“Could it be that Americans are a restless people, a mobile people, never satisfied with where they are as a matter of selection?…Perhaps we have overrated roots as a psychic need. Maybe the greater the urge, the deeper and more ancient is the need, the will, the hunger to be somewhere else.” –John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley (1962)
On the right wall beside my twin bed hangs a map of the world. On the left, a map of the United States. Above my head, a map of the Chamonix valley. Lately, I can’t keep my fingers from tracing lines across the western portion of the United States, across its blue highways that spider out like veins.
In the middle of such wanderlust, I spotted John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley in Search of America on my roommate’s book pile, so I read it, and then—wanting more—I checked out Jack Kerouac’s On the Road from McMurdo’s little library. Of course, I probably should have read it by now, and my friend Bill warned me that “…after high school, it’s a hard book to like.” But both books gave me what I wanted—a feel for the road—though I can’t say that they soothed my longing for it.
Published in 1957, On the Road is Kerouac’s novel based on many of the author’s real-life experiences road tripping across the United States and Mexico with fellow “Beat Generation” pal Neal Cassady, who becomes the model for the book’s character Dean Moriarty. Sal Paradise narrates the adventures in which the people he encounters become more compelling than the road itself. Ultimately, Dean Moriarty drives the story, one of the irresistible “mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars…” Kerouac begins and ends his story with Dean Moriarty. In between, he gives us life on the road.
Steinbeck—by contrast—begins and ends his story with the road. In between, he gives us a French poodle. That’s right, Charley is Steinbeck’s dog, and Travels with Charley, published in 1962, is the true story of how Steinbeck (with canine companion) sets out at age fifty-eight to rediscover his own country. He names his truck Rocinante—after Don Quixote’s horse—and demonstrates in his wanderings how “we find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.” From New York to Wisconsin to California to Louisiana and back again, I found Steinbeck’s book to be more about place and the natural world than Kerouac’s, and maybe for that reason I prefer Steinbeck’s, but I quite liked the process of reading both of these books back-to-back—and I recommend doing that more than reading one instead of the other.
Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild (1996) also makes a good road read. It’s the story of Krakauer’s journey to discover what motivated the late Chris McCandless to spend a winter alone in the Alaskan wilderness, where he was found (dead) four months later.
Across the pond—
I’d say that these books are distinctly American. Anyone out there have books in mind that define and/or offer insight into another culture’s definition of travel or adventure?