Ace hearts John Steinbeck

I love serendipity.*

I had made plans to interview John Woestendiek, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of Dog Inc., for Animal Cafe because I thought a top-rate writer who was on the road for a year with his dog might have interesting things to say about  pet travel. I didn’t know anything about the inspiration for his trip, however.

A few days after I contacted John, I got an invitation from my pal Vera Marie Badertscher to join a great group of bloggers with different specialties at A Traveler’s Library. My niche — no surprise — is pet travel, but of the literary rather than the how-to variety.  I decided that the first book I would write about had to be John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, a classic in this niche.

Imagine my delight, then, when I learned that John Woestendiek’s trip with Ace, a 130 pound mutt, was inspired by Steinbeck’s journey with his standard Poodle.

The Itinerary

John left Baltimore, where he stored his things, in May 2010 and headed out west by a southerly route.

In September, he went back east and decided to trace Steinbeck’s route, departing from Sag Harbor 50 years to the month after Steinbeck left from there.

John reckons he covered some 25,000 miles in all.

The Intent

Unlike another writer who set out to replicate Steinbeck’s trip for its bi-centenary to reveal its lack of literal veracity, John wanted to capture the spirit of the journey, to connect with America.

He figured he would be a bit more focused on doggie issues than Steinbeck was. According to Steinbeck’s biographers, taking Charley was an afterthought, suggested by the author’s wife, Elaine. Ace, on the other hand, was always intended to be an integral part of John’s journey.

The Similarities

By the time I edited John’s interview for Animal Cafe, I had finished Travels With Charley, and was pleased to discover that the poodle played a considerable role in the book. Indeed, I noticed several similarities in canine activity between the two trips. Here are just a couple of example:

  • Both Ace and Charley encountered physical challenges, in Charley’s case, a bout of prostate problems, in Ace’s some back problems. Though I expected a dog blogger and modern guy like John to be concerned, I was touched to learn the extent of Steinbeck’s distress. Steinbeck used the occasion to discuss good and bad veterinarians, but Ace’s inability to negotiate steps led to John renting his childhood home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
  • Both Ace and Charley are less oriented towards nature than many dogs are. One of my favorite scenes in Travels with Charley depicts Steinbeck trying to make it clear to Charley that the redwoods are real trees — and therefore fair game to be peed upon. John, in turn, says that Ace is not a fan of camping out, and when he hears a loud noise likes to retreat into the back of the 2005 Jeep Liberty that is his chariot for the trip.

And of course both men found that their dogs were social lubricants, smoothing their way to interacting with strangers. People don’t tend to fear a poodle — though several apparently couldn’t identify Charley without the characteristic haircut — while Ace is large, of indeterminate** breed, and enthusiastic. John was happy to be welcomed in most places, in spite of some “freak outs” about Ace’s size. “I was pleasantly surprised by how open people were to Ace,” John says.

John has blogged about his adventures in Travels with Ace, which may be the basis for a book in 2012 —   the 50th anniversary of the publication of Travels with Charley.

In the meantime, listen to the interview, posted below.  Both Ace and John make very pleasant traveling companions.

And if you’d like to continue the journey with John Steinbeck, do join my new pet travel book club, inspired by my  role at A Traveler’s Library. We’ll be discussing Travels with Charley on Nov. 11.

*Have you ever noticed that, when a group of coincidences result in bad things, it’s “a perfect storm,” and when you can’t figure out whether the result is good or bad, they’re just coincidences.

**Until John had DNA tests on him, which revealed… well, you’ll just have to listen to the interview to find out

15 thoughts on “Travel Thursday: Tailing John Steinbeck”

  1. So glad to be a part of these happy coincidences. And I am really looking forward to your discussion of Travels with Charley, my TOP pick for American road trip books. (You notice that your comment fields chop off my last name? Sigh!)

    1. It’ll be fun; I’ve come up with some interesting ideas/questions about Steinbeck’s trip for you site. You’ve mentioned my badly behaved comment field before but — sigh — I absolutely can’t figure out how to discipline it!

  2. I’m embarrassed to say I’ve not read Travels with Charlie, though knowing it inspired another dog friendly trip so many years later, I’m sufficiently intrigued. I hope it’s available for the Kindle.

    1. I hadn’t read Travels with Charley either until I set out to review it a few weeks ago. You’ll love it. It should be on Kindle.

  3. True, I discovered much that was dishonest/fictionalized in “Travels With Charley” on my trip last fall.

    But as I wrote in “Why I’m Hounding Steinbeck” (, I didn’t set out to fact-check Steinbeck’s book or his “Charley” trip or cause the great author any grief.

    I just wanted to retrace his 1960 route as faithfully (and quickly) as possible (as a journalist) and compare what he saw in 1960 with what I saw and then write a book about how America has changed in the last 50 years. Then I accidentally discovered a 50-year-old literary “scoop” and got myself some ink in the New york Times.

    As for a dog, until I came to my senses and realized how hard it would be to do journalism and pet care, I originally planned to take one.

    By the way, I met John W. and Ace on the Steinbeck Highway last September on a ferry-crossing to Connecticut. Like everyone, I fell in love with Ace — but as I left them in my dust I was happy that I was alone and unencumbered by human or beast.

    My long trip with Steinbeck and Charley on and off the road, which is not over, is described in length at Travels Without Charley (

    Bill Steigerwald

    Travels Without Charley: On the Road With Steinbeck’s Ghost

    1. Thanks for your feedback; it’s good to have some context. The story on your blog that I linked to — which I found on the NY Times piece — made it seem as though debunking Steinbeck was your intent. I was also reacting to the fact that I had just read Travels with Charley for the first time and felt disappointed to find a book that delighted me so much was not all that I thought it was. But of course it’s good to know the truth. I can’t help but wonder how Steinbeck would have fared in the age of Oprah and A Million Little Pieces.

  4. Hey John Steinbeck fans. I too am a Steinbeck nut, so much so, I spent a gazillion dollars in 2009 retracing exactly his 1960 Travels With Charley journey and wrote my own book about the adventure called Down John’s Road. Please do not consider this message as spam. I am a serious Steinbeck aficionado who has sold more than 500 copies of my book to date through
    You will not get another email from me unless you contact me through my Website where you can buy my book, or by going directly to
    Incidentally, June 2012 marks the exact 50th Anniversary of the publishing of Travels With Charley in June 1962.
    Check my Website, enjoy my book and look forward to hearing from other Steinbeck fans.

    John Olson
    Poulsbo, Wash.

    1. Happy to share the info — but where’s your Charley equivalent? What’s a Steinbeck-style road trip without a dog?

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