While literary road trips are nothing new, there’s still no denying their stranglehold on our imagination. The fact is that a disproportionate number of our all-time favorite books (On the Road, The Lost Continent, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) are constructed around a road trip. That’s why we’re teaming up with Greyhound to encourage you to live out some of the standout chapters for us. Consider it an exercise in revisionist travel. Reports from the field are not only welcome; they’re expected. For our second installment, John Steinbeck and his French poodle visit Niagara Falls in Travels with Charley.
In the opening pages of Travels with Charley, Steinbeck lays the stakes for a journey aimed at “[finding] out what Americans are like today.” According to his son, Thom Steinbeck, the real reason for the voyage was that Steinbeck knew he was terminally ill and wanted to see the country he had written so much about one last time. Whatever the reason, Steinbeck returns from his 10,000 mile journey disappointed that the “new America” of 1958 has not lived up to his expectations.
Medina Falls, New York
Medina is the small upstate New York town where Steinbeck famously gets lost and asks for directions to his intended destination, Niagara Falls. Steinbeck doesn’t spend much time in Medina, heading for Ontario where he runs into considerable trouble at the border trying to get into Canada with an unvaccinated Charley. In the text, Steinbeck flags down a stranger on Egg Street in Medina, which, as it turns out, doesn’t even exist. Besides Medina’s waterfall, pop in to Bent’s Hall, one of the few landmarks in this one-road town made famous by its appearance in Steinbeck’s classic.
Bill Steigerwald, a blogger and former staff writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazzette followed the route as it is laid out in Travels with Charley and blogged his discoveries here. According to Steigerwald, contrary to what the text suggests, Steinbeck “stayed at some of the nicest hotels, resorts and motels in America. By my count, let’s say 65 out of about 75 days he was not camping out.” In Steinbeck’s dramatized version, he spends virtually every night roughing it in his specially-made camper, Rocinante. It’s no secret that Steinbeck was living rather comfortably on the wings of Grapes of Wrath, so it comes as no surprise that his claims to a rough and tumble itinerant existence were in fact a literary effect. Presuming Steigerwald is on point, and keeping in mind Steinbeck’s shall we say, loose budget, here’s where the author and Charley might have stayed:
We scoured every B&B in town, and Greystone Manner was our favorite. It’s not the most luxurious accommodation in Niagara. That title belongs to the Marriott’s Niagara Falls Hotel Fallsview, a mega complex on the edge of the precipice that houses a casino and several restaurants. Though Steinbeck was certainly not traveling on a shoestring, something tells us that if the Marriott had existed in 1958, Steinbeck would nevertheless have opted for something a bit more boutique-y. That said, he would no doubt have headed over to the complex for some pre-writing drinks and gambling.
Knowing that Steinbeck was born and lived in Salinas, Monterey County, just a few miles from Napa Valley, it’s not unreasonable to think that, by way of comparing sides, he would have popped in to one or another of the wineries in the Niagara region. Ditch an organized tour in favor of picking one or two wineries that speak strongly to your tastes. We suggest Stratus Winery, which we hear is among the best in the region, with a 2007 Cab vintage that has garnered glowing reviews. On May 28, Stratus holds it’s yearly “Savor the Sights” event. Guests enjoy a five course food and wine pairing with each course served at a different picturesque location throughout the winery.
Go to Greyhound.com to plan your trip to Niagara Falls and discover the spots made famous by Travels with Charley. Drink some wine, do some hiking, take a tour of the falls, gamble a bit, but whatever you do, make sure to keep a journal.