I read most of Jack Kerouac’s ‘On The Road’ while road tripping across the state of Oregon – a 1300-mile trip that took my friends and I to Portland, Crater Lake, Crescent City and Coos Bay. It was a long drive – six of us in a mini-van – but a comfortable one, and hardly comparable in scale to Kerouac’s, or should I say Sal Paradise’s epic trips across the American continent, like the time he journeyed from New York’s “cloud of dust and brown steam” to the “fog and whiteness” of San Francisco and then back east, punctuated by numerous pit stops along the way, some by design – meeting with his Denver crew of Chad King and Tim Gray but most importantly the insane and incredible Dean Moriarty who becomes in a way Sal’s muse and whose character is best captured by poet Carlo Marx who says when asked of Dean’s whereabouts:
“Dean is in Denver. Let me tell you.” And he told me that Dean was making love to two girls at the same time, they being Marylou, his first wife, who waited for him in a hotel room, and Camille, a new girl, who waited for him in a hotel room. “Between the two of them he rushes to me for our own unfinished business.”
– and some by accident, like when he falls in love with Teresa, “the cutest little Mexican girl” who is introduced to us in a passage that would make most readers stop and reminisce their own love-stories-that-could-have-been:
She was in one of the buses that had just pulled in with a big sigh of airbrakes; it was discharging passengers for a rest stop. Her breasts stuck out straight and true; her little flanks looked delicious; her hair was long and lustrous black; and her eyes were great big blue things with timidities inside. I wished I was on her bus. A pain stabbed my heart, as it did every time I saw a girl I loved who was going the opposite direction in this too-big world.
On our way back to Seattle, driving east down the 38, we hit a stretch of road where we were accompanied by a dark green river, misty mountains and nothing else. The road winding like the river, a path paved through a land that I imagine was once all forest but there was still beauty that’d been left alone; the clouds descended and obscured in a translucent haze the peaks of the mountains giving the area an ethereal feel, and us a lesson in smallness. As I settled back into the book in hand, the trio of Dean, Sal and Marylou too stumbled on a winding road, albeit navigating it a bit differently:
Then we started down. Dean cut off the gas, threw in the clutch and negotiated every hairpin turn and passed cars and did everything in the books without the benefit of accelerator. I held on tight. Sometimes the road went up again briefly; he merely passed cars without a sound, on pure momentum. He knew every rhythm and every kick of a first-class pass. When it was time to U-turn left around a low stone wall that overlooked the bottom of the world, he just leaned far over to his left, hands on the wheel, stiff-armed, and carried it that way; and when the turn snaked to the right again, this time with a cliff on our left, he leaned far to the right, making Marylou and me lean with him. In this way we floated and flapped down to the San Joaquin Valley. It lay spread a mile below, virtually the floor of California, green and wondrous from our aerial shelf. We made thirty miles without using gas.
We passed through a bunch of small towns, stopping over at a few for coffee or gas. The Picnic Basket Delicatessen made it seem like all that the people of Shady Cove do is fly-fish. It looked a tiny shop from the outside but as I made my way towards the restroom, I realized that at some point between dodging fishing equipment and walking down stairs I'd entered someone’s house. The presence of fish ornaments everywhere but mostly the unfathomably animatronic fish surrounding the toilet added to the strangeness of it all. Nothing like the cafes in San Francisco that Dean and Sal rejoiced in, consumed by the blasting and booming jazz:
He’d go from “ta-tup-tader-rara … ta-tup-tader-rara,” repeating and hopping to it and kissing and smiling into his horn, to “ta-tup-EE-da-de-dera-RUP! ta-tup-EE-da-de-dera-RUP!” and it was all great moments of laughter and understanding for him and everyone else who heard. His tone was clear as a bell, high, pure, and blew straight in our faces from two feet away. Dean stood in front of him, oblivious to everything else in the world, with his head bowed, his hands socking in together, his whole body jumping on his heels and the sweat, always the sweat, pouring and splashing down his tormented collar to lie actually in a pool at his feet.
I would find myself sometimes skimming through portions of the text before landing on an adjective so unusual but apt in a long, rambling sentence that it’d make me go back a page and read slower, and noodle over the craziness that Kerouac zoomed in on:
Marylou was watching Dean as she had watched him clear across the country and back, out of the corner of her eye—with a sullen, sad air, as though she wanted to cut off his head and hide it in her closet, an envious and rueful love of him so amazingly himself, all raging and sniffy and crazy-wayed, a smile of tender dotage but also sinister envy that frightened me about her, a love she knew would never bear fruit because when she looked at his hangjawed bony face with its male self-containment and absentmindedness she knew he was too mad.
We drove through Oregon to view the tremendous blue, a road trip that revolved around Crater Lake. Sal Paradise’s trips though were in quest of the people who inspired him, whose insanity, self-love and joy of living kept him on the road:
and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”
Kerouac’s prose, oh how it crackles!