The “Backpacking Ethos” in Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley?

John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row is one of my favorite novels to read and teach. I always mean to read more Steinbeck, so I decided to let my interests in memoir and travel writing guide my first selection of the summer.

Billed as the nearest thing to a memoir Steinbeck ever wrote, Travels with Charley (1962) sometimes liberally recounts his circumnavigation of the continental United States in the fall of 1960. Along the way, Steinbeck does a lot of car camping (or at least he reported to), but he didn’t backpack or hike during his trip, even when he stopped briefly at Yellowstone National Park. Still, Travels with Charley not only reflects a wanderer’s sensibility, but surprisingly, the backpacking ethos as well.

Steinbeck traveled the U.S. counterclockwise: Departing from his Sag Harbor home with his dog Charley, Steinbeck goes first to Maine and then moves west towards Chicago and California; he returns east by way of Texas and the Deep South. (See this blog for a map of Steinbeck’s route, which also appears at the beginning of my Penguin edition of  the text.)

Eschewing major highways and motels, Steinbeck favored less-traveled roads and camped in a specially-outfitted truck that he affectionately dubbed Rocinante after Don Quixote’s  work horse. And work horse, indeed: “everything about [the] truck was made to last,” but it also was a marvel of design (Steinbeck 43). In fact, people today are still taken by the vehicle. Rocinante (photo) is  part of a permanent exhibition at the National Steinbeck Center. I especially like Florence Gidez’s beautiful rendition of Rocinante in the Mojave desert.

In driving the nation’s scenic by-ways as opposed to the busier highways, the literary legend hoped to reconnect with America. Throughout his journey, he sought to describe the specific beliefs and tendencies that unite “Americans from all sections and of all racial extractions” (160).

The backpacking ethos manifests early on and in the Maine section of  Steinbeck’s investigation of American cohesiveness. For many backpackers and other outdoors enthusiasts, the backpacking ethos prominently includes the seven principles of Leave No Trace.  Leave No Trace definitely guides my engagement with the out-of-doors. However, when I talk about the backpacking ethos that manifests in Travels with Charley, I’m referring to a social sensibility that is part of a pursuit that, by design, is isolating and sometimes even solitary.

Half-way through the Maine section, Steinbeck encounters a group of “French Canadians who came over the border for the [potato] harvest season” (50). He admired their work ethic and willingness to “bend to the earth and pick  up the things we eat,” as many Americans were “too proud,” “too lazy,” or “too soft” for such a job (Steinbeck 50).  He observed that most “traveled in big trucks covered with dark canvas tarpaulins, but there were some trailers and a few camper tops like Rocinante. At night some slept in the trucks and trailers,  but also there were tents pitched in pleasant places” (Steinbeck 51).

One evening, Steinbeck spies from his own campsite a few “tents and trucks and two trailers…settled on the edge of a clear and lovely lake (50). With Charley’s assistance, he eventually invites his neighbors to his campsite for after-dinner drinks and tour of his custom truck. The extension and acceptance of this invitation, as well as the meeting itself,  reflects sensibilities, social codes, and other expectations that, in my experience,  define a good portion of backpacking.

When Steinbeck allows Charley to meander to his neighbor’s camp, he indicates a desire for socialization, and his overture is at once friendly yet subdued (51). Indeed, Charley acts as both an emissary and buffer between Steinbeck and the French Canadians during their first encounter, and Charley thus signifies that Steinbeck respects their personal and physical space.

After Charley’s introduction, Steinbeck invites his neighbors to his camp  and indicates that they should arrive after they finished dinner (52). By inviting the group to his campsite after their meal, he again indicates his desire to uphold social codes despite being in a setting that might render such decorum obsolete. Thus, even in the out-of-doors, the dinner hour still is an important important ritual: nourishment takes precedence over fraternization.  In this scene, nourishment also must occur in the absence of socialization with “outsiders,” as resources are limited. Steinbeck’s invitation demonstrates he thoroughly understands this rule: he does not expect to be invited to dinner merely because he is close by.  

The subsequent social hour that unfolds on Steinbeck’s turf is lively, warm, and replete with both conversation and alcohol (cold beer and a fine cognac, to be exact) (53). This entire event, including the partaking of alcohol, is governed by an unspoken social code. His guests treat his space with respect; they are only visitors. Yet as visitors, they are obligated to be good guests who indulge when invited. Accordingly, they accept his invitation to drink more, but they do not overstay their welcome by drinking too much — or for too long into the evening (Steinbeck 54).

