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Tuesday, August 3, 2010

50 Years After Travels With Charley

Packing his camera and an open mind, Randy Wells takes us on a road trip to rediscover Steinbeck’s America

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This Article Features Photo Zoom

Cattle grazing at sunset after a clearing thunderstorm. Wells had time for only a single three-second exposure with his panorama camera while the sun briefly illuminated the windblown prairie in Haynes, North Dakota.

Due to heavy rains, American Falls, the portion of Niagara Falls that descends on the U.S. side of the border with Canada, was impossible to shoot in daylight during Wells’ stay. Nightfall concealed the weather conditions and brought a bonus evening light show that made for a surrealistic scene.
Imagine stepping into the footprints of one of the greatest writers of the 20th century as you embark on your own road trip across America. I read the words as though they were written just for me: “A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike… We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.” John Steinbeck was introducing his classic travelogue Travels with Charley: In Search of America, published in 1962. And here I was, beginning my own cross-country journey, camping under the same towering canopy of redwoods that Steinbeck had visited decades earlier.

In 1960, at age 58, Steinbeck began his great American road trip accompanied by his French poodle Charley. He drove a camper truck from Long Island, N.Y., to Seattle, Wash., then south to Monterey, Calif., and back to his Sag Harbor, N.Y., home via Texas and Louisiana—all in the space of less than three months. Eager to discover my own America, I began to retrace Steinbeck’s route and experience the landscapes and people who had inspired the Nobel Laureate.

It wasn’t long before I realized that his epic journey would celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2010, and that Travels with Charley would have its semi-centennial celebration in 2012. So I began the process of gathering the images I’d need to complement the famous American author’s impressions and give his book a new life. Environmentally aware before it was politically correct, Steinbeck immersed himself in the beauty of the land and observed that its resources were rapidly disappearing. I believed that Travels with Charley was prophetic of the challenges we still face today and that its popularity confirmed the universal themes it personified: the hero’s journey and the adventures of an individual in search of self.

Handmade shirts on display at a Fourth of July rodeo in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
With my newfound purpose firmly in hand, I adjusted my route to more closely approximate Steinbeck’s. I loaded my van with the cameras and items I’d require for an extended fall adventure and thrust forward into the great unknown. Mountains, prairies and cities stretched out before me, beckoning to be tested. In Travels with Charley, Steinbeck had written: “Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process, a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. In this a journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.” I was reminded of this simple truth several times over the coming months.

Life on the road taught me that planning for a photographic trip is a compromise. Take too much gear, and you’ll be weighed down, constantly trying to choose just the right lens or accessory. Take too little, and you feel like you’re always missing something. As outdoor photographers, we convince ourselves that we must always be ready for whatever a location may throw at us. But working with the minimum amount of equipment can pay off in the long run, especially when conserving energy and concentrating on capturing storytelling moments that avoid the cliché are your goals.


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