The National Steinbeck Center will be closed starting March 16, 2020. Please check back for updates for when our doors will be open again to the public.

Travels with Starchman

My name is Bryan Starchman and  I am traveling to all 50 states in 120 days in honor of the 60th anniversary of Travels with Charley.  Follow my trip at www.unitedscenes.com

Article 1 – Tuesday, February 18th

Travels with Starchman

Mariposa – San Francisco

In the fall of 1960 John Steinbeck set out across the United States with his French poodle Charley.  He had a custom-made camper fitted to a new GMC truck and named his home on wheels Rocinante in homage to Don Quixote’s horse.  It had been over 30 years since the publication of his first novel Cup of Gold and now living in New York Steinbeck felt like he had lost touch with the American people who had inspired such literary classics as The Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, and Of Mice and Men.  For six weeks he drove and explored and wrote.  Eventually his essays from the road became the book Travels with Charley: In Search of America and this book has inspired me to take a six month sabbatical. 

60 years later I am emulating his adventure, heading East in a Mazda CX-3 that I have lovingly christened Rocinante Numero Dos. Over four months I will see all 48 contiguous states, take a cruise to the Bahamas, cross the border into Juarez, Mexico, and drive parts of Canada north of Maine as I drop down into Niagara Falls.  In Seattle I will hop another cruise to Alaska and then after returning home to California I will fly to Kona to edit my essays into my own eventual book: The United Scenes of America.

The significance of the year is not lost on me.  The 2020 presidential election is on the horizon and as I write this first article there are still 11 democratic candidates. When Steinbeck hit the road it was just before the Kennedy and Nixon election and while he was not looking to write about the election, it definitely flavored his book. I am not looking to get involved in politics but I will be hard pressed to avoid them all together.  However, I hope to report what I, a lifelong resident of Mariposa, see on the road and what America looks like to me, a writer and a teacher. This is to be a book about the places and the people and hopefully the beliefs, traditions, and cultures that unite us.  

So join me as I pack my car with every stitch of clothing I own, update the Roadtrippers app on my iPhone, and download enough audiobooks to last 15,000 miles.  I plan on visiting classic locales from the Grand Canyon to the Alamo to the Capital Mall. There will be literary stops from the original courthouse that inspired Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird to the Savannah cemetery featured in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. And, being me, there will be a liberal sprinkling of the bizarre from giant balls of twine to rattlesnake museums to the Lizzie Borden Murder House.  I’d love to hear your suggestions for music, books, local cuisine, and friendly relatives who will let me do a load of laundry.   

You can follow my journey, contact me, check out my 50 states reading list, and find out more at www.UnitedScenes.com

 

Travels with Starchman Article 2 – Thursday, February 27th

The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Starchmen 

San Francisco – Salinas – Pacific Grove – Big Sur

A couple of years ago I called in “sick” on a Friday and being the literary nerd that I am I spent the day wandering through the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California. The exhibits lead visitors through the bunkhouse from Of Mice and Men, the migrant camps of The Grapes of Wrath, and the lettuce farms from East of Eden.  You twist and turn through Steinbeck’s career and end up at a replica of the camper truck Rocinante that he drove across the country in search of America with his dog Charley.  Seeing one of my literary hero’s works laid out like that inspired me and I began planning my own road trip in search of my America. 

I decided to reach out to the director of the National Steinbeck Center, Michele Speich and last December I got to sit down with her and her staff.  We brainstormed how we could work together on my project and then I was led to the archives where I got to read handwritten manuscripts, see rare photos of Steinbeck with his French poodle Charley, smell the fragrant tobacco of his pipe, and even hold his still sharpened pencil that was retrieved from his New York desk after his death. As an avid reader and lifelong writer it was inspiring to say the least. 

To start my journey I have been invited to celebrate Steinbeck’s 117th birthday in Salinas and as I write this I am staying in the Pacific Grove cottage where Steinbeck wrote The Log of the Sea of Cortez in 1940.  Along with his longtime friend and scientist “Doc” Ed Ricketts, Steinbeck chartered a boat and spent months collecting and cataloguing specimens from the gulf of California.

It has been 80 years since Steinbeck started work on The Log of the Sea of Cortez and here I sit, looking out the same windows as I begin my own travelogue: The United Scenes of America.  I wonder what advice he would give me if he knew that I was penning the opening pages of a new book, waking up on the first night of my journey in an unfamiliar room to be followed by nearly one hundred unfamiliar rooms, 200 miles into a 24,000 plus mile trip that will take me to all 50 states.  (Including a cruise to Alaska and flights to Hawaii my total mileage will equal the circumference of the earth at the equator!)

