Currently viewing the category: "Travels Without Charley"

My pal Michael Challik, the great veteran “shooter” at KDKA TV and a born Dutchman, did me a great favor the other day by translating part of a video interview with Steinbeck-chaser Geert Mak.

Mak, a famous and renowned Dutch journalist/historian/author,  also retraced Steinbeck’s “Charley” route in the fall of 2010 and wrote a big fat, footnoted book that became a best-seller in Holland. Mak’s book, “Travels Without John in Search of America,” is being translated into English. Mak kindly mentions me about a dozen times, favorably.

Unfortunately, the book, like the video interview, is in Dutch.

Here’s a link to the video — Geert Mak talks about the journalism & politics of “Bill Steigerwald.”

And here’s the translation of the 5-minute video, courtesy of the kind Michael Challik:

 Geert Mak is lying awake thinking of the competition.

You think you have designed a great plan, but one afternoon in a little town, Lancaster, we were looking for a place John Steinbeck had stayed.  The night, a motel, pouring down rain, got out at a gas station, asked where is the motel from the 1960’s.  I can still see him, a hat on turned backwards, “Oh Steinbeck! Right?”

(The service station attendant continues.) “Yesterday, there was also somebody here.” So you think you’re the only one.  Real quickly Googled, wondering who that could be, and got the answer in about three minutes.  Bill Steigerwald, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, retired journalist.  Did exactly the same, except took off half-an-hour sooner.  We left at at 8:30…he left at 8, so we just missed him on the ferry to the mainland.

Bill wrote in his blog on the ferry at 8:45 where he met a third journalist, a guy called  John Woesdijk (sp?), who was walking the route with a dog for a dog magazine.  Later we found out that there was a fourth.  She was with the Washington Post with her Mum.  The last two I didn’t hear anything from again.  All four wanted to follow Steinbeck’s route, but Bill S., I must be honest, tried to follow Steinbeck’s whole route.  I must say I couldn’t agree with his political views, to say the least, but he did describe the route very precisely, like where Steinbeck bought his gun, with all kinds of movies, including if you would like to follow the route through his eyes.  I really recommend his website.

QUESTION: You didn’t have any contact with him?

ANSWER: Oh yeah, later on we talked a lot about it.  I really did want to talk to him because I really did find – even though he had opinions on     Obama, etc. – he was very dedicated, and he did it by himself, and he was the only one who     was roughing it, because Steinbeck stayed in hotels mostly.  Bill really roughed it out.  I got a lot of respect for him, but I thought the only thing I can do is to use him in my book…and so it goes.

But as soon as my book was finished, I wrote him – and he had also heard of me. He heard about a book in Holland, and we talked openly and frequently, and we are planning in our lives absolutely to come together, and with a great glass of beer and talk about world problems and solve them by the end of the afternoon.

QUESTION: He is an arch-conservative, right-winger Republican?

ANSWER: No, no!  He would get real mad if you tell him that, because he really didn’t like George W. Bush.  He is a Libertarian thinker.  No, No I am a half-Socialistic, latte drinking, French loving, Volvo driving, European.

So I was really different, but Steigerwald found out that Steinbeck said things in his book that were absolutely not true, and I also discovered that too.  Because if you follow Steinbeck’s journey you find, for instance, he went fishing a whole afternoon with a companion, and talks about his marriage etc., but supposedly on the same day when you follow his iterinerary he drove 400-450 miles.  You can’t be fishing in the beginning of the afternoon – and then drive 450-miles. So you find a lot of discrepancies.

On Sept. 29, 1960, John Steinbeck slept in camper under a bridge in the rain somewhere along Maine’s Route 11, which probably has more moose living along it than people.

We know Steinbeck actually did sleep in his truck that night, because he told his wife Elaine he did in a letter to her from the road the next night.

Steinbeck’s lonely night may have been the only time on his 75 day trip he slept in his camper in the middle of nowhere. Most of the time he was in a motel or shacked up with his wife in a fancy hotel, resort or family vacation home.

Three falls ago, exactly 50 years after John Steinbeck took his “Travels With Charley” trip, I chased Steinbeck’s ghost around the USA.

Here’s an excerpt from my book that recounts what I did when he drove down motel-less Route 11 — and where I had to sleep.


Destination Milo

The Aroostook County line finally appeared, but Route 11 refused to end. I watched a protracted sunset from a hilltop and small-talked to two overly serious photographers from Montreal who had set up their tripods in the tall grass to capture the glorious panorama.

The middle of Maine feels even emptier when the sun is gone. It was dark when I pulled into Millinocket, the lumber mill town where the Pelletier family of “American Loggers” fame lived. After a surprisingly good spinach salad and a beer at Pelletier’s crowded family restaurant/bar, I drove into the black night for the next major town, Milo. In the dark I covered a distance of 39 miles to Milo, but the road I traveled could have been a high-speed treadmill in a tunnel. As far I could tell, except for Brownville Junction, it was deep forest all the way. I took photos of the twisting road ahead as I chased its white lines at 60 mph, straddling the centerline through a narrow channel of trees.


