I was thumbing through Newsweek recently and came upon an article by David Gates about how 2007 is the 50th anniversary of the publication of the novel “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac.
The book and I are nearly the same age. I gobbled it up in my early 20s like many others have done and will do. I read it and Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” at around the same time. Both books challenged me to think more deeply and widely so as to gain a better awareness of the world, a world beyond the comfortable confines of my small Ohio town.
I hungered for more of this feeling and proceeded to read as much Twain and Kerouac as I could lay my hands on. Twain is funny, enjoyable and insightful, a product of the agricultural 19th century that was ground up in the Gilded Age. Kerouac is all 20th century, both urban and rural tangled up in the night and speaking to me in a language rhythmic and real. The modernity and urgency of Kerouac can set one afire. Within weeks, I read Kerouac’s books one after the other—“Vanity of Dulouz,” “Desolation Angels,” “Dr. Sax,” “Visions of Gerard,” “Big Sur,” “The Dharma Bums,” “Subterraneans,” “Lonesome Traveler,” and my favorite, “Maggie Cassidy.”
The itch to move, or “light out for the territory,” is firmly entrenched in the American psyche. This plays out richly in “On the Road,” but also in Kerouac’s other books, which in turn helped feed the already present urge to wander in myself and others.
In my 20s I traveled a lot. Always by car and often with a gang of friends. That’s how one finds America, on the road. Discovering not only America’s sprawling geography, but its heart and soul, the madness and joy embodied in its people as well as how one’s own place and identity intertwine within the idea of America.
We went to places on the map I’d always wondered about—Boston, Cape Cod, New York City, The Bowery, St. Louis, Chicago, Virginia, the Atlantic Ocean, the Carolinas, Toronto, and Niagara Falls. All trips taken with little planning, just the promise of experience.
One trip to New Orleans began with a phone call to me in the night that went this way:
“Want to go to New Orleans?” a friend called to ask.
“What? Sure.” I groggily answered.
And off we went, hurtling down the highway to meet up with two other friends who had abandoned an ill-fated cross country bicycle trip and beckoned us to meet them in New Orleans. An 18-hour drive for a weekend trip. We didn’t hesitate.
One gets to know one’s country by tromping around in it, looking at it, tasting it, and breathing it in. Things, good or ill, stick with you: The rapid talking New Jersey waitress who was exasperated by “slow talking Ohioans.” A homeless man sleeping on a traffic island in The Bowery, invisible to the passing cars. The vast, soft sand dunes on Cape Cod that roll to the sea, so mushy that one can sink up to the knees while running up their spongy slope. The mighty Mississippi River steadily flowing past St. Louis and dwarfing, both physically and spiritually, the famed man made arch on its banks.
On one of our trips we once passed through the old mill and factory town, Lowell, Mass., Kerouac’s boyhood home. A pilgrimage of sorts, one that would have appalled Kerouac, who disdained fans. The only visible note of the author’s presence I noticed in the old town was a worn looking bicycle hung in the window of a book store. A bike that was supposedly Kerouac’s, but who knows? More importantly, we walked the streets, saw the field where Kerouac’s Dracut Tigers played, and watched and listened as the Merrimack River coursed its way through town over its stony riverbed.
It was all real, a connection to the written word. Real because living is a universal experience. We all struggle with our tragedies, large and small, and revel in our happiness, no matter how fleeting. The circumstances and details may vary among us, but the bigger themes of life—love, hate, fun, work, faith, questioning, happiness and sadness—are all there. We all share them, and Kerouac was one of many in my life who helped awaken this awareness in me.
Rick Palsgrove is editor of the Southeast Messenger.