“It’s not taking it easy that matters, but taking it right and true.”
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.”
The Route: Steinbeck kicked it on Route 66 across Arizona to the Continental Divide in New Mexico where he camped. I had a speaking engagement at the Menaul School so I sailed I-8 from SanDiego to El Centro, and then State 78 and U.S 95 along the Colorado River to Needles, California. I pushed from Needles to Albuquerque, New Mexico in one long day on I-40.
The Landscape: Crossing Arizona on I-40 is like attending an opera. Act one—the Western section builds to a dramatic Ponderosa Pine-covered crescendo at 7,300 feet in elevation at Flagstaff—with the snowcapped San Francisco Peaks as a backdrop. The third act drops down and gets a bit flat and bland with the occasional gaudy flourish in the form of a Navajo trading center, but the climax in Window Rock sends one away happy. New Mexico, the land of enchantment, delivered an enchanting, unseasonal and fortunately brief snowstorm. The distant red rock buttes were backlit through the snowy mist and pastel in color.
The Steinbeck Connection: Across the Colorado River from Needles, the dark and jagged ramparts of Arizona stood up against the sky, and behind them the huge tilted plain rising toward the backbone of the continent again. Travels with Charley
Steinbeck allotted one paragraph to the state of Arizona in Travels with Charley. His only comment about Flagstaff, “…with its mountain peak behind it.” He stopped in New Mexico to evaluate, and concluded after a heart-to-heart with Charley that he had exceeded his ability to assimilate what he was seeing, and needed to rest and regroup. My guess is he was fighting his recurring battle with loneliness and depression. What I find most intriguing is to compare what I read in Travels with Charley with what was going on in Steinbeck’s life at the time of the trip. His departure was delayed for several days in September of 1960 because of Hurricane Donna. In the first few pages of Travels with Charley, Steinbeck describes saving his boat, the Fayre Eleyne. She was being shoved against a pier in a ninety-five mile-an-hour wind by other storm-driven boats and certain to be sunk. Steinbeck jumped into her and motored out to the middle of the bay to safe anchor. Then he dove into the water and swam to shore, fully clothed.
This is impressive as described in the book, especially for a fifty-eight year-old man. But it is incredible when you realize that Steinbeck was still recovering from a probable stroke—during which a cigarette set fire to his bed—worrying about losing his dignity and independence as a man, and fighting for his life as an author because he had failed to successfully complete an arduous project about King Arthur. While recovering from his health episode that resulted temporarily in slurred speech and shaky hands, Steinbeck wrote in a letter to his agent Elizabeth Otis as a way of expressing his fear of being treated like an invalid, “It’s not taking it easy that matters but taking it right and true.” He added for emphasis, “I will not take it easy. That would be sick.” John Steinbeck was being tossed about in his own personal tempest, no hurricane required. Several months later, just before departing to drive around the country, he wrote to Otis, “Between us, what I’m proposing is not a little trip or reporting, but a frantic last attempt to save my life and the integrity of my creative pulse.”
Are there any more common and provocative metaphors in classic literature (not to mention popular culture) than storms and journeys? It seems every family has to weather their tempests, some of which rage in the middle of odysseys.
The Dog: Max had a nice break from the road and the confines of the car in Jamul, California at my brother’s home. He had a shaded courtyard to himself.
Sweet Notes: Thanks are due to brother David and wife Lori for a much needed two-day break at their home in Jamul. A sweet note for the sweet kids at Menaul School in Albuquerque—you were wonderful, thank you for riding along. Thanks to Menaul School Head and pal, Lindsey, and Head’s Spouse-extraordinaire, Laurie for putting me up and for riding along.
Thank you for riding along. Let’s talk again soon, shall we?
Travels with Steinbeck: In Search of America Fifty Years Later
Copyright © 2009