Following Steinbeck Across America
Originally published on PassionPassport.com
We caught up with photographer and storyteller Briana Moore to chat about her dog, John Steinbeck, America, and how they all intersect in her passion project, “Travels with Quigley.”
What is Travels with Quigley?
It’s a modern exploration of John Steinbeck’s book, “Travels with Charley.” Through imagery and essays, I compare and contrast his experiences and observations with contemporary America.
How did the idea for Travels with Quigley come about? And how did you decide to actually go forward with it?
For years, I’ve really wanted to take time out and do a passion project. I felt like working so much had stifled a lot of my creativity and I knew that stepping out and doing my own project would help that. But then it took years to sort through the noise and find the right project. I kept coming up with ideas that would be fun, or trendy, but none of them stuck. And for me, it can’t be a passion project unless it’s something I’m truly passionate about.
Steinbeck is my favorite author, so it was inevitable that I would pick up, “Travels with Charley.” Halfway through my first read, inspiration struck and, in that moment I could see the entire project. Honestly, for quite a while nothing else existed after the idea popped into my head. It brings together everything that I love — photography, literature, travel, sociology, and community engagement. Plus, I could travel with my dog! It ended up being a no-brainer.
What went into the actual planning of the trip?
I love trip planning and in-depth research, so I really reveled in this part of the process! In the beginning a lot of it was looking at the book — taking notes on where he drove and when, the distance, and the detours. It also required digging deeper into the web and getting to the nitty-gritty of where he was, because I wanted to get to the heart of the story and make this retelling as genuine as possible.
I also was able to set up a few interesting and key parallels. For example, he was home for the election, arguing politics with his family. I grew up a few hours from his hometown, and I too spent the final days of the 2016 election in Central California in heated debates with my own family. I considered where he spent Thanksgiving, and also joined up with friends and strangers alike in the middle of Texas. My husband flew out to meet me in the same cities that John’s wife joined him on the road. I had these little points along the route that were rushed or delayed for me in contrast to his exact journey because there were specific narratives and experiences I really wanted to nail.
Overall, to me, so much of it felt like planning any other trip. I just ended up having significantly more information and tips going into it through Steinbeck.
Can you give an overview of the trip itself?
It was a three-month documentary road trip. It was a long time to be on the road, but it flew by so quickly.
One thing I love with the parallels we discussed before — Steinbeck was originally from California, and I grew up in California just a few hours from his childhood hometown of Salinas. However, when he did this book, he was living on the East Coast, and I’m currently living on the East Coast as well. So I actually was able to begin my journey just outside where the first stop on his trip was. I got to do the route almost identically to him, starting in New Hampshire and looping the entire country.
I actually did one thing that Steinbeck intended to do but didn’t achieve — which I get a somewhat cheeky pleasure from. Despite being a brilliant man, he still didn’t think to get his dog vaccinated, so he wasn’t allowed to cut through Canada, which was his original plan. Instead, he had to tack on a few extra days driving through Ohio and all these other states, just grumbling. So I did what he wanted to do, and I cut through, which was a wonderful choice.
Near the end of his journey, Steinbeck grew weary of his trip and just wanted to be home. Instead of doing the full loop like he originally planned, he actually just barreled home after his time in New Orleans. He said he stopped seeing. I understand that feeling, and have a few opinions on what led to this, which I will be sharing more about in my upcoming book. At that point in the trip, I felt like I had an advantage being a bit younger and more resilient, so I spent the last three weeks of the trip meandering and seeing a lot that Steinbeck might have if he hadn’t been an aging, tired, grumpy old man. His words, not mine. No judgement, John!
Had you done a lot of traveling in the US before?
Yes! It’s one of the reasons I felt very comfortable going into this. My parents split when I was a year old, and made the wise choice not to live near one another. A lot of people think that’s sad, but it was actually awesome. I grew up constantly traveling. Before this trip, I’d probably already seen almost two-thirds of the states.
And tell me about Quigley.
