This is the first book I re-read in preparation for this trip. I first read it when I was about 13 and it provided me with one of my first real understandings of my whole nation. Plus I loved the idea of just piling in a truck (especially one with a camper) and taking off. Still do. (But I never liked poodles.)
John Steinbeck with Charley
A very nice Steinbeck links site, including passages from Travels With Charley, reviews of it from the Atlantic Monthly, including a section called "The Links of Wrath". Grapes of Wrath is usually considered his greatest work, but my favorite is East of Eden.
You may think I copied the whole book, but I kept finding lines that I felt applied right to me and to this trip. I didn't note chapters, but these are all chronological.
Travels With Charley in Search of America, The Viking Press, New York, 1962
We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. ...The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.
...to try to rediscover this monster land.
...two or more people disturb the ecological complex of an area. I had to go alone and I had to be self-contained, a kind of casual turtle carrying his house on his back.
...and because my planned trip had aroused some satiric remarks among my friends, I named it (my camper) Rocinante, which you will remember was the name of Don Quixote's horse.
There was some genuine worry about my traveling alone, open to attack, robbery, assault. It is well known that our roads are dangerous.
...The best way to attract attention, help, and conversation is to be lost. A man who seeing his mother starving to death on a path kicks her in the stomach to clear the way, will cheerfully devote several hours of his time to giving wrong directions to a total stranger who claims to be lost.
On neighbors looking over his camper: 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 any here... nearly every American hungers to move.
In long-range planning for a trip, I think there is a private conviction that it won't happen.
As the day approached, my warm bed and comfortable house grew increasingly desirable and my dear wife incalculably precious. To give these up for three months for the terrors of the uncomfortable and unknown seemed crazy.
On growing old and ╬slowing down': My wife married a man; I saw no reason why she should inherit a baby. ...I am very fortunate in having a wife who likes being a woman, which means that she likes men, not elderly babies. Although this last foundation for the trip was never discussed, I am sure she understood it.
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 calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked.
Nobody knows. What good's an opinion if you don't know? My grandfather knew the number of whiskers in the Almighty's beard. I don't even know what happened yesterday, let alone tomorrow.
...man has to have feelings and then words before he can come close to thought and, in the past at least, that has taken a long time.
For how can one know color in perpetual green, and what good is warmth without cold to give it sweetness?
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, can suck pleasure dry and get no sustenance from it. Such people spread a grayness in the air about them.
I succumbed utterly to my desolation, made two peanut-butter sandwiches and went to bed and wrote long letters home, passing my loneliness around.... I thought how terrible the nights must have been in a time when men knew the things were there and were deadly. But no, that's wrong. If I knew they were there, I would have weapons against them, charms, prayers, some kind of alliance with forces equally strong but on my side. Knowing they were not there made me defenseless against them and perhaps more afraid.
I wanted to go to the rooftree of Maine to start my trip before turning west. 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.
I was downwind from the camp and the odor
of their soup drifted to me. These people might have been murderers, sadists,
brutes, ugly apish subhumans for all I knew, but I found myself thinking,
"What charming people, what flair, how beautiful they are. How I wish I
knew them." And all based on the delicious smell of soup.
On such a trip as mine, so much there is to see and to think about that event and thought set down as they occurred would roil and stir like a slow-cooking minestrone. There are map people whose joy is to lavish more attention on the sheets of colored paper than on the colored land rolling by. ...It is not so with me. I was born lost and take no pleasure in being found, nor much identification from shapes which symbolize continents and states.
Our treasured and nostalgic picture of the village store, the cracker-barrel store where an informed yeomanry gather to express opinion and formulate the national character, is rapidly disappearing. ...The new American finds his challenge and his love in traffic-choked streets, skies nested in smog, choking with the acids of industry, the screech of rubber and houses leashed in against one another while the townlets wither a time and die.
I wanted a bath and a new bed and drink and little human commerce, and I thought to find it on the Connecticut River.
On the long journey doubts were often my companions. I've always admired those reporters who can descend on an area, talk to key people, ask key questions, take samplings of opinions, and then set down an orderly report very like a road map. I envy this technique and at the same time do not trust it as a mirror of reality. 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. ...For this reason I cannot commend this account as an America that you will find. So much there is to see, but our morning eyes describe a different world than do our afternoon eyes, and surely our wearied evening eyes can report only a weary evening world.
I am an avid reader of all signs, and I find that in the historical markers the prose of statehood reaches its glorious best, and most lyric. I have further established, at least to my own satisfaction, that those states with the shortest histories and the least world-shaking events have the most historical markers.
I find out of long experience that I admire all nations and hate all governments,... It is always the rule, the fine print, carried out by fine-print men. There's nothing to fight, no wall to hammer with frustrated fists.
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. ...
It is life at a peak of some kind of civilization. The restaurant accommodations, great scallops of counters with simulated leather stools, are as spotless as and not unlike the lavatories. Everything that can be captured and held down is sealed in clear plastic. The food is oven-fresh, spotless and tasteless; untouched by human hands. I remembered with an ache certain dishes in France and Italy touched by innumerable human hands.
