Travels with Charley
Crossing the country in search of a book
BY MARY LANCASTER INDEPENDENT WRITER
Long-time Nantucketer Charley Walters could easily be described as a homebody, but last spring he said goodbye to his loving wife and comfortable house to drive for almost 10 weeks and nearly 3,400 miles through 12 states across America on the nation's longest road. He was on a mission to write a book about his experiences, and now the first draft of that manuscript is complete.
A quiet man familiar with sand dunes, brick sidewalks, cobblestoned roads and shingled houses, and who mostly walks wherever he goes on the island, Walters found himself in the midst of snow covered mountains, then passing through dense forests, plains and deserts as he traveled from the onset of Route 20 in Kenmore Square in Boston to its end in Newport, Ore. at the juncture of Highway 101. What he witnessed were sights, people and lifestyles unfamiliar to him and, he believes, to many other Americans who have not ventured far or learned much about their stateside peers and vastly varied environments.
Walters was owner of Musicall, the island's only music store, for 25 years. In June 2005, he knew the business would not be viable much longer because of competition from the Internet, and once he came to that realization, he began thinking about what he would do with his time when the store closed. Several years earlier, Walters had thought about writing a travel book of some sort. A conversation 10 years ago with the late Wes Tiffney, who told Walters he was driving to Idaho via Route 20, sparked Walters' interest. When he looked at a map he discovered that not only was Route 20 the longest road in the country, it runs coast to coast and mainly through sparsely populated areas. That appealed to Walters and was something that stayed in the back of his mind.
"It's a country road that keeps on going," he said of Route 20, almost entirely a simple, two-lane divided highway stretching 3,365 miles. "It looks like the 'Sconset Road except the landscape is different. You see all sorts of different landscapes. You even go right alongside the Great Lakes. From Boston to Chicago, you see a lot of the suburbs and a lot of countryside, but once you pass Chicago it's mostly farmland and cattle country. You can go for mile after mile of this - I thought it was beautiful."
When he closed Musicall in December 2006 he spent three months planning his trip and setting up lodging in advance so that searching for places to sleep would not interfere with time for chronicling his experiences.
"I sacrificed spontaneity to have more time to do what I wanted to do," he explained, noting that he traveled an average of 75 miles a day.
What he wanted to do was look out the car windows and take notes, which he did by hand "very carefully" since he was driving at the same time. Walters was so spellbound by what he saw he never once turned on the radio or played a CD because that would have been too much of a distraction. Along the way he saw President James Garfield's house and the home of President Rutherford B. Hayes, both in Ohio. In Illinois, he saw the home of Ulysses S. Grant and in Auburn, N.Y he passed the prison where President William McKinley's assassin was executed.
"A lot of the presidents who have somewhat tenuous connections to the road were among the least known and of the same period in the second half of the 1800s," said Walters, who also saw the homes of many authors including Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Ann Sexton. He saw where Longfellow wrote a series of poems called "Tales of a Wayside Inn," the town of Clyde, Ohio that author Sherwood Anderson fictionalized in his book "Winesburg, Ohio" and where Indian historian Mari Sandoz wrote about the mid-west in the 1930s.
Walters met many people on his journey, most of whom, particularly in Iowa and Nebraska, were very friendly to the New England stranger in their midst.
"People would come up to me in the street and want to talk. It was just natural friendliness," he said. "There were a couple people who had that 'Bambi in the headlights' look, but for the most part they were very welcoming."
The rudest people Walters encountered were west of the Rocky Mountains and east of the Cascade Mountains, especially in areas that drew tourists. The only place that made him uneasy was Gary, Ind. where the crime rate is high.
"You don't want a flat tire in Gary, Indiana, but if you drive another 20 miles you're still in Indiana but you're in Amish country, so you get these contrasts," he said, adding that in some instances, a town's speed limit was higher than its population, such as Lost Springs, Wy. that had a population of one and no visible buildings except a combination post office and general store and a bar. In Ainsworth, Neb. the sign at the town line read, "Welcome to the Middle of Nowhere."
Walters said before he left on his trip a friend asked him if he was trying to 'find America.' What resulted from the adventure was the recognition that there are many 'Americas' depending on where one goes.
"I had no special notion. I was looking for what was there, whatever it was. It is not a travel guide, it's a travel log," he explained of his book. "If you want to find out where to eat or where to stay this is not the book. I want the reader to feel as though they are in the car with me. I didn't see everything and I knew I wouldn't, but I'm saying this is what I saw and heard for two months in the spring of 2007. It's not a history book, but there's some history in it. It's not sociology, but there is some sociology in it. For me, seeing all the different landscapes was the best part of the trip."
At this point, Walters is correcting his first draft with some assistance from his wife Nancy Thayer, who has been a published author for 28 years and recently had her 18th novel released. Walters hopes to be finished with editing in a little more than a month. He has not yet chosen a potential title for his book, nor does he have an agent, which he views as essential to successful publication, but those issues do not matter too much at the moment. In fact, Walters said he hopes this book does sell, if it does not, he still wants to write another and is considering several ideas.
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