Steinbeck Takes a Trip

A friend in Texas reminded me of when John Steinbeck (1902-1968) traveled the state in 1960. He made a big loop: from the capital in the central Hill Country, north to Amarillo, east to wonderful Caddo Lake, and back to Austin. It was part of a longer journey the 58-year-old that Steinbeck made to re-acquaint himself with the country he said he was too busy writing about to remember what it really looked like.

I suspect in the early ’60s, Steinbeck’s alienation felt a bit like many of us do today – tired of Covid confusion; losing touch with the feel of the United States; restless to move around and explore a country again that is almost an American birthright.

For his 10,000-mile trip, Steinbeck used an early version of something we might recognize today as a kind of modern Conestoga wagon – certainly a typically American vehicle. Steinbeck bought a pickup, customized it with a camper top; and bingo (!) he had a mobile home that he could enjoy – an “RV” – which, by the way, he nicknamed “Rosinante” after Don Quixote’s noble steed. And fancying himself like Cervantes’ knight errant, Steinbeck set off from his home in Sag Harbor, New York with the companionship not of his wife, Elaine, but of his wife’s poodle, a standard named Charley.

These adventures were published as a bestseller entitled Travels with Charley: In Search of America in October 1962, the same year Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Among his thirty books or so, Travels stands alone for what it is: a reflection by a master novelist – likely equal parts fiction and non. It is, by nature, broad in its geography, a chronicle of observations of the American landscape at a time Eisenhower’s Interstates are spreading out across the nation, making travel by oneself, with family, or with a dog faster and easier than ever before. Steinbeck visits diners, National Parks and Monuments, gas stations of various types, farms, antique (“junk”) shops, big cities, and all manner of towns, including his California boyhood home in the Salinas Valley, the setting of some of his greatest writings.

Through it all, he comments – on consumerism, on racial segregation, on what he sees as an American disdain for hard work, on people trading traditional values of hearth and home for empty entertainments, and on industrial growth and technological progress causing environmental destruction. In the end, Steinbeck found a national identity of searchers, of wanderers that transcended everything else, though he admits – as a wanderer himself – that he is a bit lost within his own unrecognizable country.

Steinbeck as a flummoxed wanderer in a humble RV recalls the iconic motorcycles of Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider, with its memorable tag line: “A man went looking for America, and he couldn’t find it anywhere.”

Or a photographer like the excellent William Eggleston who traveled the country from 1965 to 1974 and published his striking color photos of everyday America in his “Los Alamos” collection.

The details of Steinbeck’s Travels or the examples of movies or photographers are less important than the general idea of moving, touring, discovering, pondering, and exploring within the human story; and connects the 1960s to the events of today – which is the job at this column.

Steinbeck’s case came after a glittering literary career, with Tortilla Flat (1935), Of Mice and Men (1937), The Grapes of Wrath (1939), Cannery Row (1945) and East of Eden (1952) behind him. In 1960, he had eight years to live; and according to his oldest son, Thom, his dad was depressed, sick, – indeed sensed he was dying of heart disease. He wanted to see his country one last time.

Whether with a camera, on foot, by car, motorcycle, truck, with a notebook, or even by ship, the will to travel appears almost an instinct, certainly part of the human condition . . . throughout history and time.

People hit the road all the time for reasons as varied as the people themselves. Most do so anonymously. There are enough though who leave behind records in written form for later generations to find. They stand as proof and a testimony to a freedom to move that existed in the world at the time he traveler explored. I list sixty examples below (out of many many more!), beginning with several close to this Project.


V.S. Pritchett, London Perceived (1962)
John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley (1962, across America)
Peter S. Beagle, I See By My Outfit (1965, across America)
V.S. Naipaul, An Area of Darkness (1965, Travelogue of India)
Eric Newby, Slowly Down the Ganges (1966, Guess where!!!)
John McPhee, The Pine Barrens (1968, New York)
Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968, across America with Merry Pranksters)
Edward Hoagland, Notes from a Century Before (1969, British Columbia)
Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1972)
Geoffrey Moorhouse, The Fearful Void (1972, Sahara)
Paul Theroux, The Great Railway Bazaar (1975, Across Asia)


