Travels with Charley in Search of America by John Steinbeck (1962)

Why’d he go? He’s upfront upfront about it.

When you start getting old and perhaps not so well (he’s 58 at the time of writing) you begin to realise the head of the house becomes the youngest child.

I have searched myself for this possibility with a kind of horror. For I have always lived violently, drunk hugely, eaten too much or not at all, slept around the clock or missed two nights of sleeping, worked too hard and too long in glory, or slobbed for a time in utter laziness. I’ve lifted, pulled, chopped, climbed, made love with joy and taken my hangovers as a consequence, not as a punishment. I did not want to surrender fierceness for a small gain in yardage. My wife married a man; I saw no reason why should she should inherit a baby.

Steinbeck had been ill. He’d had a couple of scares. He could see the scythe’s shadow under the door.

So he decided to get off his ass and move. To go on a journey. To see the America he had written so much about. To feel it again after twenty-five years. To see if it was the same.

(The road trip ends up a ten-thousand-mile chicken thigh ‘n’ drumstick round the States. What Steinbeck finds out about his country is surprising.)

If this projected journey should prove too much then it was time to go anyway. I see too many men delay their exits with a sickly, slow reluctance to leave the stage. It’s bad theatre as well as bad living. I am very fortunate in having a wife who likes being a woman, which means that she likes men, not elderly babies. Although this last foundation for the journey was never discussed, I am sure she understood it.

Hey, let’s not kid ourselves here: a lot of the above is him talking not to us but to his third wife, Elaine.

A wise bit of prepping to make sure a rolling-pin doesn’t come whizzing after him when he buggers off.

What else to prep? Well, wheels would help.

A three-quarter-ton pickup truck with a large shed dumped on the back. Steinbeck, with due tongue-in-cheek deference to Cervantes, named it after the nutty knight Don Quixote’s bone-tired horse.

… he finally decided to call him Rocinante, a name which seemed to him grand and sonorous, and to express the common horse he had been before arriving at his present state: the first and foremost of all hacks in the world. [From Don Quixote]

Great. That’s the wife and wheels sorted.

What about a travelling companion? A latter-day Sancho Panza?

Woof.

Charley is Steinbeck’s Panza-in-a-poodle. Like Quixote and Panza, Steinbeck and Charley josh and jostle each other along the way.

Think distain, dignity, superior posturing and posing, putting on airs, cool disregard, and resigned contempt.

But love shines through. Naw.

Here’s Steinbeck pretending to be asleep when Charley is staring at him to wake him (lordy, dogs are so patient when they do that, aren’t they).

… often the war of wills goes on for a long time, I squinching my eyes shut and he forgiving me, but he nearly always wins.

Here’s Charley sulking after being shorn, He sat straight and nobly in the seat of Rocinante and he gave me to understand that while forgiveness was not impossible, I would have to work for it.

Some things were just beneath the proud pooch. Charley has no interest in cats whatever, even for chasing purposes.

Then there’s the one-upmanship. Charley could with his delicate exploring nose read his own particular literature on bushes and tree trunks and leave his message there, perhaps as important in endless time as these pen scratches I put on perishable paper.

And of course he’s far more sophisticated than Steinbeck. On coming across manure, Charley moved about smiling and sniffing ecstatically like an American woman in a French perfume shop.

Life at such close quarters for so long can have a profound effect on one’s outlook on life.

I’ve seen a look in dog’s eyes, a quickly vanishing look of amazed contempt, and I am convinced that basically dogs think humans are nuts.

Who says dogs are dumb.

Thanks for being here.

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