Travels With Charley: An Ode to Adventurous John Steinbeck

Before I even read the school-assigned Grapes of Wrath classic, my dad put the book, Travels With Charley in my hands, instructing me to read it, mostly because he knew how much I love both travel and dogs, and he was a fan of John Steinbeck, the author. 

Steinbeck, upon retirement took a trip of thousands of miles of interstates and back roads discovering America in 1960 in a truck camper with a ten-year-old poodle – Charley. We happened to leave our own dog under the care of one of our sons, and truly missed her. But not that much when we experienced just how complicated traveling in even a small RV can be with a 90-pound Labrador. 

Our goal was to take our time soaking in the sights and culture of the various places along the way to stay with one of our sons and his very young family, assigned to an Air Force Base in San Antonio. Visiting your new grandson surely makes perfect sense of the idea to purchase an RV in retirement, agreed? 

There was a travel plan, but really no agenda. Fourteen states later, starting from Delaware and meandering throughout the southeast, we ended at our destination – a combination of staying at a very nice RV park some nights, and at our son’s on other nights when we felt we wouldn’t interfere with their strict baby schedule. 

And I don’t want to compare my husband to a standard poodle, but I did think about that book several times during the excursion. We proved ourselves to be good travel companions. Traversing the country in a 25-foot RV (smaller than most) for almost a month proved to be interesting. Destination goals without strict routes. Fascinating at times, actually. 

I thought of the book often, how Steinbeck stopped at odd places, talked with local people and documented his observations of America in that era. Obviously, our trip was quite different in a different era. The country has grown exponentially. Interstates exist where they once did not, and population growth is something Steinbeck likely wouldn’t recognize compared to his experience 60 plus years ago. 

We logged 4,000 miles through 14 states, round trip. We basically took our time and made a point to visit historical sites and national parks and landmarks along the way. We did manage to spend an extraordinary 11 days with our grandson in the middle. Every moment is precious when you know you cannot do that often. 

As mentioned in a previous entry, we acted like retirees on a budget. Creatively, my husband researched carefully our route and how it could be combined with a trending organization called Harvest Hosts. Consider it an Air B&B for RV people on the go. (Here’s an article with more about them: Harvest Hosts: an Adventurous and Affordable Travel Experience

When you have basically a tiny house on wheels and can go wherever you’d like, it’s an adventure. Adding to the adventure, though is the opportunity to stay in the most unexpected places. Namely parking lots. 

Called dry docking, we endured nights without running water or standard bathrooms (there’s an art to that). There aren’t hookups for electricity generally, either. In exchange for staying in the host parking lot or their property somewhere free of charge, the deal is you in exchange give them some business. 

To get there is not designed for the weak of heart; rather it is for the adventurous. We stayed in a busy parking lot of an Amish marketplace in Virginia on night one. Night two, possibly my favorite was spent on a Smokey Mountain hemp farm in rural North Carolina (had to buy some CBD products of course). From there, we visited Smokey Mountain National Park, just one of our bucket list destinations that include national parks, monuments and other sites. 

Night three was back to another parking lot adjacent to a local, small brewery in Tennessee where we ate a pub dinner, bought a handmade hook kind of game popular these days in bars (gave it to the son watching the dog), and ran the loud generator because it was quite cold and we weren’t going to bother the neighbors with the noise. 

Night four was in rural western Arkansas, yet again alone in a parking lot of a strange but interesting museum dedicated to the history of America’s prairie – complete with Conestoga wagons and a room full of handmade duck callers (different story altogether.) Stuttgart, Arkansas, self-proclaimed “Capitol of Rice and Ducks.” Kid you not, that’s what the enormous sign claims as you enter the area. We never knew Arkansas produces so much rice, nor that the ducks flock there because of the irrigation troughs necessary for rice farms. Rumor has it that even the owner of the Dallas Cowboys owns land and plenty of duck callers for the sport in Stuttgart. 

Night five brought us to Dallas, Texas, where we finally splurged on a hotel room with running water and a bed better designed for a good night’s sleep. You see, we were meeting an old friend who’s lived in Dallas for years, and we needed to look presentable. It’s probably the nicest, most welcome shower I have ever experienced. 

Finally, we reached our destination of San Antonito the next evening, greeted with the smiling faces of our son, daughter in law and nine-month old grandson at last. Alternating between staying at an RV “resort” (that provided electric, sewer and water hookup, along with an impeccably clean shower facility) and staying at our son’s house on weekend nights when he was around, we finally got into a groove that didn’t include constantly trying to get comfortable on a 4-inch thick mattress and bad pillows. 

It was extraordinary, getting to know Texas, its culture and its fascinating terrain. Eleven very nice days were spent with family, and then of course you have to get back. That’s a different story. 

I like to think that John Steinbeck would have appreciated our own travels through unexpected American scenery, towns and highways. Having a goal but no agenda is actually a wonderful way to travel. 

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