A few mailboxes flashed by, a house with no lights, maybe a river. My Sirius XM radio, cranked up extra-loud with jazz, cut in and out because of the terrain or overhanging trees, I didn’t know which. I met my third car after 17 miles. In 45 minutes I counted 12. Steinbeck, who slept overnight in his camper shell by a bridge somewhere along Route 11, traveled the same lonely desolate way, but probably in daylight, when the local moose population would have been awake. Maine has 30,000 moose but I didn’t run into one.

I passed through downtown Milo, a town of 2,400 in the dead center of Maine. Once a thriving railroad repair facility for all of New England, Milo earned its Wiki-immortality in 1923 when 75 members of the Ku Klux Klan sullied the town’s Labor Day parade by holding its first daylight march in the United States. South of town I stopped for gas at the C&J Variety store. A true variety store, it carried booze, paperback books, pizza, live bait and Milo hoodies. Out front it even had a public pay phone, something Steinbeck would have appreciated if C&J Variety hadn’t been a Studebaker dealership or whatever it was in 1960.

“Did you ever hear of John Steinbeck?” I asked the 20-something girl behind the counter when she came outside for a smoke.

“I don’t think he lives around here,” she said.

Too tired to laugh, I held my smart-ass tongue. I provided her with some context.

“He’s the author of ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ and ‘Of Mice and Men.’ Did you ever have to read them in high school?”

Her face brightened. “Now that you say it, I’ve heard the name. I thought you were asking me if he lived around here.” She wasn’t the last person, young and old, who would not recognize John Steinbeck’s name until I also mentioned his two most famous books, which most high school kids in America still read – or at least are still assigned.

I’ll never know how close I was to a motel when I gave up. I drove another 70 or 80 miles south of Milo, trusting my GPS Person to figure out the best way to get from endless state Route 11 to U.S. Highway 2. My notebook from that night faded into scribbles and went blank. “Dover has a McDonald’s …. Guilford, no business district….” For an hour I looked for a decent turnout or rest stop. On a long grade on U.S. Route 2, somewhere east of Farmington, Maine, I flew past a poorly lighted used car dealership sitting by itself. I hit the brakes hard, backed onto the grassy lot and parked at the end of a row of vehicles. With the nose of my RAV4 pointed at the road, I locked myself in, cracked my sunroof, installed my blackout curtains and instantly fell asleep.

Impersonating a used car worked flawlessly. Even with its cargo carrier, my RAV4 blended in with the 30 or 40 other vehicles parked on the lot. Trucks and cars and the local law hurrying by in the night took no notice. Here is an extremely over-exposed photo I took of my car in the used car lot.



Up at 4:50, by 5:15 I was in the Farmington McDonald’s sipping coffee, reading my email, writing a blog item and eavesdropping on four Republican geezers saying kind things about Sarah Palin that would offend and frighten most of my ex-colleagues in journalism.

It was there that I discovered two reliable things about McDonald’s that benefitted me for the next 10,000 miles: You can count on every McDonald’s to have strong, free Wi-Fi that you can use for as long as you want any time of day. And you can count on finding a local gang of 4 to 6 wise old guys in bad hats who will be thrilled to answer a stranger’s questions about what their world was like in 1960.

On Sept. 23, 1960, John Steinbeck and his faithful French-born poodle Charley left Sag Harbor, N.Y., and began the road trip that would become “Travels With Charley in Search of America,” one of the best-selling nonfiction books of 1962.9780143107002L

As I discovered in 2010, Steinbeck’s beloved, iconic road book, which turned 50 on July 27, is not a work of nonfiction. It is a highly fictionalized and dishonest account of his actual trip, who he traveled with and what he really thought about the America he found.

On Sept. 25 Penguin Group will release a 50th anniversary edition of the book, which it describes on its web site as:

“At age fifty-eight, John Steinbeck and his poodle, Charley, embarked on a journey across America. This chronicle of their trip meanders from small towns to growing cities to glorious wilderness oases. Still evocative and awe-inspiring after fifty years, Travels with Charley in Search of America provides an intimate look at one of America’s most beloved writers in the later years of his life—a self-portrait of a man who never wrote an explicit autobiography. Written during a time of upheaval and racial tension in the South—which Steinbeck witnessed firsthand—Travels with Charley is a stunning evocation of America on the eve of a tumultuous decade.”

Considering the true nature of Steinbeck’s trip, that’s a disingenuous and overly generous description of a multi-flawed book that never deserved its nonfiction designation and has been outed as a 50-year-old literary fraud.

In an email a few weeks ago I asked if the Penguin Group had “an official response to my discovery that ‘Charley,’ though marketed and reviewed and taught as a nonfiction account of Steinbeck’s 1960 trip, is heavily fictionalized?”

