John Olson makes a stop in Alice, N.D., where Steinbeck had a picnic in 1960. Rock singer Alice Cooper was given the key to the city in 2006, another claim to fame for the rural community of 40. Photo Courtesy of John Olson

Good road trips are like the lessons learned by Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz.” To paraphrase, some of the best road trips you’ll ever take are right here in our own backyard in the North Puget Sound region – and if the Emerald City is still your favored destination, there’s always Seattle.

But if your heart’s desire is actually “the road less traveled,” are you ever in luck, according to John Olson, former editor of the Puget Sound Navy News, and author of the 2011 book, “Down John’s Road.” The book chronicles Olson’s experience in re-creating John Steinbeck’s 1960 road trip across America which inspired Steinbeck to write “Travels with Charley.”

Olson sits on the porch of Steinbeck’s boyhood home in Salinas, Calif. Photo Courtesy of John Olson

Olson, a Wisconsin native, first fell in love with Washington’s snowcapped mountains back in 1978, when he visited Seattle as an enlisted Navy yeoman. And he says even their beauty pales in comparison to the Evergreen State’s beaches.

“I love those beaches,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “From Forks to Long Beach, the ocean shores — their sunrises, and sunsets — are my favorites.”

One observation Olson makes in “Down John’s Road,” is that one of this state’s outstanding features is its great diversity of landscapes: “(It has) beaches, mountains, deserts, rain forests, grain fields, apple orchards, rivers, canyons, and occasionally, an erupting volcano.”

As it turns out, road trips around Washington take in not only diverse landscapes, but structural and cultural diversity as well, according to Olson.

“There’s a little something of everything here,” he said.

Coming from a man whose road trip interviews included Indiana Amish families as well as a van-dwelling Montana couple spending nights in a Wal-Mart parking lot, that might be putting it mildly.

But if you’re not a people person, fret not: There’s lots to see around here, and the best news yet, in these days of ever-escalating gasoline prices, is that you needn’t travel very far to see it.

Olson took time out during the interview to discuss some interesting side trip destinations within a few hours’ drive. Olson said his time spent in the Navy not only gave him his first glimpse of Washington, it also stoked the travel bug in him.

“My first four years in the Navy were spent on a destroyer out of San Diego,” he said. “The next tour took me to Munich, Germany.”

In his book, he described subsequent destinations including Japan, New Zealand and Egypt. He visited Paris, where he kissed his future wife for the first time on the steps of the Louvre.

If far-ranging meanderings are not uncommon nowadays, due to the ease of airline travel and economic opportunity, it wasn’t so for our forebears.

“It is beyond my comprehension that my great-grandparents never traveled 50 miles beyond their Wisconsin farm, except once, to the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair,” wrote Olson. “Was I from the same gene pool?”

Like Steinbeck, Olson began and ended his journey in a Wolverine camper. Unlike Steinbeck, whose dog, Charley, accompanied him, Olson elected not to take his own “high maintenance” pooch, Zorro, along for the ride. The 80-day trip he took in 2009 began and ended in Washington, and covered 12,673 miles.

Speaking of Steinbeck, Olson clearly admires the man and his writing.

“Steinbeck is just very readable; his works are multi-layered,” he said. “There’s something there for everyone in his books.”

Although Olson’s list of recommended day trips around Whidbey are nowhere near as lengthy as his own 2009 trip, they’re every bit as fascinating. You’ll find, for instance, that the bridges of Madison County have nothing on us.

Once you know what to see on the open road around North Puget Sound, what better way to relax after a long day’s drive than to curl up with a good book? What good reads can this author, editor, and former Navy yeoman clue us into?

“Well, first of all, I don’t read fiction, only non-fiction, because to me, non-fictional accounts represent some of the most unusual stories you will ever come across.

“And as you may have already guessed, I particularly love books about road trips,” continued Olson, laughing a little.

