While I loved every page of this, I now find it hard to articulate just what about it was so special. Travels with Charley is John Steinbeck’s personal account of his meandering three-month journey across the United States with his French poodle, Charley, in a custom-made trailer-truck (named Rocinante, after Don Quixote’s steed). The year was 1960 and Steinbeck was fifty-eight: bored, itching for travel, and feeling out of touch with his country and it’s people.
The charm of the story is not so much where John goes geographically, but his observations and honest thoughts in-between the destinations, as well as the colorful conversations he has with eccentric folks along the way. The book does conjure up—and satisfy—that deep-down longing in so many of us to just uproot for a while and wander around without any plans; I found myself frequently admiring Steinbeck’s sense of adventure and willingness to explore with no boundaries or plans. This is even an element mentioned by the people he encounters early on; when folks hear what John is up to, everyone wishes they too could go along with him on this no-rules roadtrip. Granted, Steinbeck had the luxury of being able to uproot a little easier than most of us, having his ‘retired’ freedom and—presumably—the healthy budget of an author with many bestsellers under his belt.
The commentary throughout the book is endlessly funny; Steinbeck is constantly belittling himself and poking fun at his own mannerisms. He has the ability to be frankly honest about the absurdities of life and make them sound profound at the same time. He articulates the flaws and inconsistencies in the people he interacts with, and yet his depiction of them is one of fondness, not of criticism, seeming to recognize that he, too, is just another strange person in a world of strange people. His descriptions of Charley are also hilarious, especially for dog owners.
Steinbeck puts off an aura of old-world bad-assery and manhood that has very little to do with being chauvinistic. It’s more of a ‘stuff needs done so I’m gonna take care of it’ attitude; that working-class resolve that a man is made to toil with his hands and sweat for his bread. There is a scene in Travels where, before he leaves home, Steinbeck has to wrestle his wayward ship back to the pier during a treacherous storm (perhaps the scene is exaggerated to sound more heroic, but… let’s be honest. Wrestling a ship to shore is still more than most of us have even gotten close to). He also has a hearty view towards being generous with his liquors and hospitable to all who will settle into his company for a spell.
A number of times throughout the book, Steinbeck mentions being cynical of (and somewhat disgusted with) the way society has felt the need to sanitize and vacuum-seal so much of our existence. He talks about encountering food across the country that has been pre-packaged in cellophane and diners that once cooked their own food now serve re-heated frozen goods. He questions the over-use of paper/plastic/cardboard-packaged-everything, and makes a comment about how one day the mountains of our discarded packaging will be greater than anything they ever contained. Remember, this was the sixties, and Steinbeck was already uncomfortable with how wasteful and excessive our country was becoming. Imagine how horrified he might be by where we are today.
There are so many beautiful quotes throughout Travels that I found myself underlining passages on nearly every page. Steinbeck was a writer through and through, keenly observant of his surroundings and starkly aware of himself and others. He was clearly a lover of people, and seems fascinated by all varieties of personality, even of those who do not necessarily treat him with kindness. Somehow, he is able to craft his thoughts and observations in such a way that does not seem arrogant or self-serving, but more like he is putting to paper what so many of us are already thinking but don’t know how to say. The book is equally sad, lovely, funny, and brutally honest, often questioning whether we as humans are too proud in our ways, and that maybe we’re not so clever as we might think.
The story closes with a weary man who is quite ready to be home. He describes losing the fervor for his trip seemingly all at once and out of nowhere; his sense of adventure instantly drained and replaced with an urgency to just get back to home and familiarity. While it is not quite a sad ending, it is very much a human one, and an emotion with which we can probably all relate.
I would implore any creative person—Steinbeck fan or not—to gobble up this little volume. Bask in the quiet brilliance of this great author’s observations, for there is beauty to be found on nearly every page, and perhaps you will find out just a bit more about yourself.
I’ll close with this quote from the man himself, “Who has not 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 space and time have ceased.”