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A man and his truck; Poulsbo resident John Olson writes his adventure in the book 'Down John's Road'
John Olson remembers when he was six-years- old and his father took him camp ing two hours away from home.
“In my memory, it was like going to China. I've always had a fascination with a road I've never been on, and a place I've never been,” Olson said.
Years later, Olson, a retired journalist, still feels the allure of the open road.
So it was fitting for this writer with a love of travel to embark on an 80-day trip around America. The adventure was inspired by a similar trip taken by author John Steinbeck.
In 1960, Steinbeck, and his canine companion Charley packed up his GMC truck and Wolverine camper and hit the road on a quest to capture the essence of America. Steinbeck wrote about his experience in his memoir “Travels with Charley.”
In 2009, Olson acquired his own GMC truck (albeit a newer model) and Wolverine camper and took to the road, tracing Steinbeck's route. Olson had hoped to travel with his own canine companion, Zorro, but Zorro had travel anxiety. A short car ride caused the dog to bark incessantly and Olson knew traveling 12,000 miles with a barking sidekick wasn't wise.
On Sept. 1, 2009, Olson waved goodbye to family and friends and pulled out of his Poulsbo driveway and headed east to discover stories and people in America.
Olson wrote about his experience in his recently released book “Down John's Road.”
“At one time the book was going to be called ‘Midnight at Walmart’ because you can stay the night free at Walmart and you meet the weirdest people,” Olson said. (In each state Olson visited, Walmart allowed overnight parking for free of charge, except in California where illegal.) Forty out of 80 nights, Olson parked his truck in Walmart parking lots. The other nights he'd find campgrounds, truck stops and the occasional motel.
Olson witnessed daily contradictions across America.
In Indiana he met an Amish family. The husband worked at a RV factory building half-million dollar motor homes, but he didn't drive. His children would only be allowed to attend school through the eighth grade. When Olson asked, what if a child wanted to become an astronaut or a nurse and need further schooling, the father said, "Well, we'd frown on that." Yet during the interview, Olson noted the son played with a hand-held electronic video game.
In Michigan, Olson wanted to visit the GMC assembly plant that built his truck. He stopped by a bank and asked for directions to the plant, and the five tellers had no idea where it was located. “The plant had been there since 1976, was huge like a shipyard, and not one of them knew how to get there,” Olson said. He found it odd that factory workers probably came in to cash their checks at the bank, yet no tellar could give him directions.
And then there were the two grave sites for Sitting Bull. The Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux leader was buried at Fort Yates, N.D. and reportedly reburied in Mobridge, S.D., although this is disputed by some. At both sites, Olson noticed litter and unkempt grounds.
Yet nearby at the Lawrence Welk birthplace (the popular band leader who hosted a television show from 1955-1982) , the grass was mowed and accordion music was piped through speakers.
“Lawrence Welk gets treated first class, while this great Indian chief is forgotten. What's wrong with this picture?” Olson said.
Olson's on-road entertainment consisted of stacks of county and classical music. Depending on his mood, he would cruise down the road listening to Waylon Jennings or Beethoven. Early on in his trip, Olson tried listening to talk radio, but couldn't tolerate the negativity. “If I listened to talk radio, I'd get depressed about America, so I turned it off,” he said.
In Sag Harbor, N.Y., Olson ran into Carl Bernstein—the famous journalist who helped uncover the Watergate scandal for The Washington Post. Bernstein was an idol of Olson's and one of the reasons he chose the journalism profession. Over a hamburger at Bay Burger, Olson received writing advice from his hero.
Driving solo on the road began to wear on Olson, and by the time he reached Lake Charles, La., he was mentally exhausted and wanted to end his trip early. But an odd sight renewed his spirits and eased his homesickness.
Once again, Olson camped out for the night in a Walmart parking lot. Late in the night about 20 cars remained in the lot and Olson awoke to voices around midnight. Peeking out of his camper, he saw men dressed in referee uniforms, their voices animated while describing football games.
When the security guard passed by Olson's camper, Olson asked about the late-night referee gathering. He was told the Walmart parking lot was used as a meeting point for the referees and together they would carpool to various high school games.
“I'll tell you why that perked me up. I love high school sports,” Olson said. “I got to thinking, ‘In Poulsbo there was probably a football game and there were referees just like here.’ It connected me to home and to other parts of America.”
Olson persevered and completed his journey on Nov. 19, 2009. On the trip, Olson's odometer ticked 12,673 miles and he spent $5,500 on gas. He hoped to get 14 miles per gallon, but ended up averaging 9.5 miles per gallon.
And always the journalist, Olson's one souvenir from the trip is his stack of 80 daily newspapers —one for each day on the road.