In Travels With Charley, John Steinbeck, at the age of 58, disillusioned by his fame and literary success, realized that he had not actually seen the country he had become so famous for writing about in some time. Feeling like a fraud, he resolved to travel across the backroads of America in search of the country and sense of national identity that eluded him. Deciding to take his journey with his French poodle, Charley, instead of his wife, Steinbeck ordered a custom GMC pickup/camper (which he dubbed “Rocinante” as a backhanded allusion to Don Quixote’s horse) that was outfitted with a bed, a propane stove, a table by which he ate, read and wrote, and the myriad creature comforts and conveniences that were available to him in the fall of 1960 when he set out on his trip.
Although Travels With Charley is a lesser known work of Steinbeck’s, I imagine many of the CC readership have read it or even regard it dearly as one of the great travelogues, alongside Kerouac’s On the Road and Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways. Suffice it to say that the America Steinbeck encountered was not a bed of roses: He was left befuddled by the wrath and smoke of progress that besmirched his hometown of Salinas and had made Monterey and Seattle almost unrecognizable to him. He found that Americans had become dulled and satiated by technology and that superhighways knifed their way through the countryside, making it possible to “travel from New York to California without seeing a single thing”. In the Deep South, Steinbeck witnessed the ugliness of (the process of) desegregation in public classrooms in New Orleans, and his journey concluded prematurely, offering more questions than answers.
As a college English teacher, I like to teach Travels With Charley, because it raises many questions about American values, and it makes us think about how we either evolve to suit the changing nature of the times, or get left behind like ghosts. I also like that many students, whether well traveled when they come into my classroom or not, like to imagine just what is out there in this great, big country of ours. If I can stoke the fires of wanderlust in them, then at the end of the day, this job is about much more than just a paycheck.
We teachers believe that books are our ambassadors of extra-somatic knowledge; that this is how we pass our lessons down. Books can profoundly broaden our worldviews, but can they hurt us too? Is it possible to read too much into a book and to go off the deep end? After a few years of teaching Travels With Charley, raising a Labrador retriever that I named after Steinbeck’s dog, how could I not subsequently get myself a self-contained vehicle and begin a journey into the heart and soul of America? How could I teach this book without knowing whereof I speak?
This was my justification for spending more money that I ever have on a vehicle before, and plunging headlong into a fantasy that was a nutty, profligate indulgence: a 1996 Dodge Horizon Class B RV, self-contained with a sink; a propane stove with 2 burners; a Dometic 3-way refrigerator; a microwave; heating and cooling systems, a toilet; a shower; storage space galore; dual batteries; inverter; electrical hookups, and more.
Purchased from an ailing Vietnam veteran, the van seemed to me a steal at the price. Everything in it worked (though someone had made a few botch-job aesthetic repairs), and the thing had a mere 84,000 miles on the clock. Nearly 18 years old when I bought it, it also came with a profound, fecund, fetid stink that I was never able to completely neutralize.
Full of the uneasy nervousness that pervades one before he dumps down a quarter of his yearly salary on an unproven vehicle, I dimly remember the previous owner asking me “are you sure this is what you want” as I doled out ludicrous wads of hard-earned cash for the purchase. With the paperwork signed, the handshakes shook, and the last of my tentative worries momentarily quashed, I took the helm of my new barge and began the maiden voyage out to Millerton Lake in Friant.
The vehicle’s shortcoming immediately began to present themselves. The lumbar support in the plushy captains’ chairs was awful and left my back screaming after 15 or 20 miles.
Although the steering was tight, I had to get used to the onerous manpower it took to stop the vehicle. It was clearly a beefy piece of American iron, manufactured in the ’90s, but rode like it was from the ’80s. It reminded me a little of my brother’s Chevy Blazer from the same era that never felt like it could come to a complete stop. I’ve heard CCers lament the left leg problems in Dodges of this era. The wheelwell left me with nowhere comfortable to rest my left leg as I cruised down the highway, which was jammed with traffic and oglers of a grizzly wreck. Not an auspicious start to my first journey!
Suspension was floaty on the freeway and no matter how fast I went, people wanted to pass me. The most comical part of it all? The passenger-side mirror kept flapping inward, leaving me with no visibility where I needed it most. I held my breath and muttered a Hail Mary every time I changed lanes. I remember lowering the window and booming the mirror back into place with the handle of the broom the previous owner had left behind in the van’s bathroom. Trial by fire, indeed!
