Highway Haiku # 9
Passed through a grinder
A tree’s no longer a tree
That’s true of truth, too
On the way to Fargo, and all the way through North Dakota, I wrestled with The Truth.
Not the villain versus good guy, strutting, mouthing off, banging your opponent over the head with a folding chair kind of wrestling, but a more subtle and civilized match, held in my brain, where admission is free, and the ring isn’t square but round, as a ring should be.
The struggle went on for days, interrupted by fast food stops, blogging, dog duties and nights spent enjoying the limited diversions of cheap motels – the view out the window; what’s on television; a Bible and phone book, if they haven’t been stolen yet; the muffled noises from next door of lovemaking or fighting, which, through a wall, can sound remarkably similar.
Back behind the steering wheel, though, and pointed, if not in the direction of truth, at least west, the match would resume.
It ended as a draw, with no clear winner, as is often the case with wrestling matches in your head. (Sometimes it’s not even clear who the opponents are.) But I was able to reach three conclusions, which, in head wrestling, is a victory in itself, at least when they are correct conclusions. I think mine were.
The first one is that truth, once formidable, is now more easily defeated than ever. Opponents, persuaded truth can be out-shouted, seem to have found its weakness. Trusted sources of information are harder to find, and less trustworthy.
Second, truth tends to hide, and I don’t blame it one bit; otherwise it gets grabbed it by its heels and spun until it’s so dizzy it can’t tell up from down
Third, what we’ve done with dogs, we do with truth, daily: We stretch it, twist it and reshape it into a form that best serves us. The truth never cries uncle, not even when undergoing so serious a bashing that it is henceforth unrecognizable.
What rang the bell and started the match was our stop in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, a real town, depicted as “Gopher Prairie” in the Sinclair Lewis novel, “Main Street.”
“Main Street,” published in 1920, was essentially truth disguised as fiction. Lewis exposed much of his hometown’s dirty laundry, changing names to protect the innocent, not that they were so innocent. A biting satire that exposed the hypocrisy of small town life — showed it was not as carefree, pure and idyllic as it was often portrayed and perceived — the book was denounced by the town, many of whose residents saw their indiscretions show up within its pages.
John Steinbeck was a fan and acquaintance of Lewis. He’d read “Main Street” in high school and, late in Lewis’ life, Steinbeck would meet him, for coffee, at a New York hotel. In “Travels with Charley,” Steinbeck, pulling into Sauk Centre nine years after the author’s death, noted that whatever embarassment Lewis had caused, he had gone from being derided to being revered – at least after the book’s popularity soared and he won a Nobel Prize.
As the first American writer to win a Nobel Prize for literature, the author became more beloved – even locally – and his reputation grew. But the man himself died a lonely alcoholic.
“I don’t know whether or not it’s true, but I’ve heard he died alone.” Steinbeck wrote. “And now he’s good for the town. Brings in some tourists. He’s a good writer now,”
Parks, streets, campgrounds and more in Sauk Centre now bear Lewis’ name. His boyhood home is a tourist attraction (though closed in the winter). It seems like every other business uses “Main Street” in its name. The 21 white pages in the Sauk Centre phone book list a Main Street Real Estate, Main Street Theater, Main Street Cafe, Main Street Chiropractic Center, Main Street Coffee Company, Main Street Photo and more. The high school football team is called the “Mainstreeters.” Supposedly, it was a nickname opposing teams came up with, and they later officially adopted it as their own.
We’d taken Exit 127 of Interstate 94 after seeing a sign that it led to McDonald’s, Subway, Jitters Java Cafe and the Sinclair Lewis Interpretative Center.
It spilled us directly onto Main Street — not just any Main Street, THE Main Street – and we went up and down it a good four times before checking into the Gopher Prairie Motel.
Owners Wayne and JoAnn Thorson renamed the motel after the fictional town about three years after they bought it. Up until 1979, it was the Starlight Motel – one of many Starlight, or Star-Lite motels around in the 1970s, none of which were connected to each other in any way. But when a guest told Wayne she almost didn’t stop there because of a bad experience “at another Starlight,” he decided it was time to change names. So he grabbed one out of fiction.
