Travels With Steinbeck


Ah, Montana.

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.”

Montana mountain pass near Livingston.

Montana mountain pass near Livingston.

The Landscape: Okay, perhaps I have been treating neighboring Montana like the proverbial neighbor’s wife who is gorgeous and it’s unseemly to covet, so she is ignored. One can’t ignore Montana while driving across her, and she is lovely. Yesterday’s light  was unlike any I have ever experienced. It was as if it had texture, a golden viscosity like looking at things through amber. Every object stood out distinct from the next. Typically, Montana displays a scene, of which, any western state would be proud—of fertile fields undulating up to tree-covered slopes capped by snowy mountains. But then Montana throws in a meandering stream, a few picturesque cattle, a train laboring up the valley, and an even taller and cloud covered distant peak—all as accessories. Are there flaws? Of course, Butte is a scar and there are way too many tacky casinos.

The Steinbeck Connection: While lingering in Billings Steinbeck bought a cowboy hat he refers to as a “stockmen’s hat” in a letter home. Although that term doesn’t seem to apply to any style today, I described the narrow brim look to Sal at Last Stand Western Wear in Hardin, Montana and she promised to order it for me and send it.  That is in a week or two after she “cooked at the prison and shipped some cattle.”  I commented as I walked out that I hadn’t given her any money. “That’s how we do things here, but there is one thing you can do for me. You can send me a copy of The Grapes of Wrath, I’ve always loved it.”  Sal, if you are reading this, your book has already been ordered. But then, all I have to do is blog and drive.

A tacky touch of the tropics near one of many Montana casinos.

A tacky touch of the tropics near one of many Montana casinos.

Profile: In Hardin, I was looking for the breakfast place where locals hang out. As I entered the Lariat Country Kitchen I saw a bumper sticker on an older long bed pickup that said, “Only The Dummer Vote OBummer.”  I want to talk to that guy, I thought, and sure enough, I did. Tom Conroy is a warm, articulate older gentleman now retired from ranching and politics. He had four terms as a state legislator until, “the liberals moved in from California and the governor at the time pushed me out.” Tom was wearing a black cowboy hat and black vest and jeans. He appeared to be nearing 80 years of age.  He is a weathered handsome man with a dry sense of humor and a love of history. “Come to my ranch in the Pryor Mountains (near Billings) in the summer and we’ll talk history,” he said. His wife Colleen died from breast cancer ten years ago.  She had a grandfather who was Crow Indian and started a magazine called “American Indian Journal” aided by cowboy author Will James. The grandfather even sold James some of his property in the Pryor Mountains. A billionaire now owns the property, Tom said. Tom feels “the current administration is the worst thing to happen to America since 9/11/01 and we may never recover.”  I accepted Tom’s kind invitation to visit his ranch next June. With any luck we can hold the conversation to our mutual love of birds and animals and western history, and steer away from politics.

Max fts perfectly under the Bambi's comfortable table (Bob loves it too).

Max fits perfectly under the Bambi's comfortable table (Bob loves it too).

The Dog: I realized when I walk Max in crowded campgrounds, which are often filled with dogs, especially the type that can fit in the ashtray of large motor homes, I keep my thumb on the brake of the expando-leash in case I have to throw the brakes on a sudden charge at another dog.

Sweet Notes: My sister Jeanne has been virtually riding along, but now she plans to ride along for real—across Texas. This feels right because Steinbeck visited his sisters in Monterey, and Elaine was with him for a long stint in Texas.  It will be great to have my Sis 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


“I am in Love with Montana.”

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 Badlands look pretty good in the early morning decked out in snow.

The Badlands look pretty good in the early morning decked out in snow.

Steinbeck’s Route: It’s anybody’s guess how Steinbeck got out of Chicago—even in 1960 there were many choices.  My guess is—U.S. 14 to Madison, Wisconsin and U.S. 12 to Mauston, Wisconsin where he stayed. U.S. 12 would have taken him to the Twin Cities. He most certainly followed U.S. 52 to Sauk Centre and U.S. 71 and U.S. 10 to Detroit Lakes where he spent the night. In 1960 U.S 10 ran all the way across North Dakota from Fargo to Beach and was also the main southern route across Montana. Today it has been replaced  by I-94 and I-90 (my route).

