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Wanderlust

Posted: October 14, 2010 10:59 a.m.
Updated: October 15, 2010 5:00 a.m.

Fifty years ago this month, acclaimed American novelist John Steinbeck stuffed his belongings and his poodle into a camper perched on top of a pickup, left his Long Island home and headed out to cross the United States, determined to rediscover a country that had become increasingly unrecognizable to him.

Steinbeck, who’d won the Pulitzer Prize for his depression-era novel “The Grapes Of Wrath,” was 58 when he began his journey. He’d eventually travel to 40 states, and surprisingly, given the nature of celebrity status nowadays, was not recognized a single time despite having his photo plastered on millions of book jackets.

I was a whippersnapper when “Travels With Charley” came out in 1962. It was possibly the first great travel book of this country, written in an era when people didn’t pick up and go as they do these days.

Steinbeck was living in Sag Harbor, N.Y., when he conceived the idea of “Travels With Charley,” Charley being his big black poodle. He had a heavy-duty pickup truck outfitted with a camper top and laid in what he later admitted was twice as much gear as he needed.

A triple ferry ride later -- gosh, is there anything that screams “adventure” like a ferry? -- he was headed toward New England and the initial stages of his delicious adventure.

On page 1 of “Travels With Charley,” Steinbeck succinctly laid down the reason for his trip, telling readers he’d always had a yen to hit the road:

 “When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me,” he explained, “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 58, perhaps senility will do the job.

 “Nothing has worked. Four hoarse blasts of a ship’s whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping. The sound of a jet, even the clopping of shod hooves on pavement … brings on the churn of stomach high up under the rib cage.

 “In other words, I don’t improve; in further words, once a bum, always a bum.”

The book was my first encounter with unfulfilled wanderlust. It is an affliction, or a blessing, that never goes away --  the urge to see something new, to be somewhere else.

Early in his trip, meandering through rural Connecticut, Steinbeck told of a general store clerk who helped lug boxes of food out to the camper, which Steinbeck named “Rocinante” after Don Quixote’s horse in the famed Cervantes story.

 “He helped me carry the cartons out and I opened Rocinante’s door,” wrote Steinbeck.

 “You going in that?”

 “Sure.”

 “Where?”

 “All over.”

 “And then,” Steinbeck explained, “I saw what I was to see so many times on the journey -- a look of longing. ‘Lord, I wish I could go,’ the clerk said.”

There were other such incidents, from sea to shining sea, Americans who loved their homes but yearned for the road, good people who had an itch to fly or steam or chug their way to a place they’d never seen before. Somewhere. Anywhere.

It was a simpler time, an era when an anonymous man in a camper could simply pull onto a bluff next to a river and spend the night, unafraid of being attacked by strangers. And that’s what Steinbeck often did --  simply steering Rocinante into an attractive spot, cooking up a spot of dinner and relaxing with Charlie, who thoroughly enjoyed the entire adventure without understanding a bit of it.

Steinbeck described his journey using a word in Spanish that has no English equivalent: vacilar, present participle vacilando.

It doesn’t really mean vacillate. If someone is vacilando, he is going somewhere but doesn’t greatly care whether or not he gets there, although he has direction. And that’s what Steinbeck did.

It is a great book. It is a digest of this country. I have reread it, some half a century after my first encounter with it, and I am better for it.

Next week I’ll tell you about a few of Steinbeck’s adventures. I’m not trying to beat you over the head with this book, but it is simply a wonderful story.

And true. Every last word of it.

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