Of all the places John Steinbeck visited during his famous road trip across America, the island of Deer Isle stood out as mysterious, evocative and easy to get lost in.
If you haven’t been to Deer Isle, it’s a large island off the Blue Hill peninsula, accessible by a high iron suspension bridge over Eggemoggin Reach. The island is home to fishermen, farmers, stonecutters, artists and summer visitors, as it was in Steinbeck’s time. It includes two towns, Deer Isle and Stonington.
“This Isle is like Avalon; it must disappear when you are not there,” wrote Steinbeck in the travelogue about his 10,000-mile journey, Travels With Charley In Search of America.
John Steinbeck was born on Feb. 27, 1902 in Salinas Calif.. At 58, he had left his home on Long Island in the fall of 1960, accompanied by his poodle Charley. He drove a green pickup truck fitted with a custom camper shell. According to Steinbeck’s son Thom, Steinbeck took the journey because he knew he was dying and wanted to see the country one last time. (He had a heart condition and didn’t die until Dec. 20, 1968.)
Steinbeck explained in the book why he started out in Maine:
I wanted to go to the rooftree of Maine to start my trip before turning west. It seemed to give the journey a design, and everything in the world must have design or the human mind rejects it.
Steinbeck had a lousy sense of direction, and described how he got thoroughly lost in Bangor. He remembered he needed to get back on Highway 1, found it and drove 10 miles in the wrong direction. He got lost in Ellsworth, something nearly impossible to do in 1960. Then the roads narrowed and the lumber trucks roared past him. He spent the whole day lost, even though he found Blue Hill and Sedgwick.
His literary agent had insisted he visit Deer Isle. He was immediately struck by the place. “One doesn’t have to be sensitive to feel the strangeness of Deer Isle,” he wrote. Everything stood out, he noticed, and the people had the same quality. “I would hate to try to force them to do anything they didn’t want to do.”
The Town of Stonington especially intrigued him:
Stonington, Deer Isle’s chief town, does not look like an American town at all in place or in architecture. Its houses are layered down to the calm water of the bay. This town very closely resembles Lyme Regis on the coast of Dorset, and I would willingly bet that its founding settlers came from Dorset or Somerset or Cornwall.
Well, no. They came from Massachusetts. He continued:
Maine speech is very like that in West Country England, the double vowels pronounced as they are in Anglo-Saxon, but the resemblance is doubly strong on Deer Isle. And the coastal people below the Bristol Channel are secret people, and perhaps magic people. There’s aught behind their eyes, hidden away so deep that perhaps even they do not know they have it. And that same thing is so in Deer Islers.
In Stonington he ate a lobster and bought a kerosene lamp at a store he called “half hardware, half ship’s chandler.” Then he drove on along the coast, to Aroostook County and along the perimeter of the United States.
Travels With Charley came out in 1962 to much acclaim.
Not Entirely Factual
Steinbeck never said Travels With Charley was completely factual. He left out many things. Blogger Bill Steigerwald carefully traced Steinbeck’s journey and learned something new about his stay on Deer Isle: He caught part of the Nixon-Kennedy presidential debates there on Sept. 28, 1960. In a letter to Adlai Stevenson, Steinbeck wrote about his distress that the candidates acted so courteously to each other.
He did include an anecdote about Mainers that may or may not be true, given his frustration with the directions he received when he got lost.
He was told never to ask directions of a Maine native. “Why ever not?” he asked. Came the reply:
Somehow we think it is funny to misdirect people, and we don’t smile when we do it, but we laugh inwardly. It is our nature.
This story last updated in 2022.