Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Travels With Charley a probable fraud...(sigh)

According to writer/researcher Bill Steigerwald, John Steinbeck, one of my favorite authors, apparently took considerable liberties with his supposedly autobiographical book, Travels With Charley.

In fact, he calls it a fraud.

This saddens me, in particular because it was the first Steinbeck book I ever read, and it made me want to read the rest once I discovered and came to admire his unique style.

I was actually introduced to the book--and to John Steinbeck--when I was a traveling graduate student, taking summer courses at an ultra-liberal school in Boulder, Colorado.

That summer I was living in my camper, a former ambulance which, because I lacked the time and money to repaint it, still bore the orange-and-white paint scheme and blue stars of life on it's sides and back. It had been upgraded with a bed, a TV, a cooler and a few other creature comforts but still resembled an operational emergency vehicle closely enough to keep me from getting pulled over several times as I journeyed around the country in it with my first German Shepherd, Oliver. It even got me flagged to a couple of accident scenes, and as I was also a licensed paramedic at that time, I always stopped to help out. In one instance this almost got me in a fair bit of trouble as I was assisting at the scene of a roll-over crash with minor injuries.

I was the first one there, and I got things stabilized until the Fire Department and their real ambulance arrived on scene--one which coincidentally bore a pretty close resemblance to mine, except for the fact that it actually was an ambulance, of course. Soon that crew was treating the driver of the crashed car and I was talking to a couple of people prior to departing when the first State Trooper arrived on scene. The Trooper saw that the crashed car was empty and rightly figured that the driver that he needed to talk to was already in the ambulance. So, squaring his Smokey-the-Bear hat on his head, he walked over to the first orange and white truck with flashing rear red lights that he saw.

(Yeah, I really should have disconnected those...and I eventually did, partly as a result of what happened next.)

The Trooper opened the rear door and took a step up onto the back bumper to enter the truck...and came face-to-face with one angry German Shepherd who was not at all shy when it came to protesting boundary violations into his house on wheels. I heard the loud "RAR! RAR! RAR! RAR!" and turned to see the Trooper stumble backwards off the step bumper and land on his butt on the road shoulder. Fortunately for him, as he fell back, he'd managed to reflexively slam the door shut, a move which had kept Oliver from pursuing but which did not prevent him from standing up on his hind legs and continuing to bark out of the rear window at the person who'd just invaded his domain.

The Trooper got to his feet and began to brush the dust off of his formerly clean uniform as I rushed up to apologize and quiet Oliver. But this Trooper, he was not amused.

"What the HELL is a DOG doing in an AMBULANCE?!"

"Sorry," I said. "But this isn't an ambulance any more. It's my camper."

"Why the HELL is it still painted like an AMBULANCE?! And why the HELL does it have FLASHING RED LIGHTS ON IT?!"

To say that he was mad would be quite the understatement. And of course the more he yelled at or near me, the more Oliver raged and hit at the inside of the door. I did my best to explain that while I did plan to repaint it, I didn't have time to do it before embarking on this trip. However the laws in the state where it was registered only required that I remove the word "AMBULANCE" from it and take the rotating strobe light off the cab roof, both of which I had done, making it technically legal. Since there was basic first-aid equipment in the vehicle, it could lawfully display the star of life.

The Trooper, still angry, did not want to hear any of this though, and I was only saved by one of the fire department responders intervening and telling him how helpful I'd been prior to their arrival. I didn't stick around to be thanked, however. I got while the getting was still good. And as I drove away, Oliver barked at the Trooper out the window for as long as he could still see him.

But back to Steinbeck...

I learned about him one day when the dean at the school came and found me as I was leaving class one day. He introduced himself and said that he wanted to meet "the modern-day Steinbeck."

I did not know who he was talking about, so I promised that if I ran into this Steinbeck fellow, I'd tell him that the dean was looking for him.

"No, I mean YOU, " the Dean said. "Traveling the country in a truck with a dog... Just like Steinbeck did in Travels With Charley."

I told him that I had never read the book, so he invited me back to his office and loaned me his own copy, telling me that he'd appreciate it greatly if, when I'd read it, I sat down with him and gave him my thoughts on it. He wanted to know how life on the road today compared to life on the road in Steinbeck's day.

So I read the book, and I enjoyed it. Obviously some things have changed. One no longer picks up hitchhikers casually or camps on the land of any old farmer or rancher today, but, as it turns out, Steinbeck probably did not do these things either, at least not as he wrote about them. But he'd captured a few things that I could well relate to, from over-packing insanely at the beginning of a trip, to the fatigue felt towards the end of a trip that makes you just push on for home regardless of where you'd planned to stop when mapping the trip out. Those things were real to me, more so than the description of all of the people that he'd met and talked to, people who seemed real enough to the reader until you considered that the odds of him meeting so many stereotypically-colorful people on one trip were high indeed.

