Wrapping up TART’s West Coast road trip

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Our “Two American Road Trips” West Coast tour, capped by a Nov. 8 appearance at Town Hall in Seattle, was a success no matter how you measure it.

No one threw tomatoes at us. We each sold about 25 copies of our books, “Home Free” and “Dogging Steinbeck.”

We met many interesting and good people we didn’t know and many old friends, including some we hadn’t seen in years. And we learned a lot about the freeway system of the Bay Area.

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Ethan and Bill mesmerize the crowd at Town Hall in Seattle, the last stop on their West Coast “Two American Road Trips” tour.

In California, accompanied by my lovely better half and tour photographer, Trudi, Ethan and I spoke about our books at bookstores and libraries from Capitola to downtown Monterey to Salinas to Berkeley to Walnut Creek to Davis and San Raphael.

It was great to meet in person all the people we had been talking to for months, especially Lynne Steele and her son Jonathan Spooner of Oldtown Book Nook in Salinas and Laurelle Swan of Swan’s Fine Books in Walnut Creek.

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Jonathan Spooner and his mother Lynne Steele of Oldtown Book Nook in Salinas did a great job of promoting our appearance.

A special treat for me in Walnut Creek was re-meeting my friend Jim Dourgarian, the book dealer extraordinaire I first met at the Steinbeck Festival at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas in 2010.

Jim not only set up the gig at Swan’s, he attended and shared his deep and impressive knowledge of all things Steinbeck with us.

Ethan and I also spoke about our books and our careers in journalism to about 100 students from three classes at Seattle Central Community College.

Here, to prove to the IRS that we really did our trip, is a batch of photos.

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The post-talk scene at the beautiful Berkeley Public Library, where about 15 people showed up on a Saturday afternoon to hear about our American road trips.

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Eugene Veklerov, who was born in Moscow in 1942 and grew up in Siberia, wanted Bill Steigerwald to debunk “Russian Journal,” the soft-on-communism book Steinbeck and photographer Robert Capa wrote about their trip to the Soviet Union in 1947.

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Ethan, Bill and photog Trudi went to the top of Fremont Peak for a 360-degree look at Monterey County and a plane’s-eye view of Salinas, Steinbeck’s hometown.

 

 

 

 

Bill & Ethan’s Booktoberfest in the woods

The “Two American Road Trips” marketing department used four authors, seven books, foreign beer, local cider, lots of good homemade soup and perfect fall weather to attract about 40 of Bill Steigerwald’s friends and former newspaper colleagues to a “Booktoberfest” at his house on Saturday, Oct. 12.

booktoberfestWhile Bill checks out a fresh bottle of wine, Ethan talks with Ann Cook, who bought four copies of “Home Free” and his Haiti books for her many bright home-schooled kids. 

DSC_5549IMG_2040The 2013 Booktoberfest was designed to promote four authors and their books.

In addition to Ethan and Bill, Bill’s sportscaster/author brother John (“Just Watch the Game”) and Bill’s former colleague and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Brian O’Neill (“The Paris of Appalachian: Pittsburgh in the Twenty First Century”) brought their books along.

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411SXLjGpaL._SY300_Earlier in the week Bill and Ethan appeared at the Mt. Lebanon Library to talk about their two books as part of their “Two American Road Trips” book tour that will hit the West Coast on late October. Left, Trudi Steigerwald “models” her favorite travel book.

After their talk, Ethan and Bill posed with the Mt. Lebanon Public Library’s promo material.

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Bill and Ethan’s next stop is at Capitola Book Cafe in Santa Cruz, California, on Oct. 30.

Party Photos by Lucy Steigerwald

‘Dogging Steinbeck’ — Oct. 14, 2010

Three falls ago at this time I was dogging John Steinbeck across the top of the USA from Chicago to Seattle.

On Oct. 14, 2010, I was in Beach, N.D., the little agricultural town Steinbeck and Charley stopped in exactly 50 years earlier as he dashed down U.S. 10.DSC_2028

In “Travels With Charley” Steinbeck said he slept overnight under the stars near Alice, N.D., and in the Badlands, where he said he heard the coyotes barking. He was really in Beach at the Westgate Motel.

