During my high school English classes in the mid 1980s, we were required to read a lot of John Steinbeck: The Pearl, East of Eden, The Grapes of Wrath. And during our cross-country RV trip a decade ago, I made a point of reading East of Eden. I liked all of these books.
The John Steinbeck book I didn’t like is one that I think most people enjoy, Travels with Charley. I don’t remember much about the book now because I read it in college, probably in 1989 or 1990. I know it’s a travelogue documenting Steinbeck’s drive across the U.S. with his dog, but I don’t remember much else and I don’t remember why I didn’t like it.
During a walk across town with my dog the other day, I found a great old copy of Travels with Charley in a Little Free Library. I picked it up.
(Corvallis has a couple hundred Little Free Libraries. They’re everywhere. They’re also dangerous — for me, anyhow. As a guy who likes free things and likes books, free books are just about the best thing on Earth. I pick up a lot of them.)
As Tally and I strolled along, I read the prologue. (The book doesn’t have proper chapters, but it does divide each section. The first section is basically a prologue to introduce what comes next.) Now, in my fifties, I thought it was great. I thought it was so great, in fact, that I decided to type it up to share here.
blockquote CSS is shitty (and won’t break paragraphs properly), I’m going to type this up as a separate section below. All of the next section is the prologue to Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck. I hope you like it as much as I do. (Note that I’ve added additional paragraph breaks to make this more readable on the web. Steinbeck liked long paragraphs.)
Travels with Charley
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.
Four hoarse blasts of a ship’s whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping. The sound of a jet, an engine warming up, even the clopping of shod hooves on pavement brings on the ancient shudder, the dry mouth and vacant eye, the hot palms and the churn of stomach high up under the rib cage. In other words, I don’t improve; in further words, once a bum always a bum. I fear the disease is incurable. I set this matter down not to instruct others but to inform myself.
When the virus of restlessness begins to take possession of a wayward man, and the road away from Here seems broad and straight and sweet, the victim must first find in himself a good and sufficient reason for going. This to the practical bum is not difficult. He has a built-in garden of reasons to choose from.
Next he must plan his trip in time and space, choose a direction and a destination.
And last he must implement a journey. How to go, what to take, how long to stay. This part of the process is invariable and immortal. I set it down only so that newcomers to bumdom, like teenagers in new-hatched sin, will not think they invented it.
Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process, a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.
Tour masters, schedules, reservations, brass-bound and inevitable, dash themselves to wreckage on the personality of the trip. Only when this is recognized can the blown-in-the-glass bum relax and go along with it. Only then do the frustrations fall away.
In this a journey is like a marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it. I feel better now, having said this, although only those who have experienced it will understand it.
Travels with J.D.
I understand it. I understand what Steinbeck is describing here. I feel it deep in my bones. I’ve been itching lately to get out again and see the world. This was the reason for my month-long journey to England, Norway, and Iceland this summer. I was scratching that itch.
- First, note how lovely is Steinbeck’s craft. His sentences are a joy. They’re mostly short but with sufficient variation in length. His words are obviously carefully chosen to impart rhythm and rhyme, to sort of sing from the page. There’s an artistry here seldom seen in modern writing.
- Second, I identify so much with his sentiment here. I didn’t care to roam when I was younger. And there’s still a large piece of me that wishes to remain permanently in place, to have deep roots. But larger part of me wants to roam. I too am something of a bum, I guess. My friend Becca once described this state of mind as “Roots with Wings”. That’s an apt characterization.
- I love this sentence: “I set this matter down not to instruct others but to inform myself.” This sounds remarkably like the reason I’ve decided to resume writing here at Folded Space — and the reason I started blogging in the 1990s to begin with. I’m not doing this to instruct others (although that’s a happy side effect); I’m doing this to inform myself. Writing is how I process my thoughts and feelings. It’s how I synthesize everything to see what I know and understand and believe.
Anyhow, I’m not convinced I’ll like Travels with Charley any more today than I did thirty years ago. But I might. I’m going to give it a shot. I have it sitting on my nightstand, and I’ll set aside my ongoing exploration of the Tao Te Ching in order to journey across the U.S. with Steinbeck and his dog.
Today I am only four years younger than Steinbeck was when he wrote the book. There’s a very real possibility that I’ll be much better able to relate to it now.