The company’s PR department in New York declined to comment.

Penguin, which for obvious reasons is not interested in helping me find more smoking guns, also told me that the company does not have Vikings’ old “Travels With Charley” files “on site” and that they are probably with Steinbeck’s estate. Perhaps future scholars will want to study them.


You can read about how I stumbled upon the truth about Steinbeck’s last major work in “Sorry, Charley” in the Post-Gazette or the April 2011 issue of Reason magazine. At you also can read “Whitewashing John Steinbeck,” which for the first time publicly revealed a highly X-rated paragraph of filthy language that was cut from the original manuscript of “Charley” in 1962.


Meanwhile, if you can read Dutch, you can order Geert Mak’s new book “Traveling Without John in Search of America.” Mak, a well-known journalist and author in the Netherlands, did what I did and carefully repeated Steinbeck’s trip in the fall of 2010.

Mak did a lot of the same research I did and his nearly 600-page book includes much of what I discovered about Steinbeck’s real trip and how Steinbeck’s original manuscript was edited to hide the fact that he traveled in luxury and did not travel alone.

Here, translated by Google’s clever but imperfect computers, is how the book is described on Mak’s web site:

Travelling without John

Looking for America

On September 23, 1960 left the legendary writer John Steinbeck and his poodle Charley for an expedition across the American continent. He wanted his country and his countrymen again know. Exactly fifty years later, on the hour, was Geert Mak again for the old house of Steinbeck. It was the beginning of a renewed inspection tour in the footsteps of Charley and John, but now with the eyes of 2010. What is the past half century in American cities and towns changed? Where is Main Street USA go?

Which dreams chased the Americans over the centuries their ideals? What is it ended? What remains of that “city on the hill”, the Promised Land which was once the world looked? And above all, what we have together, America and Europe in the 21st century?

Geert Mak avoided, like John Steinbeck, the beaten path. He drove thousands of miles through the potato fields of Maine and the infinity of the Midwest, sat day after day at the table with farmers, laborers, fishermen and schoolmasters, met with shiny suburbs and boarded-up village shops, searched, again and again, to the stories of this country which nobody ever gets finished.

“Travels With Charley in Search of America” will celebrate its 50th birthday on July 27th.


John Steinbeck’s classic/iconic/beloved travel book  was an instant best-seller and the newspaper and magazine critics of the day generally were kind to it in the late summer of 1962.

Most of them raved blindly. They all accepted it as the true account of Steinbeck’s road trip around the USA and none of them seemed to notice the book’s lineup of cardboard characters.

Time magazine broke from the slobbering mainstream pack, however, ripping Steinbeck in a two-paragraph review:

Here’s what Time wrote in August 1962:

“TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY, by John Steinbeck (246 pp.; Viking; $4.95). Put a famous author behind the wheel of a three-quarter-ton truck called Rocinante (after Don Quixote’s horse), equip him with everything from trenching tools to subzero underwear, send along a pedigreed French poodle named Charley with prostatitis, follow the man and dog on a three-month, 10,000-mile trip through 34 states, and what have you got? One of the dullest travelogues ever to acquire the respectability of a hard cover.

“Vagabond Steinbeck’s motive for making the long, lonely journey is admirable: “To try to rediscover this monster land” after years of easy living in Manhattan and a country place in Sag Harbor. L.I. He meets some interesting people: migrant Canucks picking potatoes in Maine, an itinerant Shakespearean actor in North Dakota, his own literary ghost back home in California’s Monterey Peninsula. But when the trip is done, Steinbeck’s attempt at rediscovery reveals nothing more remarkable than a sure gift for the obvious observation.”

The reading public in 1962 didn’t buy Time’s review. Steinbeck’s last major work stayed on best-seller lists for over a year and has been popular ever since.

Time’s quick hatchet job seemed unnecessarily harsh when I first read it. But given what I/we know now about how Steinbeck actually traveled and how little time he spent alone or spent studying the state of the changing country, it looks sharper than ever.

For half a century, Steinbeck’s last major work masqueraded as a nonfiction book. But as I innocently/accidentally learned in the fall of 2010 by hanging around in university libraries and driving down thousands of miles of two-lane highways, “Travels With Charley” is more fiction and fibs than fact.

I didn’t set out to ruin anyone’s reading fun by fact-checking Steinbeck’s book, and apparently I haven’t.   My discovery of Steinbeck’s literary fraudulence, for all the mainstream media attention it got in the spring of 2011, hasn’t put much of a dent in “Travels With Charley’s” reputation as a true account of Steinbeck’s trip.

If the Google alerts I get are representative of “TWC” readers, most people still think they are reading an honest, factual account of a great writer’s famous road trip.

Most new readers love the book as much as those unquestioning critics of 1962. And when they find out “TWC” is mostly made up, they react pretty much the same way the Steinbeck scholars did when they learned after 50 years that the book was more fiction than nonfiction.  They say “So what?”