This is what the Westgate looked like in 1960, when Steinbeck told his wife Elaine in a letter that he was taking a nice hot bath.

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And here is a short video of what the Westgate looked like in 2010.

 

Dogging Steinbeck down Maine’s lonely & long Route 11

Three falls ago, exactly 50 years after John Steinbeck took his “Travels With Charley” trip, Bill Steigerwald chased Steinbeck’s ghost around the USA. On Sept. 29, Steinbeck slept in camper under a bridge in the rain somewhere along Maine’s Route 11, which probably has more moose living along it than people.

We know Steinbeck actually did sleep in his truck that night, because he told his wife Elaine he did in a letter to her from the road the next night. Based on Steigerwald’s research into the BS in “Charley,”  Steinbeck’s lonely night may have been the only time on his 75 day trip he slept in his camper in the middle of nowhere. Most of the time he was in a motel or shacked up with his wife in a fancy hotel, resort or family vacation home.

Here’s an excerpt from Steigerwald’s book that recounts what he did when he drove down motel-less Route 11 — and where he had to sleep.

Destination Milo

The Aroostook County line finally appeared, but Route 11 refused to end. I watched a protracted sunset from a hilltop and small-talked to two overly serious photographers from Montreal who had set up their tripods in the tall grass to capture the glorious panorama.

The middle of Maine feels even emptier when the sun is gone. It was dark when I pulled into Millinocket, the lumber mill town where the Pelletier family of “American Loggers” fame lived. After a surprisingly good spinach salad and a beer at Pelletier’s crowded family restaurant/bar, I drove into the black night for the next major town, Milo. In the dark I covered a distance of 39 miles to Milo, but the road I traveled could have been a high-speed treadmill in a tunnel. As far I could tell, except for Brownville Junction, it was deep forest all the way. I took photos of the twisting road ahead as I chased its white lines at 60 mph, straddling the centerline through a narrow channel of trees.

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A few mailboxes flashed by, a house with no lights, maybe a river. My Sirius XM radio, cranked up extra-loud with jazz, cut in and out because of the terrain or overhanging trees, I didn’t know which. I met my third car after 17 miles. In 45 minutes I counted 12. Steinbeck, who slept overnight in his camper shell by a bridge somewhere along Route 11, traveled the same lonely desolate way, but probably in daylight, when the local moose population would have been awake. Maine has 30,000 moose but I didn’t run into one.

I passed through downtown Milo, a town of 2,400 in the dead center of Maine. Once a thriving railroad repair facility for all of New England, Milo earned its Wiki-immortality in 1923 when 75 members of the Ku Klux Klan sullied the town’s Labor Day parade by holding its first daylight march in the United States. South of town I stopped for gas at the C&J Variety store. A true variety store, it carried booze, paperback books, pizza, live bait and Milo hoodies. Out front it even had a public pay phone, something Steinbeck would have appreciated if C&J Variety hadn’t been a Studebaker dealership or whatever it was in 1960.

“Did you ever hear of John Steinbeck?” I asked the 20-something girl behind the counter when she came outside for a smoke.

“I don’t think he lives around here,” she said.

Too tired to laugh, I held my smart-ass tongue. I provided her with some context.

“He’s the author of ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ and ‘Of Mice and Men.’ Did you ever have to read them in high school?”

Her face brightened. “Now that you say it, I’ve heard the name. I thought you were asking me if he lived around here.” She wasn’t the last person, young and old, who would not recognize John Steinbeck’s name until I also mentioned his two most famous books, which most high school kids in America still read – or at least are still assigned.