He once quipped: “The writer must believe that what he is doing is the most important thing in the world. And he must hold to this illusion even when he knows it is not true.”  I have put my life on hold for the next six months, willed myself completely out of my comfort zone, and with more than a little self-doubt, I head across the country into the unknown of Any Town, USA in 2020.  But I also find courage in his words. Fortune favors the bold and while this is the biggest project of my life, I figure at 40 there is no time like the present.  

So I leaf through my copy of The Sea of Cortez and I imagine what he must have thought about sitting in this cottage, searching for a ship to charter for what many thought was a fool’s errand, and I have to remember that in order to write about this country I have to get out there and see it.  All of it. Or as much as I can in the time that I have. I’ve always been a playwright and so this narrative writing is unfamiliar to me but I am going to focus on listening and learning and observing as I put pen to paper for the first time like many who came before me.

Follow my journey at www.unitedscenes.com

Travels with Starchman Article 3 – Thursday, March 5th

Part three: Viva Las Starchman

Big Sur – San Luis Obispo – Las Vegas

I started my journey at my favorite place in all of California: Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn.  From their brochure: “The old, hand hewn doors have no locks or keys. There are no phones and no TVs at Deetjen’s and we do not get cell reception.  Our historic buildings have single-wall construction and are far from soundproof.” Built in the 1930s direclty off scenic Highway 1, there are a dozen or so funky wooden rooms with thin walls, antiquated plumbing, and the occasional creepy crawler companion.  And yet I always feel like I am invading the insect’s space.  I spent twenty minutes one evening trying to usher a rogue moth out the front door and after many failed attempts, I decided to live with the little guy instead of smearing him against the linen lampshade.  It’s that sort of a place.

The restaurant serves excellent meals, the nearest chain grocery store is 45 minutes away, and there isn’t even the slimmest chance of sending a text or answering an email. In short: it’s perfect.  Five days and four nights away from politics and war and disease and Kardashians and social media and my beloved Warriors losing yet again. Instead I sat next to a seasonal waterfall and read Jack Kerouac , played warped and scratched Lawrence Welk albums on Grandpa Deetjen’s old record player, wrote a half dozen postcards to people who really haven’t had a chance to miss me yet.  And in the evenings I’d watch a downloaded movie on my iPad (and feel a little guilty for it) before drifting to sleep to the sounds of my neighbors snoring, arguing, and using the facilities at 2 a.m.

By the third day I realized I can only see so much natural beauty until it all blurs together. I tried to find that last turn out that had that one amazing vista of the waves crashing against that large rock that looked like a pagan monolith rising from the depths, and I realized that there are dozens of turnouts with dozens of views, each more spectacular than the last.  And soon I couldn’t see anything and had to close my eyes just so I could focus on the sounds of the sea.

Always the contrarian, my next stop was four nights in Las Vegas because I felt it was important to get a sense of these two extremes only to discover that in some ways these two places are remarkably similar.  From the seemingly endless overwhelming expanse of the Pacific coastline to the seemingly endless overwhelming electric lights competing for my attention. The infinite stars above Deetjen’s to the invisible stars that the faithful believe hover above Caesar’s Palace.

When I look out my window at the Vegas strip I am assaulted by information.  It’s vibrant and relentless and some advertisements are over two hundred feet tall.  However, when I close the drapes to try to write or think or sleep, I can still see the high definition ultra 4k images burned against the insides of my eyelids…but I couldn’t tell you the specifics of a single one…or the specifics of a single cliffside carved out by the relentless pounding Pacific waves.

I don’t drink, I barely gamble (except a little video poker for “free” coca-colas), I don’t care for crowds, I rarely feel comfortable eating at the fancy restaurants with James Beard award-winning chefs on the marquees, and yet I find myself drawn to Sin City in the same ways that I am drawn to Big Sur.  It is the scale of these places that pulls me in. A lifetime of living in a small town, knowing nearly every single person in the grocery store, having parent teacher conferences in the post office, and high school reunions in the pharmacy. Sometimes the anonymity I find in a crowd of strangers or the smallness I feel in a grove of towering redwoods is exactly what I need to find myself again

And click here to listen to the first Travels with Starchman podcast!
www.bryanstarchman.com

Travels with Starchman Article 4 – Thursday, March 12th

Part four

Page, Arizona – Monument Valley, Utah

I have spent the majority of the past 19 years indoors with the blinds drawn and the fluorescent lights flickering overhead. I am a high school teacher and I actually have two classrooms. In room one of the main building I teach English and in the auditorium I teach drama.  And these two rooms are just down the corridor from each other so when I am in production directing a musical or producing a talent show I will often arrive to school around seven in the morning and leave at 6 in the evening without ever stepping outside.

