No. 13: “Travels with Charley” by John Steinbeck
Travel Blog • Michael Yessis • 05.19.06 | 11:52 AM ET
To mark our five-year anniversary, we’re counting down the top 30 travel books of all time, adding a new title each day this month.
Territory covered: The United States
Some readers may question the inclusion of John Steinbeck’s best-known work of nonfiction, Travels with Charley, in our list of the top travel books. It is, after all, about a man driving across the United States in a camper named after Don Quixote’s horse in the company of a poodle named Charley. On the face of it, that doesn’t sound like a work to be taken seriously. But “Travels with Charley” is no Marley & Me. The dog, for the most part, remains in the background, and the Salinas, California-bred Steinbeck trains his Nobel Prize-winning eye—he was awarded the Literature Prize the same year “Charley” was released—on what he believed to be a decaying America. Beginning in Long Island, New York, Steinbeck rolls to the west and, eventually, into the south, sticking to backroads and reflecting on life, politics and the places and people he meets along the way. In lesser hands, such a book could turn into a rambling mess. But Steinbeck, one of America’s most treasured writers, holds it together. The result is a vivid snapshot of “this monster land” between two of its most significant and tragic events, World War II and the Vietnam War, as well as an engaging meditation on the power of travel.
Outtake from Travels with Charley:
I knew that ten or twelve thousand miles driving a truck, alone and unattended, over every kind of road, would be hard work, but to me it represented the antidote for the poison of the professional sick man. And in my own life I am not willing to trade quality for quantity. If this projected journey should prove too much then it was time to go anyway. I see too many men delay their exits wtih a sickly, slow reluctance to leave the stage. It’s bad theater as well as bad living. I am very fortunate in having a wife who likes being a woman, which means that she likes men, not elderly babies. Although this last foundation for the journey was never discussed, I am sure she understood it.
—Michael Yessis is a co-editor of World Hum.