I’ll never know how close I was to a motel when I gave up. I drove another 70 or 80 miles south of Milo, trusting my GPS Person to figure out the best way to get from endless state Route 11 to U.S. Highway 2. My notebook from that night faded into scribbles and went blank. “Dover has a McDonald’s …. Guilford, no business district….” For an hour I looked for a decent turnout or rest stop. On a long grade on U.S. Route 2, somewhere east of Farmington, Maine, I flew past a poorly lighted used car dealership sitting by itself. I hit the brakes hard, backed onto the grassy lot and parked at the end of a row of vehicles. With the nose of my RAV4 pointed at the road, I locked myself in, cracked my sunroof, installed my blackout curtains and instantly fell asleep.

Impersonating a used car worked flawlessly. Even with its cargo carrier, my RAV4 blended in with the 30 or 40 other vehicles parked on the lot. Trucks and cars and the local law hurrying by in the night took no notice. Here is an extremely over-exposed photo I took of my car in the used car lot.

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Up at 4:50, by 5:15 I was in the Farmington McDonald’s sipping coffee, reading my email, writing a blog item and eavesdropping on four Republican geezers saying kind things about Sarah Palin that would offend and frighten most of my ex-colleagues in journalism.

It was there that I discovered two reliable things about McDonald’s that benefitted me for the next 10,000 miles: You can count on every McDonald’s to have strong, free Wi-Fi that you can use for as long as you want any time of day. And you can count on finding a local gang of 4 to 6 wise old guys in bad hats who will be thrilled to answer a stranger’s questions about what their world was like in 1960.

Chasing Steinbeck & Charley — Three years later

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Three years ago on Sept. 21, 2010, I left my home south of Pittsburgh and set out to retrace the cross-country route John Steinbeck took exactly 50 years earlier and turned into “Travels With Charley.” Here’s a slightly edited version of an article I wrote for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette before I left warning the rest of the world what I was doing and why.

My Mad Plan

The book “Travels With Charley” is my map, timeline and guide to where John Steinbeck was, when he was there and what he was thinking about during his spin around America in the fall of 1960.

But Steinbeck’s book is often vague and confusing about time and place. And it doesn’t include a number of places Steinbeck went but did not include in his book.

Since Steinbeck took few notes and left no maps, itinerary or expense vouchers among the tons of written material and memorabilia he left us, I have had to rely on other sources to follow his cold trail.

I’ve used clues from letters he sent from the road, newspaper articles written in 1960 (and later) and TV-detective logic to make the best guesses I can.

Steinbeck carefully planned his trip for months. He studied maps to choose routes that dodged big cities but circled the edge of the country from Maine to Seattle and back.

He also packed his Spartan camper shell Rocinante with everything he thought he’d ever need.

He had a pile of books like William Shirer’s “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” that he hoped to read but never did. He had tools, spare truck parts and several rifles.rocinanteinterior2a

He also had a propane stove, a table that converted to a bed, closets and a toilet, as you can see if you use a camera to light up the interior of his camper at its eternal parking place in the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, Ca.

It was Steinbeck’s idea to carry his little house around with him so he could invite people he met in for a friendly drink.

His truck cab was nothing like the luxuriously appointed pickups today. He had no AC and only an AM radio — not even push-button.

No wonder he was always talking to Charley.

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 I am going everywhere Steinbeck actually went on his 10,000-mile trip across 34 states, I think. I’m taking the same U.S. highways he took – except where they’ve been buried under interstates.

I’m leaving from Sag Harbor, Long Island, on Thursday, Sept. 23 — 50 years to the day after Steinbeck and Charley set out in their overloaded pickup-truck/camper hybrid.

I won’t take nearly three months to circumnavigate the country, as he did, however, because I won’t be spending nearly five weeks off-road staying at posh hotels or visiting friends and family — as he did.

I’ll be moving quickly in my red Toyota RAV4, practicing drive-by journalism at its finest or worst. I’ll report and opine on what I see along the Old Steinbeck Highway in 2010 and try to discover, document — or imagine — what Steinbeck saw on his journey in 1960.

I’ll also try to find out how the simpler, less prosperous and less lovely America that he observed, critiqued and worried about has changed or not changed in half a century. And whether those changes have turned out for the better or the worse.

Oh, yeah. About the dog.

