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“Travels with Charley” by John Steinbeck

Travels with Charley

Travels with Charley in Search of America, by John SteinbeckIn 1960, John Steinbeck set out to “find America” in a small, custom-made camper-truck that contained nearly all the comforts of home, including his faithful full-sized poodle, Charley. He meandered along nearly the entire perimeter of the country. As he made his way, he discussed what he saw with various strangers he met, and of course with Charley as well. Upon his return, Steinbeck gathered these conversations, and the events and private musings that filled the time between them, into a slim classic that he called “Travels with Charley: In Search of America.”

Travels with Charley packs a lot into its small package. It is at times hilarious, loaded with the wry wit of one of our best writers. Turn the page and it becomes a first-hand history, a snapshot of a troubled time when white mobs protested the forced integration of Southern schools and Nikita Kruschev at the U.N. used his shoe to hammer home the imminent threat of nuclear war. Another page, and the book has turned to anthropology, exploring the lives of migrant Quebecois farm workers, the carefully faded blue jeans of wealthy Texans, or the homogenizing impact of the shiny new interstate highway system.

A restored Rocinante at the Steinbeck MuseumSuch tangents aside, though, Travels with Charley is pure travel writing, a journal from an extraordinary trip. Steinbeck mulls over the nature of wanderlust and waxes poetic about the places and people that most affected him. At first, a 6000-mile-plus trip in what was essentially a small RV might not seem much like the kind of travel we at ExperiencePlus! try to practice.  After all, what could be less alike than an RV and a bicycle?

But as I read, Steinbeck’s philosophy of travel seemed familiar to me.  He bemoans the interstate highway’s emphasis on getting there at the expense of enjoying the journey:

    "When we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing."

I found other points of agreement as well. One of our favorite customer stories is the one about the woman who emptied her bottles before knocking on the door of an Italian farmhouse to ask for water.  That way, she’d have an excuse to talk to the family who lived there.  Like her, Steinbeck’s not above a little subterfuge in the service of making contact with the locals.  There’s Charley the dog, who was brought along at least partly as a conversational icebreaker. Or, failing that, one can always feign helplessness:

    "The techniques of opening a conversation are universal. I knew long ago and rediscovered that the best way to attract attention, help, and conversation is to be lost."

These are just a couple examples; throughout the book, I found myself nodding in agreement despite the differences in our preferred modes of transport.

So Steinbeck’s travels may have been conceived as a search for America, but the book that resulted is about more than just what he found on that one trip.  It’s a document on travel by a very widely traveled and talented writer.  The lessons he has for us – slow down, talk to the people, take time to feel the way life is lived in the places you visit – echo in my memories of the best trips I’ve been on.  It’s an approach you’ll see on our tours, where we do our best to let you set your own pace and make a real connection with the culture you’re passing through.

At the heart of it all, I think the book resonates so much with me because it taps into the reason we are fascinated with travel: when done right, a journey is full of surprises, friendships and new perspectives, powerful enough to serve as mileposts in our memories of our lives.  As he puts it at the very outset:

"We find after years of struggle that we don’t take a trip; a trip takes us."

Reading about such a journey will leave you raring to set out on a trip of  your own at the earliest opportunity.  So if you haven’t read Travels with Charley before, you should.  It may not be as transformative as a thousand-mile journey, but it might just be the proverbial first step.