30 Mar,2019 By Jagabond
This travel book has been my white whale. It’s not a difficult book to read, but I’m not much of a chronic reader. Therefore, the book spent many months in the left side pocket of my backpack. It didn’t cry to be read. This is a famous work by John Steinbeck, so it wasn’t longing for attention.
I finally found the focused energy to turn its pages from cover to cover, and now answer the question…is this book worth a read if you are 1) stranded overnight in a lonely European airport; 2) staying at the one boring hostel in Barcelona; or 3) experiencing another example of travel down-time?
Title: Travels with Charley
Author: John Steinbeck
Publication year: 1962
Purchase link: Amazon
A famous American author finds himself detached from the people he writes about. Seeking rediscovery he sets out with his French Poodle, Charley, on a road trip across the country. Here’s an actual picture of the two main characters.
For the most part this is a travelogue, so it lacks the typical three act structure of a fiction story. That’s not to say everything in it really happened. In fact an investigation by another writer (with a lot of time on his hands) uncovered some discrepancies with the story. Bottom line, if you’re reading this do it to share in Steinbeck’s literary adventure, not for historical accuracy.
This has the feeling of a quest plot, where Steinbeck is traveling the country to learn about his audience and characters. Due to this, the chapters act as a way to introduce new people he meets in passing. These temporary acquaintances were much more interesting in the days before social media. Today you can electronically connect with someone after a brief encounter and be computer friends for life. Back when this book was written, travel meetups were moments in time that were likely never revisited.
The driving force of the book is thus everyone he meets on his travels. I’ve listed some of my favorites below.
There were other things I enjoyed. The introductory chapter where he preps his vehicle and fends off a hurricane is a great way to open the novel. Charley meeting the bears was an epic scene. I won’t spoil the ending, but I agree with the sentiment that often a trip is over before you get home, and sometimes you can even remember the exact moment. There were many quotes that resonated with me, but none more than this one.
“People don’t take trips—trips take people.”
I’m a crazy dog lover, and even wrote an entire blog entry on my favorite dogs in Europe. I’m also an avid road tripper. The one thing I haven’t done is combine the two and road trip with a dog. This book made me long for such an adventure. For me that was the highlight of the book, and I’m sure that other dog lovers would feel the same. Just imagine taking this guy with you on a cross country trip!
The book lacks a judgmental tone, which I found refreshing as many modern day writers blend their politics with art. Personal interactions read as sometimes satirical. The conversations seemed overly dramatic, and it’s hard to imagine real people talking that way. However, so long as you’re not reading this for the gospel truth, it’s a fun ride and an extreme example of what a solo road trip is like.
The real literary magic shows up when the author paints a picture, like his grand description of the Missouri River, his narrative on California Redwoods, or his romanticizing of Montana. Steinbeck’s love of travel shines through, and most vagabonds will relate. Read this if you need further convincing of why you travel.