Travels With Steinbeck

A Sense of Place, part one

Come and ride along with me as I follow the Steinbeck route around the U.S. and “rediscover this monster land.”

“Place where folks live is them folks”  The Grapes of Wrath

John Steinbeck had a life-long interest in who Americans were in relation to where they were. Steinbeck believed place equals character. In his fiction he often depicted the dysfunction that resulted from rootlessness. In his non-fiction he railed against the impact of the mobile home on American culture.

So if place equals character, who and where am I? Except for some extended travel in Europe and Mexico, Steinbeck lived “permanently” in only two states, California and New York—I was raised in Pennsylvania and have lived in nine other states.

We bought our place in Wyoming in 1986 when I was the director of Teton Science School based in Grand Teton National Park, but only lived in it for one year before shoving off for work in several other states. In 2004, we moved back to Wyoming “permanently,” but then after working for both a hot air balloon company, and the post office in Moose, Wyoming for fifteen dollars an hour, I needed to seek more lucrative and fulfilling work—hard to find in Jackson Hole. So I commuted to Vancouver, Washington for two years as an interim head of a progressive elementary school. My family remained in Jackson. I retired (again) from headmastering in June of 2008 and returned to Jackson determined to make it “permanent.” This time I even landed a suitable part time job writing and editing for an educational website (although my job did not survive the “fall” of 2008). But that winter an intriguing offer to be a founding school head

Photo courtesy Dimmie Zeigler

The Sleeping Indian Mountain. My Place.

tested my resolve. Although the job was attractive, I fought and won an exhausting wrestling match with ambition. After much thought and discussion, I said no to the offer and yes, to permanency in our home in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. And that at the age of sixty-two. Why is that so hard?

Being a baby-boomer growing up in a post-war time of plenty, I moved, not so much from necessity for work, but using work as an excuse. As a young teacher, after deciding to pull up stakes again, I took out a map of New England and drew a circle around towns with independent schools and a square around nearby ski resorts. I was a fanatic hiker, backpacker and skier and never wanted to drive more than a few hours to the nearest mountains. For a time I was even a wilderness and mountaineering instructor. Mountains and wild places have had a special pull in my life and although I’ve moved a lot I’ve always lived near mountains.

After so much wandering, my home in Wyoming is the place that defines me. Our lot beneath the cliffs of East Gros Ventre Butte four miles north of Jackson has a stunning view of The Sleeping Indian Mountain, which resembles an American Indian in full headdress lying peacefully on his back. Jackson was the first place that Dimmie and I lived together as a married couple. It is where our first son was born; we struggled to hang onto our home in Wyoming while living and working in four other states, always yearning and planning to return. We agree, if a wild wind blew up and blasted our house off our butte we would settle down in the rubble and continue to stare at “our” mountain, and watch for bison, wolves, elk, swans and cranes on the twenty-five thousand acre National Elk Refuge below. I would still enjoy the sagebrush on our hill that stand taller than my head and smell like minty green tea after a rain. House or no, I would still love the quiet, the cliffs, the brilliant sunrises that light up our lot like a stage set. My job may be anywhere and I’ve lived in many houses, but my home is in Wyoming.

Don’t get me wrong; living in paradise can be hell. Stuff is expensive if you can find it. Real estate is outrageous if you can buy it. It’s tough to make a living even if you land a job. At six thousand feet it’s impossible to grow produce. It’s hard to see the beauty in ten inches of wet snow when it arrives on May 1st. But this place is in my bone marrow. I know we will never give it up. I hope someday—after the age of 85—surrounded by my wife, children and grandchildren, to lie down parallel to the Sleeping Indian in this place, draw my last breath and, after one hell of a wake, provide much needed nutrients to the sagebrush.

Itinerary: I realized I had a few things wrong about the route, especially in Texas so I updated that today (see last post).

Five days until departure. (Is that understated enough?)

The Dog: Max had his pre-trip check-up today and the vet removed nine teeth!  I can’t imagine how I would feel, or how I would eat, if I lost nine teeth.  Looks like soft food for awhile.  Poor guy is staggering around the house as he recovers from the anesthesia. His mug looks like a prizefighter’s after several battering rounds.

Sweet Notes: Thanks to Jessica L. for wisdom and support and agreeing to ride along.  Thanks to Dar and Bob S. for the Teton Ale for the road and their boundless enthusiasm, and for expressing a desire to ride along.

Thank you for riding along. Let’s talk again soon, shall we?

Greg Zeigler

Travels with Steinbeck: In Search of America fifty Years Later

Copyright © 2009


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  1. * Dave Hall says:

    Nice Greg…

    | Reply Posted 8 years, 8 months ago

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