Could it be that Americans are a restless people, a mobile people, never satisfied with where they are as a matter of selection? The pioneers, the immigrants who people the continent, were the restless ones in Europe. The steady rooted ones stayed home and are still there.
One of my purposes was to listen, to hear speech, accent, speech rhythms, overtones and emphasis. For speech is so much more than words and sentences. I did listen everywhere. It seemed to me that regional speech is in the process of disappearing, not gone but going. Forty years of radio and twenty years of television must have this impact. Communications must destroy localness, by a slow, inevitable process. ...with local accent will disappear local tempo. The idioms, the figures of speech that make language rich and full of poetry of place and time must go. And in their place will be a national speech, wrapped and packaged, standard and tasteless.
It was established that my wife was to fly out to meet me in Chicago for a short break in my journey. In two hours, in theory at least, she would slice through a segment of the earth it had taken me weeks to clamber over.
If there had been room in Rocinante I would have packed the W.P.A. Guides to the States, all forty-eight volumes of them.
I came out on this trip to try to learn something
of America. Am I learning anything? If I am, I don't know what it is.
...in the eating places along the roads the food has been clean, tasteless, colorless, and of a complete sameness. It is almost as though the customers had no interest in what they ate so long as it had no character to embarrass them. ...A freshly laid egg does not taste remotely like the pale, battery-produced refrigerated egg. The sausage would be sweet and sharp and pungent with spices, and my coffee a wine-dark happiness. Can I then say that the America I saw has put cleanliness first, at the expense of taste?...
We've listened to local radio all across the country. And apart from a few reportings of football games, the mental fare has been as generalized, as packaged, and as undistinguished as the food.
I had been keen to hear what people thought politically. Those whom I had met did not talk about the subject, didn't seem to want to talk about it. It seemed to me partly caution and partly a lack of interest, but strong opinions were just not stated.
"Maybe everybody needs Russians. I'll bet even in Russia they need Russians. Maybe they call it Americans."
Someone must have told me about the Missouri River at Bismarck, North Dakota, or I must have read about it. In either case, I hadn't paid attention. I came on it in amazement. Here is where the map should fold. Here is the boundary between east and west. On the Bismarck side it is eastern landscape, eastern grass, with the look and smell of eastern America. Across the Missouri on the Mandan side, it is pure west, with brown grass and water scorings and small outcrops. The two sides of the river might well be a thousand miles apart.
People (in the small towns of Montana) had
time to pause in their occupations to undertake the passing art of neighborliness.
I found I did not rush through the towns to get them over with.
...it is my opinion that we enclose and celebrate the freaks of our nation and of our civilization. Yellowstone National Park is no more representative of America than is Disneyland.
I remember as a child reading or hearing the words "The Great Divide" and being stunned by the glorious sound, a proper sound for the granite backbone of a continent.
He said bitterly, "If anywhere in your travels you come on a man with guts, mark the place. I want to go to see him. I haven't seen anything but cowardice and expediency. This used to be a nation of giants. Where have they gone? You can't defend a nation with a board of directors. That takes men. Where are they?"
"There used to be a thing or a commodity
we put great store by. It was called the People. Find out where the People
have gone. I don't mean the square-eyed toothpaste-and-hair-dye people
or the new-car-or-bust people, or the success-and-coronary people. Maybe
they never existed, but if there ever were the People, that's the commodity
the Declaration was talking about, and Mr. Lincoln. ... Wouldn't it be
silly if the Constitution had been talking about a young man whose life
centers around a whistle, a wink, and Wildroot?"
I remember retorting, "Maybe the People are always those who used to live the generation before last."
The actual time on the way from Chicago was short, but the overwhelming size and variety of the land, the many incidents and people along the way, had stretched time out of all bearing.
The Pacific is my home ocean; I knew it first, grew up on its shore, collected marine animals along the coast. I know its moods, its color, its nature.
(about Seattle): The tops of hills are shaved off to make level warrens for the rabbits of the present. The highways eight lanes wide cut like glaciers through the uneasy land.... Everywhere frantic growth, a carcinomatous growth. Bulldozers rolled up the green forests and heaped the resulting trash for burning. The torn white lumber from concrete forms was piled beside gray walls. I wonder why progress looks so much like destruction.
When I drew into one of these gems of comfort and convenience, registered, and was shown to my comfortable room after paying in advance, of course, that was the end of any contact with the management. There were no waiters, no bell boys. The chambermaids crept in and out invisibly. If I wanted ice, there was a machine near the office. I got my own ice, my own papers. Everything was convenient, centrally located, and lonesome. I lived in the utmost luxury. Other guests came and went silently. If one confronted them with "Good evening," they looked a little confused and then responded, "Good evening." It seemed to me that they looked at me for a place to insert a coin.
And that ancient law went into effect which says that when you need towns they are very far apart.
The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or
create a vision that stays with you always. No one has successfully painted
or photographed a redwood tree. The feeling they produce is not transferable.
From them comes silence and awe.... Respect - that's the word. One feels
the need to bow to unquestioned sovereigns....
Of course, many of the ancient groves have been lumbered off...
