I saw a hitch hiker on 35-E last month. You see them once in a while in the Cities. He glided along on the shoulder, seemingly unnoticed by other drivers.
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It was an appropriate thing to see because I had just finished reading one of my favorite novels, Jack Kerouac's On The Road, for the second time.
My dad always encouraged me to take up reading as a habit. At first I was reluctant, but one summer when I was home from college he picked out about five books and said, "give one of these a try." On The Road caught my attention, and since then I've been an avid reader. I have read and re-read the On The Road, and I don't think it could ever become dull.
Kerouac was born in Lowell, Mass. in 1922. His father was a printer who was well known in the community. In high school, Kerouac became a star football player, and won a scholarship to Columbia University. His father had suffered setbacks in his business, and he hoped to help out by going to college and working in the insurance business.
But he soon quit college and joined the Merchant Marines after World War Two started. His early experiences are recaptured in his first novel, "The Town and the City."
As a young man in New York, Kerouac made new friends that shaped his life and intensified his already strong thirst for adventure. He started traveling with his friends, and living a very reckless and wild life. He became part of what would later become known as The Beat Generation.
Editors rejected his On The Road manuscript at first. But when it was finally published in 1957, Kerouac became an American Icon. He had trouble with this fame. That issue, plus a drinking problem gradually became worse, and he died in Florida on Oct. 21, 1969.
If Kerouac had not written what he did, American culture would not be the same. He certainly influenced the literary world. Rock and Roll was also shaped by his writing, although most young people today probably have no idea who he was.
A reviewer on the Web site, http://www.charm.net/~brooklyn/People/JackKerouac.html, says the following about Kerouac:
"Like Kurt Cobain, another counterculture celebrity who seemed to be truly (as opposed to fashionably) miserable, Kerouac expressed his unhappiness nakedly in his art and was not taken seriously."
Too bad that Kerouac was not truly appreciated until after he died.
On The Road is a celebration of a brilliant, mystical, hungry-for-life person named Neal Cassady. He existed in real life, but in On The Road, Kerouac calls him Dean Moriarty.
It's based on real events a group of hip young writers and intellectuals experienced in their good old days. Jack Kerouac himself appears in the book as Sal Paradise. The writer William S. Bouroughs, the poet Allan Ginsberg, and others appear under different names.
The young heroes, led by Dean, had a thirst that transcended a lust for life. They needed to ‘be' life, and experience it with corners of their minds not normally used for mundane actions. They wanted to kiss the sky, own the roadways, and live in the deep oceans all at once.
The group zig zag's the country during a time when it was still safe to hitch hike. And according to this book, in the late 40s and early 50s people would actually hire total strangers to transport their cars to another city hundreds of miles away.
Sal hears whisperings about the mysterious Dean while he is living with his aunt in New York City. Dean finally shows up in New York. He enjoys some wild times, and then hauls @ss back to Denver, his home town.
Sal finishes half of his novel, and decides to hitch hike to Denver and join Dean and friends. He has trouble getting started a first. He's stuck in a torrential downpour in a mountain town east of the City. He finds a ride and it takes him back east first, before he finally starts going in the right direction.
The rest of the trip goes fine, except for a lonely night in Des Moines when he doesn't really know who he is. He catches a ride in Nebraska on the back of a flatbed truck with a group of about ten other wild road men. But he soon rolls into Denver.
In Denver Dean Sal and the others dig some wild parties, some beautiful women, alcohol, pot and jazz music they called ‘bop." They have esoteric conversations about philosophy between parties.
They get away from Denver for a couple of days to go to a small town in the Rockies with an opera house and many bars and parties.
Here we read an example of some of Kerouac's wonderful writing: "I wondered what the Spirit of the Mountain was thinking, and looked up and saw jackpines in the moon, and saw ghosts of old miners, and wondered about it....all in darkness now as we fumed and screamed in our mountain nook, mad drunken Americans in the mighty land. We were on the roof of America and all we could do was yell, I guess-across the night, eastward over the Plains, where somewhere an old man with white hair was probably walking toward us with the Word, and would arrive any minute and make us silent."
Sal has a very loose agenda, traveling from city to city to catch up with Dean and meet other friends. In Los Angeles, he meets a beautiful Hispanic girl named Terri. They shack up for a while, make love in a tent, but they both know it can't last.
He continues to travel. He spends a night in an abandoned ship of the cost of the Pacific Ocean, and crosses the huge continent again and again. He sometimes travels with Dean and other friends, but other times he's alone on the road.
When describing their travels, Kerouac writes, "I told Dean that when I was a kid and rode in cars I used to imaging I held a big scythe in my had and cut down all the trees and posts and even sliced every hill that zoomed past the window."
That's strange. I used to think the same thing while riding. Does every young boy think the same way?