For decades fans of “Travels With Charley in Search of America” have jumped in their cars and RVs and used the iconic book as a way to retrace the road trip John Steinbeck tookin the fall of 1960.


The idea of hitting the open highway and finding yourself or your country is a romantic idea, no matter how old or cyncial you are. But Steinbeck’s “nonfiction” book is not a very good or accurate account of his 10,000-mile trip from Long Island to Maine to Seattle to California to New Orleans and back to New York City.

Though it has always been considered nonfiction — despite glaring signs of fictionalization — “Charley” is often fuzzy about time and place. It’s not a travelogue and wasn’t meant to be a work of journalism, so it’s often vague and confusing.


The book also includes scenes of several lonely overnight campouts under the stars that didn’t happen and it omits many things Steinbeck did with his wife Elaine when she joined him for a month on the West Coast.

In the fall of 2010 I wanted to retrace Steinbeck’s route as faithfully as possible to see the America he saw and to compare his real trip with the mythic one he created by mixing fact and fiction.

Steinbeck took no notes and left no expense accounts. To find out where he actually was on his journey and when he was there, I had to create a time-and-place line from many sources.

I used the “Charley” book; newspaper articles from 1960 and later; letters he sent to his wife Elaine and others from the road; the biography of Steinbeck by Jackson Benson; the manuscript of the first draft of “Charley” and the drive-by journalism I did on the Steinbeck Highway.

When I retraced Steinbeck’s route  for “Travels Without Charley” I was able to find some of the places he stayed – the exclusive Spalding Inn in New Hampshire, the modest Westgate Motel in Beach, N.D. But I was also completely stumped in Livingston, Mt., and at the Seattle-Tacoma airport. Where he stopped in Maine the night of Sept. 28 is also a total mystery.

The book “Travels With Charley” hit the bookstores and the nonfiction bestseller lists in the summer of 1962. But the road journey “TWC” was based on started when Steinbeck and Charley left Sag Harbor on Sept. 23, 1960, and it ended when they returned to New York City around Dec. 5, 1960.

Based on what I have learned so far, here is an imperfect but complete time-and-place line for Steinbeck’s 75-day trip.  Photos will take you to video I shot.


Sept. 23, 1960 — Sag Harbor, N.Y.

DSC_1749_copy_copy_copy_copyJohn Steinbeck’s home by the sea in Sag Harbor, N.Y.

Early Friday morning John Steinbeck and his poodle Charley leave his summer home in Sag Harbor, Long Island, in the pickup truck-camper hybrid he named Rocinante after Don Quixote’s horse.

To get back in touch with America and regular Americans after living in ”the island” of New York, he plans to circle the country counterclockwise and stick to two-lane highways.

He takes three ferries across Long Island Sound to New London, Conn., 36 miles away, then heads for his son’s boarding school in Massachusetts.


Sept. 23-24, 1960 — Deerfield, Mass.

APPLERAVThe apple orchard on a dairy farm in Deerfield, Mass., where Steinbeck camped while visiting his son.

Steinbeck and Charley camp Friday and Saturday nights in Rocinante in an apple orchard on a farm on top of the mountain above his son John’s exclusive boarding school, the Eaglebrook School.

In the book he doesn’t say much about his visit or how many nights he spent at Eaglebrook. But in a letter to his wife, he makes it clear that he was there until Sunday morning, when he woke up late and almost missed church.

The neglected apple orchard where Steinbeck camped Sept. 23 and 24 while visiting his son John at the Eaglebrook School in Deerfield, Mass.


Sept. 25, 1960 – White Mountains, N.H.

DSC_1976_copy_copySteinbeck says in “Travels With Charley” that he drives east into the rugged White Mountains of New Hampshire on U.S. Route 2 near Lancaster, N.H., and camps on a farm.

He says in “Charley” that he talks to the farm owner about the Russians and the boorish behavior of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev at the United Nations.

In the book, Steinbeck and the farmer talk about Khrushchev banging his shoe on his desk at the United Nations, but that conversation couldn’t have happened. That famous Cold War event  — if it actually happened that way — occurred Oct. 11, 1960.

But did Steinbeck really even camp on a farm?

Fifty years later, after searching in vain for the farm and the farmer near Lancaster, a local writer, Jeff Woodburn, learns that Steinbeck was seen in the fall of 1960 at the nearby Spalding Inn.

Update: On March 30, 2010, a woman who worked for the Spalding Inn’s owner at the time said she is absolutely certain Steinbeck slept at the inn for one night. And Donald Spalding, the son of the original owners and operators of the inn, said on March 30, 2010, that there is no doubt that Steinbeck ate dinner and slept at the inn during “foliage season” of 1960.


Sept. 26, 1960 — Bangor, Maine


Steinbeck says in “Charley” that he stops at a motel near Bangor, Maine.

But he is so put off by the sterile and plastic environment in his room that he ends up going out into the parking lot and sleeping in his camper.