The Landscape: There was little to engage the eye in North Dakota. In fact, when the rather flat terrain redolent with brown-on-brown flowing to a brown horizon was interrupted by the occasional camel’s hump hill, it was adorned with a huge cutout of a cow or antique farm equipment. The Badlands to the west around the Little Missouri River splashed in some pink and blue for welcome variety. I think the Badlands look rather good with a dusting of fresh snow, as was present when Max and I woke up in Teddy Roosevelt National Park Monday morning, October 12th.

What story lies behind these discarded items in Western North Carolina?

What story lies behind these discarded items in Western North Dakota?

The Steinbeck Connection: This is a section of Travels with Charley in which Steinbeck gets philosophical about many subjects. He mused on the mystery inherent in Fargo, North Dakota (the Cohen Brothers know a thing or two about that), as well as the state of being alone. He wrote about the agelessness of thespians after meeting an itinerant actor.  He had a discussion with Charley about America and whether the two of them were actually learning anything about it, “Does all America so far smell alike,” he asked Charley.  He examined some garbage Charley turned up and mentioned the danger of leaving a trail (he found a note indicating the man who lost it was on the lam after not paying alimony). Finally he relayed the eerie and disconcerting qualities he perceived in the Badlands and, after leaving them behind, fell head over heels for Montana. “I am in love with Montana.”

I felt most of my creepy aloneness in Wisconsin just after saying goodbye to my wife, Dimmie, while camped in dense woods far away from anything and anyone, except for one canvas tent full of strange men. I caught myself thinking sinister thoughts about them. But, I was cheered that night by an envelope of grateful and supportive notes from a class of ninth graders I visited with in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. I thought the Badlands of North Dakota looked good in snow.  It was important to learn I could rise to the  early morning challenge of driving in snow, pulling the Winnie. I visited The Little Bighorn Battlefield—it was a powerful and chilling experience. And as for Montana, although not without its flaws, it is spectacular for sure; I could fall in love with Montana but then I would be cheating on Wyoming.

Eastern Montana lawn art.  Rocinante, is that you?

Eastern Montana lawn art. Rocinante, is that you?

The Dog: My buddy Dave sent a comment that Max seems to be getting younger on this trip, and it is true. Max has been a wonderful companion. I have never felt closer to him. He seems to be recovering nicely from the botched tick removal the other day and has forgiven me my clumsiness.

Sweet Notes: My old friend, Clint, just called and gave me some feedback on my blog. He closed with, “If you get in trouble anywhere within 300 miles of here call me and I’ll be up from Idaho to help.” Now that’s sweet, and it’s great to know Clint is riding along.  I also heard from Marilyn who wrote, “I love seeing this ‘monster land’ with you and Max while sipping my morning coffee at the dining room table before going to work.”  Thanks for riding along Marilyn.

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

Last Stand Hill from the perspective of a charging Sioux warrior.

Last Stand Hill from the perspective of a charging Sioux warrior.


A Wintery Blast.

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 followed I-90 for a ways and got around the Twin Cities megalopolis with relative ease and, with the help of GPS lady (still haven’t settled on a name—Betty, maybe.) At Sauk Centre I opted for the two-lanes again, and followed U.S. 71 to U.S. 10 and on to Detroit Lakes. Betty insists on a street address in order to guide me to towns and cities. I satisfy her by making one up. I generally choose “1200 Main Street” because just about every town has one. I got particular pleasure out of punching in “Main Street” in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, Sinclair Lewis’s boyhood home. Only a lit-geek would think that was cool. If you are one, then you know why.

Old rides beneath new in Minnesota.

Old rides beneath new in Minnesota.

The Landscape: Funny, I had this persistent image of Wisconsin being a pretty, smart, popular girl and Minnesota being her rugged, hard-working, but comparatively plain brother. Then I reread Steinbeck’s description of Wisconsin in Travels with Charley this morning and was reminded that he had compared Wisconsin to what we would call today, a “high maintenance” woman. “But this fact does not make her less lovely—if you can afford her,” Steinbeck wrote.

The Steinbeck Connection: I have followed my vagabond mentor’s lead over the last five weeks. Mine is an act of, lets be honest, imitation. It is a pilgrimage fueled by admiration, firm but not fanatical. At rare times I feel I may have improved slightly on what JS did, or what he observed. But yesterday, I did something important for him. Something he was not able to do 49 years ago.

