Travels With Steinbeck

A hound dog named “Hound Dog.”

Carroll and Jane—20% of the Democrats from Green, Kansas.

Carroll and Jane—40% of the Democrats from Green, Kansas.

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

Itinerary: I-70 to St. Louis, I-64, I-57, and I-24 to Nashville, I-40 to Clyde, NC and smaller roads to North Georgia. After Kansas came: Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia (over two days). All together, 2300 miles over seven days.

The Landscape: For the first time I was feeling a little of the fatigue that Steinbeck refers to often in Travels with Charley. I didn’t sleep well near the trains in Paxico, Kansas and, as a result, Missouri was a bit of a blur. However, trees increase in number and intensity, terrain becomes more varied and hilly and crossing our mighty rivers (such as the Missouri and Mississippi) is always a thrill.  While driving the Smoky Mountain twists and turns of I-40 through Eastern Tennessee and Western North Carolina, I realized I had started this leg of the journey in the mountains of Wyoming and over 2,000 miles later I was ending in the Smokies, a different kind of beauty, but beautiful mountains all the same. Yes, they looked smoky from the moisture in the air, as green overlapping ridges climbed up to precipitous blue/grey summits.

The Steinbeck Connection: Parked by a lake in Michigan on private property, Steinbeck was accosted by a young man who’s job it was to throw him off for trespassing. After artfully defusing the situation, the man not only allowed Steinbeck to park Rocinante near the lake for the night, but he came back the next morning to fish with him.

I thought of that scene from Travels with Charley as I went down to Mill Creek near Paxico, Kansas with three young men and a boy in search of catfish, and in so doing caught my big story for the day.

Josh’s 6 year-old son Isaac stubbed a finger on a pass thrown by his dad, and wailed briefly, but was soon placated with a trip to nearby Mill Creek. Mark, an electrician’s apprentice waded up the middle of the rushing stream wearing a lineman’s harness with his hound dog named, “Hound Dog” attached to it by a nylon rope. Adam, also an apprentice electrician, fished near Josh. I stood by the creek and watched the two men cast with Isaac looking on. A bet of thirty bucks was riding on the first fish caught. Dusk was coming on with a riot of night sounds in surround-sound and freight trains passing by. In the haze, the moon looked like a slice of lemon.

Josh, his wife April, Isaac and their baby girl were living at the RV Park while remodeling their house in Paxico. Adam, Mark and Hound Dog shared a separate trailer. Josh had never lived more than 50 miles from that spot. He liked it that way—small towns suited. Josh had said earlier—over the dinner we shared at a picnic table—that eight of his crew of eighteen had been laid off, and several had been demoted. Work is slow. But life goes on, houses are remodeled, catfish are caught (on a good night) and boys learn to catch a spiral pass.

Profile: I had breakfast in Warrenton, Missouri, just west of St. Louis, with two folks from, where else, Eastern Kansas. Sometimes you’re still in Kansas after you’ve entered Missouri. Jane and Carroll were heading home to Green, Kansas where they are grain farmers after a life of raising hogs. They had driven to Pittsburgh to a conference on Welsh heritage, a particular interest of Jane’s. Carroll is tan, sturdy, stocky and is 71 years old.  Jane is sturdy, bright-eyed, in her mid-sixties and has shiny white hair—they both look they could crack walnuts with their powerful hands.  They had slept half the nights on their two-week trip in their Pontiac Vibe in which the seats recline, yes, but do not lie flat. I told Carroll he was my role model. With typical pragmatism, Jane said, “We don’t sleep well anyway, might as well not sleep well in the car in a campground, as in a motel.

Jane has an interest in the Underground Railroad in Eastern Kansas and explained to me that The Beecher Bible and Rifle Church (see picture last post) was established by folks who hid rifles under their bibles in their wagons—determined to fight for their belief that Kansas should remain free of slavery.

I realized I was talking to a Kansas farm wife who was a liberal.  When asked, Jane said with a fist pump, “Absolutely, I’m a child of the sixties.” Carroll said he was the more pragmatic one and that he had only recently joined Jane as a democrat. Jane beamed at the wisdom in her husband’s recent conversion. I could only imagine how long this forceful “child of the sixties” had been working on that. Carroll told me with pride how many four-year college degrees there were in their two families.  He said, one of his two boys (now both college educated) had considered dropping out of college at one point, “But he was afraid of what would happen when he told his mother.”

I asked about the economy. “Grain has collapsed but not necessarily because of the economy,” Carroll said. Then Jane proceeded to give me a lecture in buying futures that are controlled by hedge funds, etc.  It apparently has little to do with actual supply and demand.  I asked how many other democrats there are in Green. “Ah, one other family,” Jane said.  “And oh, my sister-in-law Helen, too.”  I asked what the Obama chatter was like out there.  They said people are tolerant and giving in general, but the talk was getting nasty.  “Too much radio,” Jane said. “Too much Rush,” said Carroll.

Sweet Notes: Many thanks to the wonderful adults and students of Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School in Rabun Gap, Georgia for your hospitality and support, and for promising 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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