In fact, he drove from Vermont to Deer Isle, an island about 60 miles south of Bangor, where  he parks on the property of a woman his agent knew and sleeps in his truck.


Sept. 27-28, 1960 Deer Isle, Maine


Steinbeck and Charley continue their stay on beautiful Deer Isle, Maine, which Steinbeck’s agent, Elizabeth Otis, insisted he must see.

Steinbeck visits the lobster fishing port of Stonington and sleeps Tuesday night on the grounds of the gorgeous seaside home of Eleanor Brace, where Otis rented a small cottage each summer. He leaves Deer Isle late Wednesday afternoon, drives north on U.S. 1 along the seascoast and spends Wednesday night at an unknown location.

According to a letter he mailed from Deer Isle on Wednesday, Sept. 28, to Adlai Stevenson, Steinbeck heard part of the first televised presidential debate between Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy on Monday, Sept. 26. He was distressed that both candidates were so courteous toward each other.


Sept. 29, 1960Aroostook County, Maine

DSC_1932_3_copyDriving north on U.S. Route 1, past the border town of Calais, on Thursday Steinbeck reaches the top of Maine and Aroostook County, a major potato-growing area. Then he turns south and drives through Maine’s pine wilderness on State Route 11.

In “Charley” he says he threw a little after-dinner ”party” in Rocinante for a family of French Canadians who cross the border each fall to help with the harvest.

But he could not have partied with the Canucks the way he describes in the book, since he told his wife in a letter from the road that on Thursday night he slept overnight in Rocinante near a cement bridge in a heavy rain. If he met the Canucks, it had to be Wednesday evening. But that is unlikely, because he didn’t have enough time to drive to potato country from Deer Isle, meet the Canuck family and stage his party.


Sept. 30, 1960 — Lancaster, N.H.


Steinbeck says in “Charley” that he drives ”long and furiously” all day from northern Maine via State Route 11 and US Route 2 to Lancaster, N.H.

He says he sleeps in his camper near a ”ghost” motel/lunch counter by the Connecticut River  (the Whip o’ Will), where no one is around to rent him a cabin.


Oct. 1-2, 1960 — Somewhere near St. Johnsbury, Vt.


On Saturday, Oct. 1, Steinbeck mails a postcard from Concord, Vt. He heads west, crosses into New York from Vermont at Rouses Point and heads south on US Route 11 to New York Route 104, where he turns west toward Niagara Falls.

He writes in “Charley” that on Sunday morning, which would have been Oct. 2, he attends services at a white wooden John Knox (Methodist) church in Vermont and heads west.

He doesn’t name the town or church and today no one in the area seems to be able to figure out which church it was — or if his “mystery church” really existed.

New England is crawling with “blazing white” wood churches like “The White Church,” which is in the village of Deerfield, Mass., where Steinbeck’s son John went to the Eaglebrook School.

Eaglebrook students walked to the church on Sundays and Steinbeck probably attended services there the previous Sunday, Sept. 25, 1960, when he stopped to visit his son. Was that the white church? Probably not.


Oct. 2 or 3, 1960 — Niagara Falls, N.Y.

DSC_2008_copySteinbeck’s original plan to cross the border into Canada at Niagara Falls, cut across southern Ontario and re-enter the United States at Detroit is foiled by the inoculations Charley should have but doesn’t.

After staying at a fancy Buffalo motel, he takes the New York Thruway, now I-90, to Madison, Ohio.

He then drives west on U.S. 20 and the Indiana Toll Road to Chicago, where his wife Elaine flies out to meet him for four or five days.


Oct. 4/5/6 through Oct. 9, 1960 — Chicago

DSC_0041In “Charley” Steinbeck says that on his way to Chicago he camped by a small lake in the middle of nowhere near the Indiana-Michigan border.

When he arrives in Chicago he stays downtown at the Ambassador East Hotel, a celebrity haunt famous for its Pump Room.

Adlai Stevenson’s farm in Libertyville, Illinois.

His wife, Elaine, flies out from New York to join him.

Sometime during their stay in Chicago, probably on Sunday night, Oct. 9, Steinbeck, his wife and Charley spend a night with Adlai Stevenson at Stevenson’s 40-acre farm in nearby Libertyville, Ill.


Oct. 10, 1960 — Mauston, Wis.

DSC_0112Steinbeck and Charley leave Chicago on Monday morning Oct. 10 in Rocinante and begin their 7-day Sprint to Seattle by heading northwest into Wisconsin on U.S. Route 12.

Wife Elaine returns to New York City, but will rejoin them in Seattle.

In a letter to Elaine written while parked that Monday night at a truck service center in Mauston, baseball fan Steinbeck says he listened to the Pittsburgh Pirates win Game 5 of the World Series, 5-2. He writes, ”There is great joy here in the Pirates. No politics. Just baseball.”


Oct. 11, 1960 — Frazee, Minn.