I willingly coughed up the $5 pet fee and agreed to refrain from letting Ace relieve himself on the grassy front lawn. The next morning I stopped for breakfast at the Ding Dong Cafe on Elm Street, where the world’s most attentive waitress filled my coffee cup nearly every time I took a sip. The only other customers were seven men who sat at a long table, alternating between talking politics and playing Yahtzee.
I popped into the Sinclair Lewis Interpretive Center, located in the same building that serves as a rest area and home of the Chamber of Commerce. There’s an exhibit on Lewis in the back room, featuring old photos and handwritten outlines, maps and character lists. Then we drove by the high school, to see where the Mainstreeters play, and stopped at Greenwood Cemetery, where the cremated remains of the author are buried next to the graves of his father and mother.
He had more than 20 works published in his lifetime, many of them critical of American society and capitalist values. He won the Pulitzer Prize, and a Nobel Prize, but his gravestone says simply this:
1885 — 1951
Author of “Main Street”
I’ve always believed that truth is sacrosanct and that honesty is the best policy – even now, when I can no longer afford to pay the premiums. Blame, among other things, Sunday school, cub scouts, and journalism school. I know that truth can be elusive, that truth can be disguised as fiction, and fiction can be disguised as truth. I know that “pet friendly” can actually mean your dog can stay here for an additional non-refundable 50 bucks, that Amish Electric Heaters aren’t really Amish, and that what seems too good to be true often is.
I know that dogs are more honest than humans. Individually, taken one at a time, dogs are about the most honest form of being you can find. Taken together, as a sub-species, they are, because of us, four-legged fibs.
The amazing and delightful diversity of breeds we enjoy are, in effect, truth stretched, truth shrunk, truth mutated and manipulated – truth turned, like wrestlers, into caricatures. The whole concept of purebreds is somewhat mythical. All purebred breeds were mixes before self-appointed registrars decided they deserved to be proclaimed “purebreds”— and then proceeded to limit the breeding of them to their relatives. A really harsh critic would describe it as enforced incest, surrounded by enough pomp, blue ribbons and written rules to make it all seem respectable, sophisticated, even sacred.
Real truth, though, is the gray wolf, from which domestic dogs stemmed.
Fifteen thousand years ago, maybe more, they approached villages, drawn, many believe, by our garbage. Somehow, what was once viewed as an enemy of man became an ally and employee. Some of your more radical animal rights types would even say slave. Dogs earned their meals by hunting, guarding, herding and more, and in the process became a friend, and more. Even before the 21st Century, they were serving as co-dependents, soul mates and substitute children. That, in retrospect, was quite an evolutionary journey, if evolution is even the right term, given it was man pulling the strings through selective breeding. Think about it – a species that started as a snarling, roaming wild beast, well-equipped to survive on its own, ending up helpless and pampered, being toted about in the handbags of actresses and socialites.
And we wonder why some of them have issues.
The gray wolf, meanwhile, ended up on the endangered species list – a result of our hunting of them, our encroaching on their habitat, our fears and misunderstanding and bossy-assed ways. While the domestic dog (canis familiaris), climbed up the social ladder, the wolf (canis lupus), lacking, until recent years, good public relations, and long besmirched in myths and fairy tails as evil, villainous and conniving, began fading away.
It’s not this simple – for it occurred over the ages, and was carried out by “mankind,” as opposed to a couple of guys — but it’s almost as if we took a look at the big bad wolf, once our rotting leftovers drew him close enough, decided he wasn’t all that bad and charted a massive makeover: Here are the things that we like about you and want to keep. Here are the things that simply must go. In our quest for new and improved, we showed little regard for the original, more intent on reshaping its successor to better fit our lifestyles.
It has kind of been our way, mankind’s and especially America’s — creating and accepting stereotypes, often false to begin with, and then retyping them into something more to our liking. American Indians? Pioneers saw them as savage beasts. Then, once they were contained on reservations, they were negatively stereotyped as lazy and shiftless and prone to hitting the bottle. Now they’re the folks that operate our casinos.
What makes us think we have the right to remold whatever we want – be it truth, other humans, animals, vegetables? How did we get so good at justifying almost anything we do, no matter how unjustified it is?
