“Dogging Steinbeck: Discovering America and Exposing the truth about ‘Travels with Charlie,’” by Bill Steigerwald, was reviewed in the San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday and we stumbled on that review just after we had decided to write a column lamenting the fact that books about traveling on the road in the USA have become an extinct subgenre of literature. It was accompanied by a review of Dan Baum’s new book “Gun Guys: A Road Trip.”
Last week, we had just glommed on to a bargain bin copy of “Home Country,” by Ernie Pyle, which describes his search all across the USA for good feature stories. It was in mint condition at the Friends of the Berkeley Public Library’s bookstore. We intend on writing several columns this year about the topic of roaming about in the USA for several reasons and so finding out about two brand new books that fall into a category that we find irresistible didn’t discourage us; it strengthened our resolve to write several columns on this rather esoteric topic. Maybe that sub genre isn’t dead, maybe we just had to change the lead.
Pyle, who wrote approximately a million words about traveling around in America, sort of like a pitcher warming up in the bullpen, later achieved international fame as a war correspondent during WWII. In “Home Country,” he wrote a piece about Adolph and “Plinky” Topperwein, who were a husband and wife team of famous shooters who worked for the Winchester Arms Company. We wondered if they were mentioned in Baum’s new book.
“Travels with Charlie,” and Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” had whet our appetite for the open road while we were in school. Not long after finishing college, we had stuck out our thumb in a rural area in Pennsylvania and hoped to catch a ride to San Francisco hoping that maybe literary lightning could strike twice.
Two of our high school classmates had made different, more rational, decisions about the course their lives would take. One of them is a retired Army colonel now living in Germany and the other is a retired teacher living across the Hudson River from NYC. Both of them have decided to drive across the USA this year and since the World’s Laziest Journalist has accumulated a vast supply of travel experience, we have offered both of them our opinion on how to maximize the enjoyment of their adventure.
There are so many books we would like to recommend that they read. Here are some of the lesser known “on the road” books we wish they could read before shoving off: “I see by your outfit,” by Peter S. Beagle, “America day by day,” by Simone de Beauvoir, Alistair Cooke’s “The American Home Front 1941 – 1942,” and “It isn’t a bus pioneering motorhomers cross the USA,” by Martha French Patterson and Sally Patterson Tubach (no relations). This columnist has read the Beagle book and is halfway through all of the others.
The school teacher (AKA “Jersey Bill”) has strongly recommended that we read “Blue Moon Highway,” and some day we intend to do that.
Jersey Bill has driven from his adopted state to Oregon and another time he went the southern route and got as far as Joshua Tree National Park just inside of Cali, but he has studiously avoided exploring California.
The Colonel wants to drive the Southern route but notes that this trip of a lifetime will be a one time only, “get ’er done” operation. He has budgeted only two weeks to achieve his goal. He wants to follow a portion of Route 66.
Jack Kerouac concentrated on the personalities he met while on the road. Our first night in Paris (France, not Texas) we went to Cactus Charlie’s and had a marvelous conversation about the specifics of the politics in California. As we walked out, we regretted our decision. “We could have had a great conversation about local politics at any bar in L. A. but we wouldn’t have had to buy an airplane ticket to get that payoff.” So we resolved to “go native” and shun the ex-pat scene and see the things that are only available there. We still follow that philosophy when traveling.
If the Colonel wants to talk to fellow Americans he can visit some wounded soldiers at the Landstuhl hospital.
My advice in both cases will be something they won’t want to hear, so maybe if they read it in a column posted for all the world to see, it might have a better chance of making a point and influencing their thinking (and if not, at least the Managing Editor [M. E.] will get a new batch of Google bate to lure others to the sites where this will be posted).
Jersey Bill and his wife like “the great outdoors,” nature and the like. If a city slicker like the World’s Laziest Journalist can be profoundly impressed with Yosemite National Park, just think how much the teacher and his wife will like it. Oh, yeah, California also has another park with big trees that are very old. He might like that, too. Some alarmists think that park will suffer if new bullet train routs are built. Isn’t zipping past those trees at 100 mph better than never seeing them at all?
Jersey Bill likes automobiles and so we wonder why he has hung back from visiting a state that has two world class car museums in the L. A. area (across the street for each other) and two others that are still on our bucketlist. Is he saving the best for last?
Jack London (reportedly) called the Monterey Peninsula the finest example of seashore scenery in the world. We concur.
Our tourist exploration of Australia lasted ten fun filled weeks and we know that we barely scratched the surface of the subject but the colonel intends to make his jaunt across the USA a two weeks long venture. Yikes! We have to say that we strongly recommend that he forgets about an epicurean ten course meal approach to the task and cut directly to dissert and drive night and day until he gets to the state that offers Lake Tahoe, Yosemite, the redwood trees, the Golden Gate Bridge, and some last vestiges of beatnik history. Or he could make the arrangements necessary to extend the time spent on making the trek.
Telling a colonel what to do is one thing but someone who can remember his mom telling a story about how a baseball hit by Babe Ruth fell into her lap might get away with offering him our very strongly felt opinion base on experience. [We have hitchhiked from Pennsylvania to Tonkawa and traveled by Greyhound coast to coast at least three times.]
Getting him to read “Watergate The Hidden History: Nixon, the Mafia, and the CIA,” by Lamar Waldron (from Counterpoint in Berkeley CA!) before the next round in our continuing Nixon vs. Kennedy debate will be a bit more of a challenge.
Our hope is that the colonel will change his own ground rules and take longer to do the trip or perhaps make the trip in annual installments of two weeks each for the next several years. If he wants to see as many American icons as possible, we can’t offer much of an opinion about what to see until he gets to Route 66in Oklahoma, but we can strongly recommend that if he wants spectacular scenery, he should get to the Grand Canyon ASAP, and then budget time to see Yosemite, the redwoods, Lake Tahoe, and the Monterey Peninsula. California is a very big state and it will take a few days just to skim the highlights. At that point he can run down PCH and see Big Sur, the Hearst Castle, and the Bixby Bridge. He’ll wind up in Santa Monica, where he can visit Venice Beach before going to the airport, turning in his rental and jumping on a plane back to Germany.
Our hope for the teacher is that he will get to California, have a St. Paul’s moment and when he returns to his luxurious home within sight of the Manhattan skyline sell it, put the money in a safe investment, and then jump back in his motor home and become a motorhome vagabond inside the California borders for the next 12 months (or more).
The hippie will (we hope) get to some California towns we have never seen and finally get to live out his Fred C. Dobbs wishes to find some nuggets of gold in a miner’s pan.
Simone de Beauvoir wrote (Ibid page 136): “We do not see much of San Francisco because we stay only four days and don’t know anyone.”
Now the disk jockey will play the Cantina Band’s song “Out in California,” Glenn Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman,” and “Living on Tulsa Time.” We have to go and contact the National Parks people and ask two questions: “What state has the most National Parks? And “How many National Parks are in California?” Have a “life is short; eat dessert first” type week.