Travels With Steinbeck

Fifty years ago this fall, Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck, nearing the end of his life, took a nostalgic road trip in search of America. The first leg sliced through northern New Hampshire. He followed Route 2 from Vermont to the Maine border and, if that wasn’t enough, days and many miles later, he returned along the same route. Steinbeck traveled incognito in a converted truck-trailer with his French poodle, Charley. The odyssey resulted in the best-selling book, “Travels with Charley,” a philosophical travelogue that asks the aching, timeless question: Why does progress look so much like destruction?As I retrace Steinbeck’s 74-mile round-trip journey, I’m burdened by my own past. It’s quite a load to carry. Each turn offers not so much a surprise but an old memory or stolen dream. This road is as familiar as the back of a hand and equally punishing. This has been home for my family for three generations, and we have all wrestled with the contradictions of this beautiful, but beleaguered region. Like my grandfather and father, my dreams swept me away from this spot, but in time those same forces brought me back. We struggled and eventually settled, and learned that curtailing ambitions and denying some modern pleasures has a defining and humbling quality. Unlike people from less wild, more domesticated places, North Country folks have neither the power nor the inclination to remake our landscape or ourselves. We live with what we’ve got and who we are. While most places would hardly count this as success, there is a spiritual contentment and uncomplicated fellowship to it.Possibly Steinbeck had a hint of all this when he left his home on Long Island in the fall of 1960. After all, he entered the White Mountains through the back door. By coming here by Route 2, he chose a lonely road patronized mostly by pulp trucks and beach-bound Canadians. Most tourists come from the south – entering through either of the two notches that serve as both a grand foyer and natural barrier.It was dusk when Steinbeck crossed the Connecticut River and entered Lancaster. He meandered by valley farms and through the villages, which he wrote “are the prettiest in the whole nation unchanged for a hundred years.” It may have been hard to notice, but progress was already working its magic by easing the toil, isolation and naiveté that was the daily grind of the region’s Yankee farmers, service employees, ethnic mill workers and woodsmen. Eventually, it would also erase most of the grand hotels, factories, railroads, farms and schools. Regionalization would deplete the area of its people, commerce and unique community pride.Still, as I drive along this familiar route, much remains unchanged and the lifestyle here is closer to 1960 than most places. My eyes are fixed to the roadsides searching for human activity or someone to talk to. I dream about seeing people tending to their gardens, splitting wood or relaxing on their front porches, but I see none of this. Not a single person. I stop by an abandoned farm house with a neglected apple tree across from it. Steinbeck bought apples somewhere along here, but there is no one here now to pick the apples, so they fall onto the pavement and are pressed – not by hands, but by passing vehicles.Steinbeck’s first night on the road found him camping by the side of a brook in a farm yard. It is here that he had a dialogue over “a good dollop” of applejack with a wise, old farmer. This becomes a poignant part of the book and a problematic part of my trip.Steinbeck described a perfect Yankee farmer – “a spare man with what we think of as a Yankee face … flat vowels.” He bemoaned the pace of change and the sense of being shut off from certainty that previous generations enjoyed. “People have nothing to go on,” he said, “no way to think about things.” Later that night, as Steinbeck faded off to sleep, he marveled, “What a thoughtful, articulate man.”It’s hard to hide a man of that caliber in a small town, especially when you start with a detailed description of his homestead. Wouldn’t it be hard to live down such prominent fawning?The Yankee farmer proved elusive for me. Combing the region for clues – for the identity of the old farmer or his home and the nearby roadside breakfast joint, where he tried to engage an early morning crowd “folded over their coffee cups like ferns” – is easier than understanding the puzzle of progress.All my leads peter out, until, finally desperate, I turn to Facebook, the 21st century’s front porch, and a lead comes that Steinbeck was spotted a few miles off course in Whitefield at an exclusive inn. It was there that the great novelist, according to several local accounts, was refused entry into the dining room for lack of a coat and tie. Upon learning of his identity, the management quietly bent the rules. The innkeeper’s son recounted the story and added that Steinbeck stayed to himself, occupied by his writing. Maybe it was there that he created that ideal Yankee farmer from a composite of several people he met. It disappoints me to think so, but sometimes romance, like applejack, gets the best of us.Back on the road, I pass by a grange hall with a for sale sign and two churches that have been closed or converted – one into Jefferson’s Historical Society. These places were once the social centers of the community. Inside sits a lonely man surrounded by local artifacts. He knows nothing of Steinbeck’s travels through here and tries to think of people who might. He pauses, thinking deeply, and says, “I know more dead people in Jefferson than live ones.”Nearby I locate a section of the original road, which