CC-licensed photo from flickr user runningclouds

The performance of such sensibilities in the above scene of Travels with Charley struck me as something that I’ve experienced often when I’ve backpacked and camped close to other people. In the backcountry, mealtime becomes an important social hour for groups traveling together. It’s not only a time to set up shelter and cook a warm meal; dinnertime is a signal that the day’s hard, though rewarding work, is largely finished–but certainly not done. (It’s amazing how washing a few dishes can seem like so much work after backpacking up and down mountains for miles!) Even if one has cooking duty or is struggling to get the fly to his or her tent just so, dinnertime allows one to get to know his or her tripmates from a different perspective. The dinner hour also encourages another kind of communion, but  with nature. At camp and in contrast to the trail, one can examine the depth of his or her surroundings. 

Dinnertime in the backcountry isn’t an insular event, however, and often, this gathering sometimes is extended to include other nearby backpackers. These overtures follow particular rules, and social events also follow an unspoken script. Just as Steinbeck intuited, one can’t barge into someone else’s camp, even if one has good intentions. Additionally, evening social events typically occur after food preparation, but also the enjoyment of that meal. Food, in other words, isn’t cross-communal. This is probably because food and fuel resources are scarce: you pack in just what you need because, otherwise,  one’s backpack can get pretty heavy. The social element of dinner-hour in the backcounty indicates the extent to which, even in the wilderness, people are invested in preserving social codes. However, in the backcountry, enacting these rules is more comforting than constraining.

The backpacking ethos emerges in other areas of Travels with Charley beyond the Maine scene. In fact, I was surprised at the extent to which the text made me think of backpacking, and after reading it, I suppose I should have wanted to set off in my car on a road trip. But all I really wanted to  do was grab my boots and go for a hike. I rarely get to hike these days. Luckily, in July, I’m taking a little trip to Shawnee National Forest in Illinois to see the Garden of the Gods with my boyfriend and his dog. Stay tuned for a post on “car camping with canine” as well as an in-depth report on hiking in Shawnee.

Works Cited
Steinbeck, John. Travels with Charley in Search of America. New York: Penguin, 2002. (1961). Print.
Posted in Backpacking, Books, Creative Non-Fiction, Lifewriting
2 comments on “The “Backpacking Ethos” in Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley?
  1. Interesting, but… If you are going to teach anyone anything about “Travels With Charley,” please reassess everything you think you know about Steinbeck’s trip. Almost nothing he says about his actual trip in his book is true. He didn’t meet those Canucks or virtually any of the characters he includes. It’s likely he never camped out in his camper a single night — unless you count sleeping in it at truck stops and trailer courts. If you seek the true story of his trip, a good place to start is http://www.truthaboutcharley.com/

    Also, you may have missed this quote from Steinbeck:

    There are so many modern designs for easy living. On my boat I had discovered the aluminum,
    disposable cooking utensils, frying pans and deep dishes. You fry a fish and throw the pan overboard.

    — John Steinbeck, “TWC”

    • Amy says:

      Dear Bill,

      Thanks for taking the time out to comment on my post! I read about your own re-tracing of Steinbeck’s trip with great interest when I did some preliminary research to satisfy my curiosity about the book. Your discoveries stunned me.

      Given the type of academic position I’m transitioning to, I’m not sure at what point I’ll be able to teach Charley — or if I will ever do so. In my current role, however, I have taught Cannery Row for a number of semesters, and spending so much time with that book made me want to read Charley for fun.

      And, while I started reading Charley believing that I was reading a memoir, I now agree with you that non-fiction, travel writing, memoir, are generic labels that should be applied to Charley very carefully and with added explanation.

      That being said, I resist the notion that Charley is pure fiction and is not “true.” What is truth, particularly in terms of creative non-fiction, memoir, and travel writing? I guess that’s why I like these genres: they invite discussions about truth, accuracy, accountability, and purpose. If Steinbeck’s goal in Charley is to elucidate a cross-racial American identity, then didn’t he accomplish that goal? Is what he is saying untruthful, even if he embellished some details, collapsed others, or borrowed from previous experiences? I’m not sure.

      Importantly, I’m not trying to dismiss the fact that Steinbeck indeed misrepresented some events that occurred during his trip. But citing Charley as evidence of Steinbeck’s literary fraud perhaps overlooks that literary genres (then and now) couldn’t accommodate the text or fully express what it is. It is not fiction, yet as you point out, it is not what we want memoir to be. It’s travel writing, but not travel reporting. In other words, maybe the problem lies with generic labels, and not necessarily with the text.

      Amy Rubens

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Dr. Amy Rubens
I'm an "ambulant scholar," and I move among several worlds. As a professor of English, I research and write for audiences within and outside of academia. As a teacher of writing, literature, and culture, I facilitate learning. As a blogger, I critique, question, and reflect. Learn more about this blog and the work I do as a professor and workplace writing consultant.

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