The drive from Mauston, Wisconsin to Detroit Lakes, Minnesota is long under the best of circumstances. Add to that four hours of being lost in Minneapolis/St. Paul, as was reported by Steinbeck and you have what I would call a driving day from hell. Since the author arrived late to Sauk Centre, Minnesota, he kept going to his destination (Detroit Lakes) and did not have a chance to enjoy the birthplace of his friend, Sinclair Lewis. I did.

The Sinclair Lewis interpretative

Display from the Sinclair Lewis Interpretive Center

Display from the Sinclair Lewis Interpretive Center.

Center (and Chamber of Commerce) was a comfortable building staffed by friendly people. The Lewis exhibit was attractive, informative and free. Sure, it had the odd manikin in period dress performing no apparent function, but, for a small town, this is a good exhibit, well-maintained. I learned a lot.

“I had read Main Street when I was in high school, and I remember the violent hatred it aroused in the countyside of his nativity.” Travels with Charley. Judging by the tribute to Lewis in the interpretative center, I’d say they got over it.

Steinbeck mentioned in one of his letters home that all the talk in this area was, not about politics, but baseball. I have heard two conversations in the last 24 hours on that most beloved of Americans preoccupations—one in Wisconsin, a men’s coffee klatch at breakfast, and one in Detroit Lakes, two gals who work the early shift at the lodge where I’m staying.  Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the Minnesota Twins are playing the New York Yankees in the division playoffs.

The Dog: Had to perform a tickectomy on Max’s head this morning. I pinned him inside my jacket in order to tweezer him. He was not happy. Late for ticks.

A thing of the past?

A thing of the past?

Sweet Notes: I pulled into Detroit Lakes with a front blowing in across the Plains—snow, black ice and freezing temperatures. I hunkered down at The Lodge on Detroit Lake and discovered the best combination of view, accommodations and service for the dollar that I have encountered in 6,000 miles. Peggy and Kathy at the front desk could not be nicer and more helpful. The Lodge is the only place I have ever stayed that offers in-room recycling. They also have environmentally friendly BeeKind Products and packaging by Gilchrist and Soames. Cathy and Peggy have promised 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

The Bambi named Winnie gets cold feet.

The Bambi named Winnie gets cold feet.


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


I’m That Man who Danced with his Wife in Chicago.*

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: After a short-two lane journey on rural U.S. 20 to pretty much knock off Northern Ohio, I followed  I-90 to Chicago.  The tolls and traffic were terrible!

Chicago on Lake Michigan.

Chicago on Lake Michigan.

Steinbeck’s route: This will require more research on my part. There is reason to believe he went straight on I-20 (today’s I-90) and also evidence that Steinbeck detoured up into Michigan. More on that later.  Regardless of the route,we both had the same strong motivation, seeing our wives after several weeks.  And the same destination, the Ambassador East Hotel on North State Parkway.  Steinbeck got lost trying to find the hotel—we couldn’t find it with a GPS and finally had to knock on a door and ask for help.

The Landscape: What can you say about Indiana, oh, that it has great colleges and universities.

The Steinbeck Connection: The main connection is, of course, the Ambassador East. Steinbeck describes it in TWC as an “elegant and expensive pleasure dome” where he was well-known. According to Historic Hotels of America, The Ambassador East was built in 1926 and it’s “world famous” Pump Room Restaurant is  the place to be seen in the “prestigious Gold Coast” region of Chicago.  I found the Pump Room to be full of itself and its celebrity photos (of which there are 725—couldn’t find Steinbeck), but empty of charm and people. The staff, was for the most part, jaded. The Pump Room is also outrageously expensive at twenty-five bucks for a glass of wine and a drink. The service in the hotel was poor requiring three requests to get foam pillows. We went exploring and found our “peeps” at Butch McGuire’s Tavern and Grill where three drinks, dinner, lots of laughs and a ball game on TV could be had for fifty bucks.

An "elegant and expensive pleasure dome."

An "elegant and expensive pleasure dome."

I will admit the room was nicely appointed and quiet at the AE, and there Dimmie and I danced to music on the radio and did that other wonderful thing loving couples do after an extended time apart, but I’m going to draw the curtain on that act.

