“Travels with Charley” by John Steinbeck”
(First publication: 1962 / This Edition: Penguin Books, Steinbeck Centennial Edition 2012)
Taken during my rare precious solo lunch breaks at good ol’ trusty Starbucks at work
Life could not change the sun or water the desert, so it changed itself.
……………….. I can’t even.
I should just end the post right there.
I thought “East of Eden” is the ultimate and nothing in the world can trump it…but then this one literally surprised me and slapped me in the face saying “THIS IS IT. THIS IS THE ULTIMATE. YOU DON’T NEED TO READ ANYMORE BOOKS.” This is the last book in the Steinbeck Centennial Collection and I kept it off for last because I hadn’t heard of it until I heard of this collection, and it just seemed to be more low-profile that the others. My expectations were low, and I wasn’t too enthusiastic about reading it.
It’s definitely my #1 favorite Steinbeck (favorite of the favorites), and leading by far actually—even though I lovelovelove “East of Eden” so much too. This one’s a memoir/diary type of writing—about Steinbeck’s road trip with his dog, Charley, across America. His mission was to learn and actually get to know America. It’s a travelogue, and I find that vibe more fun and interesting than just a “memoir/diary”.
I guess what makes it so special is that since he’s writing about himself and his own travels, it’s like you are having a conversation directly with him and you get to peruse his thoughts, literally. He’s now my #1 favorite author (sorry, Milan Kundera—I guess it’s like a process of elimination type of thing) and if I could have a dinner or something with anyone in history, I’d choose him. I love his thoughts and ideas, his opinions of humanity and the world, his love for his dog and family, his ambition in life. I love reading about his encounters with people and obstacles and adventures along the road.
Here are some events that particularly stood out to me:
- He drove to see the redwoods in southern Oregon, and was excited to show Charley the “monuments” (the redwoods) and even kept Charley in the back of their van to “surprise” him to full effect. He believed that Charley, as a dog, would be truly mind-blown to see, for the first time in his life, the grandest of the grandest trees he’d ever encounter in his life (and he had had already been to so many places and seen so many trees). However, when Steinbeck finally let Charley out of the van and waited excitedly to see Charley’s reaction upon encountering his first redwood… turns out Charley was ignorant and didn’t see what the “excitement” was about—he couldn’t tilt his head back enough to see how monumental the tree is. It’s just such a cute and warm story—makes me feel all cozy, haha 🙂 And as I read, I fell in love with Charley—he’s the most charming, caring, clever, and human-like dog ever.
- Racism is an issue that Steinbeck brings up. He had to encounter some scenes where racism was celebrated and he passionately expressed how he finds it ridiculous and stupid. He compared it to Charley, in such a humorous—but cute—way:
Once Charley fell in love with a dachshund, a romance racially unsuitable, physically ridiculous, and mechanically impossible. But all these problems Charley ignored. He loved deeply and tried dogfully. (pg.203)
- During one evening, camping, he met a Canuck family. He invited them for dinner inside his van. They had a lovely time, talking about their lives and backgrounds, and getting to know each other—as much as strangers that get to spend one evening bonding with each other can. He wrote about the incident: There are times that one treasures for all one’s life, and such times are burned clearly and sharply on the material of total recall. I felt very fortunate that morning. (pg.55) What I love most about Steinbeck is his love for humanity and the connections and relationships between people—the kindness, the warm hearts, and the memorable time and space people share with each other. Those two lines really struck with me and made me put down my latte mid-sip to reflect, smile, and think about a very special person in my life.
- I saw in their eyes something I was to see over and over in every part of the nation—a burning desire to go, to move, to get under way, anyplace, away from Here. They spoke quietly of how they wanted to go someday, to move about, free and unanchored, not toward something but away from something. I saw this look and heard this yearning everywhere in every state I visited. Nearly every American hungers to move. (pg.9)
Along the road, he met many people who was envious of him because they wanted to get out of their towns and explore the world too. They want to travel and they just want to go—and it doesn’t matter where they go. Some even begged him to let them go with him. One boy would come often to just spend time inside the van—even just laying on the floor, inspecting everything, before asking if he could go too. Another one was more clear on his ambitions:
“You really from New York?”
“I want to go there sometimes.”
“Everybody there wants to come out here.”
“What for? There’s nothing here. You can just rot here.”
“If it’s rotting you want, you can do it any place.” (pg.131)
Turns out this boy was studying to be a hairdresser and his pops was so against it—until Steinbeck reasoned with him, in such a witty way, about why being a male hairdresser is such an important, powerful, and respected job. I found it so interesting when he encounters people that just want to leave and have that desperation to go somewhere else, but they feel that they are trapped.
I guess another factor that makes me feel so emotional and attached to this story is because I miss America so much—I lived there for only a year back when I was 11-12, and before our family moved back to Thailand, we did a road trip from Florida across the southern states to California and up to see the redwoods. We rented an RV van, and I guess reading Steinbeck’s journey across America made me reminisce about my experiences, even though he did it back in the 60’s. Also, side note, he was talking about how the Maine lobsters were so amazing and you just have to have them right there, on the spot, because even if they’re flown to anywhere else, they just lose…some of the amazing-ness or something. It just makes me want to tell the many restaurants I see now bragging and promoting about how their Maine lobsters are “so fresh” and “the best” and “brand new menu” and “hot menu!”, when the hype was already on 50+ years ago, too. (Rant, rant.)
