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Tag: charley

Where Steinbeck’s saga began, and ended

The ashes of the man who inspired our — as of today — six months on the road are buried in the town where he was born, at the Garden of Memories in Salinas, where another funeral was underway when Ace and I pulled in.

There was a trumpet playing on the other side of the cemetery as Ace and I sought out John Steinbeck’s final resting place. Members of the Garcia family were — in a ceremony that included the sounding of some joyous notes – sending off one of their own.

As trumpets played a peppy tune, and with help from a sign, we found the short, flat grave marker of the author whose legend looms large as redwoods, and we stood there silently.

Not all of Steinbeck’s ashes are here. Some, after his death in 1968, were spread by his family at Point Lobos, a state reserve in Carmel, where, one can only imagine, they scattered in the wind, caressed the rocks, and made their way to the churning sea.

Our gravesite visit — along with scoping out Steinbeck’s boyhood home, now home to the Steinbeck House restaurant and gift shop — was sandwiched between the highly informative four hours we spent at the National Steinbeck Center.

In the morning, my dog waited in the car while I spent two hours talking to Herb Behrens, a curator there who I could have listened to all day.

Then Ace and I walked around downtown Salinas, grabbed lunch and drove out to the cemetery, where I explained to him that urination, or any other bodily functions, would not be permitted. Between making sure he was well-drained beforehand, keeping him on a short leash, and uttering a few “No’s” when he got to sniffing, that was easily accomplished.

Back at the center, Ace waited in the car again as I spent some time wandering through exhibits based on Steinbeck’s books, ending with “Travels with Charley.” That’s where we finally spied Rocinante — the camper, named after Don Quixote’s horse, that Steinbeck and Charley toured the country in.

It sits behind protective plastic shields, restored and gleaming, with a foam Charley in the passenger seat. Of course, I had to reach over the barrier and touch it, likely leaving a greasy fast food fingerprint on its well-polished green surface.

Rocinante ended up at General Motors headquarters in New York City after Steinbeck’s trip with Charley, where it was displayed in a window.

A New York banker named William Plate saw it there and bought it, using it for hauling hay and other light chores at his farm in Maryland.

After putting another 10,000 to 15,000 miles on it, Plate donated it to the center — a museum and memorial to Steinbeck that opened in 1998.

Steinbeck opted to travel the country in a camper mainly so that he could remain anonymous. Staying in motels and hotels — though he ended up doing that more than the book lets on — might have led to someone identifying him, which he wanted to avoid. He wanted to experience regular people being regular, not fawning over or trying to impress a famous author.

So he wrote to General Motors.  “I wanted a three-quarter ton pickup truck, and on this truck I wanted a little house, built like the cabin of small boat.”

The truck he received was a new GMC, with a V6 engine, an automatic transmission, and an oversized generator. The camper was provided by the Wolverine Camper Company of Glaswin, Michigan.

The decision to take his poodle, Charley, along, was actually an afterthought — one that was encouraged by his wife, Elaine, who reportedly had concerns about her husband traveling alone.

Inside the camper, Steinbeck had a pretty sweet set up — a refrigerator and stovetop, lots of wooden cabinets and a big table to write on, though most of what he wrote during the trip consisted of letters to family and friends

Rocinante is probably the ultimate, and definitely the heaviest, piece of Steinbeck memorabilia that has ended up at the center, where items continue to arrive.

Behrens showed me two of the more recent acquisitions – a chair and globe from Steinbeck’s apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where Steinbeck was living at the time of his death in 1968. His widow remained there until 2003, the year she died. Some of the apartment’s contents were put up for sale at an auction this year. The globe and chair were purchased by a man whose father lived in Salinas, and he donated them to the center in his father’s name.

The light-up globe lights up no more. Its electrical cord is still attached but there’s no plug on the end of it. On the globe, there are lines either John or Elaine drew, indicating the trans-Atlantic trips they had taken.

But the trip Steinbeck remains best known for was the one with his dog.

Almost every year, Behrens hears from someone who is repeating it — with a dog, without a dog, on a motorcycle, in an RV.

When I asked Behrens why — what moves people to retrace the path of “Travels with Charley,” moreso than they do Jack Kerouac’s route in “On the Road,” or William Least Heat-Moon’s in “Blue Highways” — he answered the question with a question:

“Why are you doing it?”

