Travels with Charley in Search of America

I recently finished reading John Steinbeck’s travelogue, Travels with Charley in Search of America. I think I heard about it from my friend Alex. The recommendation was casual, however, and it happened quite awhile ago. Anyway, the book sounded interesting enough that I decided to buy it on Kindle. As a result, I’ve been slowly chipping away at it for at least a year now. Our family’s current isolation / quarantine situation has created some extra space for reading. Consequently, I was able to polish off the last third of the book in relatively short order.

I absolutely love John Steinbeck’s writing. And I absolutely love the idea of “The Great American Road Trip.” Unfortunately, somehow, I feel that the two of them didn’t blend together as well as I wish they would have.

As a novelist, Steinbeck has few peers. The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men are two of my favorite books of all time. Just within the last year, I even enjoyed a reading a book that’s widely considered to be one of Steinbeck’s lesser novels: The Moon Is Down. But one of the things that occurred to me as I read through Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley in Search of America is that none the other Steinbeck stuff I’ve enjoyed is non-fiction. Furthermore, none of it is directly self-referential, either. His voice is in his novels, for sure — and that comes through in this book, too — but not he, himself, as a real person. And as much as I admire John Steinbeck as an author, I’m not so sure I admire him as a person.

That sounds harsh, I know. But he just comes across as a bit arrogant and aloof. The way he talks about his marriage… his dog… the people he meets on the road… It just makes me think that he was somewhat unpleasant. And when a whole narrative depends upon a single human “character”” (fiction or non-fiction), the likability of that character is a pretty significant factor in one’s enjoyment of the narrative!

I’m pretty sure that some of my discomfort with Steinbeck as the central figure of the story comes from a sort of generation gap. He took his counter-clockwise trip around America in 1960. So there’s a strong Mid-Century Modernism to his perspective. He comes across like a swanky, swinging, Martini-sipping, New York cosmopolitan “slumming it” with the “common people” of the United States. Providing his wry, “enlightened,” philosophical commentary along the way. Mot an attractive look for him.

But I will say, even with the “unlikable character,” Steinbeck sure did know how to write. And while some of his ideals chafed, others resonated powerfully. Here’s a sampling of some quotes and reactions that I highlighted along the way:

I wanted a three-quarter-ton pick-up truck, capable of going anywhere under possibly rigorous conditions, and on this truck I wanted a little house built like the cabin of a small boat. A trailer is difficult to maneuver on mountain roads, is impossible and often illegal to park, and is subject to many restrictions.

This is exactly why I prefer the idea of a retrofitted van over a larger Recreational Vehicle (RV)! From the way that Steinbeck described his set-up, I felt very envious. He took his time, stopped regularly, and made a point of introspection. I felt a kinship with Steinbeck on these points. And some of his “pick-up cabin” reminded me a bit of the experience that I had with my brother Jay in Scotland two years ago.

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

I’ve learned this same principle in my years of ministry and missions! He’s absolutely onto something. I’ve come to appreciate the experience of getting lost as a biproduct of exploration. But it’s also really helpful for making connections with strangers — which makes exploration all the more educational and enjoyable.

The next passage in my journey is a love affair. I am in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection, but with Montana it is love, and it’s difficult to analyze love when you’re in it.

I am also in love with Montana. I’ve only been there once. And Lord willing, I’ll be passing through there again this summer. It’s a place that’s very hard to describe, but very real to experience. The Redwood forests of California are also like that, and Steinbeck describes that place equally vaguely, but equally well.

The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always. No one has ever successfully painted or photographed a redwood tree. The feeling they produce is not transferable. From them comes silence and awe.

I’m not entirely upset that I invested the money and time that I did invest in this book, but I don’t know that I ever want to return to it, either. Michael Jordan should have just stuck with basketball — instead of trying his hand at minor league baseball. Crossovers between music stars and movie stars are rarely successful. And in a similar vein, John Steinbeck would have been better off writing about a fictional character on a cross-continental adventure — instead of publishing his own personal travelogue. In any event, it is a book. And I have read it.

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