The Dog: Max overdid it a bit when we first arrived.  I had left the door of the trailer open with him inside. He never goes down the step without help. When a boy came too close walking his medium-sized brown dog on a leash, Max dove, superman-style out the door, ready to engage.  I jumped out onto the lawn in my socks and danced around on one foot trying to keep Max away from the visitor with my other. The boy was being turned in circles by his dog who was seeking a piece of Max. I finally got Max by the tail while his antagonist was dragged off snarling and snapping. The next day Max was moving kinda slow and favoring one leg. I got a baby aspirin down him cloaked in Swiss cheese and dropped him at the Airport Pet Lodge were we had booked him a suite, a grooming and hopefully a good rest. Charley was given similar treatment in Chicago.

The Ambassador East is filled with interesting nooks and narrow hallways.

The Ambassador East is filled with interesting nooks and narrow hallways.

Sweet Notes: Jeffery, waiter-extraordinaire at Butch McGuire’s was the first person we met in Chicago who got excited about Steinbeck and my journey. He remembered enjoying The Grapes of Wrath, and he plans 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

*Remember that song, “I know a man who danced with his wife—in Chicago, etc.?”




Westward Bound.

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: Somewhere North of Buffalo, Steinbeck tried to cross into Canada to take the northern route above Lake Erie to Detroit. Canadian authorities asked the author if he had a certificate of rabies vaccination for Charley. He did not. He was informed that he would not be allowed to reenter the U.S. with the dog without it. In frustration, he hopped on I-90, which was apparently completed to Madison, Ohio and then I-20 (today’s I-90) to Chicago. Oddly enough, he mentions that route taking him into Michigan and, in fact, I-20 did not go through Michigan, it skirted along the top of Indiana.

Morning moon over Northwestern Ohio.

Morning moon over Northwestern Ohio.

My Itinerary: I-90 to Cleveland and then Ohio-2 along Lake Erie to Maumee State Park where I camped Northeast of Toledo, Ohio. Four weeks on the road today—5,500 miles.

The Landscape: State-2 along Lake Erie, although flat (“flea-at,” a mid-westerner might say), was an unexpected bonus. Bushes and shrubs in autumnal hues tending toward purple and violet, fields of rich brown grasses, produce stands with pumpkins everywhere, and lake views forever.

The Steinbeck Connection: Now I’m about to hit the ragged centers, the Youngstowns and Detroits etc., crawling with production. I can’t avoid them. There they are—right in the way. I only know they make me nervous.” Letter from John Steinbeck to his wife Elaine (September 30, 1960) from the border between New Hampshire and Vermont.

They make me nervous too—always have. I grew up a country mouse in Saltsburg, Pennsylvania and have usually lived in small towns or rural areas as an adult. Large “arteries” around cities and my own seem to work in sync, as the urban highways become more chaotic my knuckles whiten and my blood pressure surges.

Home away from home. This home was near Niagara Falls.

Home away from home. This home was near Niagara Falls.

Thinking that perhaps well-meaning (I’m nothing, if not well-meaning) “rubber tramps” such as I, may have their own special guardian angel, I’m pleased to report that thus far, congested urban areas have not been a problem.  I seem to be lucking out and hitting them on Sundays (such as Cleveland, yesterday). Of course, I write this on a Monday morning with Chicago dead ahead (gulp).

Maine produce.

Maine produce.

Profile: At the tree-covered and quiet North Niagara Falls KOA, I met Rodney. Rod is a floor manager for a casino in Colorado. He and wife Donna were just completing a three-week trip and had been to many of the places I had visited. He was not familiar with Steinbeck. When I mentioned Travels with Charley, he said, “Nope, I’m just getting into ‘trailerin’” Then he smiled, and asked me if I was Charley. Later he mentioned dropping out of high school and still having done well, but is adamant that kids must have a good education and computer skills today.

When we met, Rodney was walking his male Maltese, Harley, who acts just like Max—love every human, attack every other animal regardless of size. Rodney was chewing tobacco and spitting while we talked, had a goatee, salt and pepper hair, wore glasses and was short in stature. He is 58 years old.

Ohio produce.

Ohio produce.

He said the economy is strong in his town but that is not a good indication because people gamble more during tough times. “Not that that’s a good thing,” he said glancing up at me.

Rodney is a high energy, short-stab, finger-point for emphasis, kind of guy—sometimes pointing into my chest.  He’s friendly, loves this country, loved the colored lights on Niagara Falls. “One of the prettiest things I’ve ever seen.”

