Following Steinbeck to Fargo

Rachel Dry sets out to follow John Steinbeck's route across America that led to his 1962 travelogue "Travels With Charley."
Geographic center of North America
Gene Thorp/The Washington Post
By Rachel Dry
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 12, 2010; 4:50 PM

It's a perfect day at the geographic center of North America. The mid-October sky is just the right shade of blue to make the giant white clouds look their suspended-cotton-ball best.

It's the kind of weather that should make a traveler relax, breathe in and think: Right, this is where I'm supposed to be, enjoying unexpected sun and sweeping prairie views.

I can't do that, though. Because I'm staring at a room full of roads not taken.

Once you get to the geographic center of North America, in Rugby, N.D., they take some pains to remind you where else you could have gone. The visitors' center here is full of maps and guide books to the rest of the continent: information on the volcanoes of Hawaii, the dunes of Cape Cod. Here, it says, now that you've made it to the heart of everything, look at how far you have to go to get anywhere else.

I don't need those maps, though. I have a prescribed route already: the one John Steinbeck took.

In 1960, the writer drove a pickup truck fitted with a custom camper, which he defiantly dubbed Rocinante - his friends and family thought the endeavor was Cervantes-level quixotic - across the Lower 48 on a trip that became his 1962 travelogue, "Travels With Charley." (Charley was his dog, "an old French gentleman poodle.")

Steinbeck went because, as he wrote his longtime literary agent in 1954, he felt "cut off" and wanted to take a drive to "listen to what the country is about now." He wasn't confident that he knew what the real story was anymore.

Pretty much exactly 50 years later, I picked up his path in my home state of Vermont and followed it as loyally as I could through to Fargo, N.D. I went because I love cross-country road trips (I'd made the cross-country trek once before) and Steinbeck. I'd latched onto the Nobel Prize winner in college and had studied his work in depth, becoming slowly obsessed with the idea of duplicating his journey.

I don't have a dog, and decided against borrowing one. I brought my mother along with me instead. I also couldn't carve out enough time for the whole voyage, so I picked Fargo as my final destination. Steinbeck went to Fargo because, he wrote in "Charley," he was "curious how a place unvisited can take such hold on the mind so that the very name sets up a ringing." In a letter to his wife from the road, he wrote that he had heard of the place all his life and simply had to go.

And so I did, too.

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