Steinbeck’s traveling home, not so unlike mine.
Something interesting is happening as I ready my traveling rig for departure in two months’ time. I am beginning to feel a hum of possibility, which is a kind of antidote to preparedness (which would make sure every screw was in and seam was sealed before I rolled out into the meadows). When you are getting ready for a long journey, this transition is crucial and sacred. You wait for it like a visitation in the night. Because for a long time all the assembled parts and to-do lists and ideas have looked like a disorganized pile, a flood of things to go wrong. They don’t stop looking like this, but somewhere along the way there creeps in another feeling, one that says, you know, you could take this pile moving, and reminds you that you’ll never truly be finished, so one of these days you’re just going to greet the sun a little differently, tie up, and hit the road.
I’m thinking of these things as I finally get around to cracking Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley in Search of America, a well-known account of his trip around the country with a slide-in camper and a French poodle. There have been a handful of periods in my life that I regard as major transitions, which take on something of an epic biographical quality. Perhaps the most intense of these took place in the weeks after I left a study-abroad session in Paris, at the end of college, and flew back to Chicago to graduate and then back to the east coast to deal with some family issues, before packing my bags one last time and moving to Portland. Throughout all this I was reading a small paperback copy of Steinbeck’s East of Eden. It is one of those books whose content I recall in step with the places where I read it, and whose general involvement in my life is hard to overstate.
So it’s funny to see the aging writer, on the heels of that success, trundling about the country and cataloguing his gripes and dad-jokes, watching his dog pee, cooking corned-beef hash over an asbestos mat. The year was 1960. Steinbeck put aside the saintly discipline that built his novels, in favor of the dictates of his itinerary and a few overarching threats: nighttime marauders, suspicious locals, complete nuclear annihilation, and getting his directions wrong.
That last threat is no longer with us. It’s a made point now, that you can’t get lost anymore. Smartphones and satellites and all that. But what strikes me is the immensity of the difference. Can we even remember the feeling of driving around at night, seeing nothing but darkened, flat road and encroaching vegetation, and having absolutely no idea of where we were headed? I remember a trip through Georgia, late one spring night a couple years ago, when my Portland friend Matthew and I traveled on small country roads into Plains, Jimmy Carter’s hometown. The land was black and the stars were shining. A dark barked somewhere, miles away, as though he could sense our presence. Inside the glow of the car, we were close to our phones, watching a dot move along the empty map. How different would we have felt without that?
There are other kinds of not knowing, which are going away. Almost every time I work on the camper, I do something I wouldn’t have guessed at on my own. Next week I’m going to try plastic welding, to get the old waste tank in order. I looked up videos and instructions on the internet in a few minutes, and ordered the necessary Chinese-made tools on the internet. It’s tempting to be nostalgic for the days when we didn’t have precise bearings at every moment, and were subject to the whims of our perceptions. But this was a limitation as much as anything else. Steinbeck didn’t have what I have, and besides, he ordered his carriage new from the manufacturer.
The truth is, once you actually plunge in and get going, you still have to figure out all the little things for yourself. No map can tell you when it’s all right to pack up the tools, stock up the aluminum repair tape, and start moving that dot across the screen. I’m headed up to the farm to take some measurements for gaskets. All approximations and good guesses until the water holds, or doesn’t.