Thursday, November 5, 2009

Travels with Charley in Search of America by John Steinbeck

A couple years ago while on vacation in San Francisco I made a little side trip to Salinas, California, home of John Steinbeck. There's not much there, besides a restaurant in Steinbeck's childhood home (I tried to go but it was closed for the week of Thanksgiving at the time), a small farmer's market (I had some delicious corn on the cob* and homemade root beer), and a few blocks of rundown, tired looking buildings (there was a pretty good Salvation Army). It seemed as though not much had changed architecturally since the 60s. I took a lot of pictures.

If you're a Steinbeck fan it's worth visiting Salinas though, if only to check out the National Steinbeck Center. (It's also not too far from Monterey and the gorgeous coastline.) It was there that I first heard of the book Travels with Charley. In the fall of 1960, Steinbeck took his pet poodle Charley on a 10,000 mile road trip around the outer border of the United States in a camper he called "Rocinante," after Don Quixote's horse. (The camper is on display at the Steinbeck Center.) The impetus for the trip was to answer the question "what are Americans like today?", though his son later hypothesized that his failing health was also a factor, that he wanted to see his country one last time. (Steinbeck died six years after the publication of Travels with Charley, and it was the last book he wrote.)

After leaving the center I was quite interested in reading this book, and not long after I got back home I found a copy on a shelf at work. It paints a picture of an aesthetically beautiful land, but there is a sadness below the surface, as Steinbeck discovers racism and ignorance throughout his travels. Definitely worth a read. I'm also remembering how much I loved reading East of Eden--I think I need to delve a little deeper into Steinbeck's oeuvre.

*My boyfriend has just pointed out that my memory has failed me—I did not eat corn on the cob in Salinas. It was a baked potato. Not sure how I confused the two.

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