Travels with Steinbeck
“For it is not true that an uneventful time in the past is remembered as fast. On the contrary, it takes the time-stones of events to give a memory past dimension.”
The memories of the road trip across America frequently come back to wake the senses, all too quickly numbed by the daily routine of life. Who would have thought that the simple act of packing our good, old car and hitting the road would have been so transformative. Able to slow down the rhythm of our life, the constant chase. Three weeks and not even half of the country covered, almost insignificant compared to what Steinbeck did, yet it took an unexpectedly relevant dimension. In our vision, brains, lifetime. This whole extended and (almost) still time, Steinbeck was there. He quite literarily was, as Travels with Charley is an intimate book, important for the nostalgic and tender light that it shines on Steinbeck himself. It is indeed a gift, the fact that he would want to reconnect with his country, but above all say goodbye to it, and to his readers. Whether that was the intention or not, it certainly felt that way to me, a touching mixture of irresistible humor, inevitable disillusion, and irreducible love for life, nature and human kind.
Our trajectory across the country was not the same, so I dare to say that it wasn’t just that we were travelling as we were reading: the sense of grandeur and wonder of this constantly changing presence, the Nature, is vibrant and real as if it was surrounding the reader throughout the read. I didn’t go to Wisconsin, yet I could feel the air “rich with butter-colored sunlight, not fuzzy but crisp and clear so that every frost-gay tree was set off, the rising hills were not compounded, but alone and separate”. I didn’t go to Montana, yet I envisioned the scale being “huge but not overpowering”, the land being “rich with grass and color” and the mountain of “the kind I would create if mountains were ever put on my agenda”. I wished I’d been there. I want to go there. We traveled the opposite direction of Steinbeck, who went north and across, then down and across again. We left New York for the South, the humid air and the lush vegetation, the moss and the endless swamps that surrounded us for miles. Might have been the season also, but every day from Virginia to Tennessee was vibrantly green and perfectly tempered. When we left New Orleans for Houston, we were welcomed by the luxuriant spring of Texas, the ever more warm air. As we drove from Austin to Marfa, on a wet, foggy morning, the transformation truly started to happen: the vegetation started to become more and more sparse, retracted from the face of the earth – and in the process trees and bushes turned into curious, quiet survival creatures. The land simply opened wide before our eyes. I believe that the vision of the West wouldn’t have been nearly as potent if we had arrived any other way. As I recall that drive from Austin to Marfa, I can’t help but being shaken by a chill. As I recall the crisp and still air over the White Sands, as I recall the beauty of New Mexico’s mountains as we left Santa Fe – just to encounter more amazing things. As I recall sitting in the passenger seat, overwhelmed with emotions on our way to Monument Valley, as the land just grows wilder and wider and grander that you could ever possibly imagine.
And then the Grand Canyon. The pick of our journey, the same way the Redwoods are the pick of Steinbeck’s journey – and of the entire book, worth reading for those three pages alone. The last time I physically felt my mind opening wide in the presence of a new vision was when I was at the top of the Empire State Building for the first time. The avenues projected toward the horizon, the buildings… ‘Look at the human ambition’ I thought, and I was changed forever. I believe that certain visions change you, not only metaphorically, they literary inform your mind of scales and dimensions you hadn’t experienced before. As it turns out, Steinbeck believed that long before me:
“The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always.”
It was as if we were traveling to another planet. Yet, the awareness that this planet we were discovering was always there and will be there for us to explore at any future moment, was uplifting and humbling at the same time. The trip shocked my mind again and again, in a climax of visual and spacial changes that I couldn’t have possibly imagined prior, and it was not just an intellectual or spiritual endeavor. It shook all my senses, from hiking feet to overwhelmed eyes.
I didn’t have a relationship with America and its nature prior to this trip, certainly not the way Steinbeck had. As a writer, I admire his ability to bring those spiritual feelings about Nature to life with just a few strokes, I couldn’t do that. I realized that my tendency as a writer (probably due to my inner designer nature) is to describe spaces – spaces informed by people and their relationships. I suspect I have the tendency to describe and experience Nature the same way. It will always pass through me, though I wish to learn from Steinbeck, to describe it for what it is and for what it does to its people. His love for Nature though, never surpasses his love, or attempt of love at least, for humans. In this book, being at the end of his life, there’s discontent and regret, criticism even – even though he shies away from it every way he can – toward his people. But it is in the private encounters, real or imagined, the brief yet personal exchanges with specific individuals, that one can perceive his relentless, optimistic affection and faith for people. He cannot help but to love them. And I cannot help but to love him. I have a special admiration for writers than don’t sacrifice goodness for the cause of greatness, Steinbeck being one of those. I smiled, filled with tenderness, as I envisioned him with that sweet, funny dog Charley, driving his crazy vehicle Rocinante all around. I smiled at his humor and kindness. I cried, moved to tears, as the sense of loss emerged through the pages. The poignant, ultimate wish that this beautiful, meaningful and full life would never have to end.