DSC_1977_copy_copy_copy_copySteinbeck and Charley crawl slowly past Minneapolis-St. Paul on U.S. 10 and, after driving almost 400 miles, stop for the night at a truck stop in Frazee, Minn., near Detroit Lakes, 60 miles east of Fargo, N.D.

In an Oct. 11 letter to his wife from Frazee, Steinbeck says he watched cattle being loaded into trucks by floodlight (almost certainly at the facilities of Daggett Truck Line, which still exists at the same location).

In “Charley,” he creates a composite truck stop by blending his Monday night stop in Mauston and his Tuesday night stay in Frazee into one night at one truck stop.


Oct. 12 (Columbus Day), 1960 — Alice, N.D.

DSC_2011_copy_copy_copyOn the road from Frazee, Minn., by 6 a.m., Steinbeck drives about 130 miles west on U.S. 10.

About 25 miles west of Fargo, N.D., he turns south and goes to Alice, N.D., population 124 in 1960.

He says in ”Charley” that he camped overnight near Alice along the tiny Maple River and met an itinerant Shakespearean actor. He didn’t do either, however.


Oct. 12, 1960 — Beach, N.D.

DSC_2053_copyIn ”Charley” Steinbeck says he camped overnight in Alice, N.D., by the Maple River.

But that same night he sent a letter to his wife from Beach, N.D. – 321 miles to the west – and joked that he was staying in the “Dairy Queen” motel (probably the Westgate Motel, which was across the street from a Dairy Queen).

In “Charley” Steinbeck also describes camping overnight in the Badlands.

But since he left Chicago on Monday morning Oct. 10 and stopped Monday night in Mauston and Tuesday night in Frazee,  he could not have camped overnight at Alice and also camped overnight in the Badlands and still have slept at the “Dairy Queen” in Beach on Wednesday, Oct. 12. Not unless that week had nine days.


Oct. 13, 1960 — Near Bozeman, Mt.


Downtown Livingston, where Steinbeck bought a jacket.

Steinbeck travels southwest from Beach, N.D., across Montana on U.S. 10, now the route taken by interstates 94 and 90, and stops for the night near Bozeman.

In a letter to his wife Elaine that night he writes that after taking a side trip south at Custer to visit the Custer Battlefield site that morning, he stopped at Billings to buy a hat, stopped at bars in six small towns and bought a jacket in Livingston.

Steinbeck says in the letter that he’s staying “in a trailer park” … “outside of Bozeman.” In his original manuscript, in a passage that was cut from the final version of “Charley,” he said he stayed at an “auto court” in Livingston and watched the third Nixon-JFK TV debate in his room.


Oct. 14, 1960 — U.S. 10 West of Missoula

DSC_2006Before heading west on U.S. 10 from Livingston, Steinbeck abruptly decides to drive about 55 miles south on U.S. 89 to the north entrance to Yellowstone.

After Charley goes nuts every time he sees a grizzly bear, Steinbeck quickly leaves the park and retraces his path north to U.S. 10.

He says in “Charley” he stayed the night in ”a pretty auto court” near Livingston, Mt.

But in a letter to his wife that he wrote on the evening of the same day he went to Yellowstone he said he was camped for the night on an old woman’s land “past” (west of) Missoula and 60 miles short of the Idaho line. That would be near Tarkio, Mt., but local oldtimers there were unable to provide any clues when contacted in February, 2011.

Steinbeck probably did not sleep in his camper again for at least another month, when he was on his way from Monterey, Calif., to the Texas Panhandle for Thanksgiving.


Oct. 15, 1960 — Somewhere in NW Idaho

DSC_2070_copyAs Steinbeck drove toward Idaho on U.S. 10 on Oct. 14, he went through downtown Butte  and stopped at Phil Judd’s Sporting Goods store (right) to buy a Remington rifle and a Weaver scope for $73.50 (a Butte native, writer/artist Bill Baltezar, later wrote about meeting Steinbeck in the long-gone store but his article is filled with errors and not credible).

Steinbeck says in “Charley” that he stopped at an isolated motel/gas station in the mountains near the Idaho-Washington border, where he mediates an argument between a burly man and his theatrically minded son who wants to become a hairdresser and live in New York City.

But since Steinbeck had camped the night before about 40 miles west of Missoula, it’s unlikely he would have stopped for the night in northwestern Idaho after driving fewer than 200 miles.

Where he really slept Oct. 15 is a mystery with no clues.


Oct. 16, 1960 — Spokane, Wash.

In “Charley,” Steinbeck writes that Charley is sick and at dawn he rushes him to an inept alcoholic vet in the outskirts of Spokane. He then sets out on U.S. 10 for Seattle, 300 miles away, where his wife Elaine will fly out to join him again. Whether he really took Charley to the vet is not known.


Oct. 16 to 19, 1960 – Seattle-Tacoma International Airport

images_copy_copy_copy_copySteinbeck arrives in Seattle,  via U.S. 10 (now I-90), and goes to the Seattle-Tacoma airport.

