Wednesday, August 15, 2007

"On the Road" Turns 50

Jack Kerouac's classic Beat road trip book "On the Road" turns 50 this year. The book, though written sporadically over the course of a decade (and most famously, in one long stint on a roll of typewriter paper 120 feet long), was finally published in the summer of 1957, just a few months before I was born.

The New York Times has asked the question, "What do you think are the lessons of ‘On the Road’?"

Here's what I have to say:

The main lesson of "On the Road" is that, for all of Americans' (sometimes frantic) movement and mobility and romance for the open road, few really take to nomadism the way Kerouac did. It still takes a die-hard bohemian to revel in epic, wandering, intense, spontaneous road trips. Kerouac mixed verbosity with virility with the tender heart of a longing romantic. He pined for love (and perhaps even "settling down") the way we pine for his sense of daring and freedom. Romantics all.

But even as he hit the road again, Kerouac got homesick (he was a mama's boy, after all, and tension makes many a writer write). Alas, the most hardcore of road hounds don't ever feel they've had enough. Consider the quest of Don Quixote. Meanwhile, most of us live out our romance with the road vicariously and tellingly through car ads on TV. Note that those ads are never filmed in traffic or on Interstates. In our dreams, we fly free and alone through verdant hills, through a spring-fed and billboardless heaven, along remote ribbons of black asphalt.

I'm an adventure tour guide, and so I see first hand how unadventurous most people are. No matter how much they seem to want to go, most people are fairly far out of their element when away from home. Nomadism is an ancient calling and an ancient curse (having to pack it all up and move on to chase the game or find water or migrate with the seasons). Nowadays, a serious case of wanderlust is so un-career oriented; most of us would rather play it safe and get back to our home-owner (or home-owner wannabe) domesticity. Often, it seems we sample the road merely to remind ourselves how much we like the routines we left behind. And we don't stay gone for long. In investing so much in "home," we have become increasingly materialistic, something Kerouac was not, and so we seem, as a culture, considerably more corporate consumers than cavalier renegades. Most are, to use Ann Tyler's phrase, "accidental tourists," more anxious about comfort and control than really relishing inhibition and edginess and risk and unpredictable diversity.

Along with another bohemian a century his senior (Henry David Thoreau) and a cantankerous and raucously unconventional curmudgeon just five years younger than the bard of the Beats (Edward Abbey), I'd say Kerouac (and "On the Road" in particular but also notably "The Dharma Bums") helped set the hook for wanderlust in me, both literary and literal, down deep in my psyche, a traveling narrative both romantic and existential. We are a destination culture, it seems, and Kerouac was really about the journey and being where you are.


At 8/16/2007 4:54 PM, Anonymous Dean said...

While I dearly love to travel, I must admit that my greatest joy is in returning home. Parting is such sweet sorrow and I suppose returning home is even sweeter. And let's remember what Lao Tzu said; "If a country is governed wisely, its inhabitants will be content...people enjoy their food, take pleasure in being with their families, delight in the doings of the neighborhood. And even though the next country is so close that people can hear its roosters crowing and its dogs barking, they are content to die of old age without ever having gone to see it."



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