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American Letters

Image copyright © Ed Ruscha, courtesy the artist.

The Scripture of the Golden Eternity

When you’re 16 and searching, Jack Kerouac’s urge to hit the road can seem inspired, or at least inspiring. Later, you wonder if his literature was actually early-onset LiveJournal. Later still, On the Road deserves one more look.

At a garage party on a warm night in the fall of ninth grade, a boy from social studies class asked me to slow-dance to Bob Marley. He was into skateboarding and military history. I played the flute and experimented with aromatherapy. The atmosphere was thick with Drakkar Noir, and he smelled different.

We spent the rest of the nights that year in our respective darkened bedrooms, our psyches gnarling together through coiled phone cords, talking until we had said all we had to say. We were small-town American teenagers at the end of the century, hungry for truths and experiences that went beyond concrete walls and cheerleading.

To pass the time, we ransacked the Salvation Army and our parents’ attics, salvaging old photo albums, cool shoes from the ’70s, anything made out of vinyl. When On the Road emerged, thick with mildew, from a high shelf in the laundry room, it was eerie. It smelled like a Bible and read like a manual of escape. It appeared to have been written for us personally—partly in the way that, at that age, everything appears tailor-made for one’s specific torture or salvation, but also because it was set in our own familiar geography.

In the post-industrial wilderness of northeast Connecticut, Kerouac’s most famous fetish, Route 6, is like a weathered string connecting Hartford and Providence, two tin-can telephones. Sensationally nicknamed “Suicide 6” by the local newspaper for its frequent fatal car wrecks, Kerouac’s “one great red line across America” fed our own decaying mill town at the midpoint. It was a place that people at one time had arrived at on purpose, from French Canada and Puerto Rico, variously, and now couldn’t lift themselves out of.

Here was the greatest highway in America, at least, insofar as highways were still things that could be considered great. And here we were, broken down on the side of it.

 

These days, On the Road isn’t so much read as its absorbed. 2012 promises (at long last) the release of Walter Salles’s adaptation, starring Twilight’s Kristen Stewart. Last year, a Tumblr called On the Bro’d took on the formidable task of translating the book, sentence by sentence, into the parlance of modern frat boys. There’s also, if Wikipedia is to be trusted on the matter, the ponderous detail that Katy Perry distilled from Kerouac’s “fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars” her own ubiquitous “boom, boom, boom / even brighter than the moon, moon, moon.”

It would seem that Kerouac’s influence (if these aftershocks equal something like influence) is inescapable, even while his relevance is increasingly debatable. It can be difficult, and feel pointless, to mount a fresh defense of any work of art that’s reached such a saturation point. It’s easier, perhaps, to argue for its irrelevance, as someone does every now and then. Kerouac’s characters and colleagues are not people we relate to. In fact, they’re exactly the assholes we take special care these days to insulate our children against: mysogynists, overindulgers, bullies. On the Road’s literal lessons, if ever they were applicable, exactly, have not been so for a long time. Hitchhiking is not a thing that we do.

Even when we’re talking about pure literary merit, it’s complicated. What does it mean to have merit, these days, when that old Beat project, unseaming the canon from the inside, has been largely successful? Any kind of artistic dissidence feels dated and earnest and quaint, like something our parents would be into. (Like, obviously, my parents were.) Many of the great minds of this generation are first and foremost adopters: expert at appropriating what’s old, but only in the service of what’s next. It’s hard to see the Beat icons as more than specters of an ancient romantic bohemianism, haunting around haplessly in age when “hip” has become an epithet.

 

But the fact is, discussions about cultural relevance and literary merit are totally beside the point when you’re a seething teenager. Also, this was nearly two decades ago and—I’ll say it!—things were different then. If it had been Amazon we were perusing instead of attics, unearthing this book, or any particular book, might not have resonated with us as it had then. It was a matter of chance that we stumbled upon something so canonical and yet so extracurricular. That it was random made it seem fated, and fate connotes weight.

We were looking—definitely, pointedly looking—for things we weren’t taught in school, but we were also definitely, pointedly looking to history. And not for irony or pastiche or inspiration, but for some kind of guidance. It sounds hopelessly inane and prehistoric to say it, but we were looking, in our particularly adolescent archaeology, for clues to something we conceptualized as the “meaning of life,” secret passages to the “real world” we were sure lay just outside the walls of our high school, outside the borders of our small town.

