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In Search of the American Traveler

Over the summer, I had borrowed an audio version of the John Steinbeck book, Travels With Charley; In Search of America. It was very good listening while I pulled weeds and planted squash on those monotonous summer days. I have since remembered the anecdotes of the book from time to time (when I have quiet moments of reflection). It is a very good book.

Actually, I never liked John Steinbeck novels very much. I was forced to read them and write reports on them in school. His stories were dry, depressing, and dark. I was a vivacious teenager looking for adventure, and I found it not on the demoralizing farmsteads of The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men. If only my English teachers had passed on Travels with Charley!

The book is non-fiction, a rare work for a renowned novelist like Steinbeck. The year is 1960, Steinbeck is nearing 60, and he feels he has lost touch with America and the American people. He decides to take a year-long road trip across the country in his customized camper (named Rocinante, after Don Quixote’s trusted steed) and with his poodle, Charley. It’s a wonderful story of re-acquaintance with flavorful American customs, American thought, and especially the enigmatic and peculiar American people. Steinbeck does a marvelous job of simply describing his journey. It is American travel at its best: traveling for the sense of adventure and the wide-open roads. No politics, no “save the world” or socialist-style mantras, no moralizing. He just writes what he sees. And what he sees is the undying optimism and pure gumption of a free people, thrilled with life and opportunities in a free nation. His stories of the people he meets and the experiences he shares with them are all so wonderfully unique, yet a distinctly common thread flows through them all. Steinbeck’s pen flows with American pride as he narrates his journey.

The country has changed a great deal since 1962, when the book was published. We are not so optimistic, so simple, and so daring. Materialism has choked off our sense of American adventure. Cynicism has stifled our friendliness. We aren’t as happy a people anymore, and we have lost our religious and spiritual moorings. The tables have turned– Steinbeck novels no longer depress America, America depresses Steinbeck novels.

Why must the American traveler have a “polemic” when traveling? Why must we travel for money, for recognition, or to change how the world perceives us? Why can’t we travel just to meet new people and make new friends and spread the joy of being free in this country (or abroad)? Moreover, I fear our developing surveillance society will kill travel altogether. Who today can hop in a Rocinante and go barreling across the country, sharing food and stories with someone you meet on the road? Sure, it still can happen, but as everyone knows, you do it at your own risk in these modern times.

John Steinbeck went in search for America those forty years ago. Today, we desperately need someone to search for the American traveler. We’ve not only lost our way, we’ve lost ourselves.

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About the Author

I've been traveling throughout New York State since I got the travel bug after touring the Herkimer Home on a school field trip as a youngster. We've been blogging about our travels since 2006 and have visited over half of New York's 62 counties so far.

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