I didn't have any idea that John Steinbeck was writing non fiction books, until I happened to find this one at the bottom of a pile of a second hand books market. To be honest, I wouldn't have bought it if it wasn't because I read the title and the summary of it way before I realized that he was the author - I tried to read Steinbeck before, but every time I seemed to reach a point in which I couldn't advance, because despite of being a great writer, he just didn't seem to do much for me.
I bought it because I like reading travel books. Not travel guides, which is a total different story, but travel books - books in which you read about the experiences and feelings of somebody who goes into a trip. And that's why, when I read it was about a road trip through North America, it gained a spoit in my "to read" list.
Travels with Charlie: in Search of America is nothing like Steinbeck's most known books - Of Mice and Men, The Wrapes of Wrath or East of Eden, among others - yet it's already on the list of books I really liked. Travels with Charlie is beautifully writen, despite having a slow pace it never gets boring, and Steinbeck describes in it the wonders of the landscape and the changes of the weather in a way that makes you feel the breeze going though the windows of the old pick up camper he uses to travel, which he calls "Rocinante", as a wink to Don Quijote's horse.
It's 1960, and the book is full of political references about the social context in which it takes place, yet they can go unnoticed to the point that they don't really become overwhelming - except for the constant references to racism that show up at the end of the book, the rest can really go unnoticed if you're not really interested in the historical context. What can't go unnoticed, though, is the relationship between Steinbeck and his dog, Charlie, a French poodle that becomes the partner of all his travel adventures, and that aside from all the places discovered in the maps, becomes the central theme of the books.
Is it a masterpiece? Probably not, but it really worth reading it. The beauty of traveling through seconday roads, of getting lost in unknown corners of America and interacting with people on the way makes for a nice break for the fast pace we're having these days. Maybe at some of the pages Steinbeck sounds a little arrogant, even showing some superiority, but if you put that aside, you're really going to enjoy the book.
“Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process, a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. 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. Tour masters, schedules, reservations, brass-bound and inevitable, dash themselves to wreckage on the personality of the trip. Only when this is recognized can the blown-in-the glass bum relax and go along with it. Only then do the frustrations fall away. In this a journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.”