lost, for a little while


goal accomplished: read travels with charley
February 5, 2011, 10:16 pm
Filed under: inspiration

"Travels with Charley," published in 1964.

I love books — so much so, that when we were younger, my brothers were certain I was going to become a librarian when I grew up. (I think that was meant as an insult.) But as someone who loves to read and excelled most in English courses, I have a somewhat shameful secret: I hate classic literature. Hate it. I could probably count on one hand the number of books I had to read for school that I actually enjoyed. But when I started planning this trip, John Steinbeck’s travelogue Travels with Charley: In Search of America kept popping up as required reading. I was wary, but the book is fairly short and I recalled liking The Grapes of Wrath enough to give it a shot.

Here’s the basic rundown: It’s 1960; John Steinbeck has already established himself as a well-known author and lives in Long Island with his wife and their black French Standard Poodle, Charley. But Steinbeck’s got that restlessness, that travel itch to really go and see America. As he puts it:

“I, an American writer, writing about America, was working from memory, and the memory is at best a faulty, warpy reservoir. I had not heard the speech of America, smelled the grass and trees and sewage, seen its hills and water, its color and quality of light. I knew the changes only from books and newspapers. But more than this, I had not felt the country for twenty-five years. In short, I was writing about something I did not know about, and it seems to me that in a so-called writer this is criminal.”

So he goes. He packs up a camper (tricked out to the max, might I add) named after Don Quixote’s horse, grabs Charley, and sets off on his rambling mission to see America.

The most important thing you should know about this book? John Steinbeck gets lost. A lot. But that’s only one reason to enjoy the story.

While reading it, I did something I’ve never done before: for the first time in possibly my entire life, I broke out a highlighter and made notes. In a book. A book I was reading for pleasure. This goes totally against my policy of keeping books pristine and untarnished, but I felt the need to mark certain passages so I could easily return to them. Because…

Because…

Guys, this book was written for me. Obviously, John Steinbeck predicted my quarter-life existential crisis, and decided to lay the groundwork 47 years in advance. Every page was one of those moments where you look around for another person just so you can confirm that there are witnesses to this magnificent occurrence. The soft, worn pages of my copy are covered in obnoxious green marker, pointing out gorgeous descriptions, hilarious thoughts, and useful information. (I might have to do any accompanying post with some of my favorite parts, just for my own record-keeping.)

And while I have a certain disdain for poodles of any sort, Charley ends up becoming an endearing and highly entertaining character, displaying those level-headed looks of (patient) disbelief so common in animals whenever his master’s monologues veer off course. It makes me wish I could take my own Charley with me on my trip; alas, my vehicle is much less spacious than Steinbeck’s, and I suspect Apollo is much less adventurous than Charley and would not appreciate being dragged away from his favorite napping spot.

While Steinbeck (and the dudes in Easy Rider) were intent on searching for America, I think I’ll be content with just seeing what I find. I’m a firm believer that the best expectations are no expectations. Steinbeck said it best on page four:

“We do not take a trip; a trip takes us…The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.”

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