I hemmed and hawed — it being a question I’d pondered silently, in my own brain, over much of the 18,000 or so miles Ace and I have traveled thus far.

A complete answer might have taken another two hours, given all the variables: My respect for, and interest in, the author. To see America’s dogs. To further bond with Ace. To feed the blog. To revisit places and people of my youth. To retrigger memories. To maybe someday write a book about it — a “Travels with Charley” for modern times. But I gave him the condensed version:

“I guess because I’m unemployed, and it gives me something to write about,” I said.

And maybe the real answer is as simple and gramatically incorrect as that: A writer’s gotta write.

Clearly, considering the body of his work — fiction and non — that was the case with John Steinbeck.

For him, it was an obsession, and a private one. He valued his privacy so much that, when he lived in Sag Harbor, Long Island, where he wrote “Travels with Charley,” he built an eight-sided shack to write in, and  built it in such a way that only one person could occupy it, Behrens said.

Selling books was never Steinbeck’s strong point, Behrens said. “He felt his job as a writer was to write, and not go on book tours. Nowadays he would be a failure because he wouldn’t go on tours and talk shows.”

His last complete book – not counting those compiled by others — was “Travels with Charley,” not his most powerful work, but clearly his most beloved.  Unlike “The Grapes of Wrath,” which was burned in several locations, Salinas included, “Charley” was, for the most part, adored by America. And it still is.

Behrens — and I agree with him — gives Charley most of the credit. “Without Charley, I don’t think Steinbeck would have sold 10 copies,” he said. He was exaggerating, but only to make a pretty valid point. The author’s skills and fame aside, there’s one reason the book was such a hit, one reason its popularity hasn’t wilted:

The dog.

Charley is buried back at Sag Harbor, beneath a tree in the yard, in a grave with no marking, at the opposite of the continent from where Steinbeck’s ashes rest and are still visited by flower-bearing friends and fans, and once in a while, a dog.

Big dog dwarfed: Ace among the redwoods

John Steinbeck’s French-born poodle, Charley, had little reaction to the giant redwood trees of southern Oregon and northern California – much to the chagrin of the author whose path we have been following for the past three months.

Based on what he wrote in “Travels with Charley,” seeing his dog make “his devoirs” — “devoirs” being French for “paying respect,” and paying respect being Steinbeck’s euphemism for peeing — was clearly important to him.

Charley urinating on a giant redwood, Steinbeck said, might “set him apart from other dogs — might even be like that Galahad who saw the Grail. The concept is staggering. After this experience he might be translated mystically to another plane of existence, to another dimension, just as the redwoods seem to be out of time and out of our ordinary thinking.”

He made a point of keeping Charley shielded from the trees, in the back of his camper Rocinante, until pulling over at the biggest redwood he could find.

“This was the time I had waited for. I opened the back door and let Charley out and stood silently watching, for this could be dog’s dream of heaven in the highest.” But Charley ignored the tree, Steinbeck wrote. “Look, Charley. It’s the tree of all trees. It’s the end of the quest.”

Then, he wrote, “I dragged him to the trunk and rubbed his nose against it. He looked coldly at me and forgave me and sauntered away to a hazelnut bush.” Not until Steinbeck broke off a willow branch, whittled one end to a point and inserted into the bark of the giant redwood did Charley do what seemed so important to Steinbeck. Devoirs accomplished.

It’s not exactly one of the warmest dog-human moments in the book — and Charley’s aloofness was pretty much the opposite of Ace’s reaction to the magnificent giants.

Ace rose up as we entered our first redwood forest and pressed his nose against the closed window. As always, I motored his window halfway down so he could sniff as well as see as we rode down a winding stretch of two-lane highway, rolling from dark shadows into blinding sunlight.

When we finally pulled over alongside a grove of redwoods, Ace was eager to get out, and tugged me into the forest.

He slowly approached the biggest tree, and I could swear his eyes bulged as he took it in.

He sniffed it, peed on it, and jumped up on it to sniff some more.

It was an amazing thing to watch, and I wondered what the human counterpart to this might be — walking into your bathroom one morning to see your toilet 50 times its normal size?

I won’t even try to describe the awe the redwoods inspire. Photos can’t do them justice. Word can’t do them justice, though Steinbeck came as close as anyone to getting across the “remote and cloistered feeling” one has when among them.

“One holds back speech for fear of disturbing something … for these are the last remaining members of a race that flourished over four continents as far back in geologic time as the upper Jurassic period.”

