4. Travels with Steinbeck

Published on 25 July 2022 at 10:55

©2022 Robert Sickles

The moment was more poignant than I expected. To my relief and astonishment, Mom and Dad sped off for their new life in California soon after my graduation from High School in New Jersey. The home I grew up in, now empty, locked and for sale suddenly seemed like a strange place to me. Watching them back out the driveway and, more or less, peel out, it looked like they were anxious to get out of town. “Hmm,” I thought, “didn’t we have a relationship, you and I?”  Even though I was prepared for their leaving, it was pretty strange to watch it happen one early summer day. After I hung around for a while, half expecting something else to occur, all that was left for me was to get into my car and go my own way. "This is really happening," I thought, "here is where the rest of my life begins."

Now, as a father and grandfather I have experienced sending a child off to camp, or college, and watching them marry and move away. I have steeled myself for the emotional goodbyes. And I have pulled away at the time of parting, to avoid showing tearful regrets. Maybe that's what Mom and Dad were doing when they left their youngest child on his own that summer. OK, let's go with that—isn't hindsight useful?

Most of my friends had jobs or travel plans for the summer. A couple had already left for college to get settled or take summer classes. I chose to stay in town with my pal, Kipper, whose parents had a spare bed downstairs. The plan was for me stay in New Jersey and work until the end of August, then sell my car and fly to California. I’d stay with the folks for a couple of weeks and then on to Seattle for my first term at UW.

My New Jersey home town was then at the very eastern end of the new Interstate 80, and I spent some melancholy moments at a park with a view facing west and the Interstate reaching for the setting sun—that's where I'd ponder what possibilities lay ahead. On the way home to Kipper’s one night, I felt a decision had to be made.  After only a few weeks, I wanted to quit the job I hated. It took me a couple days to tidy up some personal business, get some camping supplies, and I was ready to drive off for California. Early on my first morning out, I heard my Latin teacher's profound baritone, loud in my head: alea iacta est—the die is cast!

At that time, I was reading Travels with Charley about Steinbeck’s trip west as he moseyed across America in his camper with his dog Charley. It was probably an inspiration for Charles Kuralt's On the Road series of reports. For much of my trip, I took the same route Steinbeck did, and I found myself coincidentally stopping in places he visited. I was intent at first to take it very slowly, learn some history, find the heart of America, see it the way Steinbeck saw it. It was slow going, all this stopping and observing! After four days, I was still only in Ohio. Beyond that point the terrain opened and flattened out, towns grew farther apart, and there were still many miles of open plains and fields to go before I even saw the Rockies.

Each night I looked for state or county parks where camping was allowed, pitched my pup tent, heated up a can of chili, and read a little Steinbeck until dark. This really was a fine way to travel, I thought. I met a few interesting travelers and local residents, picked up a hitchhiker now and then, stopped in diners and checked out some of those odd-but-true roadside attractions.

In eastern Nebraska, not far from Omaha, I found a little hilltop county park for the night. The place seemed to be empty, so I parked in a secluded spot with a long view of the plains and towns below. With not much time before dusk, I quickly set up my tent and bunked down with a little lantern for reading. Maybe about 9 or 10 o’clock I heard some revving engines, small caliber gunfire, bottles breaking and guys whooping it up. I dimmed my lantern and lay still, and for the first time in my life I was afraid for my safety. This was 1968, I had let my hair and beard start to grow and I was aware that in certain areas I would be seen as fair game for sport. Their bash lasted for hours. I could hear their trucks careening around the campground road and probably cutting up the playfield. Fortunately, I was hidden by trees, but it was just by chance they didn’t spot my taillight reflection when they rampaged through the camping area.

Just after midnight, after I’d heard the arrival of another noisy truck and more whooping, a series of lightning flashes and booms started low on the horizon and seemed to getting more intense. I knew my little hilltop campground was a stupid place to sit out a lightning storm, but when the beer party suddenly sped away, I was more thankful to be alone than concerned about the storm. No, I wasn’t very smart—after all, this was tornado country in late July. Foolishly, I sat on the hood of my car, watching a wondrous display toward the north of hellfire silhouetting the skyline of Omaha. The storm seeming to hover over that poor city. I basically had a sleepless night!

Simon and Garfunkel’s America song is about searching for something “out there” that is really to be found “in here”.  Wouldn’t it have been clever of me to hear that message while I was experiencing back-to-back terror and delight on that Nebraska night?

Next morning after packing up, I apologized to John Steinbeck, promising I would return some day to finish his book. I’d had enough of savoring the heartland along the byways. It was all systems go for California. I had been a thoughtful young poet for the first 1000 miles, But now, man, I was all about speed and traveling music. 

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2 years ago

This is great stuff. All info I never knew about my business buddy. Keep it up

Kathy M
2 years ago

Loved that you were so open to cross country travel by yourself at that age. Lots to be afraid of in a trip like that, but you had courage! And the Wander Lust!

Camille Fastle
2 years ago

Thank you for these gems, Robert!

2 years ago

Very poetic....reminds me of those september nights, and bursts of white lightning.

2 years ago

I marvel at the courage (or naivete) of a young man camping alone like this--something I would never do. And yet, look what a great tale you are able to tell for us to enjoy!

2 years ago

What a sobering night that was! I like the balance between romanticized poet wandering and then just get there zoom. Ha!
I'm also liking the inserted blue italicized thoughts, commentary, afternotes. Cool.

Jack B.
a year ago

Thanks for reminding me of parallel memories:
1. Parents leaving town before fully grown;
2. Sleepless night in pup tent during windstorm in Blue Ridge Mtns;
3. Trying to follow Steinbeck's rambles: we were both too young to appreciate slow rambling;
4. Camping in deserted places to save $$. My favorite was country cemeteries: no visitors at night.