Fossils of these ancients have been found dating from the Cretaceous era while in the Eocene and Miocene they were spread over England and Europe and America. And then the glaciers moved down and wiped the Titans out beyond recovery. And only these few are left - a stunning memory of what the world was like once long ago. Can it be that we do not love to be reminded that we are very young and callow in a world that was old when we came into it?
(on California): We who were born here and our parents also felt a strange superiority over newcomers, barbarians, forestieri, and they, the foreigners, resented us and even made a rude poem about us:
The miner came in forty-nine
We have overcome all enemies but ourselves. (paraphrased later by WaltKelly'sPogo)
(on San Francisco): When I was a child
growing up in Salinas we called San Francisco "the City." ...A strange
and exclusive word is "city." Besides San Francisco, only small sections
of London and Rome stay in the mind as the City.
...The afternoon sun painted her white and gold - rising on her hills like a noble city in a happy dream. A city on hills has it over flat-land places. ...this gold and white acropolis rising wave on wave against the blue of the Pacific sky was a stunning thing, a painted thing like a picture of a medieval Italian city which can never have existed.
...Then I crossed the great arch hung from filaments and I was in the city I knew so well.
The place of my origin had changed, and having gone away I had not changed with it. In my memory it stood as it once did and its outward appearance confused and angered me. ...Tom Wolfe was right. You can't go home again because home has ceased to exist except in the mothballs of memory.
I discovered long ago that what I found was
closely intermeshed with how I felt at the moment. External reality has
a way of being not so external after all.
This monster of a land, this mightiest of nations, this spawn of the future, turns out to be the macrocosm of microcosm me. If an Englishman or a Frenchman or an Italian should travel my route, see what I saw, hear what I heard, their stored pictures would be not only different from mine but equally different from one another.
If I were to prepare one immaculately inspected generality it would be this: For all of our enormous geographic range, for all of our sectionalism, for all of our interwoven breeds drawn from every part of the ethnic world, we are a nation, a new breed. Americans are much more American than they are Northerners, Southerners, Westerners, or Easterners.... It is astonishing that this has happened in less than two hundred years and most of it in the last fifty. The American identity is an exact and provable thing.
This journey had been like a full dinner of many courses, set before a starving man. At first he tries to eat all of everything, but as the meal progresses he finds he must forgo some things to keep his appetite and his taste buds functioning.
At night in this waterless air the stars
come down just out of reach of your fingers....The great concepts of oneness
and of majestic order seem always to be born in the desert...
And always there are mysteries in the desert, stories told and retold of secret places in the desert mountains...
I find most interesting the conspiracy of life in the desert to circumvent the death rays of the all-conquering sun. The beaten earth appears defeated and dead, but it only appears so. A vast and inventive organization of living matter survives by seeming to have lost.... Life could not change the sun or water the desert, so it changed itself.
The desert, being an unwanted place, might well be the last stand of life against unlife. ...the inhabitants of the desert are well trained and well armed against desolation.... The lone man and his sun-toughened wife who cling to the shade in an unfruitful and uncoveted place might... well be the last hope of life against non-life
I...faced what I had concealed from myself. I was driving myself, pounding out the miles because I was no longer hearing or seeing. I had passed my limit of taking in or, like a man who goes on stuffing in food after he is filled, I felt helpless to assimilate what was fed in through my eyes. Each hill looked like the one just passed.... I was fooling myself that this was important or even instructive.
When I laid the ground plan of my journey, there were definite questions to which I wanted matching answers. It didn't seem to me that they were impossible questions. I suppose they could all be lumped into the single question: "What are Americans like today?"
...It boils down to this: the Americans,
the British are that faceless clot you don't know, but a Frenchman or an
Italian is your acquaintance and your friend. He has none of the qualities
your ignorance causes you to hate.
...Americans as I saw them and talked to them were indeed individuals, each one different from the others, but gradually I began to feel that the Americans exist, that they really do have generalized characteristics regardless of their states, their social and financial status, their education, their religious and their political convictions... But the more I inspected this American image, the less sure I became of what it is. It appeared to me increasingly paradoxical, and it has been my experience that when paradox crops up too often for comfort, it means that certain factors are missing in the equation.
I realize now that there was something else about the Coopers that set them apart from other Negroes I have seen and met since. Because they were not hurt or insulted, they were not defensive or combative. Because their dignity was intact, they had no need to be overbearing, and because the Cooper boys had never heard that they were inferior, their minds could grow to their true limits.
...I knew I was not wanted in the South. When people are engaged in something they are not proud of, they do not welcome witnesses. In fact, they come to believe the witness causes the trouble.
"The ancients placed love and war in the
hands of closely related gods. That was no accident. That, sir, was a profound
knowledge of man."
My wife told me of an old, old man who said, "I remember a time when Negroes had no souls. It was much better and easier then. Now it's confusing."
I have not intended to present, nor do I think I have presented, any kind of cross-section so that a reader can say, "He thinks he has presented a true picture of the South." I don't. I've only told what a few people said to me and what I saw. I don't know whether they were typical or whether any conclusion can be drawn.
Who has known a journey to be over and dead
before the traveler returns?