Rodney and Donna joined me in the Winnie for drinks. We laughed a lot and really enjoyed each other’s company. What was striking was how much these two folks who, “have been messing around since we were fourteen,” still enjoy each other. Not a critical word was exchanged between them. Donna has black hair, green eyes and a warm smile.

Rodney, “We have to fix this health care situation. This has to be worked out. I spoke with a Canadian today and she says their system works. This is America!”

Rodney, “No matter how old they are, you should tell your kids you love them every day.”

As I mentioned, Rodney is the floor manager for a casino, yet he doesn’t gamble.

Rodney, Donna and Harley

Rodney, Donna and Harley

Sweet Notes: I’ve met many great folks on this trip, Rodney and Donna among them, but as we parted, I felt that this was a couple I would see again. They have promised to ride along. I received a supportive phone call from my friend BJ the other day. Thank you BJ, for the support (I need all I can get) and for riding 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


“Niagara Falls is very nice.”*

Old Fort Niagara Light House.  "First Light on the Great Lakes."

Old Fort Niagara Light House. "First Light on the Great Lakes."

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 angled up Vermont on State 15 (Grand Army of Republic Highway) and then went north on State 104.  I traversed northeastern New York from Rouses Point, on Lake Champlain to the vicinity of Watertown, New York, on U.S.11.

Bridge to Rouses Point, New York across Lake Champlain

Bridge to Rouses Point, New York across Lake Champlain

Steinbeck’s route: My ’59 Rand McNally leads me to believe that the same route is the only logical way Steinbeck could have traveled from Northern Vermont to Lake Ontario as described in the book. On the next leg to Niagara Falls, Steinbeck stayed closer to Lake Ontario on U.S. 104. I gave in to my insistent GPS lady who adores interstates, and my road weariness on my 6th straight day of driving, and took U.S. 81 and U.S. 90 to Niagara Falls.

The Landscape: Northern New York is not New England, even considering the few maple syrup places. New York is simply not as quaint, tree-covered or colorful. Nor is the topography as interesting. The Empire State’s north is flat by comparison, and as a result, is cleared and developed. The towns were more “anywhere USA,” however the roads were in much better condition than the rugged winter-stressed roads of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.

Nice falls.

Nice falls.

The Steinbeck Connection: There have been many, many times while reading Steinbeck that I have marveled at how very far ahead of his time he was in his thinking. Here are two examples from Travels with Charley.

“It occurs to me…we Americans bring in mercenaries to do our hard and humble work. I hope we may not be overwhelmed one day by peoples not to proud or too lazy or too soft to bend to the earth and pick up the things we eat.”

“…I do wonder whether there will come a time when we can no longer afford our wastefulness—chemical wastes in the river, metal wastes everywhere, and atomic wastes buried deep in the earth or sunk in the sea.”

Commentary: Dimmie and I visited an organic farm near Santa Barbara a few years ago.  It was a very impressive operation on relatively few acres.  When I asked the farm manager if college kids interned on the farm, he said, “You can’t get white people to do this kind of work anymore.”

I went to Niagara Falls today expecting, indeed planning, to be cynical, but a) that doesn’t come easily to me, and b) I was impressed. I’ve often said to friends who ask if Yellowstone is worth the trip because of the crush of people, that, yes, it’s well worth the effort. One of the reasons there are so many people from around the world visiting Yellowstone is because Yellowstone is extraordinary. Yellowstone is, and, until it blows up again, will remain, one of the most amazing places on this planet. I now feel that way about Niagara Falls (except the falls probably won’t blow up—they will simply erode away). Indeed, just about everything surrounding the falls is tacky and ostentatious. But stand close to the absolute power of the water surging around Goat Island and blasting over the Niagara Escarpment and block out all that is around you. Imagine you are seeing the falls for the first time 300 hundred years ago, and you will be impressed and perhaps even moved, as was I.  Steinbeck’s question (above) about chemical waste in rivers, was, of course, prophetic. According to an EPA website entitled Toxic Management in the Niagara River, until recently the river was laced with mercury, PCBs and pesticides. Fortunately, a management plan between the U.S. and Canada formed in 1987 has resulted in an 80% reduction in pollution. Evidence of the recovery can be seen in the Lake Sturgeon’s return to the upper reaches of The Niagara River. The Niagara River is still considered one of the Great Lakes Areas of Concern.

The Dog: I should know better than to ever take even a short walk with Max without my camera because he is such a character. At Bishop Farm I caught him (on my iphone) chasing a hen and trying to sneak into the henhouse.

