I catch my first glimpse of Maine at the apex of the Piscataqua River Bridge, where the Interstate 95 bids farewell to New Hampshire. Even at this low elevation, one of America's final frontiers spreads before me, a realm of green. I know this is Maine because, above, a pall of grey cloaks the sky. Here is my greeting, a raw burst of weather typical of a place that, at the top right-hand corner of the US, is privy to sharp meteorological moodswings dictated by the North Atlantic as it slaps and snaps at the state's 230 miles of shoreline.
Of course, there is a rather more obvious indication that I have arrived in the largest of the six states of New England – a broad sign, stationed alongside the hard shoulder, which broadcasts a self-assured message. "Welcome to Maine: the way life should be."
Fifty years ago, John Steinbeck rather agreed with this sentiment. In the autumn of 1960, America's finest 20th-century novelist – Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, and East of Eden behind him – embarked upon a 10,000-mile anti-clockwise road trip around a country he felt he had lost touch with. An ailing 58-year-old, already struggling with the heart condition that would kill him eight years later, he was not always impressed with what he encountered.
The book that resulted from the trip was Travels with Charley (1962) – Charley being the name of the French poodle who accompanied him. Steinbeck was bemused at the development of his native California, with its "noise and clutter and inevitable rings of junk", and wary of Texas – confessing to a dread of the swagger of "a nation in every sense of the word" that "sticks its big old Panhandle up north and... slouches along the Rio Grande".
But New England – and Maine in particular – earned his admiration. He devoted nearly a quarter of the book to the appeal of an area where "the villages are the prettiest, I guess, in the whole nation" and "the pine woods rustle and the wind cries over open country".
Having read and loved Travels with Charley, my plan, as I land in Boston, is simple: to follow Steinbeck's tracks around New England, discover for myself what so filled this grizzled wordsmith with childlike delight – and do it in the peak season of "fall", when I could expect a world where "the trees burst into color... reds and yellows you can't believe". But also to see, 50 years on, whether what enchanted the great man – a forested, mountainous, sea-lashed wonderland – still truly exists. Or whether, in half a century, it has been eaten by supermarkets and sprawl, its spirit crushed by Tarmac.
Naturally, there have to be differences between Steinbeck's itinerary and mine. Where he had Rocinante, a camper van named after Don Quixote's horse, I have a rented Chevrolet. Nor does my route dovetail exactly with Steinbeck's. At least, not initially. Heeding his remark that "I know people who are so immersed in road maps that they never see the countryside" – as well as the fact that, anxious to put space between himself and his Long Island home, he tore through the bottom of New England, paying it scant attention both on the road and in print – I flit across the lower three of the six states.
I sample Connecticut amid the colonial elegance of New London, where Steinbeck's ferry from Long Island docked. I ignore his decision to avoid the Rhode Island capital Providence, where the neo-classical State House resembles the Capitol in Washington to such an extent that it has played it in movies. I spear into Massachusetts, where there is already a tint of orange to the boughs. And then I get to the point, veering up the Interstate 95 artery and bypassing Boston – aware that Steinbeck retraced his northbound steps through New Hampshire and Vermont, and that I can catch him here on my own return south.
It is at Bangor, in southern Maine, where I properly meet him. In 1960, tired after long hours at the wheel, Steinbeck became lost in what was a hectic lumber city of "traffic and trucks, horns blaring and lights changing". And evidence that I am on the lip of wild country assails me as soon as I open the car door: an early hint of chill winter menace in the air; a 31ft-high axe-wielding statue of Paul Bunyan, the mythical giant lumberjack of North America, that surveys all visitors as they leave the highway; the lead story in the Bangor Daily News of a man sustaining serious wounds in a bear attack as hunting season begins.
Yet, with the decline in its timber trade, Bangor has mellowed since Steinbeck's time, evolving into a cultural enclave that is home to a symphony hall, an opera house – and horror writer Stephen King (who used the city as inspiration).
As evening falls, I try citrus-glazed salmon at the Sea Dog restaurant, and talk to a fellow diner, who explains that Bangor was the site of America's worst naval defeat before Pearl Harbor: a 1779 battle with the British that led to the destruction of the US fleet.
Outside, the Penobscot River – the graveyard of these dead ships – flows serene and unconcerned, its progress no longer choked by logs.