But I did like that book. And I enjoyed talking to the dean repeatedly about my adventures during the summer as I traveled the state on week-ends with Oliver. we climbed mountains, explored old mines, slept in fields, rode on tour boats and trains, and just had a grand time together. And being in Boulder, a quirky place on a slow day, we fit in and were accepted, by the faculty and my peers, if not always by the campus police. In fact we met them our first night there.

Arriving late in the afternoon the day before class was to begin, I'd registered and gotten my university parking permit but I had no idea where to spend the night. Then is dawned on me: I've got a university parking permit. I'm golden! So I pulled my truck in next to the building in which my classes were going to be and settled in for the night. And there I was, a short time later, watching TV, drinking coffee, and flipping through my school books, when suddenly there was a loud banging on the side of the truck. "WHAT THE HELL..?" I yelled as Oliver began to bark furiously.
"POLICE!" a voice outside yelled back. "Come out of there!"

I opened the side door and exited to see five police officers standing there.

Now me being from a big city, I was not used to seeing that many police officers unless something very bad had happened.

"Um...what's going on?" I asked, puzzled but eager to help.

"What are you doing here?" one asked.

"I'm a new student here, and my classes start in the morning," I said, naively thinking that this explanation would be sufficient. I was even friendly to the point of offering them all coffee from the pot that I had on provided that they brought cups, because I did not have five extra coffee cups. But another cop stepped forward and grabbed the extension cord that was running from my truck's power coupling over to an outlet on the side of the building. He yanked it from the socket and my truck's interior instantly went dark. "Hey man..."

Oliver barked at him.

In the next couple of minutes, it was explained to me that I:

1. could not be on campus after hours, parking pass or no,
2. was not authorized to plug into the campus power grid,
3. had to get local dog tags for Oliver.

And just to be sure that I got it, they gave me a list of the campus rules, with each of these items highlighted. They helpfully highlighted a couple of other things that they obviously suspected that I might violate later, too. In fact, about the only one that they did not highlight was the one that said that firearms were prohibited on campus and that the possession of a firearm was grounds for arrest and expulsion from the university, even if the bearer had a permit from Colorado or any other state (which I did). Fortunately, probably because all of the lights were out in the back, they did not see the Smith and Wesson Model 66 that was in plain view on the shelf at the head of my bed, nor did they see the gun locker that I'd installed--the one containing a few more long guns. Silly me, I'd just figured that Colorado, being all mountains and outdoorsy, would be the place for backcountry hiking and shooting. Turned out that it is...almost anywhere other than Denver or liberal Boulder.

But not seeing the handgun sitting there, they just gave me a verbal ass-chewing and a few written warning infraction notices and sent me, my dog and my guns on our way. And I drove off into the darkness to find a new camping spot, only to be rousted again from that spot a few hours later by a county deputy.

This never happened to Steinbeck.

Fortunately, the deputy was more sympathetic than the campus toy cops were and he was kind enough to tell me of some places where I actually could park and camp for the night. And after that night I figured out how the game was played and had no more troubles when it came to hiding my truck and bedding down. I camped in a different spot almost every night over the next two and a half months and never once drew the attentions of The Man. And life was good that summer.


  1. Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon is another quintessential US travel book. I highly recommend it.

  2. I still like Steinbeck. "East of Eden", "Of Mice and Men," so many great books.

  3. Go Buffs! LOL My stepdaughter attending CU and Boulder is my absolute favorite city, though it now comes with too many people.

    Pics looked a bit like Gold Hill environs.

  4. A great story! Stories. But, I wish you hadn't busted the Travels With Charley bubble.

    I wish I could've known Oliver. And Lagniappe. And Murphy!

  5. Ah ha! I knew you lived in a trailer! ;)

    Don't be too sad about the Steinbeck thing. Every good author embellishes his work. Your story, for example, probably had only one grouchy campus cop. But for dramatic purposes, you wrote 5. =)
    Just kidding! I imagine Steinbeck might have had the chance to meet such weirdos if he'd stopped in enough different places. Or those folks could be a composite of various folks he met along the way. That's a way of representing the truth but in a more symbolic way.

    "The City and Planet of Boulder." I've heard plenty about the city to not make me want to live there. The liberal politics would drive me batty.

  6. Misty, don't you have some snow to shovel?

    Yeah, you would not like Boulder. Very left-wing nutty. But you're probably right about Steinbeck's portrayal of the people in his book...at least I like to think so.

    As for the police in my story, there were five. You know how cops are--only brave when they're in a bunch...especially those ones with no hair. ;-)