I’m ridiculous when it comes to this dog. He’s my little Muppet come to life — He’s a Wheaten Terrier-Westie mix, but I truly think he’s also part Muppet. He has this head that’s way too big for his body and he smiles all the time. Now if I could only teach him to play banjo, we’d be set.
Quigley is a rescue dog. He has some separation anxiety, so it was really interesting to see how he responded to things being on the road. He lost a little weight, and he was more nervous than usual, but he still loved meeting new people, particularly children. He would be an excellent babysitter if he had opposable thumbs.
He was really great to have because I wasn’t lonely. I actually observed things that I might not have noticed on my own because I would watch his nose twitch, for example, and suddenly become that much more attuned to our surroundings.
What was your plan for what you were going to do along the way?
A big part of the plan was that one of the things he did — and really the reason for his trip — was that he wanted to get to know America again. Part of how he did that was that he didn’t talk about what he was doing. He just talked to people, or he would eavesdrop. He would just try to connect with people and really get a feel for what the country was about at that time. He’s one of the great American authors and he lost touch with the country. This was his way of re-establishing a bond with his fellow Americans.
In each place that I went, I tried to behave similarly. In some places, I had very straightforward interviews and other times, I would just work my way into a conversation and try to feel out where people are at right now.
So what’s America like right now?
What’s so interesting to me — especially right now because it’s such a polarizing time — is that so many people want the same thing. They have the same hopes, fears, and needs. At the end of the day, when people are being rational, you’d discover that everyone has a lot more in common than they realize.
One thing I focused on during the trip was really observing where people were. I also tried to seek out people that had a good story, one that could connect people. For featured essays in the book, I sought out people I thought could tell a story of hope for the future. I want this story to make a difference in the end.
How did you go about finding the people you talked to?
Most of it was very natural. That was my goal. In order to write honestly, in order to shoot honestly, I had to listen.
Before I went on my trip, people asked me, “Do you think you’re going to have trouble getting people to talk to you?” And it just made me laugh because I can go to Panera to do work and the next thing I know it’s been 45 minutes and I have to shoo complete strangers away so I can actually get work done. Between having a very friendly dog and being an open person, I find that people sense that in me and they’re very open in return. Everywhere I go, people talk to me and I talk to people. It very rarely was formal.
What were some of the conclusions you drew by comparing your trip to John Steinbeck’s?
That’s the part that I’m still sorting through.
An overarching part is that it’s amazing to me how much we focus on our differences. I’m a very positive person, and it’s frustrating sometimes how much people can’t get along. I met all kinds of different people on this trip and I found a commonality with all of them. Perhaps my thinking sounds too simplistic on this matter, but it pains me that we can’t focus more on the positives and find ways to work together. I find that so much easier than focusing on the bad.
Something I found really interesting that, as Steinbeck was driving along, he saw the country going in so many different ways. He noted the open lands were disappearing, and he observed a lot of what we consider to be “progress” commercially… and I found that a majority of what he predicted about the environment and our social conscience came to pass.
What were some of the things that you learned about yourself because of this trip?
One of the reasons Steinbeck grew tired of his trip was that he said he stopped seeing and felt like he should go home. I experienced that at one point. And I think you can stop seeing if you become less immersed in what you’re doing and more focused on your guests.
I have always grown up playing the hostess or being mother hen. I’m the one who organizes everything; I’m the one who takes care of everybody. So I would find myself getting incredibly distracted when I had people with me. I [learned that I] really need a good balance of fellowship and solitude in order to do creative work because my personality is not one that will stop trying to take care of other people. And that’s a hindrance when you’re trying to do a project that other people are excited or curious about, but don’t share the same passion for.
Thankfully, I also learned that there’s a lot that I can do and there’s a lot that I can handle. I’ve been married for a very long time and I’m used to having a reliable partner, someone who is my balance in almost everything. But this trip was mine, alone. I had to work on the car and pull off tasks that were a great struggle to me, and ended up being able to laugh about it. It was a very empowering situation to be in. Even though the struggles were extremely difficult at the time, they made for great stories.
