It was our second visit to Salinas, California and this time, just as last, we found ourselves spending the afternoon with an old friend; one whose own Great American Road Trip had not only significantly preceded, but also strongly influenced, ours.
During our stay it occurred to us that we really should share his story with our readers; some of whom may already know it but would nonetheless profit from a reminder. And as a writer of some accomplishment in his own right, we figured there could be no better way to introduce the trip that so inspired us than to hand over the reins and let him simply speak for himself.
My plan was clear, concise, and reasonable, I think. For many years I have traveled in many parts of the world. In America I live in New York, or dip into Chicago or San Francisco. But New York is no more America than Paris is France or London is England. Thus I discovered that I did not know my own country. So it was that I determined to look again, to try to rediscover this monster land.
For this project I procured a three-quarter-ton pick-up truck, capable of going anywhere under possibly rigorous conditions, equipped with a camper top, rather like the cabin of a small boat or the shell of a learned snail. And because my planned trip had aroused some satiric remarks among my friends, I took to calling it Operation Windmill and named my truck Rocinante, which you will remember was the name of Don Quixote’s horse.
Under the big oak trees of my place at Sag Harbor sat Rocinante, handsome and self-contained, and neighbors came to visit, some neighbors we didn’t even know we had. I saw in their eyes something I was to see over and over in every part of the nation – a burning desire to go, to move, to get under way, anyplace, away from Here. I saw this look and heard this yearning everywhere in every state I visited.
Since I made no secret of my project, a number of controversies arose among my friends and advisors. It was said that my New York license plates would arouse interest, and so they did. But such contacts followed an invariable pattern, somewhat as follows:
Local man: “New York, huh?”
Local man: “I was there once. I hated it. Wouldn’t live there if you paid me.”
There was also some genuine worry about my traveling alone. For this reason I took one companion – an old French gentleman poodle known as Charley. Actually his name is Charles le Chien. He was born in Bercy on the outskirts of Paris and trained in France, and while he knows a little poodle-English, he responds quickly only to commands in French. Otherwise he has to translate, and that slows him down.
Charley is a born diplomat. He prefers negotiation to fighting, and properly so, since he is very bad at fighting. In establishing contact with strange people, Charley is my ambassador. I release him, and he drifts toward the objective, or rather whatever the objective may be preparing for dinner. I retrieve him so that he will not be a nuisance to my neighbors – et voila! A child can do the same thing, but a dog is better.
In long-range planning for a trip, I think there is a private conviction that it won’t happen. As the day approached, my warm bed and comfortable house grew increasingly desirable and my dear wife incalculably precious. To give these up for three months for the terrors of the uncomfortable and unknown seemed crazy. I didn’t want to go. Something had to happen to forbid my going, but it didn’t.
I knew that ten or twelve thousand miles driving a truck, alone and unattended, over every kind of road, would be hard work, but in my own life I am not willing to trade quality for quantity. For I have always lived violently, drunk hugely, eaten too much or not at all, 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.
The morning came, a bright one with the tawny look of autumn in the sunlight. My wife and I parted quickly, since both of us hate good-bys. And I, with Charley beside me, drove Rocinante to the Shelter Island Ferry for I wanted to avoid New York traffic and get well on my way.
After a time I pulled Rocinante into a small picnic area maintained by the state of Connecticut and got out my book of maps. And suddenly the United States became huge beyond belief and impossible ever to cross. I wondered how in hell I’d got myself mixed up in a project that couldn’t be carried out.
I ended up having a conversation with Charley about roots. He listened but he didn’t reply. Could it be that Americans are a restless people, a mobile people, never satisfied with where they are as a matter of selection? The pioneers, the immigrants who peopled the continent, were the restless ones in Europe. The steady rooted ones stayed home and are still there. Wouldn’t it be unusual if we had not inherited this tendency? Charley had no answer to my premise.
For my part I know that when I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked. I fear the disease is incurable.
- John Steinbeck
Adapted from Travels with Charley