A Half-Century Later, Steinbeck's Roads Ride The Same

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Fifty years ago this month, John Steinbeck and his poodle headed out from their house in Sag Harbor on Long Island for an 11-week, 10,000-mile trip around the U.S. Host Scott Simon talks with former newspaperman Bill Steigerwald, who's on a trip to retrace the route John Steinbeck took around the U.S. 50 years ago for his book, Travels Without Charley.

SCOTT SIMON, Host:

Fifty years ago this month, John Steinbeck and his poodle, Charley, headed out from their house in Sag Harbor on Long Island for an 11 week, 10,000 mile counterclockwise trip around the United States. His book about that trip, "Travels with Charley," was published a couple years later and is considered a classic.

Half a century later, former newspaperman Bill Steigerwald has been inspired to retrace John Steinbeck's route - over the course of about four weeks and without a dog. So far, Bill Steigerwald has driven his red Toyota from Sag Harbor through New England to northern Maine, from where he's now headed south. He joins us on the phone.

You're in - well, where are you, Mr. Steigerwald?

BILL STEIGERWALD: Well, I am in the metropolis of Lunenburg(ph), Vermont. It's between Lancaster and Concord, Vermont.

SIMON: And forgive me for not remembering, but is it in "Travels with Charley"?

STEIGERWALD: Yes, it is. Steinbeck, when he left Sag Harbor on September 23, 1960, came straight up through Connecticut, Massachusetts, came up to the top of Vermont, turned right, went all the way up to the top of Maine, came back down through the top of Vermont.

SIMON: So what are the differences that you notice between the Vermont that the John Steinbeck saw and what you're seeing?

STEIGERWALD: Well, it's amazing how little the route that he took, which was all blue highways, US 5, US 2, US 1, it just hasn't changed. I mean, you go by the same houses that he had to have gone by, the same gas stations - in many cases there's hardly anything new. I contend that 95 percent of what I see on this trip - and I've driven about 1,800 miles - he would have seen as well.

SIMON: I remember something from "Travels with Charley" I've always taken to heart since. He said never ask the locals in Maine for directions, because for some reason I guess they don't like to let visitors in on it and they'll give them, purposely give them the wrong directions.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STEIGERWALD: Well, it's funny. My GPS girl is pretty sharp and she got me through Maine and everything else. But I know that a couple of times I looked like I was lost and women came to my rescue.

SIMON: Is "Travels with Charley" much of a roadmap for you?

STEIGERWALD: No. Actually, it's very fuzzy and vague and deliberately fuzzy and vague in spots. But he wrote a lot of letters on the road. So I've put together a timeline and a place line that with the book and with these other sources can pretty much tell me where he was and when he was there.

He didn't leave us many clues. He kept no journal. He kept no notes. And so it's sort of like a little bit of history detective work to put his trip together. So it's kind of fun to see what he says he did and where he said he went and then find out what he really did or didn't do.

SIMON: Bill Steigerwald, good luck to you.

STEIGERWALD: I thank you.

SIMON: Bill Steigerwald, who's retracing the route that John Steinbeck took for "Travels with Charley."

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