27 December 2015

Travels With Charley, by John Steinbeck


"A sad soul can kill you quicker, far quicker, than a germ." ~John Steinbeck, Travels With Charley
Steinbeck recounts (somewhat inaccurately, according to some critics) his trip "In Search of America" in 1960 in a pickup equipped with a "house," or what we'd call a pickup camper today.
I wrote to the head office of a great corporation which manufactures trucks. I specified my purpose and my needs. I wanted a three-quarter-ton pick-up truck, capable of going anywhere under possibly rigorous conditions, and on this truck I wanted a little house built like the cabin of a small boat. ...a tough, fast, comfortable vehicle, mounting a camper top--a little house with double bed, a four-burner stove, a heater, refrigerator and lights operating on butane, a chemical toilet, closet space, storage space, windows screened against insects...
...because my planned trip had aroused some satiric remarks among my friends, I named it Rocinante...
...I took one companion...an old French gentleman poodle known as Charley. ...he responds quickly only to commands in French...Charley is a born diplomat. He prefers negotiation to fighting... ...he is a good watch dog--has a roar like a lion, designed to conceal from night-wandering strangers the fact that he couldn't bite his way out of a cornet du papier...
 ...the best way to attract attention, help, and conversation is to be lost. A man ... will cheerfully devote several hours of his time giving wrong directions to a total stranger...
From page 81:
...I had avoided the great high-speed slashes of concrete and tar called "thruways" ... but I had dawdled...and I had visions of being snowbound in North Dakota. I sought out U.S. 90, a wide gash of a super-highway ... The minimum speed ... was greater than any I had previously driven... 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 inspection of a countryside. You are bound to the wheel and your 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 was the fall of 1960. What was the state of the Interstate Highway System at this point? President Eisenhower signed the law that began it in 1956. Here's a Federal Government history site: https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/interstate/history.cfm.

It's interesting (to me, anyway) to reflect on the fact that the System didn't really come into being for several years after Eisenhower's signing of the bill -- it wasn't really until the late 60s and early 70s that the System could be considered anything like complete. How many public officials today are willing to promote such long-term goals--projects that might not reach fruition until long after their political careers are over?

Toward the end of the book, Steinbeck crosses Texas and briefly visits New Orleans, the site of racial strife that year as Federal Marshalls were required to protect black children attending a desegregated school. His sadness is profound, his confusion noticeable. At least twice, he reports someone making a joke about Charley sitting in the front seat of his truck: "I thought you had a nigger in there."

There's a great deal about the racial strife of late 1960, and he describes a long conversation with a southerner outside of New Orleans, and a short one with an African-American man to whom he gives a ride, but I'll choose this bit to quote, from pages 237-238:

...Charley doesn't have our problems. He doesn't belong to a species clever enough to split the atom but not clever enough to live at peace with itself. He doesn't even know about race, nor is he concerned with his sister's marriage... 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. It would be difficult to explain to a dog the good and moral purpose of a thousand humans gathered to curse one tiny human. I've seen a look in dog's eyes, a quickly vanishing look of amazed contempt, and I am convinced that basically dogs think humans are nuts.

And then there is the end, when he returns home, weary of his trip, which, as he describes, ended before it was over. All travelers, I think, have experienced this, the weariness of being on the road, the desire to get home now.

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The Truth About "Travels With Charley" by Bill Steigerwald, a journalist who attempted to reproduce Steinbeck's trip, and in the process claims to have proven that the account is not accurate. Big deal. I'm thinking, way to miss the point, Bill. Nonetheless, Steigerwald's account looks worth reading.