Fifty years to the day after Pulitzer Prize- and Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck and his poodle, Charley, set off in a GMC pickup truck on a cross-country trek that would become the classic “Travels With Charley,” journalist Bill Steigerwald seemed to miss the irony that he was leaning against a leased Toyota sport utility vehicle outside Steinbeck’s former home in Sag Harbor on Saturday morning as he prepared to retrace the tire tracks of an iconic American journey.
On the other hand, maybe it was apropos that he chose a foreign vehicle for the trip. What could be more symbolic of the change that the America that Steinbeck chronicled has undergone in the half century since than driving a car made by a country that was still wholly reviled by Americans at the time Steinbeck embarked in his all-American vehicle?
“It was a completely different country,” Mr. Steigerwald said. “When he did it, there were 180 million Americans. Now, there are 310 million. The aren’t many lonely little places anymore.”
Steinbeck’s journey was basically a counterclockwise loop around the circumference of America: starting in Sag Harbor, he crossed Long Island Sound and followed the coastline north to the Hague Line, did an about-face and came back south, bearing right to Buffalo, under the Great Lakes through Toledo, and up into the northern Midwest via Chicago and Fargo, across the Rockies to Spokane, down the coast through the redwoods and Monterey, across the desert southwest to Amarillo via Route 66, and back north through the deep South. As a proud Pittsburgher, Mr. Steigerwald makes no bones about being perturbed by Steinbeck’s oversight of the Steel City.
Though not the literary giant that Steinbeck was, Steigerwald, 63, is no slouch of a writer. A veteran reporter for the Los Angeles Times, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and, most recently, a columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, he recently took a buyout from the Tribune-Review and saw the coincidence of his freedom and the anniversary of Steinbeck’s trip as a sign to forge ahead.
Mr. Steigerwald will chronicle his own journey in a blog on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette website, called “Travels Without Charley.” He hopes to craft his entries into a book someday—if he can ever find a publisher willing to back the idea.
“I’m not a literary guy—I’m just an old journalist, and about three years ago I decided I’d like to drive across the country,” he said. “I’m not even really a Steinbeck fan, and I’m no dog lover, but I liked his idea of drive-by journalism. For a while there, though, I thought it was me against the whole world thinking this was a good idea.”
The approximately 10,000-mile trip took Steinbeck 11 weeks, with a nearly two-week luxurious recess in Chicago. Mr. Steigerwald, who is married to an apparently immensely tolerant woman, hopes to do it in about six weeks. He says he is “doing it on the cheap.” He plans to sleep in the back of his Toyota most nights—and did, parked on Long Wharf in Sag Harbor the night before he embarked.
The exact route, of course, is not laid out with a road map in Steinbeck’s book—as it likely would be true if it had been written today—so Mr. Steigerwald had to do a lot of careful reading and detective work to figure out the exact routes he would have taken. It was a task made particularly difficult by what many feel were instances of some artistic license taken by Steinbeck in his telling of his tale.
“He may have invented creative non-fiction long before the term came along,” Mr. Steigerwald said of some of the unexplained oddities in Steinbeck’s descriptions of parts of his journey. “I will follow the journey as precisely as I can based on what I’ve put together from reading the book.”
Steinbeck had intentionally stayed well off America’s still fledgling interstate highway system and major cities, and Mr. Steigerwald will do the same. Doing so extends the journey greatly—but that’s exactly the point.
“He was a good journalist, actually: He wanted to see where the people ate and prayed and drank—especially drank,” Mr. Steigerwald said of the notorious imbiber. “There have been a ridiculous number of changes in those places. But at the same time, because of the roads he took, I think I’m going to find that a lot has not changed as well.”
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