"A dog is a bond between strangers."
Today marks the birthday of famed author John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902-December 20, 1968) creator of three of my favorite novels East of Eden,
The Red Pony, and Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck also wrote another lesser known book, Travels with Charley, which somehow I never got around to reading. Since the book is a dog lover classic I decided it was past time I read it.
The book details a 1960 road trip that Steinbeck took with his beloved poodle, Charley. He was in ill health at the time, suffering from a serious heart condition, and decided he need to make the trip so he could see America, perhaps for the last time. Charley too, is older, at ten years old Steinbeck refers to him as "an older gentleman." Though still clearly in robust shape and able to enjoy the adventure, he suffers some health problems along the journey. Reading one definitely gets the sense that the trip is the last hurrah of two old men.
Charley and Steinbeck travel 10,000 miles from Long, Island NY through Maine, The Pacific Northwest, California, Texas, and the South. They make the voyage in their camper which Steinbeck calls Rocinante after Don Quixote's horse.
Along the way they stops to talk to a variety of people meant to represent a cross section of "ordinary" Americans. Steinbeck is always somewhat of a chauvinistic author and nearly everyone he speaks to is a man. His political opinions and perspective are also clear in the text. Steinbeck crafts a very harsh portrait of a Canadian border official highlighting the man's pompous devotion to protocol and romanticizes the freedom of a family of migrant workers. In some cases he seems to admire advances in technology, for example he marvels over mobile homes which were evidently a new thing in 1960. Steinbeck seems to relish the freedom they provide their owners. On the other hand he is baffled by the various food dispensing machines he encounters in rest stops and mourns for the lost art of home cooking and the sort of food he enjoyed years ago in Europe.
Of course I was more interested in Steinbeck's relationship with Charley then his descriptions of the people and the country side. Its clear he adores his dog and admires his intelligence, regularly assigning to Charley human levels of understanding. Steinbeck's conversations with Charley are used as a literacy device to express his feelings about what he sees on the trip and his understanding of America. He also uses Charlie to reach out to people around him, regularly commenting on Charley's friendliness and ability to make people comfortable. The encounter with the migrant workers that Steinbeck so admires is prompted by Charley. Steinbeck's flares of temper at officious bureaucrats are nearly all the result of their attempts to stop Charley from doing something, such as when the Canadian Border guard does not want to let Charley across the border because he doesn't have his rabies certificate.
In all the book is rather dated, it simply does not stand the test of time as well as Steinbeck's novels and today seems to exist mostly as a relic of a lost period in American history. The writing too, though good enough, is not on-par with his other works. Still for a dog lover it is a nice story and certainly motivation to take your own dog on a journey, whether around the country or to the local park. Here are my own little Charley's preparing for a trip in their "Rocinante" or more accurately our Honda.