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Tag: steinbeck

If only I could read his mind …

While I feel pretty attuned to my dog – though nowhere near as attuned as he is to me – there have been times, lots of times, during our seven months of traveling that I’ve wondered what he really thinks of it all.

We’ve been on the go since the end of May, not staying anywhere, until our most recent stop, for longer than two or three days. More often, it has been a new Motel 6, or similarly priced lodgings, every night, followed by four, five or six hours of drive time, then landing in a new place, with new smells, which must be sniffed out and, of course, peed on.

By the time we’re done, in another week, we will have traveled over 22,000 miles, he will have peed on 31 states (and Canada) and we will have crossed the country twice in our red Jeep Liberty.

And he will have, hundreds of times, looked up at me with those big brown eyes, which are so highly expressive.

If only I knew what they were expressing.

Ace in May in North Carolina

The back of my Jeep, which once meant he was heading on an outing, has become — other than me, and dinner — one of the few constants in his life of late. It, more than any place, is home, and he still jumps in it excitedly.

During our four weeks of sitting still in Arizona, he still waits to jump in the car. Is it  conditioning, or is he truly eager to go; and, if the latter, is it because he has come to love the road, or that he wants to finally get the hell home?

Is he enjoying the adventure, or, irony of ironies, does he find the Liberty confining?

 While Ace seems to have adapted wonderfully to the new routine – or lack of one – and shows no visible signs of being unhappy, I still wonder if not being rooted, not having one place to call home, is bothering him.

Ace in June in Alabama

Does he find being a vagabond liberating, as I – most of the time – do, or is he longing for a place of his own, an end to the travels, a return to the daily routine? Dogs do seem to love their routines.

His tail has remained curled most of the time, and that has always been the most obvious barometer of his mood.

But there are times I look at him, when he’s lying with his head on his paws that I wonder: Is he sad, is he depressed, or is he just lying with his head on his paws?

It’s important for me to know, because this trip, in more ways than one, is about him.

In addition to having nothing better to do, thinking it might be fun to travel across America, documenting our daily exploits and seeking out dog stories — to put together a “Travels With Charley” for modern times, only a more dog-centric version — this journey was also sparked by a feeling I was left with after writing my first book, “DOG, INC.: The Uncanny Inside Story of Cloning Man’s Best Friend.”

Ace in July, outside Amarillo

After researching the often incredible lengths bereaved pet owners go to when their dogs get sick and die, including that most high tech length of all – cloning – it struck me, in what is likely neither a deep nor original thought, that we humans could, and should, do a better job of savoring our loved ones (of all species) while they’re still around. Maybe then, rather than prolonged and paralyzing grief, we could, knowing we had fully celebrated their lives, better accept their deaths.

Ace in August, at the beach in North Carolina

I don’t really know if that would lessen the pain of a loved one’s departure. It could, for all I know, only make it worse. But that’s not the point. The point is we humans, as the song goes, “don’t know what we’ve got ‘til it’s gone,” that we take things for granted – not just unpaved paradises, but our parents, our planet, our friends and our dogs.

And while I’m as guilty as anybody on the parents and friends part, I resolved – after writing about how people go so far as to “stuff,” mummify and freeze dry their deceased pets, or pay $100,000 to produce a genetic replica through cloning – that Ace would be appreciated. In life.

In September, aboard a sailboat we slept on in Baltimore

That doesn’t mean spoiled and pampered — that’s entirely different. But I made a promise to myself to fully enjoy my dog — to, if it’s not too precious a word, treasure him (not that I didn’t already) — in our relatively brief time together. (Ace, who came into my life when he was 6 months old, is going on 7 years now, and being a big dog, will be lucky to reach the teens.)

Ace at Niagara Falls in October

I saw the trip, rightly or wrongly, as a way to do that – to take the time we shared beyond the routine of coming home from work, walking to the park, eating dinner and snuggling in front of the TV — though, again, for all I know, perhaps that was the life that Ace really preferred.

If, as I suspect, our dogs reflect our moods, then doing what makes me happiest, I reasoned, would make him happiest – especially given the fact that we’d be doing it together — and probably nothing makes me happier, other than Ace laying his head on my belly, than traveling, writing, seeing new things, and meeting new people.

