After Reading "Travels with Charley in Search of America"

The first time I heard about this book was about 11 years ago. This one was recommended to me along with Blue Highways. At that time I didn't even know who John Steinbeck was. I took a stab at it around 2011 but could not go beyond the first few pages. I guess my taste as a reader was not mature enough at that time. Since then, I, myself, have gone on many road trips, most of them without a well-defined plan. I got used to the idea of the journey mattering more than destiny. Earlier this year I read the Grapes of Wrathes and started to know more about John Steinbeck. I also felt much better about picking up this one and finishing it this time.

John Steinbeck felt that he had lost touch with America and wanted to rekindle the relationship by taking a trip through the land. He wanted to preserve his anonymity and so decided to avoid staying in the hotels. The solution was to drive a camper van across the country. It seemed like the idea of such a vehicle was not common at that time since he had to custom order this wagon from the manufacturer. His route was starting from New York, going north to Maine, then turning back, taking the northern border and driving Westward. Then reaching Pacific, he drove south, then turned eastbound again near the southern border. He drove southeast to Louisiana and then started driving up to make a nice loop.

A lot of people he met on the road had the longing to go away but were tethered to the reality of their lives. All those trips that I had taken, I aspired to strike conversations with strangers and maybe form some meaningful connection which never happened. I saw how John had the same fear but he was much smoother. Maybe having a bottle of applejack in his van was the gateway to opening people up to himself.

I had been on most of the same highways that John took. It was surprising to see most of the things he observed were still the same. The psyche of people also seemed to stay the same, how they process news, how they pick sides, what they valued most seems to hold true even in these days. It was hilarious when he noticed that no two bordering states can agree on what should be the speed limit on the highways. Also, the grammar and verbage of highway signs changed from state to state and tells a lot about the states. I, too, had noticed that and wondered about them.

When I was on the road, the norm of interstate driving had already been settled. When John was on the road, the concept of interstate was fairly new. People were still awed about the novelties of curated rest areas, those all-amenities-included rest stops.

I don't know what place Fargo, North Dakota holds in American imagination but it seems everyone wants to go there and check it out. John Steinbeck did it, I did it, many more did it.

I also felt he was a little too harsh on Texas. I know it was deep south in the sixties and seventies, but the generalization sounded like a typical New Yorker. He did not give Texas a chance. His visit to Louisiana coincided with the civil rights movement and his analysis of the white ladies who were bullying those school-going children was very apt. America is too big to experience in one roadtrip. John Steinbeck also felt it. At some point, his senses became numb and all he wanted to get back. I can totally relate to this feeling. Actually I could relate to most of his writing about places he visited. There were so many times I nodded as I was reading the book.

Overall this was a pleasant read. I felt good that I can now enjoy writers like John Steinbeck.I am looking forward to read East of Eden.

Published at: 06/13/2021