As he described in scenes cut from his first draft of “Charley,” he waited at a fancy modern motel for three days while Elaine tried to get a ticket on a jet from New York.

After Elaine arrives, Steinbeck gives her a tour of his old haunts in Seattle’s old port district.


Oct. 19 or 20 through Oct. 22, 1960 — U.S. 101, a.k.a. The Pacific Coast Highway

DSC_2027_copy_copy_copy_copy_copy_copy_copy_copy_copy_copy_copy_copySteinbeck, Elaine and Charley begin their slow move down the Pacific Coast on scenic U.S. 101 along the Oregon coast and through the redwood country of northern California.

They stay at ”pleasant auto courts” but there is no mention in “TWC” or the original manuscript whether they saw the spectacular Oregon coast line.

Steinbeck wrote several scenes detailing this part of the trip in his original manuscript, but they were cut completely or edited to remove evidence of his wife Elaine’s presence.


Oct. 23, 1960 — Somewhere in Oregon

On a rainy Sunday on a muddy road near an unnamed town ”somewhere” in Oregon, Steinbeck writes in “Charley,” his overloaded vehicle has a flat.

As his wife Elaine sits in the cab (according to his first draft), Steinbeck lies in the mud to change his tire. He needs two new tires. To Steinbeck’s eternal gratitude, an ”evil-looking service-station man” goes out of his way to find the tires.


Oct. 24-26, 1960 — Avenue of the Giants

On Monday, Oct. 24, Steinbeck sends his editor a post-card from Trinidad, California, where he says he and Elaine are staying by a redwood grove. Trinidad is on U.S. 101 about 300 miles north of San Francisco.


The Steinbecks — John, his wife Elaine and Charley — spend several days among the giant redwoods in Humboldt County on U.S. Highway 101, aka the Redwood Highway.

Steinbeck describes a nearly empty resort in the original draft of the book. It sounds like it might have been the now-closed Hartsook Inn, which was a favorite of Hollywood celebrities.


Oct. 26-29, 1960 — San Francisco


After nearly a week on U.S. 101, Steinbeck, Elaine and Charley arrive in San Francisco.

Keeping to their upscale lodging habits, they stay at a suite at the St. Francis Hotel downtown and spend about five days socializing with friends at the city’s top North Beach bars and restaurants.

Steinbeck is interviewed in his suite on Oct. 28 by a San Francisco Chronicle freelance writer and discusses his writing and his partisan views on the coming presidential election.

Charley has been checked into a kennel.


Oct. 30 – Nov. 15, 1960 — Monterey, Ca.


Steinbeck, Charley and Elaine drive about 100 miles south to the Monterey Peninsula, the setting for his most famous books and now officially branded ”Steinbeck Country.”

They stay for about two weeks near the City of Monterey in the modest Steinbeck family cottage in the coastal town of Pacific Grove, half a block from the ocean and about a mile from Cannery Row.

Steinbeck is not happy with Cannery Row, which was starting to exploit his fame as a tourist draw. The Monterey Peninsula Herald finds Steinbeck leisurely fixing the cottage gate on Nov. 3, 1960, and takes his picture.

Before he leaves the place he knows he can never call home again, Steinbeck writes in “Charley” that he went to the top of Fremont Peak to take a final look at the part of the world he made famous. His goodbye to his past is some of the book’s finest writing.


(Click photo for a video of Fremont Peak, Steinbeck’s grave and the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas and the corner in San Francisco’s North Beach where Steinbeck hung out with his pals.)

On about Nov. 15, he and his old friend and lawyer Toby Street head east in Rocinante.



Nov. 15 – 30, 1960 — The Road to Amarillo


After leaving Monterey, crossing the Mojave Desert and picking up Route 66 at Barstow, Calif., Steinbeck and Charley drive 1,300 miles to Amarillo.

Wife Elaine has flown on ahead. One of Steinbeck’s old friends rides along with him in Rocinante for four days from Monterey to Flagstaff, Ariz.

Along the way, Steinbeck says in his book that he and Charley camp along U.S. 66 near the Continental Divide near Gallup, N.M.

Because he has to get a window in his truck fixed, Steinbeck says in “Charley” that he spends “three days of namelessness in a beautiful motor hotel in the middle of Amarillo.” Charley is sick and Steinbeck writes that he takes him to a kind vet.

Steinbeck says he arrived the day before Thanksgiving (Nov. 24) at a millionaire’s cattle ranch east of Amarillo (owned by his wife’s ex-in-laws). Steinbeck stays in Texas for about another seven days, visiting his wife’s friends and relatives.


Dec. 1, 1960 — New Orleans


After seeing TV and magazine reports about the ugly racial events outside an elementary school in New Orleans that was being integrated for the first time, Steinbeck decides to see it for himself.

He and Charley drive in from Texas, and Steinbeck observes the foul-mouthed white mothers – ”the Cheerleaders” – who gather each morning to shout crude invectives at white and black children and their parents as they arrive at the William Frantz Elementary school.