So, even though finances didn’t really permit it, with an assist from my 401K and unemployment benefits, we set off on this journey, not being sure where it would lead, how long it might last, or what, other than some stories to share, it might result in.

In November, on the coast of Oregon

At first, I planned for three months on the road. When that was done, we kept going, heading to the former home of John Steinbeck on Long Island and, on the same day he left 50 years earlier, starting again, roughly following the same route the author took in “Travels With Charley.” That took another three months.

Now, we’re preparing to head back east – we’re still not sure where home is, but Baltimore will do for now. We’ll be sticking to interstate highways to make better time. If there’s one thing I’ve learned on this trip, it’s that schedules and itineraries – and particularly interstate highways — make traveling, at once, more stressful and boring. They snuff out any opportunities for spontaneity. You miss out on the character, and characters, America has to offer.

But as we “make good time,” I’ll be a little less stressed about whether Ace is enjoying the ride.

Ace and friends in December, Cave Creek, Arizona

Despite all the time I pondered the questions; despite my long looks into his soulful brown eyes attempting to gauge his emotions; despite some one-sided conversations where I’ve attempted to explain things, with his only response being giving me his paw; despite priding myself on having some dog empathy, I’d been unable to figure out the answer to that question: Is Ace having fun?

So, last week, before I left Cave Creek, I sought a second opinion.

It was Ace’s second visit with an animal communicator – the first having come when I was researching a series I wrote for the Baltimore Sun about trying to uncover the past of my mysterious new dog, adopted from what used to be the city pound.

What was he, and where did he come from? For the answers then I turned to DNA testing (which showed him to be a Rottweiler-Chow-Akita), to legwork (walking the streets of the neighborhood where records showed he’d been picked up as a stray) and, finally, to an animal communicator. Perhaps the answers, I figured, could come straight from the source: Ace.

I’m neither a big believer, or for that matter a big disbeliever, in those that claim animals talk to them, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to listen – to them, or, if possible, to Ace. 

Not long after parking myself in Cave Creek, Arizona, I visited For Goodness Sake, a thrift store that donates part of its profits to animal rescue organizations. At a weekend fund-raising event there, I entered a raffle for a session with a local animal communicator, and I won.

Last week, Ace and I sat down with Debbie Johnstone of Listen 2 Animals.

And according to her, Ace had lots to say.

(Tomorrow: Ace talks)

Home sweet trailer

Say you forked over $650 to spend the month in a trailer in the desert – actually one of those big pull-it-yourself RV campers with popouts – and when you arrived the next day to move in, a little earlier than expected, you saw that not only were the pop-outs popped in, but the trailer was hitched to a truck, appearing as if it was ready to hit the highway.

Would you:

(A) Immediately assume you’d been scammed?

(B) Shoot first and ask questions later?

(C) Politely inquire as to what might be going on?

Fortunately I chose (C) when Ace and I pulled into Petite Acres last week to move into what, after six months on the road, we’d arranged to be our home – we presumed, a stationary one – for a month in Cave Creek, Arizona.

As it turned out, my landlady wasn’t hauling the trailer away, only moving it a few feet over so that I might enjoy my entire concrete slab patio, as opposed to just the half of it that the trailer wasn’t resting on.

After a week of trailer life, Ace and I (though I shouldn’t speak for him) couldn’t be happier.

I can sit at the dinette (across from the kitchenette — midway between the bedroomette and the living roomette) and blog while looking out my windowette and enjoying a view of the mountains, strutting quail and rabbits everywhere. At night, I hear whinnying horses and howling coyotes and a few other sounds, and soundettes, I haven’t identified yet.

Ace — when he’s not resting on my camping cot — likes to position himself at the end of the trailer, where he can lay in the shade and keep an eye on all that transpires at Petite Acres.

He has learned, somewhat, not to wander off to visit other trailers, though twice I’ve caught him at the homes of my two closest neighbors, where he tends to venture when they are cooking or eating.

One of them, who introduced himself as Romero, informed me that he didn’t mind Ace dropping by, but asked that I pick up any poop he might leave there, which, unknown to me, he had done yesterday. I apologized, and Romero, who was slow cooking some pork on an outside stovetop, was very  nice about it.