Of course there are windows but they look out on the main driveway where constant distractions drive up and walk by. I learned long ago to keep the drapes closed so that I didn’t lose my students’ attention. They get excited about the UPS truck. About a squirrel. If it looks like it’s going to rain. Once it starts to rain. Once it has stopped raining.

I often joke that even if I was juggling chainsaws I would only have their attention for a few moments. Unless of course I cut off an arm. Then I might hold their attention a little bit longer.  Until the ambulance arrived and then of course that’s all they’d want to focus on.

“Hey, look, an ambulance!”  “Do you think it’s going to rain?”

I am not what you’d call the outdoor type. I have been known to burn in full moonlight. John Steinbeck drove across the country in a converted camper truck called Rocinante. Early in his travels he spent the night in a sanitized plastic hotel room and was so depressed by it that he chose to go out to the parking lot to sleep in his truck.

And while I love a plush hotel room with a fluffy white robe in the closet and tiny bottles of shampoo and conditioner, on this trip I have enjoyed being outside.  Every day I get to see the sun. It’s glorious. My eye strain has disappeared, I find myself wearing my glasses less and less, and I just feel good. Better than I have in a long time.

Of course I’m seeing things that I could never see from the comfort of a hotel room or the safety of my SUV.  In Page, Arizona I went on a tour of Lower Antelope Canyon. I’d always marvelled at online pictures of the slot canyons with their hypnotic curling orange walls but no fancy camera or High Definition screen can do them justice.

As my Navajo guide Jovan led me through the sacred canyon, it felt like a religious experience.  He told me about musicians who would sometimes come and play traditional Navajo music in the canyons, the flutes and drums reverberating against the sandstone.    He explained that entering the canyon as a Navajo is meditative, like church. I was intrigued and wanted to know more, but the children on the tour looked bored so he pointed out a rock that looked like a Storm Trooper and we moved on.

Jovan had recently graduated from high school and had never really traveled off the reservation. At the end of the tour I told him about the Miwuk Indians of Yosemite and how the national park also feels like a cathedral to me.  I thanked him for sharing this place with me and invited him to come and see Yosemite. He got a faraway look in his eye and said, without even the smallest hint of irony, “I’ve always wanted to see Bakersfield.”

I got in my car and drove to Monument Valley…but even a week later I’m still kicking myself for not asking a very important question.    Why…Bakersfield?

Follow along as I travel to all 50 states in celebration of the 60th anniversary of John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley”.  More information at UnitedScenes.com or follow the journey on Instagram @UnitedScenesofAmerica and on Twitter @UnitedScenes.

And as Steinbeck said: “We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip, a trip takes us.”

Travels with Starchman Article 5 – Saturday, March 21st 

Part Five

Page, Arizona – Monument Valley, Utah

Albuquerque to Truth or Consequences, New Mexico

**Note: I have returned home (More articles on that later) and I am safely sheltered in place in San Francisco, California.  The Steinbeck Center has graciously allowed me to submit my final articles from the road up to and including my four day, 2400 mile drive back to California after “shelter in place” orders were starting to be put announced.  I could never imagine where we would be as a nation when I experienced this humorous moment back on March 9th**

I love novelty and gimmicks. I always have. I’ve jumped off the stratosphere in Las Vegas Nevada. In Japan I actively sought out the poisonous puffer fish sashimi known as Fugu. Some places even  add a touch of the deadly neurotoxin so your lips tingle. Recently I took my mother on a Mediterranean cruise and in Malta we passed a man renting these dangerous looking little cars built for two. I got a glimmer in my eye and she said “No, I am not riding in one of those!” and we kept walking.

I don’t do these activities enthusiastically while pounding my chest screaming “CarpeDiem!”. I do them with apprehension and awkwardness and a look of discomfort on my face. But as a writer I feel like I have to put myself in uncomfortable situations. That’s where some of my best stories come from.

I was looking for a stop between Albuquerque, New Mexico and El Paso Texas. I pulled out the map and found a little town called Truth or Consequences and I booked a room purely based on the name.

It was the title of a game show and in 1950 they had a radio contest to see if a small American town would change its name to “Truth or Consequences”.

The first town to do so would be the location where the game show would record their 10th anniversary special. And so Hot Springs, New Mexico became Truth or Consequences.

