On Steinbeck’s trail: One Ace, no Charley

From the waterfront Long Island house where John Steinbeck wrote “Travels With Charley,” and in whose yard Charley is buried, Ace and I shoved off for the second phase of our six month trip today– 50 years to the day after Steinbeck began his cross country journey with his soon to become famous poodle.

We pulled out of Steinbeck’s driveway in Sag Harbor, down his gravel road and caught the South Ferry to Shelter Island, the North Ferry to Greenport, then a bigger ferry from Orient Point, across the sound to New London, Connecticut.

For the next three months — the same amount of time he traveled — we will follow, more or less, in Steinbeck’s half-century-old tire tracks, going some of the places he went, seeing some of the sights he saw and taking note of the differences between that America and this one, in terms of its people, its landscape and its dogs.

Some of what we expect to be the highlights ahead: traveling to the remote, northernmost point of Maine; visiting Niagara Falls, crossing Montana, a state that enthralled the famous author, and this less famous one as well.

But we’ll be departing from his route frequently — because our trip, as it has been for the past four months, is more an homage to dogs than one to Steinbeck, even though he does happen to be one of my favorite authors. Our trip will be our trip, and while he inspired it, and some of our future stops, Steinbeck would have been the first to tell you no two trips can be alike. They have lives of their own, and are only partly under our control.

So instead of following the route from Connecticut that he took to visit his son in college in Massachussetts, we’ll veer east and check out Provincetown, named the dog-friendliest town in America this year by Dog Fancy magazine. During our time in New Hampshire, we’ll visit the new home of the Rolling Dog Ranch animal sanctuary and see how their relocation from Montana is going.

Like Steinbeck, we’ll continue to stop and talk to strangers — something I, like him, have found is far easier to do with a dog at your side.

Ace and I arrived in New York yesterday, avoiding the Big Apple, but experiencing plenty of traffic all the same as we cut through Staten Island, Brooklyn and stopped in North Merrick to meet the man who’s providing our directions.

Terry Ballard, a Steinbeck fan and systems librarian at New York Law School brought Steinbeck’s trip to life on the Internet by putting together a Google map of it all. That labor of love was primarily a practice run for his map of all of the significant places in Mark Twain’s life.

Terry took me to an Irish pub while his wife, Donna, and dog, Yuji, a Lhasa Apso, stayed home and babysat Ace, forcing me to take back those semi-in-jest things I said yesterday about New Yorkers. (You can find a photo Terry took of us on his Flickr page.)

Even with the Ballard’s graciousness though, Long Island struck me as not very dog friendly, or wallet-friendly.

Finding no motels for much under $100, Ace and I just kept driving east, hoping to stumble across a small and dumpy place that might take us in. I  stopped at two and was told no pets were allowed. At a third, I walked into the empty lobby and saw a sign saying “No Pets,” turned around and walked back to my car. As I pulled out a woman came running up. “Why you leave?” she asked. “I have a dog,” I answered. “Oh,” she said, “we no allow dogs.” “I know,” I said, “that’s why I’m leaving.”

Once we hit the Hamptons, I stopped trying, figuring all chances for affordable lodging were lost. Eventually, after passing our fourth Sleepy’s, a mattress store chain, we turned around pulled in behind the store and went to sleep — Ace immediately, me after much rearranging of my torso and limbs, which were limited to the space in the driver’s seat and atop the pile of luggage in the passenger seat.

I was worried we would get rousted by police — we were in the Hamptons after all — but we spent the night undisturbed, except for when we heard a honking train bearing down on us. I didn’t realize that, just on the other side of the shrubs I parked next to, were train tracks. After the first one, though, we got used to it, and amid a gentle rain, soft breeze and distant lightning flashes in the sky, I eventually dozed off.

At 6 a.m., we were awake, and we drove another half hour to Sag Harbor — a lovely but not too dog friendly town. Despite being home to one of America’s most famous dogs, and Charley’s final resting place, almost everywhere we went we saw signs — in parks, shops and restaurants — stating, in no uncertain terms, that dogs weren’t welcome.

Sag Harbor could do a lot more when it comes to dog-friendliness, a lot more when it comes to honoring Steinbeck as well.

His house is still owned by the family, and empty except for a caretaker. With no one home, we took the liberty of doing a tiny bit of trespassing before heading to the first of three ferries.

Ace stayed in the car for the first two rides, but on the bigger boat, crossing the sound, I let him out and we wandered the deck.

As usual, he drew some stares, made some friends and took the whole thing in stride.

It wasn’t his first time on a boat, just his first time on one that moves.

We spent most of our time aboard the Cross Sound Ferry talking with a fellow journalist who was following Steinbeck’s path as well — but without a dog. We’ll tell you more about him tomorrow.

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