As the author noted, they have a way of making us realize how insignificant we are: “Can it be that we do not love to be reminded that we are very young and callow in a world that was old when we came into it?”

Sickly in Spokane, sleepy in Seattle

I extend my apologies to the two most recent Motel 6’s my dog Ace and I patronized — for, despite my best efforts to clean things up, I fear Ace left his mark, or at least a distinct scent.

Ace, just like John Steinbeck’s Charley — and almost as if on script – got sick in Spokane.

For Charley, the problem was being unable to pee, and it began, according to “Travels with Charley”  in Idaho, the night  Steinbeck counseled a father and son from who he rented a cabin for the night.

The teenager wanted to leave rural Idaho and move to New York to pursue a career in hairdressing … “Not barbering — hairdressing — for women,” Steinbeck quotes the father as saying. “Now maybe you see why I got worries.”

To his credit, Steinbeck, as he describes it, supported the son’s career choice:

“I tell you that a clever, thoughtful, ambitious hairdresser wields a power beyond the comprehension of most men,” he explained to the worried dad.

That night, Steinbeck’s poodle Charley woke his master with his whines. The dog’s abdomen was distended and his nose and ears were hot, Steinbeck noted. “I took him out and stayed with him, but he could not relieve the pressure.”

Steinbeck, playing vet, gave Charley some of his sleeping pills, Seconal, assuming it would relax the dog’s tensed up insides. According to the book, Charley fell alseep on the bed, fell off it, tried to get up, and stumbled. He managed to walk outside briefly before coming back inside and immediately falling asleep again.

The next morning, Steinbeck rushed him to a veterinarian in Spokane, who diagnosed Charley as an old dog. On Steinbeck’s insistence though, he eventually agreed to give the dog a pill to help flush out his kidneys. Once in Seattle — where Charley rested up for a few days in some undisclosed whereabouts — Steinbeck questioned whether the constant vibration of his camper, Rocinante, might be the cause of, or at least contributing to, his dog’s troubles.

I was asking myself some similar questions as Ace and I drove from Spokane toward Seattle. Is the trip taking a toll on him? Should we stop and visit a vet? His problem wasn’t the same as Charley’s. It was diarrhea. Other than that — the sudden need to poop and its runny consequences — he showed no signs of being sick. He still ran in circles and played at our rest stops. His nose was cold. His eyes were clear. He was, as always, ready to eat.

I’d cleaned up four runny piles of poop at the Motel 6 in Spokane — all of which were deposited as I slept — and was worried the next night might bring the same.

I went ahead and drove all the way to Seattle’s outskirts, wanting to clear Snoqualmie Pass before more snow came, but — not wanting to show up with a runny dog at the house of some old friends who’d agreed to put us up — I checked into a Motel 6 in Kirkland.

I realized the next morning it was a good choice — for me and my friends, if not for the Motel 6. Ace had left another deposit on the floor. Having used up all my paper towels the night before, I resorted to trying to clean it up with toilet paper and copious amounts of water. I scooped, and blotted, then scrubbed, which would leave little pills of toilet paper all over the spot, but eventually it turned the same color as the rest of the carpet. And opening the windows wide was helping air the place out.

Even as I worked to clean things up though, Ace would head to the door with a panicky look in his eyes. He left several more unscoopable deposits outside.

I called my friends and warned them, suggested even that maybe they won’t want us as house guests. I was worried Ace might mess their home, or contaminate their two dogs. They told me to come on over.

The first thing I noticed when I arrived at their home in Kirkland was the nice cream-colored carpeting in most rooms.

My friend Marilyn, a nurturing type, told me not to worry, and fed Ace some cottage cheese. Then she cooked up some rice, which he’d eat for dinner the next two nights.

I decided to wait another day before contacting a vet and went to sleep worried — and with one hand on Ace, who was sprawled out on the bed next to me, in hopes that if he stirred, it would wake me up.

It worked, and about an hour after I fell asleep, he got up, and so did I, immediately seeing that panicked look in his eyes. We rushed down the stairs and outside, then went back to bed — once again with my hand resting atop him. The rest of the night was, thankfully, poopless; but he got up early to rush outside again.

So far, the cream-colored carpets have remained cream colored. Marilyn, in saintly fashion, has continued to pamper him. There have been no accidents.  I’ve got my fingers crossed and — probably on account of worrying so much about his stomach — a sort of non-peaceful, queasy feeling in mine.

