Travels with Two Charlies


(Travels with Two Charlies first appeared on Kid Lit Frenzy — you can read it in its original form HERE.)

As a child, I was a really anxious kid—basically terrified of everything outside my front door. But when I was twelve, I stumbled across a fascinating road-trip story at the local library. I pulled it at random off the shelf, because there was a dog on the cover, and I loved dogs above all things on earth. Also, I thought I vaguely recognized the author’s name. It was John Steinbeck.

In Travels with Charley, Steinbeck and his standard poodle, the eponymous Charley, take off in Rocinante, the old camper-truck he named after Don Quixote’s valiant steed. The goal was to wander, have an adventure. And to take stock of America in the summer of 1960.

“A journey is a person in 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.”

I loved the book. I’d never read anything like it. Travels with Charley was the first “adult” book I’d ever finished, and I remember feeling so proud.

The thoughtfulness of the writing pulled me in. The descriptions of nature–of autumn leaves bursting with sun-soaked color in New England, of flat, undulating fields of the Midwest – struck a cord in me and filled me with wonder. I had never been much beyond my home state.

And his wise old observer’s eyes noted the ugliness, too—the newly unfurling seeds of environmental damage. “American cities,” he wrote, “are like badger holes, ringed with trash–all of them–surrounded by piles of wrecked and rusting automobiles, and almost smothered in rubbish.”

He mentioned the loss of regional accents, which he supposed was due to the breakdown of individualism into a collective, media-influenced way of speaking and thinking. He foresaw the media-driven dangers of groupthink. Or of Mobthink.

It’s interesting, flipping back through this book today, imagining the child’s brain that first read it. What had I made out of those passages?

What I most remember, at twelve, were the portraits of people Steinbeck met along the way. There were some horrific caricatures—a description of a lady of sallow cheek who, when she entered a room, turned the very air to grey. I felt that way about some of my junior high school teachers!

But mainly, the people he met were kind.

As a socially awkward child who viewed interactions with others, especially strangers, as downright terrifying, it struck me powerfully to read about traveling alone and vulnerable, across an entire stretch of continent, and surviving. Sharing diner coffee with innumerable new folks. Striking up all those conversations! And surviving…

His journey demystified, for me, the fearful realm of What Lay Beyond, both geographically, in America, and emotionally, in adulthood. At twelve, I was on the cusp. And scared. I read this book, and a light flickered, out there in the Beyond, past my home and school and my small, fearful, circumscribed life. A tiny flicker of a light. Who knows? Maybe, in my future, there really is some navigable terrain out there. Maybe someday, I’d be ready for a journey, too.

But for the moment, as a twelve-year-old, I got to go along, safely.

Because of a book.

My main character in The Someday Birds is named Charlie, as a private nod to the influence Steinbeck’s book had on me as a middle-grader. My Charlie also travels the country, coast to coast, as an act of bravery, He, also, travels with a dog, and has difficult adventures. He makes observations about nature, and people, that remind us about being human, and being kind, and relating to each other.

My Charlie learns, all too well, in Steinbeck’s words, that “we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.” He learns that travel can be hard, as life can be hard.

But the people along the way? For the most part, they are kind.

And that makes all the difference.

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