Kate Abbott: Looking for back roads


If I could be anywhere in the world today, I'd be here. I might be here in 1960, when John Steinbeck drove through with Charley-dog in the cab of his truck, and all the maples turned a clear, true color. Some of ours are looking bedraggled and dusty already. But as many are as bright as bell peppers. Driving along the pike, I grip the wheel unconsciously when a squash-yellow ash or crimson sumac or live-coal-orange maple appears, and have to will my eyes back to the road.

As our climate warms, I begin to look carefully every September for the signs. Will we get a real fall this year? Healthy leaves look translucent when they turn, even after they fall. They hold the light and contract the heart. And the lack of them aches.

But the weather report this week calls for 70s during the day and 40s at night -- and Hal Borland tells me that the best weather for fall leaves is the same as maple sugaring weather in the spring, that steady swing of temperature to encourage the sap to flow. So I'll hope for some of Steinbeck's "shout of color" as October comes.

I've been rereading his "Travels with Charley," or listening to it, as I slice peppers for salsa. I first found it on a shelf at my grandparents' house one teenage summer, and I've come back to it many times since, for comfort and quiet talk.

The New England section has always moved me most. Steinbeck has traveling genes, and I have a grandfather who lived within the same 6 miles of New Haven all his life.

But the country Steinbeck describes in 1960 I recognize. And his way of getting to know it -- camping, drinking coffee, stopping at roadside diners, asking casual questions, going to church, drinking brandy with potato pickers come down from Canada -- is the same as my grandfather's and mine.

I think John Steinbeck would have liked my grandfather, who toured sardine factories on his vacations and crewed with Maine fishermen at 3 a.m. They both liked talking to people, all kinds of people. They had a similar respect for competence and common sense and working with their hands. They liked well-shaped wood and trim hulls. And they responded to pain with kindness.

And good travel writing moves me like a sunny road and a song on the radio. But I can feel that way driving to Lakeview Orchards for the first Macoun apples. If I want to look at a place with the fresh and relaxed eye of a newcomer, I can go to Project Native and see for the first time an ash-leaf yellow spicebush swallowtale caterpillar.

How many back roads in this county, after all, have I still never driven? Steinbeck reminds me to get up early and stop at the next sign for "farm fresh eggs" I come to.

Looking up his book now, I find newer writers "questioning Steinbeck's America" and calling him "at heart a novelist." A contemporary writer has retraced his route to debunk him.

A novelist at heart will write a travel story as clearly and accurately as a journalist. If he's any good at it, a novelist tells what he sees at its simplest and strongest.

Steinbeck himself says that he is writing his own impressions. He tells his readers bluntly that if they drove the same roads in 1960, they would find their own America, and it would be different from his. A writer who follows in his footsteps to snipe at him is only proving his point -- and would do better to find his own country.

Come on, man. With 2.6 million miles of paved roads in America and 2.2 million miles unpaved, no one needs to crowd each other.

Steinbeck's hurricanes give me back the waiting and excitement of Gloria when I was 9, the pine tree tipping over across the yard, card games by candlelight and the streets knee-deep in broken branches and green maple leaves. And his New England, his farmers and frost, loneliness and unexpected companionship, feel like home.

So I will take the rest on credit, toast his courage, and scramble my own duck eggs over a camp fire if I want to know how they taste.


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