Sometimes, our diddling goes awry; sometimes it results in new and exciting options. Take the potato – dirty and basic, with bruises, pockmarks and divots in its natural state. We turn it into French fries, curly fries, steak fries, pancakes, Tater Tots, chips, home fries and hash browns.
Wolves are like the original potato; dogs are like something fashioned out of it — processed, more to our taste and carried to eye-pleasing extremes.
None of which is to say those “purebreds” should be looked down on. Quite the contrary. Just as the wolf should be treasured, generally from afar, dogs should be, too.
We — being the ones who ushered them out of the wild, who made them dependent on us, who, for our own amusement and gain, shortened their snouts, stretched their spines or gave them so many folds of wrinkly skin they can barely see — makes us forever responsible for them. And every time one gets euthanized for lack of a home, as millions do each year, it’s a case of mankind not living up to that responsibility.
Despite all those fighting to bring about the day we become a no-kill nation, most of us prefer to pretend the problem doesn’t exist, content instead to focus on our own dog, pamper him, spoil him, and lavish him with gourmet treats — or at least fling him a French fry now and then.
That’s what I was doing my first night in Fargo, once we found a Motel 6 and settled in.
Despite the stereotype of Fargo as a place where boredom reigns, where temperatures lean toward the bitter extremes (and we won’t even go into wood chippers), there are things to do in Fargo. There’s the Celebrity Walk of Fame at the Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitors Bureau, where Garth Brooks, Neil Diamond, Debbie Reynolds, Jesse Ventura and others have left their signatures, handprints and footprints in cement. There’s the Plains Art Museum, the Fargo Air Museum, the Red River Zoo, and just across from my motel, a big mall.
We just weren’t doing any of them, partly because dogs weren’t welcome in those venues, more so because it was way too cold. We had hoped to get across the northern states before winter showed itself, but, hearing predictions of a freak October blizzard, with up to five inches of snow, we decided to stop and wait it out.
All night long the wind rattled the windows of my motel room. Just walking 100 yards to the Burger King next door was bone chilling. Even Ace, who loves the cold, thought so. As eager as he was to get outside the motel room, he was even more eager — once experiencing the pelting rain and windy blasts — to get back in.
For entertainment purposes, our first night there, I set aside half of my French fries and, in what had by then become a ritual during our travels, tossed them one at a time to Ace while I ate. Usually I give him all the fries with discolored spots, or the ones with sharp and pointy ends. But he gets some perfectly fine ones, too. Though he was on the other bed, four feet away, he missed but one fry of the two dozen I tossed, snagging each of the rest from the air with a snort.
He is even better at catching pizza crust, pizza ranking just above bacon as his all-time favorite food, as the following chart shows:
What little I did see of Fargo was on the second night, through fast-flapping windshield wipers. My only other trip there was three years ago, and I didn’t explore at all. I did, during a stop for lunch, ask a waiter where downtown was, and he informed me there was no downtown. Maybe he was new there, or it was his way of saying Fargo’s downtown didn’t meet with his standards. Maybe he was having fun with tourists.
I can report there is a downtown, and that the road to it, at least from my motel, is lined with pawn shops. Once there, I couldn’t see much, because it was so dark and rainy, but I sensed the vague outline of tall buildings. Other than that jaunt, and a stop for Mexican food on the way back, we mostly stayed inside. My only other outing was, on our third day there, an emergency trip for dog food for Ace and fast food for me. When I was getting out of the car, a gust of wind slammed the car door into me, giving me a shoulder that would hurt for a week.
Back at the motel, leaving my burger and a super-sized order of fries on the dresser, I left the room for ice and a soda. Ace can be trusted to not steal, though I think a wrestling match occurs in his head when I leave him alone with exposed food. Downstairs I saw a rabbit outside a side door of the motel. It was huddled between a trash can and the wall, seeking shelter from the wind and rain. I briefly considered letting it in, but figured a security camera somewhere would catch me in the act, and I didn’t want to get kicked out into Fargo’s cold.
John Steinbeck didn’t stop in Fargo, if we can believe him, which, when I set off on this trip, I did.