One title he mentioned is Claude Clayton Smith’s book, “Lapping America: A Man, a Corvette. and the Interstate.”

Another pick, Alexander Roy’s book “The Driver: My Dangerous Pursuit of Speed and Truth in the Outlaw Racing World,” chronicles a 31-hour, rushed, cross-country car trip from New York to California. And if your tastes run to the surreal, there is Michael Paterniti’s admittedly bizarre-sounding, “Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein’s Brain.”

Although Olson did not travel through all the states during his 2009 trip, he said he saw enough to give him a look at what he calls “an American subset.”

“I’ve visited all the states except for Arkansas and the Carolinas,” he says. “One day, I plan to see those as well.”

Great road trips from Whidbey Island


Looping the Olympic Mountains (FULL-day): Perhaps the grandest one-day road trip from Whidbey Island and back is the Olympic Mountains Loop. Debark the Coupeville-Port Townsend ferry and simply head west on U.S. Highway 101. It’s a solid 250-mile drive, easily stretched to a weekend. On the route are three worlds on a single path: Pacific Ocean beaches, iconic rain forests, and snowy 7,000-foot peaks. Along with microbreweries, mountain goats, and chainsaw carvers, visit Victorian Port Townsend, placid Lake Crescent, and family-oriented Ocean Shores. There are enough state parks/campgrounds and eateries to stay lost for months. Websites:;;


Captain, Who’s on The Bridge? (FULL-DAY): With Puget Sound bracketed by mountains and laced with water, bridges abound. In one day off Whidbey Island you’ll find a Who’s Who of bridges. Head north on Deception Pass Bridge, a truss bridge — actually two bridges — spanning 1,487 feet. Then zip down and over Seattle’s I-5 Ship Canal Bridge at 4,429 feet. Nearby, the three behemoth bridges floating over Lake Washington — two at 5,811 feet are no match to the Evergreen Floating Bridge at 7,578 feet. Head south to Tacoma for the short (707 feet) but saucy cable stay bridge over the Thea Foss Waterway, before arriving at the granddaddy of all: the twin Tacoma Narrows bridges which span 5,400 feet. Its towers soar some 470 feet from the waterline. Finally, a quick jaunt through Kitsap County to another floating monster: the Hood Canal Bridge at 6,521 feet.  All told, you will have crossed thousands of feet of bridges off your bucket list. Website:


HISTORIC Port Gamble (HALF-DAY): For this half-day venture, head east from the Port Townsend ferry. A scant 30-minutes away is Port Gamble, a New England logging town that has combined modern amenities superbly. In the summer, this company-owned town has a festival or event nearly every weekend. There are stupendous vistas, wedding chapels, a bookstore, a barbecue eatery, and perhaps the last, best Post Office in America. Tearooms, a theater company, and immaculate grounds complete the ensemble. A typical calendar of summer events in Port Gamble is mind-boggling: trail races, medieval fairs, quilt shows, Old Mills Days (like a county fair), dog agility trials and Maritime Music Festival. Chances are a wedding will be happening. So picturesque is it, that Port Gamble is the destination wedding for all the Pacific Northwest brides and grooms. Website:


Hey, hey, it’s Uff Da Day (HALF-DAY): Another surprisingly easy half-day journey from Whidbey Island ends in Poulsbo. This historic fishing village is proud of its Norwegian roots. The streets are named after Norwegian founding fathers. Its storefronts — new and old — pay homage to Norwegian heritage. Plus, Poulsbo loves to host a party. Among summer and winter festivals are: Viking Fest in May, July 4th, downtown street dances, and Poulsbo’s particular Scandinavian take on the holidays. You’ll find restaurants for every taste bud and the famous Sluy’s Bakery will serve you the Viking Donut — a slab of chocolate delight as large as a small tire. Cardiologist permission required. The city is still polishing its new city hall, which hosts the Poulsbo Historical Museum. You can boat, bike, bus, or walk to Poulsbo. You are always Welkommen. Websites: