Town Native Embarks on Steinbeck-Inspired Cross Country Journey

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Ron Salargo and his dog, Mabel, in their 58-by-76-inch cross-country camper. Lori Hawkins photos

By Stephen J. Kotz

The black Ford Escape towing the tiny teardrop camper that was parked along Marine Park in Sag Harbor on Thursday morning was getting lots of attention. Some of it came from impatient drivers who wanted its owner, Ron Salargo, to move it so they could take one of the three parking spaces it was occupying. Others were just plain curious about his mode of transportation.

Within minutes of pulling up, Mr. Salargo, who grew up in Sag Harbor but now lives in a suburb of Minneapolis, was chatting with an old high school friend, Paul Deleski, who had stopped to say hello. Then a woman who was taking photos of his camper noticed its Minnesota license plates. She was originally from Iowa, and it turned out she has relatives living in another Minneapolis suburb. It’s possible her nephews play on the same high school soccer team as Mr. Salargo’s 16-year-old son, Hayden.

That’s the kind of thing that happens when you set off in search of “everyday America,” as Mr. Salargo is doing. He is following a route that is based ever so loosely on the one John Steinbeck took in 1960 when he embarked in a custom-made pickup truck camper on a journey that became the basis for “Travels with Charley: In Search of America,” which was published in 1962.

Like Steinbeck, who took his poodle Charley along for the ride, Mr. Salargo is traveling with a dog. Mabel is an 11-month-old jindo-shiba mix from South Korea with a sweet disposition and the ability to break the ice at campgrounds and rest stops and provide a quiet sounding board to his musings on the road.

And like Steinbeck, he plans to write about his journey. Unlike Steinbeck, who had to look for a pay phone if he wanted to call home and had to lug around notebooks and a portable typewriter, Mr. Salargo has a cellphone and a website, TravelswithMabel.com, where he has blogged intermittently about a voyage that began on July 13 when he pulled out of his driveway in Hopkins to fulfill a goal that had been simmering on the back burner for more than 25 years.

Planning for the trip began in earnest in December, when Mr. Salargo, who turned 50 on March 11, joked with his wife, Sheri, that “2017 is going to be the year of Ron.”

“Why don’t you take that trip you we’ve been talking about since college?” was her reply.

Mr. Salargo had been the accounts payable manager for Lifetime Fitness for more than a decade but was really not sure he wanted to commit another decade or more to it. So, despite some trepidation about quitting his job, he took the plunge with the full support of his family, including his two other sons, Austin, 23, and Clayton, 20.

He researched campers and settled on a tiny tow-along that provides 58-by-76-inches of interior space. Mr. Salargo purchased the trailer earlier this year and brought it home, where he learned that backing up was not his strong suit. “I was the entertainment that night,” he said, recalling how neighbors gathered to watch the spectacle, until he finally unhitched the light trailer and rolled it into the driveway.

The interior of Ron Salargo’s camper.

The camper has space for a double bed, although Mr. Salargo pulled one of the mattresses out to make room for a lawn chair, small table, and Mabel’s dog bed. The well-designed space even has a miniature air conditioner. The rear gate opens up and out to create a protective roof over a tiny kitchen with a sink, two-burner stove and work space.

In “Travels with Charley,” Steinbeck spent a considerable amount of time describing the state. “He talks about Texas and how it is a state of mind,” said Mr. Salargo, who had moved to San Antonio when he joined the Air Force in 1986 and was later stationed in Austin, where he went to college. “Living there, I began to realize I was in something so much bigger than I had ever known.” He began to think about taking his own journey someday, but the idea, despite providing fodder for wistful conversation over the years, had largely been put aside until his wife’s suggestion.

Mr. Salargo admitted that “Travels with Charley” is not his favorite Steinbeck book. That would be “Winter of Our Discontent,” which was based in a town very much like Sag Harbor with a grocery store similar to Schiavoni’s IGA, where Mr. Salargo worked from 1993 to 1999 before moving to Minnesota.

And his family had a tie to the Nobel Prize-winning author. Mr. Salargo’s grandfather, Carl Schweinsburg, worked as a caretaker at Steinbeck’s home in the village for nine years, and, as Mr. Salargo learned from reading his grandfather’s journal, helped him outfit his camper for his own journey.

Although Mr. Salargo is stopping in many of the same places as Steinbeck, his trip is taking a different route. Steinbeck, starting in Sag Harbor, traveled largely a counter-clockwise circuit around the country, heading west in the north, traveling south down the west coast and back east through the south.

Mr. Salargo is going in the opposite direction. After leaving Minnesota, he drove through Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana, and up into Michigan. Then it was south to Ohio and through Pennsylvania and New Jersey before he headed home to Sag Harbor, where he stayed with friends, Kevin and Missy Duchemin, during a brief visit.

Mr. Salargo left Sag Harbor on Thursday afternoon, taking the ferry to Connecticut and pushing onto Maine, mimicking Steinbeck’s route for a couple of days, before doubling back and heading south, with a stop planned for North Carolina, to see his parents, Mike and Cathy Salargo, before driving through the deep south and on to the west coast.  Mr. Salargo said he would head back east from the Pacific northwest, passing through Montana and North Dakota on his way back to Minnesota, with the goal of completing the journey by September 19.

When he gets home in mid-September, Mr. Salargo said he would start planning the next phase of his professional life. Although he studied finance in college, he enjoys writing and would like to turn his journey into a book. In the meantime, his wife will turn 50 late next year. “She wants to go to Paris,” he said.

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