Best known as novelist, he worked for a brief time as newspaper reporter and columnist both before and after the bulk of his novels were published. He published 17 novels, not counting those assembled after his death, and fiction was widely seen as his forte. His list of non-fiction books is shorter. Though my tattered paperback copy deigns it “literature,” “Travels with Charley” was published as a work of non-fiction, which is how I always viewed it.
But not far into my trip, doubts started rising about how “non” his non-fiction was.
Here we must go all the way back to Long Island, and to the last of our ferry rides that day in September – the one that took us from Orient Point, across the Long Island Sound, to New London, Connecticut. I was taking some photos when a young man struck up a conversation that required me to explain my purpose. When I told him, he asked me if I was with “that other guy.”
“What other guy?”
“Here he comes now.”
Bill Steigerwald, at first glance, appeared a typical tourist, camera dangling from his neck. Then I noticed the notepad held discreetly at his side, and how he was looking at passengers that way reporters look at people — as if they are cuts of meat that might be worth tasting.
Introduced by the stranger, we sat and talked and compared notes – that being what reporters do, slyly holding back, of course, anything they think they might have discovered exclusively. He, like me, was retracing Steinbeck’s route. He, like me, had done some research. He, like me, had started out that morning from Steinbeck’s Sag Harbor home. He was blogging, as I was, about his trip daily. His was called “Travels Without Charley,” for he was making his journey without a dog.
Like me, Steigerwald had spent a career in newspapers. We both accepted buyout offers — he in 2009, from the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, me in 2008 from the Baltimore Sun — in hopes that, if we continued our writerly ways, we might survive in 21st Century America without having to become fast food cooks or Wal-Mart greeters. Both of us were self-subsidizing our travels in hopes that some day, in some way, somebody might want to buy what we wanted to write.
We went on to compare cars, that being what men do. Not having a dog in his car, he had his red sport utility vehicle equipped so that the entire back was covered with a mattress. I took him to see my red sport utility vehicle, the back of which was taken up almost entirely by dog. We freed Ace and took him up on the deck to talk some more.
Steigerwald was attempting a far more precise and investigative retracing of Steinbeck’s route than mine, and it was one that, finding pieces that didn’t seem to fit in New Hampshire and again in North Dakota, would end up questioning the truthfulness of some parts of Steinbeck’s account.
He’s not the only journalist to come to the conclusion that the highly respected author may have taken some liberties with the facts.
In New Hampshire, I met Jeff Woodburn, who counts Steinbeck among his literary heroes. Woodburn was working on an article about Steinbeck’s 30 miles of travels through the state — from Shelburn west to Lancaster – for New Hampshire magazine.
His article hadn’t been published yet, but his research led him to conclude Steinbeck might have made stuff up — and definitely left stuff out.
As Steinbeck recounts it in “Travels With Charley,” he was driving up a farm road in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, on his way to the top of Maine, when he stopped and bought some eggs from a farmer and asked permission to camp beside the stream on his farm. Later, the farmer visited his camper and they drank coffee, laced with “a good dollop of twenty-one year old applejack.” They talked about Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, and how, that week, he had used his shoe to pound a table during a UN meeting, and whether we should attack the Russians before they attacked us.
Woodburn, in retracing Steinbeck’s route, couldn’t find the farmer, or even the farm. He came up with three possibilities, but none of them panned out. “I really wanted to find him, because he seemed so wise,” he said. Woodburn began to think that the farmer didn’t actually exist, or that he was a composite of different people Steinbeck met in New England.
Woodburn didn’t feel his hunches merited a story, though, and put his research on hold, continuing to keep a file on Steinbeck. When he came across a Facebook page about growing up in Lancaster, he put out a query, seeking anyone who remembered meeting Steinbeck 50 years ago.
A local woman responded, saying her mother had met Steinbeck when he stayed at the Spalding Inn, in Whitefield. Woodburn had washed dishes at the inn as a teenager, and he went to the family that owned it. They confirmed that Steinbeck had been a guest.
