In Part One of Travels with Charley, Steinbeck outlines the purpose of his journey. He states that his main objective in taking his cross-country trip is to reconnect with America. After self-reflection, he reports, "I did not know my own country" (5). Steinbeck felt that much of his knowledge was regional, specific only to major cities like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. He wanted to earn the title of American author, not have it bestowed upon him simply because he happened to live in the United States and was "an American writer, writing about America" (5). His decision to take Charley was partially for his own benefit, and partially for Charley. While Steinbeck wanted company on his journey, he also knew that Charley would serve as a diplomat between himself and strangers, calling Charley a "mind-reading dog" (10). Steinbeck notes that while people might feel apprehensive about talking to a person they have just met, they would feel perfectly comfortable petting a dog. Steinbeck uses Charley to connect with strangers, allowing him to learn more about Americans who would not have spoken with him otherwise. After carefully packing Rocinante with everything he thinks he might need on his journey, Steinbeck heads out with Charley on a surprising and overwhelming adventure.
Part Two of Travels with Charley records Steinbeck's and Charley's experiences in America's eastern states such as Maine, Connecticut, and Vermont. In Maine, Steinbeck observes how the attitude of America is shifting, specifically in the younger generation. He encounters a listless waitress and observes that it is "[s]trange how one person can saturate a room with vitality, with excitement. Then there are others [ . . . ] who can drain off energy and joy, can suck pleasure dry and get no sustenance from it" (37). Steinbeck reports that the waitress has nothing good to say and seems to have no goals in life. She wanders aimlessly, half-heartedly looking for something that she will never find.
In contrast to the many disillusioned Americans like the waitress that he encounters during Part Two of Travels with Charley, Steinbeck and Charley connect with some migrant workers from Canada after leaving Maine. Steinbeck observes their work ethic and how America seems to be handing over all of the jobs requiring physical labor to migrant workers. Steinbeck sadly observes, "It occurs to me that, just as the Carthaginians hired mercenaries to do their fighting for them, we Americans bring in mercenaries to do our hard and humble work" (50). In doing so, Steinbeck believes Americans are losing important values that build character for both individuals and society at large.
Steinbeck also explores the decline of farming in America and attributes the shift of American jobs from farming to industry to the growth of technology. While Steinbeck sees some technological progress as being good, during his journey he repeatedly sees how material progress harms the land and people of the United States. He laments the destructive power of nuclear bombs and the immense waste that goes into the packaging of goods. Everywhere he goes, industry is cropping up and large, overpopulated, polluted cities are taking the place of smaller towns. He sees the increasing popularity of mobile homes as representative of American restlessness. Even food, representative of culture forms, he argues has become standardized and tasteless, and he sees the mom-and-pop stores that once represented American ingenuity being pushed out by large corporations which value conformity and monotony.
While not a major theme in his work, Steinbeck also addresses the state of American religion by recounting one of his experiences in Vermont. As he listens to the pastor preach, he realizes how Americans have not only traded hard work for a life of ease, but have also traded in personal and religious morals in an attempt to exempt themselves from accountability. He writes, "It is our practice now, at least in the large cities, to find from our psychiatric priesthood that our sins aren't really sins at all but accidents that are set in motion by forces beyond our control" (60-61). Steinbeck emphasizes that the American people are willing to fault anyone that does not do exactly what they want, when they want it. In this section of the work, Steinbeck realizes that instead of his country growing up to be a great nation, it resembles a spoiled child who seeks instant gratification in every aspect of its life.
After a brief respite in Chicago, Steinbeck travels through the Midwest and onto the Northeast in Part Three of Travels with Charley. After his experiences in the eastern part of the country, Steinbeck finds more reason to hope as he travels through the beautiful and less populated states such as Montana and Oregon. He sees a glimmer of redemption for the American people in the form of a simple and generous service station attendant who helps Steinbeck when he is in a bind after blowing a tire. Though he describes the attendant as "evil looking," Steinbeck writes that "if ever my faith in the essential saintliness of humans becomes tattered, I shall think of that evil-looking man" (142). Despite such small reasons to hope for the moral fiber of Americans, Steinbeck also discovers more disturbing changes in the places he once knew. When traveling through Seattle, Washington, Steinbeck is amazed at how the "acids of industry" have taken a hold of the state (56). Land that was once covered with trees is now crisscrossed with "traffic" that "rushed with murderous intensity" in addition to "high wire fences and mile-long factories" (138). Steinbeck mourns for the environment that is being destroyed, all in the name of progress.
When Steinbeck visits his home state of California, he is equally dismayed. Though he stops and reflects on the importance of the past and biological permanence in a stand of giant redwoods and sequoias, change is rampant in California as well. He hardly recognizes Salinas, the humble town he grew up in. What he remembers as a "narrow, twisting mountain road where the wood teams moved, drawn by steady mules" has turned into a "four-lane concrete highway slashed with speeding cars" (148).
The only thing that remains the same in his home town is a little bar where Steinbeck spends some time with his friends. Outside the establishment, however, the town has become overrun by people with great financial wealth and a great disdain for nature. Seeing his home in such a different light made Steinbeck feel as if his home had been obliterated. He realizes, "My return caused only confusion and uneasiness. Although they could not say it, my old friends wanted me gone so that I could take my proper place in the pattern of remembrance" (156). He realized that his home, like much of former America, was destined to exist only in memory.
In Part Four of his travelogue, Steinbeck drives quickly across the southwestern desert to Texas, which he describes as "a state of mind" and "an obsession," to have Thanksgiving with his wife Elaine and her family (173). After Thanksgiving, Steinbeck travels into the deeper south, stopping in New Orleans, Louisiana. He reflects on racism in this portion of the text and its negative impact on American society. He witnesses blatant racism not only taking place, but being celebrated in New Orleans. Steinbeck describes the racism that he observes in the South as a kind of sickness and asserts that its "pain spreads out to all America" (186). He watches a group of mothers known as "The Cheerleaders" vehemently protest against integration and is physically revolted by their unfounded hatred. He is so disgusted by what he sees that he writes he cannot even bring himself to record the details of the event. After the protest, Steinbeck makes sure to leave as quickly as he came, confused and sickened by his experience.
As Steinbeck and Charley continue their journey, the clutches of racism in the south are made more apparent. When he stops to pick up a hitchhiker, he finds that he has picked up an extreme racist who fully supports the "Cheerleaders" and their efforts. He believes that it is their responsibility as good citizens to prevent the integration of black and white children in public schools. He tells Steinbeck that it "does [the] heart good to see somebody do their duty" (204). At this point Steinbeck, who is now starting to weary from his trip, tells the man that he does not agree. The man screams at Steinbeck in reply, saying that he is a terrible person for thinking that African Americans deserved the same rights as whites. Steinbeck promptly tells the man to get out of the truck and dumps him on the side of the road. The man continues screaming at him until Steinbeck and Charley drive out of sight.
By the time Steinbeck nears Virginia, he says that in his heart, his journey was over. His journey had ceased to be a journey and became something that he had to endure until he reached his home in New York again. After passing through Pennsylvania and New Jersey, Steinbeck finds himself back in New York where, ironically, he realizes that he is lost and has to ask for directions home. As he spent a good deal of his journey lost, it becomes evident at the end of the story that being lost is a metaphor for how much America has changed in Steinbeck's eyes. America, it seems, is in a sense directionless and therefore endangered as it moves into an uncertain future marked by huge population shifts, technological and industrial change, and unprecedented environmental destruction.