The Maestro is clearly moved by what he has just heard. I’d put us around Bobcat Flats between Fallon and Ely on US 50 in Nevada, which likes to call itself the ‘loneliest road in America’. An article in Life magazine from 1986 quotes someone from the AAA saying of this 287-mile stretch: ‘There are no points of interest. We don’t recommend it. We warn all motorists not to drive there unless they’re confident of their survival skills.’ It doesn’t seem to me all that lonely, least not these days, but it’s quiet enough. ‘I think I need to hold off a bit before we listen to the C major,’ the Maestro says, at the end of Bach’s D minor Partita for solo violin, recorded by Nathan Milstein in the mid-1950s. ‘And that’s with one “l”,’ he growls. The Maestro likes to growl. He has a generally kind nature which can turn choleric at any moment for no apparent reason.
We’re crossing a large swatch of land called the Great Basin. There are mountain ranges to either side, yellow sage along the roadsides, alkali wastes, military bombing ranges, ranch land, state parks. ‘Just when you thought he was bringing it to a close he manages to keep on going,’ the Maestro mutters to himself, shaking his head in wonderment. I ask him the next day what it was that affected him so deeply. ‘I wouldn’t have the words to say,’ the Maestro offers, reluctantly. ‘Maybe something about Bach and the landscape.’
The Maestro plays the fiddle. I don’t know how diligently he keeps up with it these days, but there’s one on the crowded backseat of his ’91 Camry along with a portable plug-in keyboard. He keeps his hand in by studying piano with Mr Natural, or the individual on whom Robert Crumb’s comic-strip character Mr Natural is based. Mr Natural teaches out of a storefront in the Haight in San Francisco, where the Maestro and I are long-time neighbours.
The Maestro regularly drives between San Francisco and Madison, Wisconsin, where he recently began keeping an apartment. He was raised in Madison. In fact, we were at college together at the University of Wisconsin 40-some years ago but, despite having friends in common, never met. I am the de facto replacement for the Maestro’s usual companion on these trips, his Rottweiler-and-something Tara, who, like the Maestro, was sweet-natured but unpredictable. ‘I wouldn’t be trying to pet that animal,’ the Maestro would mutter darkly to dog-enthusiasts who thought to approach Tara unbidden. Tara is gone now. That set the Maestro back for a good long while. I don’t know that he’s still not over it.
Fifty Septembers ago, John Steinbeck set out across America with his old standard poodle Charley as company. It was election season, as it was this September: Nixon-Kennedy. Steinbeck was 58, younger than the Maestro and myself, and near the end of his life. One can feel it in his writing. He was a smoker and drinker and on his third marriage. He had had a couple of minor strokes. In two years he’d be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and six years after that he’d be dead. It’s long been fashionable for literary taste-makers to look down their noses at Steinbeck, and if you look for him in Louis Kronenberger’s otherwise exemplary Atlantic Brief Lives: A Biographical Companion to the Arts, you’ll be out of luck. Hard on the heels of Gertrude Stein comes Stendhal.
I only read Travels with Charley very recently, I suppose because I knew I would be making what would likely be my own last big road trip. I’m in the pink, don’t get me wrong, but I’m not big on road trips and hadn’t really made one in 35 years. This was an opportunity to see the rocks of Utah and Nevada that I’d been admiring from 30,000 feet for more than half my life, and I had a two-week gig in St Louis in late September I needed to make. I knew that, what with the Maestro and his new iPod, which he somehow beams off the car radio, we’d have a crackerjack listening experience along the way.
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[*] Walker & Company, 304 pp., $26, October, 978 0 8027 1754 2.