Romero’s dinner smelled so good that I couldn’t be too hard on Ace for the transgression. Besides, it had happened hours before.

We’ve yet to encounter any javelina, those wild pig-like creatures who roam in the desert nearby, but I thought one morning I heard some snorting outside the trailer. We have a woodpecker friend who hangs out on the telephone pole in my dusty yard, and other birds — since I generally keep the trailer door open — have wandered inside to look around.

Yesterday, I went outside to absorb some sun — not to tan, just to bake out the morning chill. I’d just about dozed off on my lounge chair when a bird landed on me. Feeling little webbed feet on my thigh, I jerked awake, scaring him off before I could see what kind it was.

I found my temporary home on Craigslist, and, though it’s a trailer, it’s actually wider than my former rowhome in Baltimore — at least when the pop-outs, in the living room and bedroom, are popped out. I worried a little bit about hitting the wrong switch while in bed and getting compacted — hydraulically turned into a John-ette — but it turns out keys need to be inserted for the pop outs to move.

My landlady, Tami, has been wonderful, jumping on any problems that arise, showing me the ropes of RV life, and intent on making sure — though I’m only here for three more weeks — that I feel at home.

She took me to the library to get a library card, introduced me to some of her dog-loving friends and left me stocked up with movies on DVD, since there’s no TV reception. She invited me to join her and some friends at the American Legion Hall last night.

Ace and I have checked out the biker bar next door, The Hideaway Grill, enjoying some nice time there before being informed that, because of a recent incident involving a customer tripping over a leash, dogs are no longer invited to sit on the patio, at least not on busy  nights. Last night, I visited the next closest bar, The Buffalo Chip, where Wednesday nights feature bull riding. Not mechanical bulls. Real ones. Dogs are welcome there, but not on bull riding night, or Friday nights, so Ace stayed home. I didn’t ride a bull. Maybe next week.

We’ve found some nice spots to romp nearby — down the dry river bed just a few hundred yards away, at the foot of a mountain across the street, and a conservation area just a short drive away.

In addition to not getting TV reception – maybe a good thing — we don’t get mail delivery, and I have to walk my trailer trash down to the Dumpster next to the biker bar.

We’ve had some minor plumbing issues — the trailer, not me — but they were quickly resolved. (Oh, and that missing dental crown? I found it on the car floor while unpacking, and have reinstalled it in my mouth.)

I couldn’t imagine pulling this trailer — it’s a late 90′s Sea Breeze — down the highway, getting it leveled and hooked up at every stop, but, sitting still, it makes for a cozy little home that sways only slightly when Ace jumps on or off the bed or the couch.

I’ve thought I should give it a name, like John Steinbeck did with his camper, Rocinante. (Feel free to submit nominations.) There’s one I like — it’s both modest and Spanish-sounding — but it isn’t original. I saw it etched into a sign at a gift shop:

Almosta Ranch.

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.

Steinbeck Country: Monterey or bust

“The beaches are clean where once they festered with fish guts and flies. The canneries which once put up a sickening stench are gone, their places filled with restaurants, antique shops and the like. They fish for tourists now, not pilchards, and that species they are not likely to wipe out.”

John Steinbeck’s return to a much-changed Monterey in 1960 was more bitter than sweet — he found it much improved cosmetically, and economically, but its old fishing character and its saltiness were gone.

It wasn’t home anymore.

The town’s transition from a sardine-based economy to a tourist-based one was well underway by then, and while that would ensure that Monterey would continue to thrive, seeing how much had been erased — fish guts and all — returned Steinbeck, a native of the area, to the kind of funk he seemed to teeter on the edge of, periodically, in “Travels with Charley.” 

“My return caused only confusion and uneasiness,” he wrote. “… Tom Wolfe was right. You can’t go home again because home has ceased to exist except in the mothballs of memory.”

If he were to return again today to this spic and span city by the sea, he’d likely be even more displeased. Cannery Row and Fisherman’s Wharf are now full-fledged tourist attractions that, while giving nods to the past, no longer have much connection with it.

And, quite possibly, he’d be downright irate over how his name and likeness have become an integral part of the area’s business and tourism marketing.

