Sixty years ago this 2020 autumn, American author John Steinbeck took a cross-country trip with his French poodle, Charley. Outfitting a small truck with a cabin/camper on top, Steinbeck left Sag Harbor, Long Island, and made his way across the U.S. to the West Coast, eventually ending up back in New York City 11 weeks later. This road odyssey Steinbeck describes in his memoir Travels with Charley: In Search of America.
Initially, I first read Steinbeck’s memoir in the late 1990s. It made me want to duplicate at that time, nearly 40 years later, a similar road trip.
The United States in 1960 was more modernized than ever before and Steinbeck, at age 58, was able to document how life in America had changed from the America he remembered growing up. In some ways, however, he was very much of product of that era of the late 1950s/early 1960s as he marveled at such things as the emergence of mobile homes and trailer parks, believing these were the wave of the future for “restless” Americans. In other instances, Steinbeck documents what has continued to be a problem in many cities where traffic and too many cars clog the streets.
While much of the book is Steinbeck’s own observations, he would sometimes stop at diners and luncheonettes, sharing conversations with other customers, asking about their background and eliciting their opinions. In other instances, he would park his truck/camper along the side of a road or in a clearing and meet people who were similarly on the road.
It is October 2020, and I’ve just now finished re-reading at this 60-year mark Travels with Charley: In Search of America. It’s also a Presidential election time and very different than what Steinbeck encountered in 1960 where people did not often talk or share their opinions about either of the then candidates, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Sadly, however, with other societal concerns, what I’ve found is that in autumn 1960 unresolved racial issues were also foremost in many people’s minds, similar to the situation in the U.S. all these years later.
Earlier in 2020, during this 60-year anniversary, a teacher/author/playwright named Bryan Starchman, living and working in northern California, decided to take a cross- country trip in the spirit of John Steinbeck’s 1960 road excursion. Starchman, after procuring a 6 month leave of absence from his job, planned to travel to 50 states in 120 days. With the blessing of the National Steinbeck Center (a museum and non-profit organization located John Steinbeck’s hometown of Salinas, CA), Starchman, also, created a blog of his travels that can be accessed on the National Steinbeck Center website.
To find out about Bryan Starchman’s plans, where he traveled and how Covid-19 affected his goal to see America, here is a link: https://www.steinbeck.org/2019/09/18/travelblog/