Posts Tagged ‘john steinbeck’

The Letter T (A-to-Z Challenge)

April 24, 2015

Travels With Charley, by John Steinbeck

Four years of summer college music tours throughout Europe and Asia infected me with a disgusting sense of superiority as well as with a great lust for travel, and not for blue-shirted-violin-toting-group-tour travel either.  No, I was going to be the solitary traveler, the dusty, backpack shouldering, guidebook studying, local food trying, hostel staying, many languages speaking, local customs understanding, itinerary eschewing, tourist trap avoiding, apt quote spouting, flinty-eyed and seasoned traveler. I was going to be the Sea Rat.*

A look at my first paycheck disabused me of that one.**  So I turned to travel books instead. One of the first was John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley.

I first read Travels With Charley sitting up in bed on a rainy Saturday morning in Salem, Oregon, just a few weeks into married life.  I fell in love with it partly because of John Steinbeck and partly because it described the only kind of travel that now seemed to be within my grasp. Of course but a few months earlier I had scoffed at domestic road tripping, however, now I was willing to admit that if it was good enough for John Steinbeck it might be good enough for me.  Travels With Charley was published in 1962, two years before I was born, and so described an America already past, but it made the (American) open highway seem such a romantic place, a place where someday surely I too might be able to brood thoughtfully and pronounce poetically as well.

John Steinbeck took this ten thousand mile drive around America at a time when he was ill; although he was only in his late fifties he was in the last years of his life and at a stage when all men wax philosophical.  Traveling only in the company of his big blue poodle he pushes northward into New England and then wends westward to Pacific Northwest, south through California and then homeward via the South, camping in his truck or staying in auto courts and talking casually with those he meets in campsites and restaurants and places of business. He finds much to wax about, seeming almost to rejoice in his resignation to bad health and approaching old age, in the privilege of his hard-earned experience and wealth and in the end-of-life perspective and the wisdom acquired over a lifetime of traveling and working and writing and thinking.

Over and over he reflexively bemoans change and then recants, saying that it is not his world anymore and that it is not for him to judge the values of the new generation.  He is able to resign himself to this everywhere except for his hometown of Salinas, California where he finds a population increased twenty-fold, landmarks disfigured or obliterated, sprawl and ugliness everywhere, his old friends elderly or dead.  Of this he writes:

I find it difficult to write about my native place, northern California.  It should be the easiest, because I knew that strip angled against the Pacific better than any place in the world.  But I find it not one thing but many — one printed over another until the whole thing blurs.  What it is is warped with memory of what it was and that with what happened there to me, the whole bundle wracked until objectiveness is nigh impossible. This four-lane concrete highway slashed with speeding cars I remember as a narrow, twisting mountain road where the wood teams moved, drawn by steady mules.  They signaled their coming with the high, sweet jangle of hame bells. This was a little little town, a general store under a tree and a blacksmith shop and a bench in front on which to sit and listen to the clang of hammer on anvil.  Now little houses, each one like the next, particularly since they try to be different, spread for a mile in all directions.  That was a woody hill with live oaks dark green against the parched grass where the coyotes sang on moonlit nights.  The top is shaved off and a television relay station lunges at the sky and feeds a nervous picture to thousands of tiny houses clustered like aphids beside the roads.

When I read Travels With Charley in the late eighties I did not take particular note of the publication date.  When I read it again this morning I thought to do the math and discovered that my second reading was almost exactly twice as far into Steinbeck’s future world as my first reading had been, an interesting coincidence.*** When I discovered further that I am now in the same decade of life as was Steinbeck when he took his journey I began to consider changes that had occurred in my own world during the equivalent span of years.

In my college town, the lookout point where couples used to go for a little quiet time is now a gated community of trophy homes.  Pastures have given way to subdivisions, lawns and playing fields to student housing and to vast parking lots gleaming with the cars none of us needed only three decades ago.  The straightforward four-way stops that were perfectly adequate in the mid eighties have been expanded into enormous, over complicated interchanges fringed with thickets of signage – arrows and yield signs and reflector posts and blinking lights and warnings to enter here or not to enter there – and, even more confusing, there are entire major roads that weren’t there at all before and they don’t look particularly new.  It even appears that a medium sized brook has been entirely rerouted. This is unsettling, and I don’t like it, and this is only my college town, a place to which I have only a minor emotional tie.

I don’t think you could pay me enough to go back to my idyllic childhood home, a four-bedroom ranch house we built with our own hands in a grassy mountain valley above St. Helena, California on a one-acre lot bounded with deer fencing, with a small carefully tended orchard (where, nose in a book, I watered the fruit trees with a garden hose according to a timer which hung on a string around my neck), two raised strawberry beds, a one-row vineyard of Concord grapes, a high woodpile full of lizards, a garden which provided most of what we ate and a lushly green front lawn studded with young white birches.  The blue California sky arched overhead from the hills behind us to the woods across the street, the shadows of hawks sliced silently across the rows of beans and the air was warm and dry and wholesome with good earth.