I stayed at the Riverbend Hotel and booked myself a private hot tub looking over the Rio Grande at 7 in the evening.  It was a very romantic spot for a solo traveler and as I sat there looking over the fast-moving river, the scrubby trees across the shore started to glow. Just a few pinpricks of green light at first but within minutes the entire shore looked like a tacky Christmas tree you might buy off the home shopping network. Then I realized what I was looking at: glow-worms!

I quickly dried off my hands and grabbed my phone. Google informed me that glow-worms had made a resurgence in New Mexico in the late 1990s. I was in awe and that’s when then the full moon started to peak its head over the mountain in the distance. You can look it up: March 9, 2020. Super Worm Moon.

When I was fifteen my high school English teacher Mr. Keller gave us an assignment to go and write about an aesthetic experience. At the time I rolled my eyes. The closest big city to my hometown is Fresno, California and no offense but when you look at a list of aesthetic places Fresno is not near the top.

And so I wrote about some museum that I popped into for 10 minutes and got the grade. But throughout my adult life I have realized what Mr. Keller was speaking about. Sitting in the front row of Hadestown watching the original cast on Broadway. Singing “Hey Jude” with Paul McCartney and 80,000 strangers at Desert Trip in 2016. Sitting in that private hot tub in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. I was having an aesthetic experience…until the glow-worms started to move.

And then a few of them turned red. And a few more turned blue. And it was then that I realized that the hotel was projecting lasers on the trees to create some sort of ambience.

Oh well. The Hot Springs, the river and the full moon were real.

Follow along as I continue to celebrate the 60th anniversary of John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley”.  More information at UnitedScenes.com or follow him on Instagram @UnitedScenesofAmerica and on Twitter @UnitedScenes.

And as Steinbeck said: “We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip, a trip takes us.”

Travels with Starchman Article  6 – Wednesday, March 25th

Part Six

Magic in San Antonio, Texas

**Note: I have returned home (More articles on that later) and I am safely sheltered in place in San Francisco, California.  The Mariposa Gazette has graciously allowed me to submit my final articles from the road up to and including my four day, 2400 mile drive back to California after “shelter in place” orders were starting to be put announced.  I could never imagine where we would be as a nation when I starting writing this back on March 14th**

I’ve always loved magic.

I can remember the first magic trick I ever bought.  I was 8 years old when I stepped inside Merlin’s Magic Shop on Main Street, Disneyland, USA.  The same magic shop that my Three Amigos hero Steve Martin had worked in when he was a teenager.  It was called Mystic Smoke and when the store magician demonstrated the trick, smoke seemed to rise out of thin air from his fingertips.

So I handed the magician my entire allowance of three dollars and ripped open the package.

Mystic Smoke was a little metallic tube full of a sticky substance.  Like wood glue. And when you rubbed this substance between your fingers it would separate into sticky strands of hair that sort of…kind of…looked like smoke.  I mean, it did when the magician rubbed his fingers together.

I walked around the magic kingdom rubbing my fingers together until they blistered, desperate to create flames or at least a little smoke because my allowance had magically disappeared.  But the sticky substance got all over the place and soon I had magically ruined my shirt and pants. And when my mom discovered the mess I’d made back at the hotel room, I’d magically ticked her off.

I swore off magic. Content to just watch the professionals from the sidelines. I assumed that, like tap dancing or bull riding of Kung Fu, it wasn’t for me. That I was destined to live a mundane life.

Lately I’ve been thinking about magic because in my travels I interviewed a magician named Scott Pepper.   He’s originally from England and has appeared on television shows like The Grand Illusionists. He runs a magic show in old town San Antonio and gave me a free lesson. He had more time on his hands than usual because President Trump had just put a European travel ban in place due to the growing cases of the Coronavirus and so he was playing to smaller and smaller audiences.

We got into a discussion about why people are willing to pay to be tricked. He explained to me that when we attend a magic show we go into a contract with a magician where we agree to be fooled. We like trying to figure out how it all works and even if the magician won’t divulge the secret, we appreciate that the world is a little more mysterious and interesting than we had previously thought it to be.

And as he taught me some card tricks and sleight of hand I started to think about how the worst kind of magic would be a trick that even the magician doesn’t know the workings of. Imagine if Scott Pepper were to make your girlfriend disappear and then said “I have no idea where she went” and packed up his set and went home. That kind of magic is dangerous. It’s terrifying.  Because no one understands it. Not even the magician.

I have always been fascinated with the unknown but only with the understanding that someone knows. That if they were paid enough money or sweet talked or hung upside down by their toes that they’d reveal their secret knowledge. But right now on Monday March 16th, 2020 no one is in control of this pandemic.  It is the worst kind of magic.

