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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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A small pastoral community on Penobscot Bay in Glen Cove, Maine, is quintessential Americana, complete with a church steeple, brightly colored buildings and fall leaves.
Slowly, I made my way to the sublime pool. As I sat there preparing for the 1/60 sec. exposure I had in my mind’s eye, my breath formed frost on my icy tripod. The great beast appeared as if on cue, just as the sun rose over the vacant eastern sky. I stood in astonishment as she dipped her head and splashed noisily about, creating an ever-expanding ripple on that liquid mirror. As my third eye fired incessantly, she moved her head back and forth as if mocking a runway model. My willing subject then turned and trotted off into the trees that had formed my background.

As I sometimes do when such moments occur, I looked skyward and verbalized a reverent “thank you” before preparing to pack my things. Suddenly out of nowhere, a hummingbird’s rapidly beating wings were flapping next to my left ear and just as quickly gone. I was dumbfounded at what had just happened until I remembered that a hummingbird’s appearance means “you’re welcome” to Native Americans. Relishing my good fortune to have witnessed such an event, I looked up and saw the moose make a final glance my way. I walked back to my vehicle in hushed silence, knowing I would never forget this moment.


A wheat farmer inspects the crop for harvest in late-afternoon light in Palouse, Washington.
After a long rest at home in Seattle, I turned south to warmer weather, traveling through Oregon, California, Arizona and New Mexico. I had planned my trip not only to follow Steinbeck’s journey, but to coincide with festivals across America, including several colorful Navajo festivals along the way. Heading east, Texas seemed to stretch on forever. Eventually, I landed in Louisiana for Mardi Gras, where morning rain threatened to ruin my shoot but only caused the colors to deepen in hue and the companionship to richen in flavor. After a return to New York, I made my way back home again where I recharged my batteries—camera, vehicle and personal.

After 150,000 miles and a dozen years, the results of my efforts have been a one-man show of prints and a documentary film at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, Calif., and my agent is currently marketing my book project, which celebrates the publication of Travels with Charley 50 years later.


John Steinbeck, with his faithful companion, returned home in the winter of 1960—satiated, wiser and intent on telling a very personal story, one that would prove prophetic and become rapidly absorbed into the collective memory of American literature. Every day I traveled, I was reminded of his words, “We do not take a trip; a trip takes us.” I think we both came to realize that only when we give up control of our search for America does it find us. I hope my story may inspire you to take a similar journey—as Steinbeck’s had inspired me—to discover your own America.

See more of Randy Wells’ images from his quest to follow in Steinbeck’s footsteps, as well as a range of other work, at www.randywells.com. Visit the National Steinbeck Center at www.steinbeck.org.

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