Maxie caught sneaking into the henhouse.

Maxie caught sneaking into the henhouse.

Sweet Notes: I have been remiss in not mentioning my long-time friends Sharon and Shep who helped prep the Bambi last summer and encouraged me to learn to blog. I know they are riding along. And my long-time friend, and sometime critic and editor Ruth Ann has pledged 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

* Thus began a three-line paragraph about Niagara Falls in Travels with Charley.”  What do you think—tongue in cheek?


South and West at Last.

Musee et centre culturel du Mont-Carmel

Musee et centre culturel du Mont-Carmel

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: From Deer Isle, Maine—U.S 1 to the top of Maine and State 11 back down to U.S. 2 and New Hampshire.

Steinbeck’s route: Essentially the same route through country that, I’m certain, has not changed much in places.

The Landscape: Well, when a trip combines the White Mountains of New Hampshire (twice) and the island-dotted coast and northern forests of Maine—with intermittent sunshine, warm temperatures, and buckets of fall color thrown in, “exquisite” comes to mind.

The Steinbeck Connection: I loved rereading the section of Travels with Charley in which Steinbeck shares an evening, and rare bottle of French cognac with a family of French-Canadian migrant workers. Before departing the next morning he reflects on the experience. “There are times that one treasures for all one’s life, and such times are burned clearly and sharply on the material of total recall. I felt very fortunate that morning.”  The joy Steinbeck experienced in the very human act of connecting and conversing with others is palpable in the retelling.

Heading south on State 11 but looking north at Fort Kent in the Saint John Valley

Heading south on State 11 but looking north at Fort Kent in the Saint John Valley

I had a similar experience in Eastern Kansas with three gentlemen that I went catfish fishing with (see, A hound dog named “Hound Dog”) and briefing captured in this blog.  I remember feeling charged and exhilarated while enjoying that richly textured evening made more so by the freely offered comaraderie of my new friends.

Unfortunately, it was not to happen in the rolling Saint John Valley of Northern Maine.  Here’s why.  I had inquired in Caribou, Maine about migrant potato pickers and was told the French-Canadians had been replaced by Hispanics.  Not a problem, I can adjust and had brought along a bottle of very nice sipping Tequila in case of just such an eventuality.  But when Mark Cyr, of the Cyr Potato Corporation of St. David, Maine opened up the doors to his barn and introduced me to his picker, I could see the picker and I would not be sharing any drinks. It was a huge machine, two actually, that work in tandem—about the combined size of a semi-truck and trailer. Mark said migrant pickers were a thing of the past, although some high school kids (school lets out for 2 ½ weeks during the harvest) do work on the machines and in the potato house. Mark was a very warm guy.  If he hadn’t been repairing his equipment after the harvest of 175 acres of “early” potatoes, I might have offered him a drink. He spoke with the lyrical cadence of the Acadian. He was medium height, powerful in build and had blue eyes and chiseled features. No doubt a heartthrob to potato groupies.  When Mark saw, Max, he quipped, “Traveling light, eh?”

Moose season in the North Woods of Maine.

Moose season in the North Woods of Maine.

The Dog: Last night Max and I got off the road late at a KOA in Canaan, Maine.  I had left the Winnie at Bishop Farm in New Hampshire but was prepared to sleep outside on a pad. The lateness of the hour, and lightning to the west dissuaded me from that idea, so I booked a “Kamper Kabin.”  No linens, no bathroom and way too much money, but cozy and out of the rain that came later that night. But, back to Max. He snored—loudly.  I woke him, gently.  He does not wake easily and can be pretty accurate with his few remaining teeth. He went back to sleep before I could, and snored again. I never dreamed a seven-pound dog could make that much noise while sleeping. I didn’t want to kick him out so I put in my earplugs and we made it through the rainy night together.

As for the KOA, with signs (including one about “tinkling,” and one with POOP in large letters), and rules posted everywhere, it was too “Kute” for me, by half.

Mt. Washington in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

Mt. Washington in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

Sweet Notes: Caribou Kate (forgive me, Kate, I give everyone nicknames) of the Old Iron Inn Bed and Breakfast in Caribou was a wonderful hostess and guide and has pledged, along with her sister, 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


North Once Again, to the “Rooftree of Maine.”

Stonington Harbor looking out at Isle au Haut Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.