Montana: The love affair continues

John Steinbeck and I — in addition to traveling with our dogs, being about the same age when we set forth on our journeys, having the same first names, and a lot of the same letters in our last ones — share something else as well.

A mistress.

I have trysted with her three times — as a reporter in the early 1990′s, as a visiting professor in 2007, and as whatever it is I am now. She’s as beautiful and inviting as she was the first time we met — and, I’m sure, as she was 50 years ago, when she seduced John Steinbeck.

“I am in love with Montana,” Steinbeck wrote in Travels with Charley. It was his first trip to the state. “For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection, but with Montana it is love, and it’s difficult to analyze love when you’re in it.”

He babbled on, as people in love do: “…the mountains are the kind I would create if mountains were ever put on my agenda … the calm of the mountains and the rolling grasslands had got into the inhabitants … the towns were places to live in rather than nervous hives. People had time to pause in their occupations to undertake the passing art of neighborliness.”

“Of all the states it is my favorite and my love.”

Steinbeck — apparently getting into being “out west” — stopped in Billings and bought a cowboy hat. In Butte, he bought a rifle. He dipped down into Yellowstone National Park, but after seeing Charley’s reaction to bears that approached his car — “He became a primitive killer lusting for the blood of his enemy” — he turned around and spent night in Livingston.

Ace and I stopped in Billings, in Bozeman, in Butte, and have arrived in Missoula — with no new hats and no sidearms. I am considering investing in a pair of gloves though. Winter is clearly on the way. People are stacking their wood, squirrels are hoarding their nuts, and the sky is taking on that steelier glow it does here in winter.

Once again, the return to a place I briefly called home has triggered memories. The closer I got to Missoula — winding through the hills alongside the Clark Fork River — the more of them resurfaced, leading me to wonder how I could have temporarily misplaced them, especially those that were only three years old.

I guess, they go into deep storage, like the earliest nuts the squirrels gather — pushed to the back to make room for new ones. But I don’t think I get a vote in the matter; it just happens. Returning to a place seems to make them accessible again; I can — with a little help from a familiar sight, sound, or smell — pull them out of the disorganized file cabinet that is my mind, open them up and say, “Oh, yeah, I remember that now.”

It could be something as simple as the lay of the land — they way grassy golden hills climb up into the big blue sky, a sharp curve in crystal clear river, the golden outline of Tamaracks among evergreen. Just seeing the general scale and expanse of it all triggers Montana memories — even memories that have nothing to do with the scale and expanse of it all.

Nearing Missoula — and (after North Dakota turned bleak) getting to experience fall all over again — I was surprised how the yellows were popping on the trees, and by how many things were popping into my head.

Some of them were from nearly 20 years ago — visiting the Unabomber’s former, still forlorn, shack in the woods; hanging out in radon mines, where people soak in radioactivity to heal what ails them; documenting the influx of celebrities to the state, which back then were becoming as common, and unloved, as deer.

Some of them — memories, I mean, not celebrities — were only three years old, and less dusty: long hikes in the mountains; the little house we rented, dubbed the “shack-teau,” while I was a visiting journalism professor at the University of Montana; the peaceful (mostly) campus; my earnest (mostly) students; and how we chased the muck train — as it began transferring mining waste that had collected in the river outside Missoula 100 miles back east to a little town called Opportunity — for our class project.

Memories that had faded like ghost signs kept returning — of fellow professors; of time spent at the student newspaper, The Kaimin; of a party, or two, or three, or four; and how I didn’t (really, really didn’t) want to leave when the semester was over. Because I flat out loved it.

And therein — on top of returning to a place, seeing and smelling it — is one of the keys to recalling times past, at least for me. Your brain alone can’t always take you back there; sometimes, it needs an assist from the heart.

All the world’s a stage — even Fargo

John Steinbeck, as he tells it in “Travels with Charley,” didn’t stop in Fargo.

He kept Rocinante rolling another 40 miles until he stumbled upon a more idyllic setting — yet another riverside camping spot, this one along the Maple River, near the sleepy little farming town of Alice. There, he just so happened to run into what would turn out to be one of the book’s more colorful characters, an itinerant Shakespearean actor.

Steinbeck would break out the coffee, and the whiskey, and listen as his flamboyant fellow camper explained that he performed Shakespeare around the country, in tents, in high schools  … “wherever two or three are gathered together … With me there’s no question of doing something else. It’s all I know — all I ever have known.”

