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I toured the same sliver of America Steinbeck did, but what I saw in 27 states only affirmed what I already knew: America is big, beautiful, empty, safe, clean, and unfairly blessed with natural and human resources. I met only a few hundred of my fellow 309 million citizens last fall, but to a person they were friendly and helpful. And despite a depressed economy, the gauntlet of beautiful homes and shiny pickup trucks, RVs, boats, and snowmobiles I passed through day after day testified to the democratization of the material riches that the wealthy Steinbeck had decried.
From cell phone towers to Hyundai dealerships and Walmarts, I saw modern things that would have amazed, shocked, or offended Steinbeck. Yet what surprised me most was what might have surprised him most too: how little change has taken place on the Steinbeck Highway in the last 50 years. From the fishing villages of Maine to the redwoods of California to the Mississippi Delta, I drove by hundreds of towns and farms and crossroads that looked almost exactly like they did when Steinbeck passed through.
Steinbeck dropped hints in Charley that it wasn’t a work of nonfiction. He insisted, a little defensively, that he wasn’t trying to write a travelog or do real journalism. And he pointed out more than once that his trip was subjective and uniquely his, and so was its retelling. Whether that story was true or not, I’m glad I got to take my own strange trip down his highway—and got to laugh out loud in Alice.
Bill Steigerwald (firstname.lastname@example.org) worked as a writer, editor, and columnist for the Los Angeles Times in the 1980s, the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette in the 199s, and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in the 2000s. His blog recounting his journey in Steinbeck's footsteps can be read at travelswithoutcharley2010.com.