It was just a few days into his trip – and a good two weeks before Khrushchev did any shoe-banging – that Steinbeck reached the White Mountains. On Sept. 25, 1960, rather than sharing applejack with a farmer and camping alongside a stream, Steinbeck apparently slept at the Spalding Inn, a luxurious spot in its day, and still moderately fancy, with white tableclothes, well-manicured gardens, orchards and magnificent mountain views. In 1960, it was popular with well-heeled New Yorkers seeking country getaways.
“It seems as this is where he spent the night,” Woodburn told me the weekend Ace and I met him at the inn. “Enough people have said it that I feel comfortable saying he spent the night here.”
Woodburn, whose piece appeared later in New Hampshire magazine, said he was told Steinbeck went to dinner at the inn, but was refused service because he wasn’t wearing the required jacket and tie. Upon learning who he was, staff supplied him with proper attire. Other than having dinner, Steinbeck did little socializing while at the inn, and it’s doubtful that Charley actually slept inside. More likely, he spent the night alone in the camper.
It troubled me, too, in part due to my literal and old-fashioned view of non-fiction, my discomfort with what fuzzy terms like “creative non-fiction” and “literary journalism” might lead to – namely, permission to be fuzzy when it comes to the facts. Also, it bothered me to picture the author who set out to reconnect with the common man dreaming up characters instead, possibly while sitting in a fluffy bed with freshly laundered white sheets.
Whether or not Steinbeck came up with a white lie in the White Mountains, for literary purposes, or presented characters that were composites, the suggestion that he might have played with the facts led to more suspicions. How much else in the book, both Steigerwald and Woodburn wondered, was too good to be true?
Both men, independently, checked out Steinbeck’s recounting of spending the night outside some “ghost cabins” along the Connecticut River. Steinbeck wrote that, although its signs said “open” and “vacancy,” no one was around when he walked into the office 50 years ago. So he and Charley, according to the book, slept in their camper in the parking lot.
The cabins aren’t there anymore, but, it turns out, they were at the time. In the 1960s, they were known as Whip O’Will. Today, they’ve been replaced by the Beaver Trails RV Park, and Munce’s Convenience store. Next to that is the Happy Star Chinese restaurant. And across the street live Mike and Sallie Beattie, whose family once owned the Whip O’Will property.
During its conversion to an RV park, the new owners removed the six cabins, offering one to the Beatties, who had it moved across the street so they could use it for storage. It’s in sad shape, leaning to the side, with vines creeping across its roof, as if swallowing up any place it almost had in history:
John Steinbeck didn’t sleep here, but he wanted to.
The recreated conversation in “Travels with Charley” that raises even more eyebrows took place in Alice, North Dakota, where Steinbeck wrote that he stopped and camped by a stream. There, according to the book, he ran into an itinerant Shakespearean actor – a colorful character who seemed so much to have climbed out of fiction that many believe he did.
Steinbeck would break out the coffee, and the whiskey, and listen as his flamboyant fellow camper explained that he performed Shakespeare around the country, in tents, in high schools … “wherever two or three are gathered together … With me there’s no question of doing something else. It’s all I know — all I ever have known.”
Steinbeck recounted the meeting in great detail — including how the actor unfolded a packet of aluminum foil, kept in his wallet, to reveal a note he once received from actor John Gielgud. After that, explaining the importance of a good exit, of always leaving the audience wanting more, the actor departs.
From all existing clues, it appears Steinbeck didn’t actually sleep in the town of Alice on the night of Oct. 12. Stiegerwald concluded the finely-etched character was just that – etched.
“Contrary to what he wrote so nicely and in such detail in ‘Charley,’ Steinbeck didn’t camp overnight near Alice on the Maple River or anywhere else on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 1960,” Steigerwald wrote on his blog, “He stayed … in Beach, N.D., some 300-plus miles to the west.”
When Penguin, the publishing house, released a deluxe 50th anniversary paperback edition of “Travels with Charley” in 2012 it did so with a slightly rewritten introduction, as a result of the discrepancies Steigerwald had so peskily pointed out.
