Confession time: In case you haven’t figured it out, I am not a very cool guy. At certain moments, I kind of wish I were. Occasionally, growing up, I think sometime some people maybe thought I was, and that gave me a little confidence to pretend, to pose. But I am not sure if I ever really wanted to be Cool, I mean really Cool. Like a beatnik, like a beat, like a turned-off-turned-on-I-don’t-believe-your-bull-shit hipster daddio kind of Cool. Mostly I was just a shy, romantic wounded kid who wandered through life until a couple of professors at the University of Texas made me admire people who messed around with ideas, and then later at Texas A&M in graduate school one professor made me think there was something of substance in me. The irony was that while many people in positions of authority thought I was rebellious, disrespectful, maybe dangerous, I honed a fairly conservative line. My heroes weren’t Ginsberg, Kerouac, Keasey, Wolfe, Burroughs, Miller, Nietzsche, Marcuse. In school I loved Plato, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, T. S. Eliot, and Randall Jarrell. For outside reading, I worked my way through essays: E.B. White, Virginia Woolf, Montaigne, Eric Hoffer, Lewis Thomas, and Randall Jarrell. My goal in going to college was not to arm myself for moral combat with the bourgeoisie. Heck, I didn’t know it, but I was bourgeois and wanted to be more so—more classical music, more poetry, more philosophy, more tradition. The problem, of course, was that during the past sixty years, beginning in the nineteen fifties, the purveyors of tradition have often tended toward anger, cruelty, oppression, and stupidity.
|Jack Kerouac's Grave in Lowell, Mass.|
What I haven’t been able to shake is my hippie-dippie, lovie-dovie, peace and justice distrust of the man, discomfort with conformity. My college education sought “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free,” not “you shall learn a skill and that skill will make you rich.” So regardless of my urges toward mom, the flag, and apple pie, toward Jesus, crew cuts, khakis, and 9 to 5, something, various somethings, always tugged me out of conformity, away from the trappings of the comfortable, and pulled me toward something other.
One expression of that “something other” is, of course, this road trip. While there are a great number of folks living the trailer park nomad life style, the number is still a very small minority of Americans. Most of the conformists are very happy with the 9-5, their schools and their churches, their two-week vacations, their regularly scheduled traffic jams. Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing really wrong with that. I have always wished to be happy in that world. Sometimes I am. Most often, I am not: hence, the road trip.
The greatest expression of this “something other” contained in the road trip is Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, a book I have avoided since I learned of it somewhere in college I guess, after Kerouac had died. My life has been beatifically empty of Kerouac, but not of all the beats. I have been reading Ginsberg, off and on, since high school. Over the years, Ferlingetti, Diane DiPrima, Brother Antonius (William Everson), Michael McClure, Robin Blazer, Philip Whalen, and Gary Snyder all have lead me temporally away from the straight and narrow. But they have not led me far away. Without reading Kerouac, Burroughs, and Hunter S. Thompson, I have always felt they were substances I wanted to avoid. Part of my reluctance is the reverence that so many people have for these three writers. There was always something jittery, something compulsive about their fandom. And part of it is that the levels of these three writers’ drug and drink have deeply troubled the residual Puritan in me. But these three writers are also quintessentially American writers.
Well, I can avoid On the Road and Kerouac no longer. It would not be intellectually honest to say I “have all gone to look for America,” and not travelled with old Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty for some of the time. As fates would have it, when I searched for the grave of Kerouac, just to visit, mind you, Google led me to “Lowell Celebrates Kerouac,” an annual three-day celebration in Lowell, Massachusetts for their native son. This year the celebration occurred October 11-13; Waller Grant was already in New England, so we rearranged our travels for me to attend at least one day.
The closest RV park we could find was Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park in Sturbridge, almost sixty miles away. A fascinating place, maybe in another blog I can describe it, but let’s say for now that maybe we did step back into the Fifties for a long Columbus Day Weekend, and I am not so sure I am comfortable there. As is often the case, we probably needed one more day at Yogi Bear. To get everything done, we really needed to get the schedule right. On Thursday afternoon we got ourselves settled and the boys got their basketball and xbox time. Friday, we did one of our spit-personality days: Springfield’s Basketball Hall of Fame in the morning and Amherst’s Emily Dickinson House in the afternoon. I got the truck on Saturday for Lowell and left the family at Jellystone. Then on Sunday we hoped to travel west for The Norman Rockwell Museum, but the kids had begun to make friends and so we hung out until after lunch and then made a quickie to Hartford, Connecticut, to pay respects to Wallace Stevens.
