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:
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.
Posted by jwoestendiek November 25th, 2010 under Muttsblog.
Tags: ace, animals, ashes, birthplace, california, camper, charley, dog's country, dogs, dogscountry, garden of memories, gmc, grave, herb behrens, john steinbeck, national steinbeck center, pets, point lobos, rocinante, salinas, steinbeck, steinbeck center, steinbeck house, travel, travels with ace, travels with charley, truck, wolverine
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 sniffed it, peed on it, and jumped up on it to sniff some more.
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?”
Posted by jwoestendiek November 21st, 2010 under Muttsblog.
Tags: ace, america, animals, book, california, charley, dogs, forest, giants, grove, john steinbeck, oregon, peeing on redwoods, pets, redwood, redwoods, road trip, steinbeck, travel, traveling with dogs, travels with ace, travels with charley, tree, trees
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.
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.
Posted by jwoestendiek November 10th, 2010 under Muttsblog.
Tags: accident, ace, animals, charley, cottage cheese, diarrhea, dog, dogs, ill, ilness, john steinbeck, motel 6, pets, poop, rice, road trip, seattle, sick, spokane, steinbeck, stomach, traveling with dogs, travels, travels with ace, travels with charley, upset, washington
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.
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.
Posted by jwoestendiek November 4th, 2010 under Muttsblog.
Tags: ace, america, animals, billings, bozeman, butte, charley, john steinbeck, journalism, love, love affair, memory, missoula, montana, nostalgia, pets, recollections, road trip, senses, steinbeck, students, travel, traveling with dogs, travels with ace, travels with charley, triggers, university of montana
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.
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.
Posted by jwoestendiek October 29th, 2010 under Muttsblog.
Tags: ace, actor, alice, all the world's a stage, books, charley, coen brothers, fargo, fiction, john steinbeck, liberties, license, literature, main street, minnesota, movies, non-fiction, north dakota, novels, rocinante, sauk centre, shakespeare, sinclair lewis, steinbeck, the grapes of wrath, travels with ace, travels with charley, truth