While Steinbeck visits 38 out of the 50 American states during the journey chronicled in Travels with Charley, there are specific cities and states that have key meaning to the work's major themes and overall message.
Maine is one of Steinbeck's first major stops in Travels with Charley. While crossing Maine, Steinbeck stops to visit Deer Isle, and more notably, Bangor. In Bangor Steinbeck begins to muse about America's wastefulness and increasing obsession with sterility and artificiality. When describing his hotel room, he writes: "It was immaculate; everything was done in plastics—the floors, the curtain, table tops of stainless burnless plastic, lamp shades of plastic. Only the bedding and the towels were of natural material" (36). When looking into the small bathroom in his hotel room he notes, "Across the toilet seat a strip of paper bore the message: 'this seat has been sterilized with ultraviolet light for your protection.' Everyone was protecting me and it was horrible" (38). Steinbeck sees America's increasing preoccupation with sterility and artificiality as detrimental to the human psyche, the nation, and the natural world.
The other notable theme that Steinbeck focuses on in Bangor is the listlessness and disillusionment that is typical of America's younger generation. He believes apathy is created by the desire for instant gratification that is being fostered by convenience and by the importance placed on the self instead of the community. When stopping for dinner, Steinbeck is served by a waitress who "wasn't happy, but then she wasn't unhappy. She wasn't anything" (37). Believing that it was impossible for "anyone [to be] a nothing," Steinbeck strikes up a conversation with her and is completely disheartened by what he hears (37). After "consider[ing] giving her a five-dollar tip," but deciding against it because "[s]he wouldn't be glad. She'd just think [he] was crazy," Steinbeck retires to his hotel room feeling so miserable that he wanted to "crawl into a plastic cover and die" (38). Steinbeck was so heartsick by what he experienced in Bangor that he did not even sleep in his hotel room that night, but instead went out and slept in Rocinante.
Steinbeck's description of his journey through Seattle is one of the key commentaries about industry and environmentalism found in Travels with Charley. Steinbeck uses intense descriptions to convey the negative impact that industry has had on what he remembers as "a little city of space and trees and gardens, its houses matched to such a background" (138). The new Seattle is a teeming city filled with "traffic rush[ing] with murderous intensity" and where "the yellow smoke of progress hung over all" (138). He also addresses the theme of feeling lost, writing, "On the outskirts of this place I once knew well I could not find my way" (138). While Steinbeck writes about being lost in Seattle, being lost also has a more significant meaning in the larger scope of Travels with Charley in that Steinbeck feels lost in his own country because he finds the American people as well as the American landscape hard to identify with anymore.
While traveling through Oregon on "a rainy Sunday, moving through an endless muddy puddle," Steinbeck's faithful Rocinante's "right rear tire blew out with a damp explosion" (140). Knowing that there would be little hope of finding new tires on a Sunday, Steinbeck cautiously maneuvered Rocinante into town. In the only service station open, Steinbeck met "a giant with a scarred face and an evil white eye" (141). Ironically, Steinbeck finds hope for humankind in this startling apparition of a man, writing: "If ever my faith in the essential saintliness of humans becomes tattered, I shall think of that evil-looking man" (142). The man's kindness was memorable to Steinbeck because he not only called a dozen places to find Steinbeck new tires for Rocinante, but also enlisted the help of his brother-in-law to fetch the tires from another town. After Rocinante was outfitted with her new tires, Steinbeck writes, "I was so full of humble gratefulness, I could hardly speak. That happened on Sunday in Oregon in the rain, and I hope that evil-looking service-station man may live a thousand years and people the earth with his offspring" (142).
Having been raised in Salinas, Northern California is one of the primary influential locations throughout Steinbeck's many novels and works of non-fiction. Nonetheless, Steinbeck says he found it "difficult to write about [his] native place, northern California," though he felt that it should "be the easiest" to write about (148). Similarly to Seattle, Steinbeck found his childhood home "slashed with speeding cars" and overpopulated (148). Steinbeck uses Northern California to not only address the theme of environmentalism, but also to expound on the idea of nostalgia and how and why people often find it necessary to cling to the past instead of seeing the present or the future. After meeting with some of his old friends and his family, Steinbeck contemplated how much they had changed. But after reviewing it further, he came to the conclusion that "[s]ometimes the view of change is distorted by a change in oneself. The room which seemed so large is shrunk, the mountain has become a hill" (149). He comes to realize that maybe it was not his friends or family who had changed, but he himself. The concept of not accepting change by clinging to an often distorted perception of the past fits into the larger theme of the American people refusing to see that they are not living in a golden age anymore, but are instead perpetuating new and dangerous habits that threaten their well-being and the stability of the natural environment.