Life remains calm as I go south on Route 15, though there are still cameo appearances from the lumber trucks that "roared" past Steinbeck as he trundled to the sea. On advice from friends in New York, he was seeking the coastal idyll of Deer Isle, and got lost while doing so. I have no such problems, every junction heralding the isle's location.
But if road markings around Deer Isle have improved since 1960, little else has changed. A green-and-white suspension bridge "as high-arched as a rainbow" still offers passage to a place that had Steinbeck reaching for undiluted praise more than any other mentioned in Travels with Charley. "It is an island that nestles like a suckling against the breast of Maine," he wrote, comparing it to "Avalon; it must disappear when you are not there."
The antique shops and golf course that waver in my mirrors suggest new wealth on the isle; a fleet of yellow school buses indicate an expanded population. But the Stonington that welcomes me at the end of Route 15 is the same island capital where Steinbeck parked. A clapboard church hovers above the bay. A schooner glides below. Fishermen haul their catch on to the busy dock, including the lobsters that will make up my lunch. After sourcing his own dinner in Stonington, Steinbeck declared Maine's lobsters "the best in the world". Hyperbole, maybe, but there is no doubting the freshness of the crustacean I devour at the Fisherman's Friend eatery at the port.
I need the sustenance, because the road ahead is lengthy. East of Deer Isle, the coast sheds its daintiness – a mouth of broken teeth where inlets thrust rudely inland and rocky promontories stab back at the Atlantic. US Route 1 clings to the tattered edge, and I cling with it – through Sullivan, a 19th-century stop on the steamship route from New York, now shrunk to picturesque obscurity, and pretty Machias, where a church steeple jabs at the ever-more angry heavens.
At West Quoddy Head, a lighthouse marks the easternmost point of the US in stripes of red and white. This candy-cane beacon, in use since 1808, still works – and it needs to. By the time I hit next door Eastport, where I shelter for the night, the rain is so heavy that the car's headlights are baffled, the windscreen wipers defeated.
The writer turned north here. US Route 1 swings left at this stormy corner, for to push straight on is to cross the border. Canada is a constant presence on my right as I ride in pursuit – though its influence bleeds west. Saint Croix Island, sitting in a channel between the two countries, was the site of a French colony from 1604 to 1605. Beyond, the town of Calais reminds me how close I am to French-speaking Quebec and bilingual New Brunswick.
Steinbeck continued into the final 200 miles of Maine, determined to explore Aroostock County – the last gasp of the US and, at the time, a vast expanse of potato fields. As I chase his scent, it becomes clear that, again, the clock has barely ticked here. Furrowed soil dominates as placards advertise Russett Burbank and Shepody varieties by the pound. And while modern life intrudes in parts – between Houlton and Presque Isle, a scale model of the solar system is laid along 40 miles of Route 1 as an academic project, Saturn a bulging orb, Earth a pimple on a stick – there is no disguising that this is a frills-free farm zone. Madawaska brandishes a billboard that proclaims itself "the most north-eastern town of the United States". The boast is more flexed, tattooed bicep than fluttering banner.
"Maine seemed to stretch on endlessly," Steinbeck wrote of Aroostock. At Fort Kent, where Route 1 is stubbed out on Canada's rump, I know how he felt. But State Route 11, which runs south from here, is a road that car advertisers dream of – its curves, crests and yellow lines enhanced by the sight of Eagle Lake reflecting the clouds as I rush by. Then I climb a rise and autumn unfurls below, a crowd-scene of trees clad in shades of orange, each happy to reinforce the statistic that Maine is 90 per cent forested.
I meet few other motorists; neither did Steinbeck. Maybe it was this solitude that saw him drift to melancholy, musing on an increasingly urban America where "the village general store... where an informed yeomanry gather to formulate the national character... is disappearing". But half a century on, his bleak vision has still not come to pass. I see many a hamlet where the main shop is defiantly local. At Shin Pond, I halt at Weezer's Store, where Louisa, the lady of the house, sells everything from hunting rifles and fishing tackle to soft drinks and sweaters. "We have to, out here," she says. "It's a long way to the next place."
