel historian doesn’t know which room. “If anyone would know, I would,” he said. “But I don’t.”)
3) Wisconsin’s Fictional Delicacies
Steinbeck couldn’t stand the commercialized Dells, but fell for the rest of Wisconsin, a pastoral scene he called “a gentleman’s countryside, neat and white-fenced.” He lamented not stopping after seeing a sign touting “Swiss Cheese Candy.” He wrote, “Now I can’t persuade anyone that it exists, that I did not make it up.”
He can’t convince me either. A rather snippy worker at Mousehouse Cheesehaus in Windsor—off the route he’d take between Madison and the Wisconsin Dells—told me by phone, “We have Swiss cheese and candy, but I’ve never heard of Swiss cheese candy. It doesn’t exist.”
Perhaps it was just a case of a missing comma? And the sign should have read “Swiss cheese, Candy”?
4) Alice, North Dakota
This tiny town 40 miles southwest of Fargo was the setting for one of the book’s most wonderful scenes, where Steinbeck bonded with a flamboyant traveling actor he met by the nearby Maple River (don’t expect to repeat this if you go). Probably no one else noticed him. In 1960, Alice’s population was just 124, down from 162 a decade earlier—the 2000 count had it at 56.
It should be 57, though, as that tally omits at least one honorary citizen—a certain Alice Cooper—who broke from his 2006 tour to receive a “key to the city” (watch this hilarious video to see Alice complain, “I thought they were giving me the whole town ... I was going to sell it to Bowie”).
The mayor of town, Dan Lund, works at NuTechSeed in the old school. He told me, “When Al is just being Al, he’s a real hoot to talk to.” I asked about their other famous visitor. “I can see why he stopped where he did,” he told me of Steinbeck’s drop-by. He guesses it was just west of town, where there was once a park and water tower—now just farmland and trees. “There was a beaver dam there too.”
Steinbeck commented on the town’s name. Lund told me it was part of the railway “ladies line,” connecting nearby towns like Kathryn and Marion. Its lone bar/grill closed last year, but there’s a good café and motel in Enderlin, 11 miles south.
5) Going Home Again: Salinas Valley
After spending a few rewarding days in the redwoods, Steinbeck returned to his “home” in Central California’s Salinas Valley and got grumpy with old friends in a bar on Alvarado Street in Monterey, California—still the peak of the city’s nightlife (the Mucky Duck is a busy pub there).
An old pal, Johnny Garcia, told him no matter that Tom Wolfe says, time would bring him home again: “This is your cradle ... this should be your grave.” Steinbeck stormed out to the streets and saw “nothing but strangers” (a mere four book pages before he boasted that he “found no strangers” on his whole trip). He skipped visiting his birthplace of Salinas and showed Charley the view from nearby Fremont Peak, a spot where he had once imagined being buried.
Garcia was right though. Steinbeck would return. After his death in 1968, Steinbeck’s ashes were interred at Salinas’ Garden of Memories Cemetery, a mile south of the National Steinbeck Center. You’re better off visiting here than the kitschy Cannery Row back in Monterey—a place that would have disgusted Steinbeck.
Charley, by the way, is buried outside the family’s former cottage in Salinas.
After debating Wolfe’s claim that you can’t go home again, Steinbeck was pretty clearly in a race to get back to his New York home. He zips the rest of his way: mentioning no southwestern state by name, (hilariously) whining about Texas, dwelling on southern racism (something that still weighs heavy in perhaps too many conversations on the region), and—most surprising to me—snubbing Oklahoma altogether.
You’d think the creator of the most famous Okie of the Dust Bowl era in “The Grapes of Wrath” (originally titled “The Oklahomans”) would be chomping at the bit to retrace Tom Joad’s trail from California back to the Sooner State. Steinbeck apparently had never visited Oklahoma before—evident in how he perfectly described a barren, dusty, flat western Oklahoma town for the novel’s starting point of Salisaw, which (inconveniently) is located in the state’s green, hillier east.
No, Oklahoma’s not in the book. But you can follow along pockets of surviving Route 66 and imagine Dust Bowl refugees going the other way. And perhaps that’s the biggest lesson of “2010 ‘Travels with Charley’” travels—to break off the author’s literal route, and rediscover a new Steinbeck’s America, or at least Salisaw, for yourself.