Dean is consummate master of the automobile. At one point he drives a limo from Colorado to Chicago, over one thousand miles, without stopping. Sal and others who were riding had to hit the back seat out of fear for their lives. He traveled at 110 mph in Nebraska, had a minor accident in Des Moines, and did a daring two-second maneuver in Illinois that involved passing several cars and swerving at the last second to avoid a head-on collision with a semi.
The thing about Dean seems to be that he is always totally in the moment. Whether it's "making a girl," getting high, driving, digging bop music, or exploring the world, nothing exists for him but the action. When he goes someplace knew, his eyes are wide open and he's talking constantly, never wanting to miss anything. He just wants to take in as much of the world as possible.
Deans lifestyle is wild beyond belief, fast and furious as though sleep is unneeded and every minute wasted is a lost opportunity. His attitude makes for fun times and laughter-inspiring memories, but near the middle of the novel you start to see reality catching up with our road hero.
Friends of his ex-wife Marylou denounce him and say they hate him for his need to seek adventure without the least regard of other people's lives. After Dean's divorce from Marylou he marries a girl named Camille. But he soon ends up splitting from Camille and going back to live with Marylou.
During a brief stop in Denver, Dean looks for his estranged father and runs into a cousin who says Dean, as well as his father, are banished from the family. A friend on his Colorado ranch has moved on from the wild life and has a wife, a farm and a realistic plan.
Reality also catches up to the narrator Sal, or at least in the back of his mind. He writes:
"Just about that time a strange thing began to haunt me. It was this: I had forgotten something. There was a decision I was about to make before Dean showed up, and now it was driven clear out of my mind but still hung on the tip of my mind's tongue. I kept snapping my fingers trying to remember it. I even mentioned it. And I couldn't even tell if it was real decision or just a thought I had forgotten. It haunted and flabbergasted me, made me sad. It had to do somewhat with the Shrouded Traveler. Carlo Marx and I once sat down together, knee to knee, in two chairs, facing, and I told him about a dream I had about a strange Arabian figure that was pursuing me across the desert; that I tried to avoid; that finally overtook me just before I reached the Protective City. "Who is this?" said Carlo. We pondered it. I proposed it was myself, wearing a shroud. That wasn't it. Something, someone, some spirit was pursuing all of us across the desert of life and was bound to catch us before we reached heaven. Naturally, now that I look back on it, this is only death: death will overtake us before heaven. The one thing that we yearn for in our living days, that makes us sigh and groan and undergo sweet nausea of all kinds, is the remembrance of some lost bliss that was probably experienced in the womb and can only be reproduced (thought we hate to admit it) in death. But who wants to die? in the rush of events I kept thinking about this in the back of my mind. I told it to Dean and he instantly recognized it as the mere simple longing for pure death; and because we're all of us never in life again, he, rightly, would have nothing to do with it, and I agreed with him then."
In the last big fling of the book, Dean and Sal head for Mexico City. Another good thing about Karouac's writing is that he's very good at describing the changing landscape and culture on a long road trip.
The wild duo go through Texas, and reach a certain line where it becomes extra hot, the bugs are more plenty, and the people speak only Spanish. After they cross the border Kerouac offers vivid descriptions of the tropical climate, little otherworldly Mexican towns with huts, and a drive through high mountain ranges only to dip back down to the hot lowlands.
They party with the locals, and of course, make some Mexican women. Sooner or later, they are in Mexico City. Sal gets sick, and Dean leaves him there to go running down that long road again. By the end of the book, Dean has been married three times and divorced twice. He quits his third wife and goes to live with his second wife, Camille.
Sal gets better starts to make his way back from Mexico City.
Just north of the border he sees a mysterious apparition of a person, a man with long white hair who walks by, enters into Sal's sight, and quickly disappears into the black night. It sounds like Sal is not sure if he sees this person for real, or if the heat and the drugs are doing it to him.
But the strange traveler says to him, "go moan for man."
Sal Paridise makes it back to New York City, meets a woman and falls in love, and thus ends his stories of the sweet, yet sad travels through the land.
So in America tonight when you sign off your Internet connection, leave your work, turn off your cell phone and go driving home think twice about the roadway you are taking. Remember it's connected to a vast network of alleyways, freeways, subways, bridges, two-lane county roads and gravel paths leading to hidden farms.
And remember there are still people like Sal and Dean out there, although in 2000 the road isn't nearly as safe as it was back then. But they're out there. And maybe, although Kerouac lies in his grave in Lowell, Mass., he is out there on the road as well.
Maybe you can catch a glimpse out of the corner of your eye while stuck in rush hour: you think you see a figure walking, you look that way, but it's gone. And you think to yourself, "it must have been the sun in my eyes."
If Jack really is out there, he must hitch hike through the ghostly haze of our collective half-sleep.
Its just one of those things that you can't quite think, can't quite feel, but you know it's there. It's somewhere in the spaces between thoughts, in the gaps between raindrops and in the never-ending sound of crickets on a Midwestern summer night.
Yes, I am sure that if The Ghost of Kerouac does exist, he's out there on the road somewhere.
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