Herodotus, The Histories (440 BC, wider Greece, the Middle East)
Pausanias, Description of Greece (2nd c.)
Marco Polo, Travels (1295, Central Asia, China)
Mandeville, The Travels of Sir John Mandeville (1355, Egypt & Holy Land)
Richard Hakluyt, Voyages (1589, Atlantic World)
Matsuo Basho, The Narrow Road to the Deep North (1694, Japan)
Samuel Johnson, A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775)
Captain James Cook, Diaries (1784)
James Boswell, Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1786)
Wolfgang von Goethe, Italian Journey (1816)
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835)
Charles Dickens, American Notes for General Circulation (1842)
A.W. Kinglake, Eothen: Traces Brought Home From the East (1844, Syria, Egypt, Palestine)
Florence Nightingale, Letters from Egypt: Journey on the Nile (1854)
Howard Hopley, Under Egyptian Palms, or Three Bachelors’ Journeyings on the Nile (1869)
Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad (1869, Americans in Europe & Holy Land)
Robert Louis Stevenson, Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes (1879)
Fridtjof Nansen, Farthest North: the Voyage & Exploration of the Fram (1898)
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (1899)
Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome (1902)
Winston S. Churchill, My African Journey (1908)
Norman Douglas, Siren Land (1911, Italy)
John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra (1911)
D.H. Lawrence, Twilight in Italy (1916); Sea and Sardinia (1921)
Wilifred Thesiger, Arabian Nights (1919)
Peter Fleming, News from Tartary (1936, Peking to Kashmir)
Beryl Markham, West with the Night (1942)
Rebecca West, Black Lambs and Grey Falcons (1942, pre-war Yugoslavia)
Truman Capote, The Muses are Heard (1956, travel in Soviet Union)
Freya Stark, The Lycian Shore (1956, Asia Minor)
Gontran De Poncins, From a Chinese City (1957, Saigon)
John Kerowac, On the Road (1957, America)
Eric Newby, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush (1958)


Bruce Chatwin, In Patagonia (1977)
Jonathan Raban, Old Glory (1981, America by rivers)
William Least Heat-Moon, Blue Highways (1982, America’s backroads)
Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams (1986)
Ian Frazier, Great Plains (1989, Heartland America)
Paul Theroux, Sandstorms: Days and Nights in Arabia (1990)
P.F. Kluge, The Edge of Paradise (1991, Micronesia)
Alexander Fraser, Chasing the Monsoon (1993, India)
W. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn (1998, eastern England)
Bill Bryson, In a Sunburned Country (2000, Australia)
Tom Bissell, Chasing the Sea (2003, post-Soviet Central Asia/Aral Sea)
Paul Theroux, Dark Star Safari (2003, Cape to Cairo)
Rory Stewart, The Places In Between (2006, Afghanistan)
Ilija Trojanov, Along the Ganges (2006)
Elizabeth Gilbert, East, Pray, Love (2007, Italy-India-Bali)
Rosemary Mahoney, Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff (2007)
Cheryl Strayed, Wild (2012, Pacific coast)
Niall Williams, This is Happiness (2019, Ireland)

All these repay the reader for the reading.


For Americans, these accounts seem to make ACTUAL the ideas of freedom enshrined in our founding documents and in our history as a people – ideas that still remain exceptional, fragile, and all-too-rare among nations.

And as we come to the second year of Covid confusion in 2022, we hear so much displeasure for the unnatural state of affairs in this country and the world. Steinbeck’s case of personal restlessness and depression was singular to himself. It is interesting, however, that he sought to remedy these complaints with “getting out” “getting away” “looking around” “connecting with people.” By the ton of travel literature produced, it seems Steinbeck was tapping into a deep urge of mankind that is incompatible with mandates, lockdowns, and restrictions; that whatever risks come from movement and interactions with people, they are more than offset by the good effects of those very same connections, and of experiencing the thrill of discovering, looking around, and simply . . . living.

May be this incompatibility with restricted living is what those thousands of defiant truckers in Canada is all about. After all, they know what moving is. They do it for a living. Oh, yes, their efforts fill store shelves.  They beguile us, though, because they represent that long-standing human urge to freedom that is exceptional, fragile, and rare – I’d say.

It’s interesting to see how a trip by a (pretty well-known) guy taking a trip with his (third) wife’s standard poodle can connect us to the 1960s, and lead to talk about some pretty important stuff.

I think Steinbeck would cheer that RV sales are up in the United States. Time for us all to take a trip with the Charley of our choice !

Until next month,

January 17-30, 2022

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