Lake Millerton was beautiful once I found it, and the van’s king sized bed was sturdy and comfortable. After plugging the van in and verifying that everything seemed to work, I was almost able to forget about the 200+ mile drive back home I would have to undertake the following day. As nightfall arrived, Charley curled up at my feet in the bed like the RV was the most natural home he’d ever been in.
After the white-knuckled ride home and several small trips for acclimatization, I began to enjoy the RV for what it offered: Cold beers in the fridge, a place to rest and go to the bathroom any time I got the urge, a complete kitchen with which to prepare meals, etc.
I know CC has covered conversion vans before, but I’m not sure about Class B motorhomes. Class Bs are the most expensive kinds of RVs because they are not “stick and tin” constructions once you get past the van cab the way most other RVs are. Cheaply constructed Class As and Cs are prone to all kinds of problems: rust, mold, rot, you name it. Most of these Dodge Class Bs were assembled in Canada and then shipped south and sold to an American clientele.
This particular one was originally sold in Nipomo, CA, and is called a “Horizon,” though it appears to be similar to the “Phoenix” conversions that abound. At 19ft, it was easy enough to park in relatively small spaces, though I was always uneasily thinking ahead about how I would navigate my way out of spaces and places.
Unlike the Roadtreks and Pleasure Ways that are popular with the RV crowd, this particular RV had a second bed above the cab that slid out along a track to create an additional twin size bed. I never used the bed; that area was storage space for me. Charley felt completely at home crashing out on the sofas in the rear, whether they were upright or made into a bed.
This RV was built upon a Dodge Ram platform and is essentially a RAM 3500 van that has been extended three feet in the back, with a raised camper on top. Peaking out from atop the extra foot or foot-and-a-half of the roof was a Dometic central heating unit. The combined roof height left me wary of car washes and drive-thrus– anyplace with low clearances. The van featured a 5.2 liter V8 that had 220 horsepower and I had no trouble hitting 80 miles per hour on the freeways.
The torque specs were listed at 295 @ 3200 RPM. This particular RV was decent on gas, averaging in the 12-16 MPG range. Mine came equipped with some Goodyear mudder tires that had some dry rot cracking in the wells, but plenty of tread. I never did change them, as it would have cost a grand for five of those things.
The van was good to me. During my stewardship, I never encountered any major problems, but my conscience nagged at me for spending so much money on a second vehicle. Soon, my faithful Subaru Outback pulled a dreaded P0420 code, which my mechanic informed me was going to result in the catalytic converters (apparently there are two of them) needing to be replaced–a costly job. March rolled around; I did my taxes and my taxes did me in. I decided to put the RV up for sale.
After receiving a spate of calls from interested Craigslisters and listening to their stories and motivations/interests in purchasing an RV, I became aware that many of the observations Steinbeck made back in 1960 still hold true today–moreso, even. It seems to me that there is a burgeoning crowd of 20- to 30-somethings who are disillusioned with the workaday world and long to escape it by shucking their mortgages and cubicles and setting out for an endlessly changing horizon. Many, many people spoke of wanting to go “off the grid” in search of something better, something outside the smoke and plume of the big cities. Clearly there is something magnetic, exhilarating and Zen-like about downsizing, simplifying, and living a nomadic lifestyle. Now that I’ve gotten the RV experience out of my system, I can say this, however: Those who seek to escape the anxieties of the rat race are unlikely to find their saving grace behind the wheel of an automobile. The place to look is inward and not outward.
The beauty of Travels With Charley is the way in which Steinbeck used Charley as a foil to show that in spite of how bright and superior we humans think we are, we could stand to learn a lesson from a “lesser” creature once in a while. In the novel, Charley, for all his doggy limitations, did not suffer from ennui, an inflated sense of self-worth, racial superiority or any of the other human foibles and peccadilloes that Steinbeck discovered that dog our species. When I traveled in my van and looked over at Charley, head out of the window and ears flapping in the whipping wind, with a look of sheer contentment on his face, I realized that one doesn’t need an 8,000 pound vehicle to taste freedom; one just has to keep his eyes and mind open. Bon Voyage, Rocinante, and may all my fellow travelers and seekers find what they are chasing after!