|Poster from previous Kerouac Festival|
I could describe my day going to and being at Lowell as something out of Kerouac, I guess. But it will come off as pitiful, I am sure. There was a delay at a slow coffee shop that put me about fifteen minutes behind schedule, followed by a untrained attempt at making my iPod locate the Commemorative Park “at the corner of Bridge and French” where a tour Kerouac sites would begin at 9:30. Seri couldn’t get her sweet head around such a concept. So I missed the tour, but just as well since the coffee had worked its business and I really needed a bathroom, not two hours in a bus rambling around town. Lowell is, for a Texan, a cool, somewhat rundown industrial town, with narrow streets with great deal of traffic for a Saturday morning. The city has oodles of street parking, which is a good thing because it’s all being used. But finally, I found a spot and rushed into a Dunkin Doughnuts that has a bad attitude about sharing its restrooms with the general non-paying public. A couple of correctly spelled signs made this very clear. But when the man ahead of me, who had secured the key, emerged from the restroom, I slithered in quickly with a wink before he could prevent me. Not that it looked like he cared . . . why would care . . . he had had his toilette time.
Maybe this is where I should admit that the travels of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty in no way inspire me. Maybe age is a factor; but I think my middle-class conservative nature is more the reason. But I love the road. Since I was a young I have had inspirational travel narratives rattling around in my head—Thoreau’s Week Upon the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, or John Graves’ Good-bye to a River, Robert Persig’s, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways, for instance. My hero Roy Bedichek used to travel throughout Texas and study nature as a perk to his job travelling for the University of Texas. Before I married the first time, I used to travel with a big-ass book of Texas County Road maps, just in case I wanted to wonder off on a dirt rode for a ways. I am on this trip, damn it. The road has its hooks in me.
I am sorry, but I am not inspired by pulling into New Orleans and hanging out with a man who is shooting up, a woman who is speeding, and kids running feral I don’t want to drive 12 or 18 or 24 hours straight. I don’t want to hitchhike in rain or scorching sun. I don’t want to bop around Los Angeles half starved. I don’t want a string of women or kids left behind in various cities. I don’t want to live in a tent doing migrant work. I don’t want to travel to Mexico and hang with whores. Oh, hell, who am I kidding? Of course, I wish I had done those things when I was young. Heck, I did do some of those things. No needles or speed in my story. Not a great amount of weed. But alcohol sometimes does have a recurring role. I do have to admit, however, that reading this book at sixty, I have trouble experiencing the romance in the story. Art, fiction, often has the effect of chiming in the reader, of hitting the perfect note that rings in desire and longing. I do not feel that chiming, the siren call, in this book. That part of me is muted now.
Since I had time to kill before the next event, I repaid DD for their kind hospitality. I ordered an egg sandwich and cup of coffee, read On the Road, which I was only mid-way through, and watched a parade of humans outsmart the key police/counter staff. Not that they cared . . . why would they care . . . they are not management . . . and they would be off duty before the restrooms were scheduled for cleaning. After a while, I wondered the streets of Lowell and found the Lowell Celebrates Kerouac headquarters, Wells Emporium, a kind of boutique and bought one of their Kerouac t-shirts. By now, it was time to gather at Kerouac’s grave for a few moments of whatever a group of people do at Beat Writer’s grave. Turns out about forty people showed up, mostly gray hairs and some college students and a handful of Assistant Prof types, all sports coats. shaggy hair and ambition. They said some kind words, talked about Kerouac’s death in Florida and why he is buried with the Sampas family, and read some strong passages from Kerouac’s works, especially from Visions of Gerard, which book was published fifty years ago this year.
|At the Kerouac Gravesite|
When things broke up, I headed over to the Lowell National Park to see a film, but the Republicans had done their duty and shut down the government, so everything was locked up. No film today. So I wandered around the narrow one-way street labyrinth that is downtown Lowell, kept talking with Seri, until I found my way to French and Bridge Streets. After driving the pickup truck down a little alley behind the park and almost getting stuck on what appeared to be active railroad tracks—it took about a 22-point turn to get out—I got parked and wandered over to Lowell’s Commemorative Park for Kerouac. What a great tribute the city has given to this wayward son!