This is such a great read, and I will treasure this story forever. I feel like reading this, you really get to know Steinbeck. Oh, by the way, you also get to see hints here and there about inspirations or references for his earlier fictional works—he talks now and then about his past experiences, like a Chinese caretaker named Lee, canneries in Monterey, life in the Salinas, etc. It’s just a truly special book, and I would highly recommend it for all Steinbeck fans. I think you should read it after you’ve read a few of his more famous fictional works first—I guess that would be the other five books in this Steinbeck Centennial Edition: “East of Eden”, “Of Mice and Men”, “Cannery Row”, “The Grapes of Wrath”, and “The Pearl”.
Here are some of my favorite lines from the book. There are SO MANY.
When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured that greater age would clam my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked. Four hoarse blasts of a ship’s whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping. The sound of a jet, an engine warming up, even the clopping of shod hooves on pavement brings on the ancient shudder, the dry mouth an vacant eye, the hot palms and the churn of stomach high up under the rib cage. In other words, I don’t improve; in other words, once a bum always a bum. I fear the disease is incurable. I set this matter down not to instruct others but to inform myself. (pg.3)
A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. (pg.3)
We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. (pg.3)
In this a journey is like a marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it. I feel better now, having said this, although only those who have experience it will understand it. (pg.4)
And it has been my experience that when people have heard of you, favorably or not, they change; they become, through shyness or the other quality that publicity inspires, something they are not under ordinary circumstances. (pg.5)
I suppose our capacity for self-delusion is boundless. (pg.10)
For weeks I had studied maps, large-scale and small, but maps are not reality at all—they can be tyrants. I know people who are so immersed in road maps that they never see the countryside they pass through, and others who, having traced a route, are held to it as though they by flanged wheels to rails. (pg.20)
It is my experience that in some areas Charley is more intelligent that I am, but in others he is abysmally ignorant. He can’t read, can’t drive a car, and has no grasp of mathematics. But in his own field of endeavor, which he was now practicing, the slow, imperial smelling over and anointing of an area, he has no peer. OF course his horizons are limited, but how wide are mine. (pg.21)
She wasn’t happy, but then she wasn’t unhappy. She wasn’t anything. But I don’t believe anything is a nothing. There has to be something inside, if only to keep the skin from collapsing. This vacant eye, listless hand, this damask cheek dusted like a doughnut with plastic powder, had to have a memory or a dream. (pg.37)
Strange how one person can saturate a room with vitality, with excitement. Then there are others, and this dame was one of them, who can drain off energy and joy, and can suck pleasure dry and get no sustenance from it. Such people spread a grayness is the air about them. I’d been driving a long time, and perhaps my energy was low and my resistance was down. She got me. I felt so blue and miserable I wanted to crawl into a plastic cover and die. What a date she must be, what a lover! I tried to imagine that last and couldn’t. For a moment I considered giving her a five-dollar tip, but I knew what would happen. She wouldn’t be glad. She’d just think I was crazy. (pg.37-38)
A sad soul can kill you quicker, far quicker, than a germ. (pg.38)
In Spanish there is a word for which I can’t find a counter-word in English. It is the verb vacilar, present participle vacilando. It does not mean vacillating at all. If one is vacilando, he is going somewhere but doesn’t greatly care whether or not he gets there, although he has direction. (pg.50)
It seemed to give the journey a design, and everything in the world must have design or the human mind rejects it. But in addition it must have purpose or the human conscience shies away from it. (pg.50)
It is very strange that when you set a goal for yourself, it is hard not to hold toward it even if it is inconvenient and not even desirable. (pg.58)
I feel that there are too many realities. What I set down here is true until someone else passes that way and rearranges the world in his own style. (pg.60)
It is the nature of a man as he grows older, a small bridge in time, to protest against change, particularly change for the better. […] Perhaps my greatest wisdom is the knowledge that I do not know. The sad ones are those who waste their energy in trying to hold it back for they can only feel bitter in loss and no joy in gain, (pg.83)
To my certain knowledge, many people conceal experiences for fear of ridicule. How many people have seen or heard or felt something which so outraged their sense of what should be that the whole thing was brushed quickly away like dirt under a rug? (pg.117)
[…] and it’s difficult to analyze love when you’re in it. (pg. 121)
I printed it once more on my eyes, south, west, and north, and then we hurried away from the permanent and changeless past where my mother is always shooting a wildcat and my father is always burning his name with love. (pg.158)
The place of my origin had change and having gone away I had no changed with it. In my memory it stood as it once did and its outward appearance confused and angered me.
What I am about to tell must be the experience of very many in this nation where so many wander and come back. I called on old and valued friends. I thought their hair had receded a little more than mine. The greetings were enthusiastic. The memories flooded up. Old crimes and old triumphs were brought out and dusted. And suddenly my attention wandered and looking at my ancient friend, I saw that his wandered also. And it was true what I had said to Johnny Garcia—I was the ghost. My town had grown and changed and my friend along with it. Now returning, as changed to my friend as my town was to me, I distorted his picture, muddied his memory. When I went away I had died, and so became fixed and unchangeable. My return caused only confusion and uneasiness. Although they could not say it, my old friends wanted me gone so that I could take my proper place in the pattern of remembrance—and I wanted to go for the same reason. Tom Wolfe was right. You can’t go home again because home has ceased to exist except in the motherballs of memory. (pg.156)
There’s absolutely nothing to take the place of a good man. (pg.179)
I speculated with a kind of wonder on this strength of the individuality of journeys and stopped on the postulate that people don’t take trips—trips take people. That discussion, however, did not go into the life space of journeys. This seems to be variable and unpredictable. Who has no known a journey to be over and dead before the traveler returns? The reverse is also true: many a trip continues long after movement in time and space have ceased. I remember a man in Salinas who in his middle years traveled to Honolulu an back, and that journey continued for the rest of his life. We could watch him in his rocking chair on his front porch, his eyes squinted, half-closed, endlessly traveling to Honolulu. (pg.208)