Travels With Steinbeck

Sylvan Glory.

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.”

Steinbeck’s route: My best guess Steinbeck took U.S. 12 to Mauston, Wisconsin. In a letter dated October 10, 1960 to Elaine Steinbeck, he refers to being camped near a place called Manston, Wisconsin “about halfway between Chicago and Minneapolis.” He mentions that “Manston” is beyond the Wisconsin Dells.  “Manston” must be a typographical error (flip the “n” in Manston and you have Mauston.  Mauston is the only town (then and now) that fits the description.

Wooded island in the Wisconsin River.

Wooded island in the Wisconsin River.

Itinerary: I floated up State 251 in a rainstorm and reconnected with I-90 close to the Wisconsin border.  I-90 took me out of the pounding rain and all the way to Mauston, Wisconsin where I followed State 58 to Buckhorn State Park on the Wisconsin River.

The Landscape: “Why then was I was unprepared for the beauty of this region, for its variety of field and hill, forest, lake?”  Travels with Charley

Steinbeck was very taken by the beauty of Wisconsin, as was I. And I agree that it is the combination of features that he describes that defines it. I have one observation to add.  It may be the states that preserve woodlots next to highways that create the most pleasant impression. Certainly, not all of Wisconsin is wooded along the highways, but much of it is. And woods line streams and rivers as well. In that respect Wisconsin reminded me of Vermont and Northern Maine—sylvan glory.

The Steinbeck Connection: I was very moved by the last paragraph from John’s letter to Elaine written in Mauston, Wisconsin and I think it bears repeating here without comment.

He leads up to the last paragraph telling his wife that he plans to angle up to Fargo, North Dakota for reasons that are, he admits, silly. Then he says maybe this whole trip is just as silly.

Of course, one of the reasons for it must have occurred to you—I nearly told you that one in Chicago. American men of a certain age are very likely to get the George Albee disease. They become habitual sick men. After my illness (a likely stroke nine months earlier) I had every chance to develop this state….If this trip does nothing else, it will remove the possibility of that trouble. You see, I can read a map. I can drive a truck. I can make do. And I can stand the loneliness as you can. There it is.  It is an antidote for a poison that gets into very many men of my age and makes them emotional and spiritual cripples. But we’re not going to have that are we? I’m still a man damn it. This may seem silly but to me it isn’t.  I’ve seen the creeping sickifying creep up on too many. But you married a man and I’m damn well going to keep him that way.  That’s all for tonight.  I love you.

Charley’s Uncle

The Dog: Max looked spiffy after his stay and grooming at the Airport Pet Lodge. We found a little beach by the Wisconsin River last evening and he bounded up and down the sand several times.

Max (with new 'do) bounding up and down beach by Wisconsin River.

Max (with new 'do) bounding up and down the beach by Wisconsin River.

Sweet Notes: I was afraid I was going to leave the Ambassador East Hotel without a single significant conversation until I met Erroll outside the hotel. Erroll Johnson drives an airport shuttle and he looks and sounds like Morgan Freeman. He is tall, wears shiny shades and a warm smile. “I should call Morgan’s bank and make a withdrawal, he said.”  When he heard I was from Wyoming he asked if I knew his “homeboy” Harrison Ford. I told him I had met Harrison—one degree of separation. Erroll has driven Ford, who was born in Chicago, to the airport many times. Errol has had invitations from folks all over the world to visit their homes, as well as accolades sent to Mayor Daley about his sense of customer service. He says he would trade places with Freeman but he wouldn’t want to do “Shawshank Redemption.” He visited prison once for four hours and says he doesn’t want to go there.  “Those guys are all innocent. They say they caught a case like they say they caught a cold.” Erroll said “good morning” to everyone who walked by, even if they had ear buds in.  When I gave Erroll my card, he promised to ride along.

And to you wonderful students in 9th Grade Honors English at Cumberland Valley School in Mechanicsburg, PA. I loved your notes. Thanks for riding along.

Pumpkin at the Airport Pet Lodge.

Pumpkin at the Airport Pet Lodge.

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. * Jeanne says:

    By the looks of Max’s photos, this adventure has taken 5 years off that old boy. Holy cow.
    Sounds like you two are still having fun…

    | Reply Posted 8 years, 7 months ago

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