This is quite possibly the scariest time of my life. If I could show you how it all worked, to give you and me and everyone a little peace of mind, I would. But I don’t know how it works. No one does. It’s not just soapsuds masquerading as snowflakes. This is the real unknown.

And so all I can say is if you see an awkward kid, struggling to learn a magic trick, bugging you to watch again even after he revealed the gimmick, take a moment and be nice to him. Be nice to everybody. Because the one magic we do have control of is the ability to face this together and be united and be kind to one another. That’s the kind of magic that we can all get behind.

Follow along as I continue to celebrate the 60th anniversary of John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley”.  More information at UnitedScenes.com or follow him on Instagram @UnitedScenesofAmerica and on Twitter @UnitedScenes.

And as Steinbeck said: “We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip, a trip takes us.”

Travels with Starchman Article 7 – Thursday, April 2nd

Part Seven

The United States of Texas

**Note: I have returned home (More articles on that later) and I am safely sheltered in place in San Francisco, California.  The Steinbeck Center has graciously allowed me to submit my final articles from the road up to and including my four day, 2400 mile drive back to California after “shelter in place” orders were starting to be put announced.  I could never imagine where we would be as a nation when I started writing the following back on March 17th**

In the words of John Steinbeck “Texas is a state mind. Texas is an obsession. Above all, Texas is a nation in every sense of the word.”

And it felt like a nation.  800 miles from El Paso to Galveston and I drove it all in five days. I could’ve made it in two but I wanted to stop and look around a bit.

It was 7 1/2 hours between El Paso and San Antonio without any planned stops. But of course I had to stop for coffee and gas and to answer nature’s call but to keep myself entertained along the road I listen to audiobooks.

Over a year ago when I first planned this epic road trip I decided to read a book for every state to get me inspired. But some states deserve more than one book. For California I’ve read at least eight. Texas I’m up to four plus a lot of additional recommendations from my friends.

I followed Jack Kerouac down the Big Sur coast. Hunter S Thompson took me through bat country and into Las Vegas, Nevada. The haunting nonfiction book The Devil’s Highway led me up through Arizona. When the Emperor was Divine about the Japanese internment camps took me into Utah.  Edward Abbey’s Fire on the Mountain guided me through New Mexico.

And now Cormac McCarthy was at the wheel, driving me through his terrifying version of Texas via No Country for Old Men. It was one heck of a way to see the Lone Star State, Friend-O.

I find that the more I listen to audiobooks the more ideas I have as a writer. As a rule when I am not reading I’m writing and when I’m not writing, I read. It’s the best advice I can give anyone who is dealing with writer’s block. Listen to a great book and it will inspire you to want to write your own great book. Listen to a crummy book and it will give you the confidence that you too can get published.

And a lot of books have dictated what I want to see. And what I want to do. I got to shoot a German Luger in Las Vegas because that is the gun that George uses on Lennie at the end of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.  (Do I still need to say “spoiler alert” for a book from 1937?)  I’ve taught that book over 50 times in my career, sometimes reading the same chapter three times a day and now, I got to live a little piece of it.  A very depressing, violent little piece of it, but still.

In Monroeville, Alabama I will visit the original courthouse from To Kill a Mockingbird, the film and book that encouraged my own father to become a lawyer.

As a kid if someone couldn’t pay for my dad’s services we would receive things like windchimes or someone would deliver a cord of firewood. My father is a modern-day Atticus finch. And like Atticus, a hero to his children.

In Salem Massachusetts I will walk the same streets John Proctor and 19 others walked as they were led to the gallows because the crazy children were jangling the keys to the kingdom.

I am crisscrossing this country inspired by the authors that have come before me. And it is my humble desire that one day another writer will look back on my observations and be inspired to see this country for themselves.

And of course I owe this all to John Steinbeck. He has inspired this entire trip. A crazy four-month 16,000 mile trek. From Cannery Row to Sag Harbor where he set out in 1960 with his French poodle Charley to rediscover America. I even have his face tattooed on the back of my right arm. That’s dedication. I don’t even have my mother’s face tattooed on me. And she’s my mother.

You can check out my reading list at bryanstarchman.com/50-states-50-books

Bryan has also started a virtual book club called “Book ’em, Bryan” and the first book they are reading is Travels with Charley in three parts.  Next they will be reading “As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride”.

Anyone is welcome to join.  The Goodreads link is available here.
There is also a Facebook group.  Just search “Book ’em, Bryan”