Steinbeck recounted the meeting in great detail — including how the actor unfolded a packet of aluminum foil to reveal a note he once received from John Gielgud. After that, explaining the importance of a good exit, the actor makes one.

Was the Shakesperean actor a dramatic invention in Steinbeck’s classic work of non-fiction? We’ll probably never know. But indications are, just maybe, something is rotten in the state of North Dakota.

From all existing clues, it appears Steinbeck didn’t actually sleep in the town of Alice on the night of Oct. 12, which can only lead one to wonder if the actor was real, or if, like Tom Joad in ”The Grapes of Wrath,” he was artfully concocted by the author, most of whose works were fiction.

If so, it wouldn’t be the first discrepancy between Steinbeck’s account in “Travels with Charley” and what his papers and other sources reveal about his 1960 trip.

Many of those are now being brought to light by blogger Bill Stiegerwald as he retraces Steinbeck’s route. (Bill, who we met at the begining of our trip is a good two weeks ahead of me.)

“Contrary to what he wrote so nicely and in such detail in ‘Charley,’ Steinbeck didn’t camp overnight near Alice on the Maple River or anywhere else on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 1960,” Stiegerwald concluded on his blog, Travels Without Charley. “He stayed at… in Beach, N.D., some 300-plus miles to the west.”

This, along with some of the recent stops on our own retracing of Steinbeck’s travels with Charley, brings us back to our discussion of the truth in fiction, and the fiction in truth.

We’re all for the former, but have some problems with the latter. We have nothing against using the techniques of fiction writing in non-fiction – in portraying the innate suspense of a situation, or the turmoil raging inside characters; or in skipping over the boring stuff.  (Otherwise, a writer might end up boring readers with something as mundane as tossing french fries to his dog.)

But we’d argue that a reader of books, even a reader of blogs, deserves — like an eater of food — to know what he’s consuming. What sort of liberties an author of non-fiction has taken in processing the facts is information to which a reader should have access, much like a diner should be able to find out what sort of oil a fast food restaurant uses to cook its french fries.

The line between fiction and non-fiction, it seems, is becoming a difficult to define boundary. Then again, maybe it has always been so.

Earlier this week, our “Travels with Ace” took us to Sauk Centre, or as Sinclair Lewis called it in his 1920 novel “Main Street,” Gopher Prairie. “Main Street,” while labeled fiction, exposed many truths about small town life — more, at least initially, than some Sauk Centre residents cared to be exposed, proving that not only does the truth hurt, but fiction can as well.

Our next, and latest, stop was Fargo, which most people know through the Coen brothers movie of same name. The movie starts off with the words: “This is a true story …  At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.”

But “Fargo” — whose characters were mostly portrayed as dull-witted sorts, living in a frozen wasteland — wasn’t a true story at all; rather it was a concoction of the wonderfully degenerate minds of two brothers from neighboring Minnesota.

Both the movie “Fargo” and the book “Main Street” brought some unflattering notoriety to the towns they were depicting — much like Steinbeck’s novel, “The Grapes of Wrath,” offended some Oklahomans.

In addition to criticism that “The Grapes of Wrath” was too political, didn’t accurately describe the migration of farm families from the dust bowl to California, and some nitpicking that Sallisaw, the town it opens in, was not actually part of the Dust Bowl (a fairly major nit), there were those who thought the novel portrayed “Okies” as illiterate hicks.

(Possibly, that’s why when he was traveling with Charley, Steinbeck sidestepped the state of Oklahoma.)

In each case, though, once the dust settled, there was something close to a happily-ever-after ending – some acknowledgement of the truth beneath the fiction, or at least some evidence that any perceived slights were forgiven.

Sauk Centre, where Main Street now intersects with Sinclair Lewis Boulevard, has embraced Lewis, its most famous son, with an annual festival.

In Fargo, chamber of commerce types proclaim there has been “a renaissance” — not so much due to the movie itself, maybe, as to the efforts to show the world there was more to Fargo than the movie portrayed. In 2006, on the movie’s 10th anniversary, it was projected on the side of the Radisson Hotel, the city’s tallest building as part of the Fargo Film Festival.

And even Sallisaw, on the 100th anniversary of Steinbeck’s birth, started a “Grapes of Wrath” festival, though it was short-lived. It has since been replaced with the annual Diamond Daze Festival, which isn’t Steinbeck-related at all.