I’m not taking one.

Not because I don’t like dogs. My big joke — which I won’t repeat again — is that I just couldn’t find a dog that knows how to read Google maps and Twitter at the same time.

But even if I had our family dog, the late, great Alex, I wouldn’t subject him to the long and crazy road ahead.

First stop is Sag Harbor, where Steinbeck loafed when he wasn’t living in his Manhattan brownstone and where his backyard ended at the ocean’s edge.

Home Free: Checking in with Jesse Lederman

I spent last week in and around Washington, DC, as part of an East Coast trip beginning the promotion of my book Home Free: An American Road Trip. This week (Wed., Sept. 18) I’ll be speaking at Lehigh University, and a week later on Wednesday, September 25, possibly together with Bill Steigerwald, I’ll be showing slides from my Home Free road trip at the Ocean County Library in Toms River, New Jersey.

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Ethan Casey with Jesse Lederman, Washington, DC, Sept. 11, 2013.

In DC I made a point of checking in with Jesse Lederman, the very impressive young man who buttonholed me last October at the Renaissance School in Springfield, Massachusetts and insisted on showing me around his city. My account of that afternoon with Jesse in Springfield is included in Chapter 3 of Home Free, and last week was my chance to find out what’s new with him.

Jesse is now a freshman at The George Washington University. I met him at the entrance to the Foggy Bottom-GWU Metro stop last Wednesday, then we had dinner and frozen yogurt and attended a very moving September 11 anniversary commemoration on the GWU campus. He told me that he chose GWU for college because they let him in and gave him financial aid, and “because it’s sort of the capital of college politics. It’s a great community, it’s a great school. And I thought it was really important to get outside of my own community. I’ve never lived anywhere except Springfield my whole life.”

Even though he’s an incoming freshman with four long years ahead of him, I asked Jesse where he thought he would be headed after college. “I’m headed home!” he said. “But you have to have new experiences in order to make things better. There’s a lot that I need to learn. So I really want to bring everything that I learn here, all the people I meet, all the connections that I make, back to Springfield.”

“And part of it too is: I could go anywhere I wanted,” Jesse emphasized. “I could go anywhere I wanted. I’m going home because I think it’s really important to have a sense of pride in where you come from. And I think for cities like Springfield, one of the major issues is that no one comes back. And I don’t want to contribute to that problem.”

Purchase Ethan Casey’s book Home Free: An American Road Trip for $19.95 plus $3.95 shipping.

Bring the Two Americas Tour with Ethan Casey and Bill Steigerwald, author of Dogging Steinbeck, to your city. Learn more here.

John Steinbeck, Hollywood BS & ‘Charley’

After 100 years we know Hollywood can’t be trusted with reality. Whatever real or true story screenwriters like Oliver Stone (the imaginative “JFK”) or Danny Strong (the hilariously phony and  awkwardly titled “Lee Michaels’ the Butler”) tell, it’s invariably awful. From “Tortilla Flat” to multiple versions of “Of Mice and Men,” John Steinbeck’s fictional works have supplied the empty idea shops of Hollywood with dramatic fodder for …  78 years!!!!! Steven Spielberg apparently is going through with his threat to remake/ruin “The Grapes of Wrath” in time for the book’s 75th birthday next year. But so far no one in Tinseltown has turned “Travels With Charley” into a road movie. In this excerpt from his boffo literary expose “Dogging Steinbeck,”  Bill Steigerwald shows that Hollywood’s disinterest in dramatizing Steinbeck’s book is a good thing.

‘Charley’ Doesn’t Go Hollywood

Despite its flaws, “Travels With Charley’s” romantic version of searching for America by car has never fallen from the culture’s consciousness. Along with Kerouac’s “On the Road” – its hipper, edgier, happier and openly fictional older brother – it has become a classic American road book. It gave Charles Kuralt his idea for his popular “On the Road” segments for “The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.” But so far, despite a lot of interest, it’s never been turned into a dumb sitcom or bad movie.