“Indeed, it would be a mistake to take this travelogue too literally, as Steinbeck was at heart a novelist, and he added countless touches — changing the sequence of events, elaborating on scenes, inventing dialogue — that one associates more with fiction than nonfiction,” Middlebury College English professor, author and Steinbeck biographer Jay Parini wrote. The new introduction tells readers to keep in mind that “Steinbeck took liberties with the facts, inventing freely when it served his purposes, using everything in the arsenal of the novelist to make this book a readable, vivid narrative.”
Steigerwald would go on to publish “Dogging Steinbeck: Discovering America and the truth about ‘Travels with Charley.’”
That Steinbeck borrowed from his fiction writing toolbox to craft “Travels With Charley,” in one way, makes him something of a pioneer. The book was released five years before Truman Capote’s groundbreaking “non-fiction novel” (his term), “In Cold Blood.” In reality, though, storytellers, even those bound by the tighter confines of non-fiction, have been leaving out the boring stuff and juicing up the truth for centuries.
I’ve got nothing against using some of the techniques of fiction writing in non-fiction – in portraying the innate suspense of a situation, or the turmoil raging inside characters; or in skipping over the boring stuff.
I’m all for reaching the greater truths, and all for a vivid narrative, but lying to get there seems wrong – and, for better or worse, it’s not happening in this book. A reader of books, like an eater of food, deserves to know what he’s consuming, and whether it’s natural or artificial. It troubled me to realize Steinbeck mixed them together — no matter how slight the deception, no matter the greatness of any truths reached, and even if, as he noted himself, reality is in the eye of the beholder:
“What I set down here is true until someone else passes that way and rearranges the world in his own style,” Steinbeck wrote. “In literary criticism the critic has no choice but to make over the victim of his attention into something the size and shape of himself.”
The movie “Fargo” starts out with these words: “This is a true story … At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.”
It wasn’t a true story at all; rather it was a concoction of the delightfully degenerate minds of two brothers named Coen from neighboring Minnesota. The movie Fargo was fiction disguised as truth, unlike “Main Street,” which was truth disguised as fiction.
Like the book “Main Street,” the movie “Fargo” — whose denizens were mostly portrayed as dull-witted sorts, living in a bleak and frozen wasteland — brought some unflattering notoriety to the town it was depicting.
In addition to criticism that “The Grapes of Wrath” was too political, didn’t accurately describe the migration of farm families from the dust bowl to California, and some nitpicking that Sallisaw, the town it opens in, was not actually part of the Dust Bowl, there were those who thought the novel portrayed “Okies” as illiterate hicks. (Possibly, that’s why, when he was traveling with Charley, Steinbeck avoided the state of Oklahoma.)
In each case, though, once the dust settled, there was something close to a happily-ever-after ending – some acknowledgement of the truth beneath the fiction, or at least some evidence that any perceived slights were forgiven.
Sauk Centre, where Main Street now intersects with Sinclair Lewis Boulevard, has embraced Lewis, its most famous son, with an annual festival. In Fargo, chamber of commerce types proclaim there has been “a renaissance” — not so much due to the movie itself, maybe, as to the town’s efforts to show the world that there was more to Fargo than the movie portrayed. In 2006, on the movie’s 10th anniversary, it was projected on the side of the Radisson Hotel, the city’s tallest building as part of the Fargo Film Festival.
And even Sallisaw, on the 100th anniversary of Steinbeck’s birth, started a “Grapes of Wrath” festival, though it was short-lived. It has since been replaced with the annual Diamond Daze Festival, which isn’t Steinbeck-related at all.
All of which may serve as proof that, as the maybe real, maybe not, Shakespearean actor in “Travels with Charley” might have said, had he not made such a hasty exit, all the world really is a stage — even North Dakota, and even non-fiction.
Name: Salem Sue
Breed: Holstein (made of fiberglass)
Encountered: In New Salem, North Dakota, along Interstate 94
Back story: Billed as the world’s largest cow, and visible from five miles away, Sue was built on the side of a mountain to honor the area’s dairymen. Visitors to New Salem (where the high school football team is named the Holsteins) can drive up the mountain’s gravel road and, should they so choose, drop a donation into a milk can. That helps pay for the maintenance of the 38-foot-high, 50-foot-long, six ton fiberglass cow. Sue was built in three sections, which were hauled to a staging area, up a big hill and then assembled. She is hollow.