Stonington Harbor looking out at Isle au Haut Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.

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: Steinbeck followed U.S. 2 across New England most of the way to to Deer Isle. I veered south from that route at Bethel, Maine because I knew I would be catching U.S. 2 on my way back to New Hampshire. After departing Deer Isle, I followed U.S. 1 all the way to Caribou, Maine in Aroostock County.

The Landscape: The drive to Deer Isle was everything you would expect. The White Mountains flared with sun-drenched color.  U.S. 1 near the coast in the Bucksport and Searsport area, offering the first views of Penobscot Bay, was glorious. In truth, U.S. 1 along the Maine coast east of Deer Isle was, by contrast, disappointing. It could have been anywhere, USA. I realize, as Steinbeck famously wrote in Travels with Charley, the person coming along ten minutes later had a different experience. For me however, it was a letdown. There

Rooms with views over Penobscot Bay.

Rooms with views over Penobscot Bay.

were few views of the bays and islands and the seafood joints were far and few. Heading north through the timber was, by contrast, soothing and invigorating, even in the gentle rain. Timber, and taters rule the great north. The Maine-stays, I suppose you could call them (if you dared).

The Steinbeck Connection: “Wherever I stop people look hungrily at Rocinante. They want to move on. Is this a symptom? They lust to move on. West—north, south—anywhere.  Maybe it’s their comment on their uneasiness. People are real restless.” Letter to Elaine Steinbeck written on September 27, 1960 from Deer Isle, Maine

My experience has been different. Here’s one example. Yesterday I stopped for gas at Kinney Auto Center in Danforth, Maine where the costs for repairs are painted on the exterior wall. The attendant came out and I knew immediately I had the genuine item. I actually heard this stocky strawberry-haired gentleman give directions to a customer, saying, “If you

Maine's idea of a calling card.

Maine's idea of a calling card.

get to the bridge by the faahm, you’ve gone too faaah.” When I went in to pay, I noticed he had a magazine on his desk, which had something about cowboys and guns in the title. I asked if he’d ever been out west. His answer was, “Nah.” I asked if he would like to go. He said, “Someday maybe—get rid of the wife.” Not exactly a, “I would leave this afternoon if you got the space,” kind of answer.

Everybody I encounter says this trip is a great idea and a wonderful adventure, but not a single person has expressed the wish to be elsewhere. Is it possible our internal migrations have hit a point of stasis?  No doubt the economy is playing a role in people staying put. But perhaps Americans are finally feeling somewhat content and less restless?

The Dog: Max used to play a joke on me when he was riding shotgun. No matter how comfortable I made his seat, when I left him in the car, he would shift to mine and there he would be when I returned.  For this trip, for his safety, I’ve

The Marlinspike Chandlery, possibly where Steinbeck bought a lantern in Stonington.

The Marlinspike Chandlery, possibly where Steinbeck bought a lantern in Stonington.

blocked him in the back of the 4Runner.  And, of course, he has devised a new joke. He climbs up on the food box and cooler and sits in the items on top, a package of paper towels, my duffle, whatever.  Sometimes I jump in the car after a short stop and start out, and a glance in the rearview reveals him standing on the boxes, surfing in the back of the car.

Sweet Notes: Deer Isle has few places to stay, so soon I found myself in nearby Stonington. A random choice lead me to Barrett at Boyce’s Motel. I got Barrett’s last $70.00 room—very comfortable, more like a small suite. Barrett was a great host and guide. He was very interested in my journey and has already begun reading this blog. A case of mistaken identity resulted in a visit to Pres du Port, Charlotte Casgrain’s Bed and Breakfast in Stonington. Charlotte is a gracious woman and she welcomed me for breakfast as if I were family. We sorted out the mystery later. (The invitation had been delivered to the wrong motel door). Charlotte was very helpful orienting me to the area and making suggestions about my upcoming travel to Northern Maine. Breakfast was delicious. Charlotte

The seemingly endless woods and lakes of Northern Maine.

The seemingly endless woods and lakes of Northern Maine.

has promised to ride along. Odelle and Diddie at the Houlton, Maine Rest Area were also very helpful and excited about my trip and promised, with their two co-workers, 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


North to New Hampshire

Eaglebrook School where Steinbeck spent his first night.

Eaglebrook School where Steinbeck spent his first night.