I buy water, because I am hoping to hike in Baxter State Park, a 200,000-acre pocket of wilderness, pierced by a rough track, that Steinbeck expressed regret at failing to visit. Here the pines are packed so tightly as to be claustrophobic. And as I round a bend, I am forced to brake sharply. A moose, so huge his antlers disturb the branches, is framed perfectly in the sweep of the canopy over the road. As we lock eyes, I ponder who is top of the food chain in this situation.
I flee, not in fear but in deference to Steinbeck's decision that he "had dawdled too long... and I had visions of Napoleon at Moscow". After another night in Bangor, I race west on the corridor of US Route 2, though Maine tugs my sleeve – especially in tiny Mexico, where the incongruity of the name is exaggerated by autumn's giddy blaze.
Certainly, it is a shock to skip the state line into New Hampshire. Instantly, the terrain swaps ruggedness for refinement. In Lancaster, five churches compete on Main Street to save your soul. At Gorham, the Androscoggin River seems to move with a politeness not visible in Maine. Even the White Mountains National Forest, the state's key tranche of peaks and troughs, feels tamed as I pootle through it amid queues of weekend vehicles.
Not that there is a lack of beauty. Around Fabyan, the wooded slopes dance through a range of browns, purples and reds. Near Waterville, the Sabbaday Falls tumble through a mini canyon with splendid splash. And the view from Mount Washington is glorious – though what Steinbeck made of the snaking eight-mile toll road where cars (mine included) groan and grind to the 6,288ft summit of New England, is unrecorded.
His stay in the area was brief, his thoughts taken up by the enormity of the rest of his journey. But before we part – he into New York State, me for a southbound tour of Vermont and an easterly waltz through Massachusetts to Boston – I stalk him for one more day.
"Sunday, in a Vermont town, my last day in New England, I looked for a church," he recalled, remembering a minister who touted "a well-stoked, white-hot hell". He did not say where. Maybe it was Concord, where I spot a suitably "polished place of worship". Or Danville, further along Route 2. But it was not the Dog Chapel – the image of a rural temple on its hill near St Johnsbury, but really a gallery dedicated to (oddly charming) canine-themed art, built by painter Stephen Huneck in 1997. Steinbeck would surely have approved of its American quirkiness. Charley, one assumes, would have been entranced.
Travel essentials: New England
* One-week fly-drive packages, including return flights to Boston from Heathrow and seven days' car hire via Alamo, start at £519 per person (based on two travelling) with Virgin Holidays (0844 557 3859; virginholidays.co.uk). nVirgin also has a 13-night 'New England Highlife' road-trip package that takes in Boston, Maine, the White Mountains and the Berkshires area of Massachusetts – from £2,069 per person.
* Courtyard Bangor, Bangor, Maine (001 207 262 0070; marriott.com). Doubles start at $159 (£106), room only.
* Chadbourne House, Eastport, Maine (001 207 853 2727; chadbournehouse.com). Doubles start at $144 (£96), including breakfast.
* Hampton Inn, Presque Isle, Maine (001 207 760 9292; hamptoninn.hilton.com). Doubles start at $108 (£72), room only.
* Christmas Farm Inn, Jackson, New Hampshire (001 603 383 4313; christmasfarminn.com). Doubles at $184 (£123).
* The Woodstock Inn, Woodstock, Vermont (001 802 457 1100; woodstockinn.com). Doubles start at $354 (£236), room only.
* Arlington Inn, Arlington, Vermont (001 802 375 6532; arlingtoninn.com). Doubles start at $108 (£72), including breakfast.
* West Quoddy Head Light, Lubec, Maine (001 207 733 2180; maine.gov/doc/parks). Open daily 10am-4pm, $3 (£2)
* Saint Croix Island, near Calais, Maine ( nps.gov/sacr). Free.
* Baxter State Park, Millinocket, Maine (001 207 723 5140; baxterstateparkauthority.com). Open 6am-10pm Monday to Friday, 5am-10pm Saturday and Sunday, $14 (£9.30) per car.
* White Mountains National Forest, New Hampshire (001 603 536 6100).
* Dog Chapel, St Johnsbury, Vermont (001 800 449 2580; dogmt.com). Open 10am-4pm Monday to Saturday, 11am-4pm Sunday.
* Discover New England: 020-8237 7977; discovernewengland.orgReuse content