Our boredom grew viscous as we got older, a heavy substance that bound us together inextricably. Finally, at the end of 10th grade, he bought a swimming-pool blue Volkswagen Rabbit. Then we left our bedrooms and basements to spend our nights twisting through knotted country roads, past crumbling stone walls, half-empty strip malls, traffic signs riddled with bullet holes. We already knew them like the lines in our palms, could drive them with the headlights out. With our eyes closed.

We marked enough mileage on Route 6 that we could have crisscrossed the country. We drove to Providence and Hartford. We drove to Panda Express and Dunkin’ Donuts. We were plotting our way out, practicing, planning for the day we would get on the road and keep going. We itched for the relentless road, big sky country, big sky mind, all that. Instead we were driving in circles around vacant parking lots, smoking weak weed in the woods.

 

We went to college in another small New England town, not far from home. It wasn’t until the summer before our senior year that we broke out an aging atlas and charted a tentative course that would widen our endless loop. We’d dip south to Graceland, cut a swath through the corn of Kansas, circle back past the Great Lakes. It was shy and practical, not the grand American West, exactly. But we had a sense that it was now or never. With college ending, that other, less fabulous “real world” looming, it would have to do. We set aside two weeks at the tail end of August to fulfill our beatnik dream.

To save up for the trip, I temped in Boston at a company that published Volkswagen repair manuals. For eight hours a day, I’d cut and paste diagrams of carburetors and fuel-injection systems and other contraptions that looked like anatomical organs, corralling each image with an identical, invisible noose. By the end of the day, my mouse-wrist ached. By the end of the summer, my hand sometimes went numb.

Literature or LiveJournal, whatever it was that Kerouac wrote, he did it, famously, on a scroll, and the enduring relevance of On the Road is less about the narrative than about the decree.

But there was something I enjoyed about the nine-to-five, about belonging to a soul-crushed collective. My co-workers were older guys who lent me CDs to pass the hours and bought me beers on long, dusky Thursdays. In the beginning there were several, but in the end, of course, there was just one. The night before I was to get in the car, buckle my seatbelt, and drive out of New England with my boyfriend of seven years and a lifetime’s worth of anticipation, this one and I sat on the steps of somebody’s house in Somerville, dangling a string in front of a black-and-white kitten. Later, I got on the handlebars of his bike, leaned back into the rough scruff of his neck in the heady humid night, and let myself be pedaled down a road I hadn’t planned to take.

It was Mass Ave. We were drunk and it was warm, and I felt young. I was young. Like Kerouac’s Sal Paradise, heedless of his fretting aunt, I “could hear a new call and see a new horizon, and believe it at my young age; and a little bit of trouble...what did it matter? I was a young writer and I wanted to take off.” When the boy dropped me chastely my doorstep at three in the morning, we said goodbye as if we believed it was real.

 

Sal Paradise, determined to follow Route 6 to 66, one clean cord connecting the coasts, spends the first night of his journey rainsoaked and stranded near Bear Mountain, cursing. “It was my dream that screwed up, the stupid hearthside idea that it would be wonderful to follow one great red line across America instead of trying various roads and routes.” My boyfriend and I, on the contrary, were nothing if not practical. We took Route 6 only to where it fed us on to Interstate 84.

At the turn of the millennium, as it turned out, Kerouac’s bountiful hard-hewn Midwest was a spider web of obese interstates, Waffle Houses, 18-wheelers, Super 8s. The sun hung above the highway in a late summer haze, set late over the parking lots of a thousand Denny’s. We found the middle American road unfriendly to vegetarians; there weren’t even any Dunkin’ Donuts west of Pittsburgh. I had a caffeine headache, a chronic low-grade nausea. We pulled over at rest stops to inscribe Wonder Bread with ketchup hearts. Ironically, of course. But then again, hadn’t Kerouac taught us that sometimes sustenance comes from the least nutritious things?

We moved through the states, through the days, marking our path with a highlighter on the fraying map. It took the shape of a snake. We checked cities off our list—Columbus, Cincinnati, Louisville, Memphis—dutifully toured the downtowns, took our tourist pictures. Always we were antsy to hit the road again, already we were addicted to momentum. After all, there was something else Kerouac wrote between the lines in his travelogues: a mantra of impatience, an incessant itch to leave where you are and get where you are not yet. Is it the mark of an amateur traveler, or the young, or just part of the Western condition? Was that his point or just his biggest flaw?