has been abandoned to local traffic. It’s an authentic reminder of how life may have been. In Randolph, behind Lowe’s gas station, there is a three-mile stretch that starts near the run-down remains of the family’s old store and a series of tiny cabins lined up in a neat row. Alan Lowe tells me that in the fall of 1960 guests would still be gathered around the outdoor fireplace late into the evening. Steinbeck would have passed here twice. I can easily picture it in my mind.My old truck struggles up the steep incline of what second-generation locals call Randolph Hill (deeper-rooted natives call it Hodgton Hill) on one side and Gorham Hill on the other. It’s hardly a hill and everywhere else it would be a mountain. Then it glides down the other side, past the state’s only runaway truck ramp. New truck brakes make the technology nearly obsolete, but its nearest neighbor, an auto repair shop owner, tells me it was used within the last five years. Of course, since the region’s mills closed, pulp trucks are a rare sight. So rare that local wood carver Wally Baker makes and then sells small souvenir pulp trucks.”It’s dead around here,” the mechanic says. “Not much interest in the mountains anymore,” except, of course, for the hikers, but they don’t spend any money. “They bring five dollars and a pair of underwear,” another merchant says, “and they don’t change either one.”Steinbeck made no mention of these parts, only a passage that includes a native New Hampshire woman commenting that she’s always surprised by the colors of foliage. Then Steinbeck puts himself at a roadside rest area in the White Mountains, a short distance from the Maine border. It was here that Steinbeck described being bitten by a dog that he saved from Charley’s amorous advances. I figure he’s at what had once been called the famous Shelburne Birches, where the road passed through a canopy of white-barked trees. Photos of these birches have appeared all over the world. The word “famous” fell off sometime in the 1980s, when many of the trees began to die off and the road invaded some of the pull off. Today, between the expanding road and the natural 70-year life span of the birches, it resembles a battlefield of dead birches buried in open graves.From here Steinbeck went on to Maine for a few days, but I turn around and head west for Lancaster. Like the great novelist, I “barrel across the upraised thumb of New Hampshire,” my destination the banks of the Connecticut. It was here Steinbeck entered and exited the state but first he wanted “a bath, new bed, a drink and a little human commerce.” Steinbeck was “lusting for a row of neat little white houses on the green meadow and … a small lunch room with the welcoming words ‘open’ and ‘vacancy,'” but no one was there. The place was open, but empty, like someone had just stepped out. No one returned. Steinbeck ended up camping in the parking lot and the next morning by 9:30 “nothing had moved” so he drove away. The empty place disturbed him.Little remains here from Steinbeck’s visit, but the old steel bridge, river and the meadows. A convenience store, gas station and campground have all been added and an odd little building housing a Chinese restaurant that could possibly, under all the additions, be the original little lunch room. Once again, my search comes up empty. A few days later, after many calls, I learn that one of those little houses was salvaged. It was pulled across the street to a neighbor’s yard 30 years ago. The practical, taciturn man seems surprised by my interest and permits me to come take a look at it. The cabin owner, he says, “wanted it out of there and it seemed like a good place to store old things.”That evening I go to the Spalding Inn, the only place where Steinbeck was actually spotted. I’m looking for the great man’s ghost or at least some wisdom. The place is nicely maintained, and, ironically, owned by the famous ghost hunters of the Atlantic Paranormal Society, but it’s a shadow of its former glory. Times have changed. Progress has made this enclave of social register snobbery open to all, but it’s empty. Here I sit without a jacket – dressed not much better than I was three decades earlier when I washed dishes for Mr. Spalding.I guess Steinbeck was right, it’s easy to confuse progress for destruction and romance for reality. NHFellow TravelersIt’s hard to find a contemporary writer who is not affected by John Steinbeck. For those seeking to discover the soul of the places where they live, the influence of his book “Travels with Charley” is deep and enduring. As a result, some of the region’s most prominent writers have been inspired either directly or indirectly by Steinbeck to hit the road, get grounded, find earthy characters and uncover hidden stories.Howard Frank Mosher, of Irasburg, Vt., followed a part of Steinbeck’s route and kept him in mind as he traveled across the U.S.-Canadian border for his book, “North Country.” He is especially enamored with Steinbeck’s “description of down-and-out characters.”Ernest Hebert, of Westmoreland, used his keen ear to tell the story of the state’s shack people and along the way has developed his own unique genre called “Hick Lit.” His book “Dogs of March” is Steinbeck-ian in its characters. The great author, he says, had an “accessible style and humility” and “knew rural people.” Hebert adds, “He gave me permission to be a writer.”Howard Mansfield, of Hancock, explores the themes of place and progress in his books, especially his book “In the Memory House.” He says when Steinbeck wrote “you believed that he knew these people, not just observed them.”

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