Designed by Ben Woitena, and dedicated in 1988, the site is a set of 8 more or less triangular granite columns, arranged with benches to combine the sense of circles and of a cross, capturing Kerouac’s native Catholicism and adopted Buddhism. On two sides of each column, excerpts of Kerouac’s works are engraved. As I walked around reading bits from books I had only heard of, several people walked though the park or stopped and sat on one of the benches. Most seemed oblivious to the columns and to the words, but they were folks that I think Kerouac might have been happy to provide solace for: a couple of young boys with skate boards, a boy and girl in various shades of black clothing, a middle-aged woman, hunched over carrying bags. They looked beat. Life, I imagine, was not easy for them. After all the statues and preserved houses that I have seen so far on this trip, I found this park to be the most moving tribute to a writer. As far as I can tell, Kerouac loved and loathed his hometown. In many of his books he returned to his youth and his family. Kerouac was also a writer—and thus one locked away in a room with a typewriter—who ventured out into the city, onto the streets, into parks and docks and rail yards. It seems perfectly appropriate to stand his words vertically in stone for the crowds, the people, even the unliterary, to wander around and wonder about.
|Kerouac Commemorative Park|
I could have returned to Yogi Bear satisfied that I had made my pilgrimage to this icon who was himself an iconoclast. But I had it in me for one more event, maybe two. So I headed over to the Old Worthen Bar for an open mike. As usual, I had forgotten to bring a copy of one of one of my books. I don’t know, but I have grown weary of the open mike experience. Frankly, for many years I kept hoping that I would read some poems and people would go wild with enthusiasm. But that is not what happens at open mikes. I have come to believe that open mikes require two things of the reader/performer: a total and full love of hearing one’s own words read aloud, preferable by oneself, and an impermeable self-esteem. I used to possess both of these qualities, but no longer.
Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Before going upstairs at the Old Worthen, I met Joe Boyd and Judy James, with whom I had a delightful conversation. They have been attending the Lowell Celebrates Kerouac festival for many years, and they very much made me feel at home. I hope in some other post to write about people we are meeting on this adventure, so let me just say that Joe (he’s the poet, and Judy is along for the ride here) gave me a quick lesson in Lowell area history and a real appreciation for the unsung heroes, like them, who have tending to Kerouac’s legacy in his hometown. You know, I ventured into Lowell for just one day, but the celebration lasted the full weekend, beginning Thursday night and ending Monday morning.
In Austin, the previous November, my office helped sponsor the second annual Beat Poetry and Arts Festival, which is spearheaded by poets Chris Carmona and Chuck Taylor. This year’s festival is in the Valley in Texas. So I know the amount of work it takes to put on such festivals (I was also once on the board for the Austin International Poetry Festival, a wonderful open admission poetry festival held annually in April.) But I also know that attending such festivals is a crazy journey all in itself. To be completely immersed in poetry and readings and discussions for days on end is a nutty adventure much like hitting the road.
Upstairs, the poetry event was like many I have attended over the years. The range in quality of poetry ran from insipid to inspired with stops for tender and humorous and outrageous. When it was over, I was totally happy I had attended. I think some of us just need periodically to hear the human voice express the emotional body of us humans. But the thing is that I don’t need to over indulge any longer. As with so many things, a good full serving is good enough for me. I want more than a taste, but I don’t need to be a glutton. When the open mike was over, I was ready to hit the road and return to Waller Grant. Joe and Judy and I shook hands. I thanked them for a grand time—I was sorry I was going to miss David Amram and the improvisational music and poetry celebration at another pub—then I took off.
On the way back to Yogi Bear, of course, I pondered Kerouac, Cassidy, and On the Road. For me, the brilliancy of the book is how well it captures how the traveler in America becomes intoxicated by the size and variety of the American landscape and of the variety of American culture. So many times, Knightsmama has ordered the boys in the back seats to look up from their kindles and smart phones to look—a magnificent bridge or a collapsing bridge, a bright wide river or a dull, turgid river, a cityscape with cranes or a cityscape with rotting, collapsing buildings. Look, look, look, take it in. It is all beautiful and strange and lonely and inspiring. It is all America!
For this man, at sixty, there might be hints of nostalgia or wistfulness while reading On the Road while being on the road with two boys and a wife and a very straight job to return to. I would love to be free and unconscious enough again to stand in front of a jazz band and just give myself to the music. “’Woo!’ said Dean. He was rubbing his chest, his belly; the sweat splashed from his face. . . . Dean was directly in front of him with his face lowered to the bell of the horn, clapping his hands, pouring sweat on the man’s keys, and the man noticed and laughed and they rocked and rocked; and finally the tenorman decided to blow his top and crouched down and held a note in high C for a long time and everything crashed along and the cries increased and I thought the cops would come swarming from the nearest precinct. Dean was in a trance” (page 198, Penguin edition). It’s beautiful and terrible and Dionysian, and no way to raise a family.
It was not yet 10:00 when I made it back to the campground and pulled in next to the monster. Nobody was there. They were all down at the Jellystone Lodge where there was music and girls for Dr. J., boys running wild for Captain Crunch, and WiFi for Knightsmama. I stayed in the trailer—It had been a full day; I had seen enough—and let the sound of the wheels subside. I finished with Kerouac, for now: "And nobody, nobody knows what's going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old" (page 307).
Soundtrack. Jack Kerouac, reading from On the Road. Steve Allen on piano.