Not that Hollywood hasn’t tried. In 1963 no less than Sam Peckinpah wrote an unintentionally hilarious TV script for Warner Brothers’ television division dramatizing “Travels With Charley.” Not surprisingly, it included Steinbeck having two knockdown fistfights. Too horrible even for network TV’s standards, it was never made.

Here’s a glimpse of tough-guy Steinbeck from Peckinpah’s script:

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In the early 1990s, Kevin Costner’s production company had an option on “Travels With Charley” with plans to shoot an eight-part miniseries. It died a deserved death. Knowing Hollywood, it wasn’t because Costner’s project was an incredibly stupid idea. It was probably because they couldn’t get Sam Peckinpah to direct.

Finally, somewhere in a file cabinet at HBO sits a less-tortured screenplay of “Travels With Charley.” Written in the early 2000s by Steinbeck’s son Thom, it’s not likely to include any fistfights but it apparently was written as if the book was true.

Unfortunately, in 1968, shortly before John Steinbeck died, “Travels With Charley” did travel to TV Land. Producer Lee Mendelson of “Peanuts” fame turned it into an hour-long “documentary” for NBC. Narrated by Steinbeck’s buddy Hank Fonda, who played an unseen but amply quoted Steinbeck, it was watched by tens of millions of Americans who didn’t want to watch what was on CBS or ABC that night.

An early example of the “docudrama” genre at its worst, it was presented by Mendelson as the true story of Steinbeck’s lonely journey. Skipping the southern leg of Steinbeck’s trip, Mendelson sent out a Rocinante-lookalike to retrace the “Charley” route from Sag Harbor to the top of Fremont Peak.

The dumbest mistake Mendelson made was hiring 15 actors to look into the camera and pretend to be the characters Steinbeck pretended he had met on his trip. Many of the performances are painful, but arguably the worst fictional character was our friend the mythical itinerant Shakespearean actor of Alice, North Dakota.

To heap hokum on top of hokum, Mendelson threw in a few silly cartoon segments and a hideous Rod McCuen song, “Me & Charley,” which was sung over and over by Glen Yarbrough whenever Charley streaked across the grassy fields of America. Mendelson paid $1,000 to rent a stand-in for the dead poodle, who, in a rare and merciful concession to reality, wasn’t made to talk.

The show’s last stop was high atop Fremont Peak, where Fonda delivered Steinbeck’s great lines from the book as the camera swept up the spectacular view. The program ended with Fonda standing next to Rocinante, as Charley sat in the cab. Fonda explains that Steinbeck’s trip didn’t end on Fremont Peak, but continued on through the South where he saw the agony of school integration in New Orleans and talked with Negroes and whites about the violent changes that were occurring.

After Fonda mistakenly says the 11-week trip was “over four months long,” he asks what it was that Steinbeck had learned about America. In a tight close-up, the man who played Tom Joad in the movie of “The Grapes of Wrath” reads two spliced-together passages from “Travels With Charley”:

It would be pleasant to be able to say of my travels with Charley, “I went out to find the truth about my country and I found it.” And then it would be such a simple matter to set down my findings and lean back comfortably with a fine sense of having discovered truths and taught them to my readers. I wish it were that easy …. What I have set down here is true until someone else passes that way and rearranges the world in his own style.

Fonda then looks into the camera and says, “John Steinbeck saw it one way. Charley saw it another way. And now it’s your turn if you so choose to pass that way and rearrange the world as you see it. Goodnight.” Millions of viewers had no reason to doubt that they had just watched the true story of Steinbeck’s journey, which, if Mendelson and NBC were to be believed, was a lonely “four-month” ride around America with a dog in a truck.

Shortly before Steinbeck’s death in late 1968, Mendelson screened his awful rendition of “Travels With Charley” for Steinbeck and Elaine in New York City. “Steinbeck was crying when the lights came on,” Mendelson remembered in a 2003 interview. “I didn’t know if he was crying because he hated it, but he turned to me and said, ‘That’s just the way the trip was.’” Poor Steinbeck. He was probably crying from guilt.