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 left Sag Harbor on the three ferries that Steinbeck took forty-nine years ago to the day ( the South, the North, and the Cross Sound) and angled back across Connecticut to pick up the Winnie. I left Middlebury, Connecticut and followed I-84 to Hartford where I picked up I-91 to Deerfield, Massachusetts. After a delightful visit at the Eaglebrook School in Deerfield, I jumped back on I-91 and was heading to St. Johnsbury, Vermont when I got a call causing me to slip off onto US-302 northeast to Lisbon, New Hampshire.

Steinbeck’s route: After getting off the Cross Sound ferry in New London, I would guess that Steinbeck took State-85 to Hartford. According to my 1959 Rand McNally there was only a short stretch of I-91 completed and that was in Southern Vermont. Steinbeck would have followed U.S. 5 along the Connecticut River from Hartford to Deerfield, Massachusetts where he spent his first night.

New London, from the Cross Sound Ferry, "Susan Anne"

New London, from the Cross Sound Ferry, "Susan Anne"

The Landscape: Let me just comment on Vermont. There is nothing going on there. Nothing, that is, but sculpted rock faces (some in the median of the interstate), dense forests and quaint farms with covered bridges. Read my lips, Vermont. You need to work on some good old American Bs— Billboards, box stores and blight (and guess what, barns just doesn’t cut it). Without a super-box store how am I supposed to know I’m always getting the cheapest stuff? And you’re not fooling anybody with those really nice wayside/info centers offering Wi-Fi and the sign saying, “Moose Crossing,” and that color in the trees, really, come on Vermont, what do I look like a clueless tourist?

The Steinbeck Connection: I had promised my youngest son to say good-by in passing. His school is at Deerfield, Massachusetts, but I got there too late to arouse him, so I drove up the mountain and found a dairy, bought some milk, and asked permission to camp under an apple tree.  The dairy man had a Ph.D. in mathematics, and he must have had some training in philosophy. He liked what he was doing and he didn’t want to be somewhere else—one of the very few contented people I met in my whole journey. Travels with Charley

A one-lane stone bridge near Eaglebrook School.

A one-lane stone bridge near Eaglebrook School.

Profile: I did not drive to the dairy Steinbeck referenced but I had a delightful visit at the Eaglebrook School and was amazed to hear from affable Head of School, Andy Chase that the dairy man was apparently so contented that he only just recently moved away from the farm up the road. I had lunch at Andy’s table with his secret weapon, his wife, Rachel Blain. Rachel and I had growing up on a boarding school campus in common. Rachel’s discussions with the boys who dined with us reminded me of my father never missing the teachable moment. During the meal, Rachel good-naturedly tossed academic questions at the young men (grades 6-9) who circled our table.

I have been around independent schools for most of my life. One of my few skills is that I can tell a good and happy

school within fifteen minutes of arriving on campus. Eaglebrook is an extraordinary school in a stunning mountain setting with the unique claim of having had the valuable continuity of three generations of schoolmen at the helm. Andy sits at the desk that was his father’s before him, and his grandfather’s before that.

Eaglebrook Head of School, Andy Chase.

Eaglebrook Head of School, Andy Chase.

My detour into New Hampshire came after a cell call from my brother David directing me to Bishop Farm Bed & Breakfast in Lisbon, New Hampshire owned by his friend and co-worker Heather Salter—and managed by Heather’s sister Annie, and mother, Maggie. I got a cozy cottage tucked back in the trees. My review of Bishop Farm is below:

Five Stars–is that it? Is that all I can award these warm-hearted, hard-working women?  I drove here from Jackson Hole, Wyoming (14 states in 4000 miles), and I’m no stranger to inns and the world of beds and breakfasts and Bishop Farm has it all! It is rustic and modern, laid back and efficient, private and communal. I love it and will return often.

Heather, Annie and Mom, Maggie you are the gold standard.

The Dog: Max has a new girlfriend, GiGi with whom he took an invigorating hike. Life is good.

Sweet Notes: And life is sweet at Bishop Farm. Heather, Annie and Maggie (and GiGi) have pledged to ride along.

Max leading the way on a hike with new pal, GiGi

Max leading the way on a hike with new pal, GiGi

The Bishop Farm Bed and Breakfast Babes, (from left) Heather, Annie and Maggie, at dinner.

The Bishop Farm Bed and Breakfast Babes, (from left) Heather, Annie and Maggie, at dinner.

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