All of which, in addition to just being interesting, serves as proof that — as the maybe real, maybe not Shakespearean actor in “Travels with Charley” might have said — all the world really is a stage.

Impotently roaming through Canada

We took the shortcut John Steinbeck couldn’t.

And it wasn’t because he didn’t have Mapquest. It was because he had a dog.

Steinbeck, once seeing Niagara Falls, had hoped to scoot west across southern Ontario, re-entering the U.S. at Michigan. But Canadian border officials told him that, while Charley was welcome in Canada, the author might have some problems getting his poodle back into the U.S.

Steinbeck lacked papers documenting that Charley was vaccinated against rabies, and — 1960 being pre-email, pre-fax — getting sent an instant copy wasn’t a possibility. His only choice, other than waiting on the U.S. mail, would have been to drive back into America and get Charley re-vaccinated.

So he opted to turn around. Even that proved problematic. While he never got through the gate to Canada, he got a good grilling once he was back at the entrance to the U.S., and, from the sound of it, got it bit frustrated with the U.S. officials. Steinbeck didn’t like government bureaucracies. “Government can make you feet so small and mean that it takes some doing to build back a sense of self-importance.”

Ace and I on the other hand would have no problem on either end. I had his paperwork, but wasn’t asked for it at any point.

We zipped right through Ontario, traveling less than four hours, and under 200 miles, as opposed to the seven hours and more than 400 miles it would have taken had we stayed in the U.S., veering south and north again.

The scenery, once we got outside of Niagara Falls, wasn’t much different than what Pennsylvania and Ohio would have offered — a lot of the same flat land and fast food franchises. The only real difference was the money and the metric system. I stopped for some 99-cent gas — even though I knew it was that much per liter. And even though it cost about the same to fill my tank, it still felt good to get something — ephemeral as it was — for under a dollar.

I popped inside the gas station to get some cigarettes, and asked when I didn’t see the standard racks of them behind the counter. The employee pulled open a big drawer — law requires them to be kept out of view — revealing numerous brands I’d never heard of in funny boxes. I asked her what was cheap.

She recommended “Next.” I paid in American, got change in Canadian. The pack’s government-required warning — one of several really hard-hitting ones — showed a burned cigarette, with all its ash hanging on, though in a very limp manner, and a written reminder that the cigarettes I intended to smoke could make me impotent.

That not being a big factor in my life right now, I lit one up. They were shorter than American cigarettes, which is how America would want it, but there are more to the pack.

I would have liked to spend a night in Ontario, smoking my Nexts, and the only reason I didn’t was fear of big roaming charges if I got on my phone or my computer.

Leave it to America to come up with roaming charges (I’m assuming we invented them). What’s next? Freedom fees. Wanderlust taxes? Curiosity tolls? America seems to like us to stay put and spend money, and if we go somewhere, have a destination and reach it, thruway style. Do what the GPS lady says. Don’t you dare stray from the path. Stay within the parameters of your network.

I’m sure there are good reasons for roaming fees, I just don’t like the name. The word “fees” should just not be attached to a concept as free and wide open as “roaming.”

I feel a song coming on:

Oh, give me a home, where the buffalo roam (fees may apply)

And the deer and the antelope text.

As a society, partly because of our increasing tendency to take directions from computers, we have grown less likely to be vacilando. It’s a Spanish word, from the verb vacilar. As Steinbeck notes in Travels With Charley: “If one is vacilando, he is going somewhere, but doesn’t greatly care whether or not he gets there.”

Steinbeck said there is no English equivalent for the Spanish word. I would argue “roaming” comes pretty close, though.

Vacilando as we’ve been on our journey, we didn’t wander much in Ontario, and managed to get to Sarnia and the U.S. entry gate just as the sun was going down. There was no search, there were no seizures, just a flash of the passport, a peek at the dog and a few polite questions about whether I’d purchased anything in Canada (“Just these funny little cigarettes,” I replied).

We stopped for the night right there — in Port Huron — and took off the next morning for the other side of Michigan and step two of our shortcut: a ferry ride across Lake Michigan.

Of moose and men

So far, we have veered wildly off the path John Steinbeck took 50 years ago — the one that led to his book, “Travels with Charley,” and the one we intend to loosely follow in the months ahead.

