In 1960, two years before winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, John Steinbeck drove his camper/truck up the coast of Maine, accompanied by his dog, on their way around the periphery of the United States. He wrote a book about the trip: Travels With Charley (in Search of America). In it, he observed that the then-new Interstate Highway System would soon make it possible to drive across the country without seeing anything at all.
Bob Dylan, 56 years before winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, set out from Minnesota to New York that same year, hitchhiking some of the same highways Steinbeck drove. It’s highly unlikely their paths ever crossed, but the young Dylan had read Cannery Row, and would later reference it in “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.”
Remember when people used to hitchhike, both locally and long-distance? I hitchhiked all over Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont as a teenager. I went to college in Wisconsin in the late 1970s and thumbed back and forth several times. I hitchhiked, alone and with friends, to northern Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Canada. There were some uncomfortable situations and a few cold nights, but I was never threatened with any physical harm.
In the early 1990s I lived near the railroad tracks in southern California. I met a couple of hobos, who hopped freights and traveled the country. I was amazed that there were still people like that – characters straight out of Tortilla Flat, or “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again.”
The Interstate spawned its own hobo culture, too, but it seems to be mostly gone now. Hitchhiking is widely perceived as dangerous, and illegal on all interstates. I don’t drive much, but I see the occasional hitchhiker in the summer, mostly along the coast. I suppose it was always dangerous. But as a young white male in New England I could afford to be oblivious to the danger. I think also that the culture has coarsened.
Steinbeck regularly engaged strangers along his route. He was curious about his surroundings and the people he met. He picked up the occasional hitchhiker. He stopped in small towns and ate at local diners and engaged in conversations. In his memoir, Chronicles, Volume 1, Dylan comes across as nothing so much as keenly observant, soaking in all the musical and literary influences around him.
Are people less friendly these days? Have they seen too many gory hitchhiker movies? Are we more isolated from one another, in spite of our electronic gadgets? Has the world become a meaner place? I don’t know. But Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize is the best news of this stormy season.
I first saw him perform on Thanksgiving night in 1975, in the Bangor Auditorium, a building he has now outlived. My mother drove my sister and me and a few friends through howling wind and outrageous snow from Blue Hill to Bangor because she wanted to see Joan Baez, who was also on the bill.
Even then he was revamping his songs. He played a hard-rock rendition of “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” a song I’d only heard on one of my mom’s Pete Seeger records. He did new songs like the epic “Isis” and the haunting “Simple Twist of Fate.” The whole show, an ensemble billed as the Rolling Thunder Revue, knocked me out. I’ve been a fan ever since.
Thirty-four years later, when I next saw Bob Dylan in Bangor, I was able to walk from my house to the show at the Waterfront. The last time I saw him, in 2014 in Boston, I took a train. I missed the first half of a Dylan show in Los Angeles in the 1980s because I misplaced the tickets and then got stuck in traffic. I saw him at the first Farm Aid concert in Illinois when I was driving across the country alone.
I’ve caught up with him in concert maybe a half dozen other times. He never does a song quite the same way twice. They have more in common with plays than poems. His songs, like our world, are stuffed with characters. They come alive because so many people live in them.
By now you might be wondering what all this has to do with my usual topic of the American car culture, but if you start over you’ll see I’ve worked in transportation here and there. Now I’m going to go listen to some Nobel Prize-winning literature.