He probably wouldn’t think much of the way his name has been seized by business operations large and small: Steinbeck Garden Inn, Steinbeck Jewelers, Steinbeck Mortgage, Steinbeck Travel, Steinbeck Credit Union, Steinbeck Country Bail Bonds.

Steinbeck shunned publicity. In fact, he once moved out of the area to avoid it. Maybe he’d be OK with his bust being on display, in Steinbeck Plaza, but to see his face flapping in the breeze on banners above the streets in Cannery Row? I’m guessing he wouldn’t care for that.

The Steinbeck bust is right in the middle of things, and tourists regularly stop and have their photos taken with it. It faces away from the bay, toward the traffic, which probably wouldn’t have been his preference, either. He stares, somewhat solemnly, into the distance. Not even Ace could get him to break into a smile.

Monterey, and the surrounding area makes much of its Steinbeck connection — Steinbeck Country, they call it — from the flatlands of Salinas to the hilly bayfront of Pacific Grove.

It was in the family cottage there, purchased by his father as a family retreat, that Steinbeck wrote several novels and got started on “Of Mice and Men.”

Steinbeck stayed in the cottage with his wife Elaine, as he headed south through California and then back east on the trip that would become “Travels with Charley,”

He visited old haunts, at least those still standing, and old friends, at least those who were still around. Between the people who had died or moved away and the makeover the city had received, Steinbeck felt out of place.

“The place of my origin had changed, and having gone away I had not changed with it. In my memory it stood as it once did and its outward appearance confused and angered me.”

Monterey was a new place. And Carmel, he wrote, ”begun by starveling writers and unwanted painters, is now a community of the well-to-do and the retired. If Carmel’s founders should return, they could not afford to live there…They would be instantly picked up as suspicious character and deported over the city line.”

Ace and I visited Cannery Row, then drove by Steinbeck’s former cottage in Pacific Grove to snap a quick photo. We found a nice spot, cliffside, near Lover’s Point, to rest our weary paws.

We walked Fisherman’s Wharf, which once served as the major port on the Pacific and whose fishermen once set off daily on quests for huge whales, and later tiny sardines — until overfishing brought the sardine industry, which thrived during the Depression, to a grinding halt in the 1950s. By 1960, as Steinbeck noted, tourists had become the city’s salvation.

In the 50 years since, the supply of them has not depleted. I’ve visited Monterey  several times, first  in 1987, and a couple more times in the early 1990′s, once for a story at Ford Ord, the once massive military base that was shut down in 1994. This visit, I was surprised to see mostly emptiness on the massive Army base by the sea, built in the 1940s to train soldiers for World War II. And surprised, too, that, given our times, it hadn’t been reopened.

Funny how sardines are limited, but we seem to have an endless supply of wars. Even over-warring doesn’t seem to bring an end to that industry.

Ace and I stayed at Motel 6 near what used to be Fort Ord, in a town called Marina, which I don’t even remember existing when I was last here. But we spent most of our time in Monterey, which, despite all the tourists trappings, despite never being my home, still never fails to touch my soul.

It’s not because of anything man has built; it’s not because John Steinbeck slept here. It’s the pockets of nature that still exist between the seafood restaurants and wax museums and souvenir shops and boutiques. It’s the topography, the way the peninsula stretches into the bay, and the wildlife that, despite all man’s tinkering, still call it home.

To me, that, more than anything else — moreso even than the famous writer — is what still gives salt-free Monterey  character:

The pelicans, the gulls, the seals and sea lions and all the other squirmy sea life you can see, not just in the confines of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, but in their natural habitat.

If I ever return — and I hope I do — that will be why.

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?”

The Seattle he saw; the Seattle I saw

When it came to Seattle, John Steinbeck found some charm in the downtown market area, but otherwise painted a bleak portrait. To him, by the time he and Charley rolled through the Emerald City, the flower was off the bloom. 

Seattle had boomed repeatedly before he arrived, thanks to lumber, gold, shipbuilding and Boeing; and, decades after he was gone, it would boom again, thanks to Microsoft, Amazon and a slew of other high tech and biotech companies that located there. 