Rather than go to Deerfield, Massachusetts, we went to Provincetown. Rather than go to Deer Isle, Maine, we went to Bar Harbor. Wise decisions both, as it turned out.

For while Steinbeck was out to reconnect with, and take the pulse of, the country, we’re more in search of people and places that have a special connection with dogs. Though it’s one of my favorite books, by one of my favorite authors – and one I would never be so bold as to take shots at — there was never enough Charley in “Travels with Charley,” for my tastes.

Bringing the dog along was, in fact, an afterthought — a concession, in part, to his wife, who had concerns about Steinbeck’s health and safety alone on the road.

After a few weeks, as he ventured into Maine’s more northern reaches, it was Steinbeck who had concerns about Charley’s safety — mainly that his poodle might fall victim to hunters.

Steinbeck wasn’t real big on hunting, describing some sportsmen as  “overweight gentlemen, primed with whiskey and armed with high powered rifles. They shoot at anything that moves or looks as though it might …”

Worried that Charley might be mistaken for a deer, Steinbeck wrapped a red kleenex around his dog’s tail, fastening it with rubber bands: “Every morning I renewed his flag, and he wore it all the way west while bullets whined and whistled around us.”

As we got back on Steinbeck’s trail, heading to the northeastern-most reaches of Maine, I borrowed his idea — not tying anything to Ace’s curly tail, but, not long after we passed Maine’s highest mountain, Mount Katahdin, replacing his brown bandana with a bright red one.

I-95, north of Bangor is a glorious stretch of road (for an Interstate) — especially at the peak of fall. It’s billboard free, and designed in such a way that you rarely see the lanes of traffic bound the other way. We followed it to Houlton, then headed north up Highway 1, through Presque Isle, Caribou and Van Buren.

Then we followed along the Canadian border, enjoying the sight of the leaves turning in two countries, and stopping for the night in Madawaska, Maine’s most northeastern town, where we checked into Martin’s Motel.

The accomodations were perfectly fine, but Ace seemed jumpy — like he is when we camp.

Something was bothering him, and I’m not sure what. Maybe he’s road-weary. Perhaps it was an upset stomach; he was flatulent during the whole drive — making it a heat-on, windows-open kind of day. He’s scratching a lot, and may need a bath and a flea treatment. Maybe he was picking up a hunting season vibe — sesning that it’s that time of year, in these parts, when testosterone rises like maple tree sap and men venture into the woods to kill animals.

The lead story in last week’s St. John Valley Times — “Teen bags moose in first 20 minutes” — recounted how Corey Daigle bagged his first moose in Madawaska. It was 1,050 pounds, with a 55 1/2-inch rack. In the photo accompanying the article, Corey is straddling the dead moose, with one hand on each antler.

“I feel good about it,” the newspaper quotes him as saying. “It was a picture perfect day.”

Last week was first week of moose hunting for eight of Maine’s Wildlife Managment Districts, or, as they’re called in the abbreviated form, WMD’s.

All other news took a back seat to that, including the other story on the front page, about a woman in Fort Kent who hand knits mittens, hats and other winter gear receiving a small business grant from the state.

The newspaper’s police blotter, meanwhile, carried crime reports from previous weekend:

Friday, 9:04 a.m: Female called to question leash laws in town. She claims a woman walks her dog without a leash and the dog does its  “business” on the lawns of everyone and owner does not pick it up… 4:51 p.m.: Female called to question: Is there a street dance. Advise didn’t know…

Saturday, 7:21 a.m:. Individual called to find out what time is parade …  8:11 a.m.: Female called regarding a missing dog … 12:56 p.m.: Individual called to report found a dog on a local road…

Sunday, 9:43 a.m.: Female called to report a lost poodle….10:43 a.m.: Vandalism to mailboxes, relay to officer … 9:01 p.m.: Male called to report a skunk with a bottle on its head…

A good half of the items on the blotter were animal related –  lost dogs, mostly — and it got me to thinking about how man can pamper and pine over the loss of one animal, then go out and shoot another. There are the species we love — dog, cat, horse – and the species we love to hunt, kill, eat, and have mounted as trophies.

“Somehow, the hunting process has to do with masculinity, but I don’t quite know how,” Steinbeck wrote.

I don’t, either. But I know this much: Until hunting season is over, my dog isn’t leaving my side.

(Dead moose photo: St. John Valley Times)

(Other photos by John Woestendiek)

They gave him her breast, andthen he pulled the trigger.