Steinbeck is repulsed by what he sees and his verbatim account of their vulgarisms  — though sanitized by editors  — is considered the most powerful part of his book.


Dec. 3, 1960 — Pelahatchie, Miss.

DSC_1069_2_copy_copyJust east of Jackson, Miss., Steinbeck mails a postcard to his agent, Elizabeth Otis, from Pelahatchie on U.S. Route 80.

In the card he says that after leaving New Orleans, he went upriver to Natchez and Vicksburg, Miss.

He also says he’ll be traveling up through the Great Smoky Mountains (on U.S. 11) and should ”be home next week.”

He ends his postcard with “It’s been a long haul.”


Dec. 4-5, 1960 — Abingdon, Va.

DSC_1105_2_copyDriving home in blur, tired and dispirited, Steinbeck says in ”Travels With Charley” that at Abingdon on U.S. 11 he realizes his journey is over.

All he wants to do is get home to his own wife, house and bed in Manhattan, which is still about 650 miles to the northeast.

After speeding up the western edge of Virginia, he writes that ”I bulldozed blindly through West Virginia, plunged into Pennsylvania and grooved Rocinante to the great wide turnpike” (the Pennsylvania Turnpike at Carlisle). He then navigated the heavy traffic of the New Jersey Turnpike toward New York City.


Dec. 6-7, 1960 — New York City

DSC_0155_copyIn “Charley” Steinbeck said he was denied entrance to the Holland Tunnel because of the propane tank aboard Rocinante.

He takes the Hoboken Ferry, gets lost in evening rush hour in downtown Manhattan and has to ask a cop for directions.

He had been gone nearly 11 weeks, touched 33 states and had driven about 10,000 miles.

He finishes writing ”Travels With Charley in Search of America” until late summer of 1961.

It appears in three installments in Holiday magazine and isn’t published in book form until July of 1962 — three months before he’s awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

“Charley” becomes an instant nonfiction bestseller. It receives generally favorable reviews. It quickly becomes an iconic American road book.

And for the next 48 years it is accepted as the true account of his road trip.


July 27th will be an important date for “Travels With Charley in Search of America.”

John Steinbeck’s classic/iconic/beloved but not very true/honest bestseller will celebrate its 50th birthday.

For half a century, Steinbeck’s last major work masqueraded as a nonfiction book.


But as I innocently/accidentally learned in the fall of 2010 by hanging around in university libraries and driving down thousands of miles of two-lane highways, “Travels With Charley” is more fiction and fibs than fact.

The critics were overly kind to “Travels With Charley” in late summer 1962. Most of them raved blindly; none of them seemed to notice the book’s lineup of cardboard characters or their stilted dialogue, which was made of the same hard wood.

Time magazine broke from the pack, however, ripping Steinbeck in a two-paragraph review that seemed unnecessarily harsh when I first read it.

But now, given what I/we know about how Steinbeck actually traveled and how little time he spent alone or spent studying the state of the changing country, Time’s hatchet job looks sharper than ever.

Here’s what Time wrote in August 1962:

“TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY, by John Steinbeck (246 pp.; Viking; $4.95). Put a famous author behind the wheel of a three-quarter-ton truck called Rocinante (after Don Quixote’s horse), equip him with everything from trenching tools to subzero underwear, send along a pedigreed French poodle named Charley with prostatitis, follow the man and dog on a three-month, 10,000-mile trip through 34 states, and what have you got? One of the dullest travelogues ever to acquire the respectability of a hard cover.

“Vagabond Steinbeck’s motive for making the long, lonely journey is admirable: “To try to rediscover this monster land” after years of easy living in Manhattan and a country place in Sag Harbor. L.I. He meets some interesting people: migrant Canucks picking potatoes in Maine, an itinerant Shakespearean actor in North Dakota, his own literary ghost back home in California’s Monterey Peninsula. But when the trip is done, Steinbeck’s attempt at rediscovery reveals nothing more remarkable than a sure gift for the obvious observation.”

Tough stuff.

For 50 years, the Steinbeck Studies Industrial Complex and everyone else of importance who read or taught the book had taken Steinbeck’s words for it.

Then I stumbled along.

I didn’t set out to fact-check Steinbeck, ruin anyone’s reading fun or make two generations of Steinbeck scholars look bad. I just followed the facts I found in the Steinbeck books and archives and it turned out that it’s fair to conclude that Steinbeck’s “nonfiction” book was “something of a fraud.”

My discovery of Steinbeck’s literary fraudulence, for all the mainstream media attention it got in the spring of 2011, hasn’t put much of a dent in “Travels With Charley’s” reputation as a true account of Steinbeck’s trip.

If the Google alerts I get are representative of “TWC” readers, most people still think they are reading an honest, factual account of a great writer’s famous road trip. And most new readers love the book as much as those unquestioning critics of 1962.