I don't know if any of you have ever read Jack Kerouac's fifties era classic On the Road. It is hard to consider it a masterpiece because of the staccato rhythm of the language. It's like a written version of an impressionist painting, something painted in minutes to best capture a living moment in time. It is a masterpiece of modern literature and cast an immense shadow over the tail end of the Twentieth Century.
The story is a thinly disguised autobiographical narrative about a group of guys seeking to reenergize intellectual life of the post war era by swallowing benzedrine, smoking reefer, listening to bebob Jazz, and talking incessantly as they traveled back and forth across America in an endless search for meaning and/or ecstasy.
The main character is Sal Paradise, and Sal is Jack Kerouac. The other main character Dean Moriarty is modeled after Kerouac's best friend and hero Neal Cassady. While Kerouac was a true intellectual and educated at Columbia University, Cassady grew out of the slums of Denver and although self-educated could hold his own in the deep conversations with Kerouac and his other literary friends.
There is a scene where Cassady abandons Sal upon reaching San Francisco and Sal finds a moment of perfect freedom and temporarily achieves the satori and enlightenment that he was seeking.
“And for just a moment I had reached the point of ecstasy that I always wanted to reach, which was the complete step across chronological time into timeless shadows, and wonderment in the bleakness of the mortal realm, and the sensation of death kicking at my heels to move on, with a phantom dogging its own heels, and myself hurrying to a plank where all the angels dove off and flew into the holy void of uncreated emptiness, the potent and inconceivable radiancies shining in bright Mind Essence, innumerable lotus lands falling open in the magic moth swarm of heaven. ”
Like everybody who was alive at the time can remember where they were when JFK was murdered, I can recall most vividly the moment I read that passage. I can still sense the shudder that ran through my body as I tried to wrap my mind around what he was saying.
And when I was young right up until the time I married, their journey was my own. My friends and I relived it a thousand times speeding up and down the highways, searching through the back streets, slowly driving down the country roads of Central California, and incessantly cruising up and down the main street of Corcoran. It was always a spiritual journey even though we didn't know it at the time as we were always searching for our own metaphorical hill in San Francisco and seeking our own tiny taste of ecstasy.
The sad thing is that the effort we expended was always doomed to failure. No one ever found satori on the backroads of Corcoran, or on Whitley Avenue for that matter. All the minute mouthfuls of sweet juice that we tasted were chemically enhanced and vanished the moment the the drugs wore off leaving us to spit out the lifeless liquid in the dirt on the side of the road.
Jack Kerouac died a bitter alcoholic at his home in Florida. Neil Cassady, a key figure in both the Beat Generation and the Hippie Movement, died, fleeing the void, on foot at the side of a railroad track down in Mexico.
The lesson learned was that true meaning can only be found in real sacrifice and just because we talk faster and have faster cars doesn't mean we are going to find it any faster, and that true happiness only comes in the stillness of the morning when all the day and its endless possibilities lie across the breakfast table, and all we need is a cup of coffee to get us going.
Kerouac and Cassady, cultural superheroes, both died as prisoners of the road as all their restless energies could never find peace in an easy chair or in the grip of domesticity.
This is where most of us deviate from their story. When we finally exchanged our 57 Chevies and hot rod Fords for more practical vehicles, our life went on. Most of us said to ourselves, "Well that was interesting. Now what?" And the answer to that question involved turning back and looking at the rutted life of our parents in a different light and then the discovery of the hidden truth that we are neither the child who stayed behind, nor the Prodigal who returned, we were always a bit of both.
I still have a problem adjusting to the easy chair, and my kids have grown and gone. The friends with who I used to discuss the beauty of the female form are either married or trying to make a decision whether to ask their doctors for the little blue pill or not. And those with who I used to explore the inner workings of the galaxy have settled into a more stable routine of coffee in the morning and beer at night.
So nowadays, it's just me and my mom.
And to show how much the relentless pressure of marching time changes things as it squeezes the juices out of our reproductive organs (Don't be shocked. It happens to us all) I am going juxtapose some of Kerouac's poetic prose with the road conversations I have had with my mom.
“What is that feeling when you're driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? - it's the too-huge world vaulting us, and it's good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”
Jack Kerouac, On the Road
Mom: Where we going?
Me: Don't rightly know; I figure we'll head east and see what we run
Mom: Does me good to get out of the house.
“I realized these were all the snapshots which our children would look at someday with wonder, thinking their parents had lived smooth, well-ordered lives and got up in the morning to walk proudly on the sidewalks of life, never dreaming the raggedy madness and riot of our actual lives, our actual night, the hell of it, the senseless emptiness.”
Jack Kerouac, On the Road
Mom: I swear that woman is certifiably crazy. It's a wonder how he put
up with her all these years.
Me: Could be worse; she could be boring.
Mom: What's that supposed to mean?
Me: She could be crazy and uninteresting. That would be tragic.
“As we crossed the Colorado-Utah border I saw God in the sky in the form of huge gold sunburning clouds above the desert that seemed to point a finger at me and say, "Pass here and go on, you're on the road to heaven.”
Jack Kerouac, On the Road
Mom: Don't they know that one day they are going to come face to face
Me: Probably not.
Mom: Probably not know it or probably not going to see God?
Me: Oh, we'll see God alright but the majority of us won't recognize
him, or he won't recognize us.
Mom: He'll recognize me alright; I talk to him all the time.
But the biggest difference lies in a comparison of the first quote, the one where Sal Paradise is looking out from the hill in San Francisco and feeling just for a moment a sense of being one with the Universe. By the time we reach our maturity, even the desire to be one with God is often superseded by the desire to be one with the others around us, to still be breathing, and to still be alive in morning when we wake up from our slumbers.
I wrote about it once after my marriage fell apart and my wife left me.
"There’s scene in On the Road where Dean Moriarty abandons Sal Paradise in San Francisco, and Sal is left standing all alone on a street corner where he achieved a state of ecstasy, momentarily realizing the freedom that he so idolized in Dean and which he had chased relentlessly back and forth across the continent.
I had a Zen moment like that one foggy November night coming out of a Save Mart in Belle Vista about ten o’clock. I had gone to see a movie and stopped to shop. I was scurrying to my car in an almost empty parking lot, clutching a plastic bag full of stuff to make my lunches for the week when it dawned on me that not a single person who I loved or cared about knew where I was. It was complete freedom of a sort, but I was nowhere near ecstatic as Sal. I felt the icy fingers of loneliness grip my heart; I felt a cold, empty universe whisper in my ear.
I missed my wife. I would have paid a thousand dollars to hear her voice on the other end of a phone call asking where the fuck I was."
We all journey in the search of life whether we realize that we are traveling or not. Even while sitting on a sofa in front of a television or sipping beer in a lawn chair by a backyard grill, we are all looking for answers.