I do not want to know what this place looks like today.  As for the field across from the elementary school where one early June morning during parent/teacher conferences I wandered giddy with sweet relief at the excellent report I knew my parents were getting from my sixth grade teacher – an untamed field thick with deep tangles of every kind of wildflower in purple, pink and gold, humming with bumblebees and busy with dragonflies and peppered with sprays of baby grasshoppers, dewdrops still trapped sparkling in the serrated folds of the wild oats  – if that delectable meadow is a parking lot now I don’t want to know about it.

Hundreds of miles further south there is a place where antique postcards show a valley of farmland running up to green foothills laid against snow dusted grey mountain ranges.  Now foul incrustations of houses creep scablike up the foothills, the valley is paved and cluttered over and laced by grimy ropes of freeways glittering like scaly tentacles of an alien ship. The fact that the mountains are still clear and pine scented almost makes the ruination of the valley harder to accept.

When I write my own travel book I will not visit these places.  But it’s funny, rereading Travels With Charley makes me itch for a domestic road trip much more than for a trip abroad done either luxuriously or aging-hippie-style.  I must be getting old. Perhaps it’s time to get out the Rand McNally and lay in a supply of notebooks and start planning my route.****

See you tomorrow for Letter U,*****


*Kenneth Grahame’s Sea Rat, from Wind in the Willows.

**The Patient Man was in law school and I was slightly underemployed.

***I hope that makes sense, in a twisted ‘Back to the Future’ kind of way.

****It would be an interesting trip and I hope we would both come back alive. I say ‘we’ because it doesn’t seem nice to go off and leave the Patient Man, but he does not love to travel.  If we do it cheaply he bemoans the discomfort.  If we splurge a bit he bemoans the expense.  Above all else he hates to ride in the car – the speed limits and the long hours and the gross stupidity of all the other drivers create for him a private hell which he relentlessly insists I must inhabit with him.  Perhaps he can be Katz to my Bryson?

*****Yes, I know I’m a day behind.  I’m afraid I can’t do anything about it.


The Letter E (A-to-Z Challenge)

April 6, 2015

East of Eden

John Steinbeck


Among my way too many books there are five elderly paperbacks that have been read and and reread and loved almost beyond repair, they are faded and scraped and scarred from being stashed in totes and backpacks, torn and twisted from being jammed tightly into banana boxes for moving or carelessly knocked down behind nightstands or kicked under car seats where they fraternized with old homework papers and food wrappers and collected dents and nicks and grease spots; their corners are rounded and their covers are creased and tattered, their once-stiff paper spines now as flexible as fabric bandages, their edges thumbed to the softness of an old oxford shirt.  Sometimes I will reach for one of these beloved books as much for the comforting touch of their pliable bodies and their frayed and sueded covers as for their content.  Like the Velveteen Rabbit, these books have become ‘real’.

The titles of these five paper bound companions of the bosom are: The Three Musketeers, The Hobbit, The Pickwick Papers, The Canterbury Tales, and John Steinbeck’s East of Eden.

Now comes the bad part.  The fact is that I didn’t get a chance to read over East of Eden this weekend like I meant to do. This isn’t because I procrastinated or indulged in Easter excesses.  It is because when I went to reach for my comfortable old velvet-soft copy I remembered with a horrid shock that SOMEONE had BORROWED it and LOST it.

I do have a new copy, but it is beyond horrible.  I don’t know why anyone would bind a book like this.  It’s awkwardly over sized, not quite tall and wide enough for its thickness.  The pages are made of that rough craft paper people use for homemade Christmas cards which makes it unnecessarily bulky.  If it had either a flexible paper cover or a decent hard cover you could almost deal with the pages, but the textblock has been glued into a stiff, shiny armor of rigid cardstock  that seems to be constantly trying to dissociate itself from the floppy pages. However you try to hold it the sharp edged cover cuts into your hands. There is simply no way to read this book.  It’s too chunky to hold in one hand, it’s too inflexible and fat to lie open on a desk or a table and – this last bit defies belief but I swear it’s true – the pages are deckle-edged.  You literally cannot get hold of the pages to turn them.  Who on earth thinks it’s a good idea to make a deckle-edged book?  Not someone who has actually ever read a book.

So the problem is I don’t have a readable copy of East of Eden and it’s almost noon on Letter E Day.

I’m afraid that the only thing left to do is to apologize that this has turned into a story about my own copy of East of Eden instead of the recommendation for John Steinbeck’s East of Eden which I had intended, and then post it anyway.*  If only there were more hours left in this day, if only I had started thinking about this yesterday, if only I had any copy to skim through other than the nasty shiny artsy paper one that I can’t even bear to hold in my hands . . . but there aren’t, and I didn’t, and I don’t, so there it is.**

Tell you what, though, I also love Cannery Row, and I believe that ‘R’ is still up for grabs,*** so maybe we can look forward to that.

See you tomorrow for Letter F,****


*Of course, if you’re actually interested, there are bound to be dozens of reviews out there written by people way more qualified than myself.

**This did bring my word count down to 662 though.

***See my disclaimer regarding my reserving the right to abuse and/or ignore the rules of alphabetization.

****Already written, I promise!