A book can be a very good companion while travelling. Here are some quotes from Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck which I read on my trip around Central America this spring.
The book is about Steinbeck travelling around the U.S. with his companion, a French poodle named “Charley”, in 1961 when he was 58 years old. I love Steinbeck’s writing and it was interesting to hear the observations of a man who grew up in the early 1900s travelling at that time. And interestingly I often found his journey around (United States of) America mirroring mine around Central America.
(Page notes are from the Penguin Books edition published in 1980 and reissued in 1986 with ISBN 978-0-14-005320-3.)
A journey is a person itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. (p4)
I find out of long experience that I admire all nations and hate all governments, and nowhere is my natural anarchism more aroused than at national borders…. (p84)
(On highway rest stops in the U.S. in the early 1960s) It is a life at the peak of some kind of civilization. The restaurant accommodations, great scallops of counters with simulated leather stools, are as spotless as and not unlike the lavatories. Everything that can be captured and held down is sealed in clear plastic. The food is oven-fresh, spotless and tasteless; untouched by human hands. I remember with an ache certain dishes in France and Italy touched by innumberable human hands. (p91)
“You know when show people come into what they call the sticks, they have a contempt for the yokels. It took me a little time, but when I learned that there aren’t any yokels I began to get on fine. I learned respect for my audience. They feel that and they work with me, and not against me. Once you respect them, they can understand anything you can tell them.” (Said by a travelling actor) (p149)
This journey has been like a full dinner of many courses, set before a starving man. At first he tries to eat all of everything, but as the meal progresses he finds he must forgo some things to keep his appetite and his taste buds functioning. (p211)
(Steinbeck passed through the South while tensions were very high during the civil rights movement.)
“If by force you make a creature live and work like a beast, you must think of him as a beast, else empathy would drive you mad.” (Said by a man from an old white Louisiana family who probably owned slaves.) (p265)
(Regarding a conversation with a young black student) Finally we spoke of Martin Luther King and his teaching of passive but unrelenting resistance. “It’s too slow,” he said. “It will take too long…. I might be an old man before I’m a man at all. I might be dead before.” (Later) “I’m ashamed,” he said. “It’s just selfishness. But I want to see it – me – not dead. Here! Me! I want to see it – soon.” And then he swung around and wiped his eyes with his hand and walked away. (p272-273)
Who has not known a journey to be over and done before the traveler returns? The reverse is also true: many a trip continues long after movement in time and space have ceased. I remember a man in Salinas who in his middle years traveled to Honolulu and back, and that journey continued for the rest of his life. We could watch him in his rocking chair on his front porch, his eyes squinted, half-closed, endlessly traveling to Honolulu…. My own journey started long before I left and was over before I returned. (p274)
I know exactly when my journey ended: when I read the above passage at the end of the book and was sitting alone waiting for a bus after a chaotic weekend in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica on the Caribbean coast during Semana Santa (“Easter” which is huge in Latin America).
Then I went to Manuel Antonio National Park on the Pacific coast and loved seeing the wildlife and beaches but that was it. I had amazing experiences on that trip that will stay with me. Part of me thought I should continue on because that was the plan but as Steinbeck noted: a journey has a life of its own. Within about a week I had bought a ticket and flown home and it felt good.