The Seattle Steinbeck and Charley pulled into in 1960 was far different from the Seattle of today, and far different from the one he remembered — its rapid growth, in his view, having tarnished the land: 

“I remembered Seattle as a town sitting on hills beside a matchless harborage — a little city of space and trees and gardens … It is no longer so. The tops of hills are shaved off to make level warrens for the rabbits of the present. The highways eight lanes wide cut like glaciers through the uneasy land. This Seattle had no relation to the one I remembered. The traffic rushed with murderous intensity … 

“Along what had been country lanes rich with berries, high wire fences and mile-long factories stretched and the yellow smoke of progress hung over all, fighting the sea winds’ efforts to drive them off … Everywhere frantic growth, a carcinomatous growth … I wonder why progress looks so much like destruction.” 

That’s not the Seattle I saw. 

To me, Seattle seems a city that has come to handle growth far better than most. It’s one of America’s most scenic, literate, educated, progressive, well off and environmentally conscious cities. It’s green in all three meanings of the word. And it’s highly dog-friendly

Maybe it’s a case of the difference 50 years makes, or of how city leaders have taken control of the reigns of growth. Maybe, too, Steinbeck’s less than flattering description was partly a result of being a little down when he arrived — what with his dog having been sick, himself being travel weary. Likely, Steinbeck — who waited several days in Seattle for his wife, who was having difficulty getting a flight –  was getting a little crabby. 

He spent three or four days luxuriating in his hotel room near the airport, watching “I Love Lucy” and other TV shows — not the best way to get one’s fingers into the fabric of a city — as he waited for Elaine Steinbeck.

Once she arrived, they visited the downtown market before heading down the coast of Oregon together to California. Sections of the original manuscript recounting his time with his wife were later edited out of the book — the “we’s” changed to “I’s”. 

“… I walked in the old part of Seattle, where the fish and crabs and shrimps lay beautifully on white beds of shaved ice and where the washed and shining vegetables were arranged in pictures. I drank clam juice and ate the sharp crab cocktails at stands along the waterfront. It was not much changed — a little more run-down and dingy than it was twenty years ago.” 

Seattle — now better known for grunge than dinge — would continue to have it’s ups and downs  after he left. Two years after Steinbeck’s visit — the year “Travels with Charley” came out — Seattle was the site of the 1962 World’s Fair. In the late 60s and early 70s, its economy took a turn for the worse – to the point that one local Realtor put up a now legendary billboard requesting that the last resident to exit turn off the light. 

Like all big cities, Seattle, during the suburbanization of America, faced seeing its core rot away — or, as Steinbeck described it: 

“… When a city begins to grow and expand outward, from the edges, the center which was once its glory is in a sense abandoned to time. Then the buildings grow dark and a kind of decay sets in, poorer people move in as the rents fall, and small fringe buinesses take the place of once flowering establishments…” 

The downtown Seattle I saw — unlike some — was still flowering, and thriving, as much as any place is thriving nowadays. 

It’s all subjective, though. Our impression of a new place is based on the tiny part of it we see, what transpires in that process, the mood we’re in while seeing it, and, often, who we see it with.

In my case, this time around I had two long-time residents serving as my hosts and tour guides. (More on them tomorrow.) 

Had I been on my own, I likely would have sought out and found the market, but I probably wouldn’t have found what’s called the first Starbucks.

I probably wouldn’t have seen the view of the skyline from Kerry Park; the street performer that plays and juggles guitars, all while hula-hooping; or the hotel that bears the same name as my dog. (More on that Monday.)

I’d been to Seattle before, but only in a rush-in, pester-people, get-the-story, rush-out newspaper reporter kind of way. 

That — a hit and run — is not the correct way to meet a city. 

What is? 

Here again, maybe we can learn something from dogs. For starters, take your time. Forget your schedule, and all those other uniquely human notions. Instead, let the city hold its hand out to you. Circle it a time or two, explore the periphery, then approach it slowly. Give it a sniff and, if you like what you smell, maybe a lick. After that, you can jump up on it, snuggle with it, play with it, fetch what it throws, savor the treats it offers, even choose to become loyal to it.

In other words, to paraphrase the author whose route we are following, and who some might suggest failed to follow his own advice when it came to Seattle: Don’t take the trip, let the trip take you.

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.