Travels with Charley and GPS

A Depression-era book series is the ultimate road-trip must-have, a way of comparing past and present as you tool around the country like a latter-day John Steinbeck. And in Washington, a new version even links travelers to the digital age.
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A Depression-era book series is the ultimate road-trip must-have, a way of comparing past and present as you tool around the country like a latter-day John Steinbeck. And in Washington, a new version even links travelers to the digital age.

The New York Times has a new series, "Going down the road," that explores America by revisiting the towns, history, lore, and routes documented in Depression-era guides to the states that were funded by the federal government's Works Progress Administration (WPA). The first two pieces in the series have ties to the Great Nearby.

It kicked off in mid-July with a piece by Seattle-based Times correspondent Bill Yardley, who wrote about traveling over the North Cascades using the 1941 Washington WPA guide as his map. The WPA produced travel guides to all 48 states. The thick Washington guide, last printed in 1950, is packed with great facts, pictures, and information about pre-World War II Washington. It's fun to hit the road with an old WPA guide and see if you can find the towns, landmarks, and roads — many of which have been demolished, replaced, or have faded into the landscape. But reassuringly, there is much that's just the same.

While the old Washington guide is out of print, a version of it is available digitally [Windows only], complete with uploadable GPS information and updates, courtesy of the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation (with the support of federal and state funds). Called Revisiting Washington: A Guide to the Evergreen State, it combines old and new info and imagery and offers a fascinating window into 1930s-era Washington. There are even some cool galleries of WPA photographs, old fruit crate labels, and postcards from the time. A copy on disc includes a reprint of the original folding 1941 WPA state roadmap — no Interstates 5 or 90, and there are blank areas in Eastern Washington simply marked "Wheat." It includes a new map of the state's scenic byways. The electronic version of the guide is also available downloadable for free on the Web.

The WPA guides were often packed with local history — who founded towns, the origins of place names. The second in the Times series was about Wyoming's guide and tells the story of Absoroka, the scheme to create a new state out of parts of Wyoming, South Dakota, and southeastern Montana. I missed this secession movement entirely when I compiled my list, "Annals of Northwest secession." The scheme was hatched in the late 1930s, and the Times calls it "an example of 10-gallon cowboy eccentricity" typical of the West that writers liked to include in the WPA guides. Absoroka wasn't completely imaginary, though. The king of Norway is said to have toured the prospective state, much as Norwegian royalty occasionally pays state visits to Ballard, I assume. This is the type of trivia and background so many of the guides contain.

John Steinbeck, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist and great documenter of the Depression era, was a big fan of the WPA guides. In Travels with Charley, the book about his 1960 road trip across America in a camper named "Rocinante" (after Don Quixote's horse), Steinbeck writes:

If there had been room in Rocinante I would have packed the WPA Guides to the States, all 48 volumes of them. I have all of them and some are very rare ... The complete set comprises the most comprehensive account of the United States ever got together, and nothing since has even approached it. It was complied during the depression by the best writers in America, who were, if that is possible, more depressed than any other group while maintaining their inalienable instinct for eating. But the books were detested by Mr. [Franklin D.] Roosevelt's opposition. If WPA workers leaned on their shovels, the writers leaned on their pens. The result was that in some states the plates were broken up after a few copies were printed, and that is a shame because they were reservoirs of organized, documented and well-written information, geological, historic and economic.

Steinbeck didn't pack the set along because his truck was already overloaded — the booze alone must have added considerable tonnage. But the fact that Steinbeck had a complete set of original editions is pretty amazing. They are highly collectible today.

I talked with Mark Wessel of Wessel and Lieberman, the excellent antiquarian bookstore in Seattle's Pioneer Square. Wessel estimates that a complete set of first editions with original dust jackets and in excellent condition might sell in a set for as much as $10,000 today due to the scarcity of some of the volumes. The good news is, many are in print or in more affordable editions (new and used; some have been re-issued by university presses). He says a good "reference" set could be put together via the web and other sources for between $1,500 and $2,000, maybe less. All you'd need for your road trip was a nifty trailer and a hybrid to haul it.

One thing hasn't changed: There's nothing quite like them.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.