Travels with Charley:
as well as Jack, Allen, Edwin, Charles, Peter, and nearly everyone else.
America is a nation of ramblers. From the literary approach of Travels with Charley, (John Steinbeck) to the scientific exactitude of Autumn Across America, (Edwin Way Teale) to the endless meanderings and parties of On the Road and Dharma Bums (Jack Kerouac), the people of our nation love to travel.
Our wander lust has spawned a market for popular magazines such as Endless Vacation, at least one television journalism series, On the Road with Charles Kuralt, and the pop film Easy Rider, known as the story of a search for an America that was never found. Travel Writing is an important category of journalism, but I believe it is also a largely unrecognized and unexplored aspect of literary writing.
Early in the book, Travels with Charley: in search of America, Steinbeck whimsically names his camper truck after the sturdy mount of Don Quixote, Rocinante. The truck is the star of the earliest part of the narrative, with several admirers indicating that they would love to go. In some cases, they don’t even know where Steinbeck is going, and have no idea where they want to go. A visit to his son at Deerfield Academy results in several teen aged boys attempting to stow away in the camper. The going seems to be the point, not the destination.
By contrast, Edwin Way Teale set out with very specific objectives when he embarked on the travels that resulted in the four book series, The American Seasons, and a Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. He began with a quick trip south and then drove North, observing the seasonal changes, the migrations of wildlife and the work of naturalists and environmental scientists he met along the way. He then traveled widely and recorded his further observations in Journey into Summer, Autumn Across America, and Wandering Through Winter. The series is an introduction to the natural marvels of our great nation.
This approach is less exactly followed by Peter Matthiessen in his conservation epic, The Snow Leopard. Matthiessen traveled with the taciturn George Shaller, referred to as G.S. in the book, in search of the blue Dahl Sheep and the Snow Leopard of the Tibetan plain. As a Zen Buddhist, Matthiessen was much more interested in the Buddhist shrines, the Lamas, and the porters. He left the science to G.S., appropriately known as an iron man of field biology.
Matthiessen and Shaller completed their journey with substantial observations of the Dahl Sheep but no sighting of the Snow Leopard. Matthiessen gave an appropriately Zen conclusion to his narrative. He celebrated the journey.
The Zen influence also appeared in Dharma Bums, in the enigmatic Jaffy Rider, an avatar of the prize winning poet Gary Snyder. Although the beat generation is primarily identified with the book’s author, Jack Kerouac and with Allen Ginsberg, the model for its other main character, Snyder also performed in the famous reading at Gallery Six that brought them to the world’s attention. He became a translator of oriental languages, traveled to Japan to study Zen, and is still actively writing, publishing and giving public readings today. While Kerouac’s works celebrated travels here in America, Snyder’s destination was in Asia.
Some authorities consider Ken Kesey and the “Merry Pranksters” of the Electric Kool Aid Acid Test the descendents of the beat generation. This is amplified by the presence of Kerouac’s friend and fellow traveler from On the Road, Neal Cassidy as driver of the bus that took the Merry Pranksters across the country. Their travels included a psychedelic dimension.
As the beat generation waned, traveling did not. Peter Jenkins took his own approach in A Walk Across America and its sequel. He walked from Connecticut to New Orleans stayed a while, got married, and continued the walk to the west coast. His new wife accompanied him on the second half of the journey and several friends traveled out to walk the last mile with them.
As Jenkins walked, William Least Heat-Moon drove the back roads in Blue Highways and later crossed the nation by boat in The River Horse. Much like Steinbeck, he sought to discover the land and the people.
Steinbeck certainly did not originate the narrative of restlessness recorded in these books. That honor might possibly be given to Henry David Thoreau for the records of his own travels in Cape Cod and A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, and even older records of exploration and discovery that are part of our nation’s early history. Perhaps these narratives grew out of our own history of westward movement and settling.
Whatever source we attribute for this genre of writing it exemplifies our history as a nation of ramblers. We want to go somewhere, out there, and discover the land and the people.