What were some of the things that you did on the trip that you weren’t expecting or were better than you had hoped for?
Montana. I loved Montana so much. And that shouldn’t be so surprising — Steinbeck had a near identical experience. He wrote that he was in love with it and he didn’t know how to explain it. I knew it would be beautiful, but something about the entire state just blew my mind. And, like John, it’s hard for me to describe why. I was simply enamored with it. I actually texted my husband asking if there were universities in Montana he could work for … and I’ve never considered living anywhere that isn’t on a coast. I thought it was incredible.
I also had a surprising time in Michigan visiting my aunt. Her town is place I would never want to live, it’s a place that wasn’t special in and of itself, but I spent three days in my aunt’s house and that’s probably double the amount of time I’ve ever spent with her before. I learned so much about my father, and I was able to observe little familial quirks I never noticed were part of my DNA before. I actually gave up a night of camping at the sand dunes just to enjoy one more day with her, watching shows about Alaska or chatting on her porch while she smoked and reminisced. Things like that were really special to me. I never would have seized the chance to be there if it weren’t for this trip.
Another place I thought I would enjoy, but I instead fell in love with, was Nashville. I met the loveliest people, and had the best food, and I don’t think I even need to say anything about how incredible the music scene was. The city was just mesmerizing, but I think a big part of that feeling was because I met so many incredible people. Every time I talked to someone new I thought, “These people are just living these very full and inspiring lives and they love out of abundance.” That’s an environment I could thrive in. I hope to return very soon.
Why would you tell someone that a passion project like this is such a good thing to do? Why is it worth it?
First, absolutely you should do it, but are you willing to put in the work? I don’t say that in any negative way, but rather to encourage you to dig deep and think about why you want to do this. Make sure that this is something that you are truly passionate about, that this is something that you not only don’t mind staying up until four in the morning working on, but you jump out of bed the next morning eager to continue, because you’re loving every minute of it. A passion project is like a second job. It’s amazing and it’s inspiring — it changes the way you work, it changes the way you look at life. But you have to know that it’s something you love, not just something that seems on trend, or fueled by hopes that it will bring you prestige. When it’s right, this undertaking will consume you at times, so make sure you are ready for that!
Secondly, reach out to people. The creative community is incredible. When you are truly passionate about something and you know of people who have either done similar work or have similar passions, don’t be afraid to reach out. I had so many people chime in as I was planning and as I was on the road, and I’ve done the same for others. I think having that community is invaluable. A lot of the time, when people are starting out, they feel nervous about connecting with people they admire, or organizations that align with their vision — but forget all of that and find a community that is just as passionate about your dreams as you are. I promise you will be welcomed with open arms.
Was this always a book in your head?
I knew it was going to be a book, but the format has definitely changed.
Originally it was going to be all photographs. But I actually love to write and I have so much to say. As I was getting ready to leave, I knew I would be writing more, and I altered my plans to include more text. But even then, I thought the visuals [would be the primary focus] and I’d sprinkle in an essay here and there. As I was on the road, I realized that, more and more, I wanted, needed to write. I couldn’t quite capture the atmosphere with images alone. There’s so much going on in our country right now and I wanted the narrative to have more depth.
What’s next for you?
I have the other half of the work for this project — I’m writing my book, and I’m going through the process of pitching supplemental articles and exhibits. . I’m also writing a children’s version of the book, which will feature only Quigley images, and will likely feature custom art from the creator of our project logo.
In other news, my husband and I are moving to Berlin soon. I’ve been waiting a really long time to transition my business into more travel work and content creation, and that will finally get to happen after we relocate. My husband’s been in grad school forever, and we’re coming up on our 10 year wedding anniversary, so this move in his career is significant to the changes in my own! This will be the first time I will get to move away from having to take the jobs that pay the bills, and provide me with the opportunity to focus on what is at the heart of my business: storytelling. While we’re in Germany, I’m going to continue my Travels with Quigley blog, focusing on pet friendly travel, and start seeking out my next big project.