Whatever it was, we had it, too. I just drove, put my sunglasses on, turned the music up, into the West, and as I drove all I thought about was the scratchy scruff at the back of my neck receding into the small and green and stoic East.

In St. Louis, my vague queasiness—some cocktail of greasy food, exhausty air, a suddenly festering terrible, beautiful secret—grew decidedly less vague. Here was Kerouac’s “beloved Mississippi River, dry in the summer haze, low water, with its big rank smell that smells like the raw body of America itself because it washes it up.”

And here I was, on a pebbly shore outside some tourist-trap steamboat-shaped restaurant, retching in it.

 

“I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds.” This is Sal, waking in a cheap hotel in the Des Moines railyards. “I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost. I was halfway across America, at the dividing line between the East of my youth and the West of my future, and maybe that’s why it happened right there and then, that strange red afternoon.”

After the day at the Mississippi, we changed course. Whizzing northeast across Illinois, along two blurry lines, green and blue, corn and sky, I watched the snake of our route coiling in on itself, looking hungrily back at its own tail. We were gathering speed, hurtling toward something just beyond the earth’s curvature, something we couldn’t see yet.

On the twisty little roads at home, in the fierce gravitational pull of the place we’d been born, I’d thought a lot about the law of inertia. It had seemed somehow comforting that there was a science that explained feeling so totally stuck. In the Midwest I had imagined, and the one I remember, the flat earth gave no resistance. We were bodies with mass but no weight. How strange that there was a single law that accounted for that crushing feeling and this one, the same one I remembered from being a kid on a bike at the top of a hill, when I had known instinctively how to use gravity to my advantage.

We just have to put one foot in front of the other, mercilessly, day after day. Even when we're tired and sore. Even when we're burnt out and banal. Even when it means somebody else is going to get hurt.

I was a good student, trained to read for the “point.” When I first read it, I thought On the Road was a book about freedom and adventure and momentum. Last year, when somehow, suddenly, I was twice the age I had been then, I read it again. I was out. I was in New York City. And I was still itching for the point, half-expecting to wake up in my “real life” one of these days. This time, I read it differently. Freedom is something Sal Paradise never finds, something Kerouac drank himself to death in lieu of, something vague and clichéd and futile we outgrow idealizing before we really comprehend it. But it also isn’t the point.

Literature or LiveJournal, whatever it was that Kerouac wrote, he did it, famously, on a scroll, and the enduring relevance of On the Road is less about the narrative than about the decree. Hitchhiking may not be something we do, anymore, but today’s restless youth would be well advised to find something that’s a real substitute. And not just youth, it seems to me, at this not-quite-youthful point I’m at, now that I suspect the itch never quite goes away. In fact, I’ve begun to wonder if the itch is the point. And if that’s the case, whether being “on the road” is just a salve. A messy, imperfect, homemade one, like an adolescent aromatherapy concoction, but one that we have distilled ourselves, from all we have gathered so far.

Such a road doesn’t lead to anything more real than right now. But if we’re lucky, and we look hard enough, we’ll find it full of small, magical moments, the ones that crop in the spaces between millions of insipid ones. To travel it is the simplest thing, and the hardest. We just have to put one foot in front of the other, mercilessly, day after day. Even when we’re tired and sore. Even when we’re burnt out and banal. Even when, in an attempt to poke at the soul, we’ve seriously fucked up the clumsy vessel that is the body.

Even when it means somebody else is going to get hurt.

 

On our last night on the road, we pitched the tent at the Finger Lakes. The car was full of souvenirs for our friends, a cheese hat from Wisconsin, a pink Missouri T-shirt with a ladybug on it, glittery magnets from Graceland. As if by squirrelling away Styrofoam and cellophane and preshrunk cotton we could assure our own permanence.

We started a fire and finished off what was left of our provisions. There wasn’t much. Through good planning or overindulgence, we had consumed almost all of it already. What remained didn’t feel like enough to sustain us, but it didn’t feel like that mattered anymore. Tomorrow we would be home, and that would be the strangest place yet, because by now we knew it would never again be the place we had left.

The woods were thick with wistful late summer bugs, wailing for the end of the season, the end of their world. Late into the night, we cried with them.