Book Review: Travels with Charley – by John Steinbeck

In 1960, Steinbeck outfitted a pickup truck with a camper in Massachusetts and started traveling across the country the northern route, all the way to Washington State, then south to California and back across the south, and finally up the eastern seaboard to New York. His companion with his trusted dog Charley, a standard poodle.

Steinbeck was 58 years old at the time. This was two years before he received the Nobel Prize for Literature. Travels is a story about the ruminations he had as he made his way across the country, at a time before the Interstate freeway system was completed yet.

He marvels as he travels on what was called the U.S. 90:

Instructions screamed at me from the road once: “Do not stop! No stopping. Maintain speed.” Trucks as long as freighters went roaring by, delivering a wind like the blow of a fist. These great roads are wonderful for moving goods but not for inspections of a countryside. You are bound to the wheel and our eyes to the car ahead and to the rear-view mirror for the car behind and the side mirror for the car or truck about to pass, and at the same time you must read all the signs for fear you may miss some instructions or orders. No roadside stands selling squash juice, no antique stores, no farm products or factory outlets. 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.

This 52-year-old book was in some sections completely timeless and very appropriate for today. In other sections it was quaint, as it reflected a country before the space age and in the middle of the cold war. Kennedy had just taken office, and Steinbeck’s chatter about politics between Democrats and Republicans, in this case Kennedy and Nixon, could have been off today’s Rachel Maddow or Hannity shows.

Even when writing a travel journal, Steinbeck does it masterfully. I read this over the course of months, hardcopy on my nightstand, reading a page or two a night before drifting off to sleep, always having good dreams as Steinbeck and Charley were my companions.

Rating: ***

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