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Life Lessons from John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley”


Travels With Charley is a travel memoir written by the famous Nobel Prize winning author John Steinbeck. Steinbeck piles some books, shotguns, tinned food, and his poodle Charley into a truck/camper van and sets off around the U.S. The book was first published in 1962 which was an interesting time for the U.S. and the world. The world was on the cusp of change. Steinbeck reminds me of my Father in many ways, someone who was afraid of change and the new technologies that were taking over the world.

Steinbeck claims that he wasn’t really sure what he was looking for, and at the end of the novel he isn’t really sure what he found. He lays his travels bare and it is up to the reader to decide what to make of it all. The U.S. is a big place, so to claim that it is supposed to have one kind of vibe, mentality, demeanor is unthinkable. Steinbeck, despite the vastness of the U.S. tries his best to tie together his experiences that make up his journey.

These are some of the life lessons I picked up along the way whilst reading Steinbeck’s novel.

1. Look Beyond the City.

Steinbeck towards the beginning of his novel says,

“American cities are like badger holes, ringed with trash-all of them-surrounded by piles of wrecked and rusting automobiles, and almost smothered with rubbish.”

While this is a very critical judgement of the U.S., it also a statement that could be said about all cities in one way or another. I believe that too many of us get caught up in city life; the artificial lights, pavements, people… It is enticing and magical. There is always something to do, always something to see. Every minute of every hour is completely saturated with sound, lights, smells, and tastes in a city, which means there is no time to pause and reflect. The Australian poet Banjo Paterson also wrote something similar about cities and their people in Clancy of the Overflow:

With their eager eyes and greedy, and their stunted forms and weedy,
For townsfolk have no time to grow, they have no time to waste.

What can we take from Steinbeck’s words? Well, it isn’t to forget the city, but rather, to remember what is beyond the city. Look for the quiet, look for the natural beauty in life. Heck, I’m going to say it! Stop and smell a rose. The city can be all consuming, and I believe that retreating to somewhere green and quiet can do us all the world of good.

2. Stop Buying Junk and Over Packaged Things.

I find Steinbeck to be a bit of a paradox at times. Throughout his writings he constantly talks about waste and our neglect of the environment. When we consider the time Steinbeck was around, people were not always as enviro-aware as they are now (although I would argue that we are not much better). Although Steinbeck talks about keeping the environment clean, he also talks about throwing aluminum cooking trays into the ocean. Hence, the paradox. Despite this though, I think that Steinbeck’s intentions are good. He laments, “Everything we use comes in boxes, cartons, bins, the so-called packaging we love so much.” He sums it up nicely I think. We buy too much junk and the junk is always over-packed with paper, plastic, and carton. We could all be a little bit more wise when it comes to how we consume things.

3. We Should Re-Think Our Roots.

Steinbeck, throughout all his novels, closely scrutinizes the American dream. The American dream, like the Australian dream, or arguably any countries dream is this: buy a house, have kids, work until you retire. Maybe it varies, but the little-place-of-our-own idea keeps coming up every time. Buying a house means settling down, growing roots. Throughout his travels with Charley, Steinbeck finds many people who go against the American dream of owning a house and instead, these people travel around in camper vans, Winnebagos, and caravans. They’re not all crack addicts with bad hygiene either. They are families, hard working adults, and Americans. They have just reinvented what it means to have roots.

As someone who lives an immigrant life in Switzerland, with a Brazilian husband, the idea of roots is complicated for me, to say the least. No matter where we go, my husband and I will never have roots like other people will. I know my great-grandparents came from Sweden and Scotland to Australia, but the family history before Australia is a cold dead end. My husband has German and possibly Dutch heritage, but knows little of his European roots. We now live in Switzerland together… I’m sure you get where I am going with this. Roots are not always about staying in the same place your great-great-great-great-great grandparents grew up. For some people it is, but the world is changing and the ‘roots’ people used to have are just not there anymore.

It is important for us to rethink our heritage, what we call home, and what we call roots.

4. Worry About the Means, Not the End Goal.

Towards the end of the novel Steinbeck talks about his conversations with a few African Americans. He doesn’t explicitly address the whole civil rights movement that was in its early stages back then, rather, he hints at the changes the U.S. is going to face.

Steinbeck says that he is not worried about the end goal, the finishing line. He hints at knowing where it will end up: equality (although we are still far from it today). Steinbeck is worried about the means to that end. How we are going to get to where we need to end up. The history books teach us that the means of the civil rights movement from the 1960s onward was a time of violence, bloodshed, fear, and grief. If we look at today’s headlines, with the likes of Boko Haram, the Ferguson Riots, and neomasculinists just to name a few, I am not worried about the end goal, which I know will be peace and equality. I am worried about how we are going to get there and how much life will be lost. As Steinbeck suggests, I am worried about the means. It is all to easy too get caught up in the end goals we have, and not really see the things we have to do to get there.

Rather than focusing on the end, worry about the means.

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