I am not sure you can understand the impact of this claim of fraudulent journalism. Steinbeck's Travels with Charlie was the foundation of my desire to some day hit the road and RV across America. It was after reading Travels with Charlie, that I knew that this kind of foot loose travel was what I wanted to do some day.
Why is Travels with Charlie a fraud? I will let Bill Steigerwald tell the story in On the Road with John Steinbeck who set out to retrace John Steinbeck’s 1960 trek across America and he discovered it was a fraud.
If you’ve read my “Sorry, Charley” piece in the Post-Gazette or in the April issue of Reason magazine, you already know I’ve concluded that Steinbeck’s nonfiction book “Travels With Charley” is not just full of fiction; it's also a dishonest account of his iconic journey and what he really thought about America.
Or, to put it less kindly, it is "something of a fraud" when it comes to telling the real story of his famous road trip around America.
The research and drive-by journalism that led me to that conclusion is explained in gory detail on this blog, most of which I wrote on the road in the fall of 2010 while retracing Steinbeck's journey 50 years after he took it.
I was a bachelor Air Force Officer living in Maine when I first read Travels with Charlie in 1961. I made an immediate connection with the story when Steinbeck started his journey in Maine. He inspired in me a desire to travel across the nation, from border to border, and this image has always been at the back of my mind, even after I was married and had a family.
I met Ellen at Loring AFB and learned she shared my interested in camping and travel adventures. After we were married we build a camper into a naked Dodge Van and travel across the county for 30 days, when we left Loring AFB for our next assignment at Castle AFB in California. Our trip took us from Maine to the Gulf Coast and Louisiana, the reverse direction of Travels with Charlie, and then on to California over more of the same reverse route taken by Steinbeck. We were joined by our nine month old daughter Jessica, who I must admit took a lot of attention. Attention we might have payed to recreating some Travels with Charlie experiences.
However, Steinbeck’s story did saved the day for me years later. Steinbeck described problems with some white threads that appeared in over stressed tires on his truck in Oregon. The tires on his truck were not rated to carry the load of a heavy camper shell. We were on a family camping trip across the country pulling a tent trailer, with a trunk full of camping gear, when white threads appeared on the tires of our Volvo. When I saw those white threads on the tires, I remember Steinbeck’s recount, and had our tires changed at a local shop some where in New Mexico. Our goal for the day has been Lubbock Texas, but our need for tires caused a delay and we stayed overnight at Cannon AFB. That night a tornado destroyed a good portion of Lubbock Texas, including the camp ground where we planned to stay the night.
Charlie was a puddle. Today we have a standard poodle named Harper. When it came time to have another dog, our daughter Caitlin was promoting a poodle, and one of her arguments was Charlie was a poodle. I was not so sure, but now that we have Harper, I can understand the relationship between Steinbeck and Charlie. Poodles are the most intelligent and loving dogs that can take over your life through their loving nature and the attention they demand.
While Travels with Charlie maybe an intellectual fraud, it was a inspiration for thousands of hours of camping adventures all across this great nation for the Steele family. I really do not want to know Steigerwald details, as Ellen and I have our own RVing memories and more Travels with Harper to look forward to.