Steinbeck on the Art of Traveling
I’m not sure what kind of copyright laws I’ll be breaking by doing this, but I thought I’d share with you that piece of literature that has most recently given me chills. I’ve finished The Shining as a sort of book that had been drifting out there in my imagination, but that I’d never gotten around to reading. Certainly chill inducing in it’s own right, but the sensation I’m talking about is in reference to the book I’ve just started, Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: In Search of America. What I’m talking about is that overwhelming sense of understanding you get when some great writer’s thoughts seem so close to your own, had you only the grace to put them on the page as they did.
A great American writer setting out on a journey to discover the mettle of America certainly appeals to this 20-something Peace Corps Volunteer in search of his own mettle out here on the plains of Mongolia. Let me share Mr. Steinbeck’s introduction in its entirety:
“When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked. Four hoarse blasts of a ship’s whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping. The sound of a jet, an engine warming up, even the clopping of shod hooves on pavement brings on the ancient shudder, the dry mouth and vacant eye, the hot palms and the churn of the stomach high up under the rib cage. In other words, I don’t improve; in further words, once a bum always a bum. I fear the disease is incurable. I set this matter down not to instruct others but to inform myself.
When the virus of restlessness begins to take possession of a wayward man, and the road away from Here seems broad and straight and sweet, the victim must first find in himself a good and sufficient reason for going. This to the practical bum is not difficult. He has a built-in garden of reasons to choose from. Next he must plan his trip in time and space, choose a direction and a destination. And last he must implement the journey. How to go, what to take, how long to stay. This part of the process is invariable and immortal. I set it down only so that newcomers to bumdom, like teen-agers in new-hatched sin, will not think they invented it.
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. I feel better now, having said this, although only those who have experienced it will understand it.”
I do wonder what personality is developing in the infancy of this trip I’m on. It’s bound to be unique, I’m quite sure of that, but what is its temperament, likes and dislikes, and most of all, what is its destination?
Remember fellow travelers, bums, Peace Corps Volunteers—whichever moniker you feel applies to you—“We do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”
All my best,
(Note: The quote above comes from Penguin Classics edition of Travels with Charley. © John Steinbeck, 1962)