"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, July 26, 2013

On The Road–Travel And Jack Kerouac

This year is the 50th anniversary of the first book in Kerouac’s series of accounts of travel in America. An editorial in The Guardian (7.26.13) nicely sums up the saga and its meaning:

The road Jack Kerouac travelled was longer than we thought. Not only was the famous book just one volume in a series of novels which he saw as a single work, modeled on Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. The 50th anniversary of the first book in the series falls this year. But Kerouac's own life journey was part of the epic of French Canadian displacement. In the late 19th century, nearly a million French Canadians, including Kerouac's parents, moved south to New England to take jobs in the textile mills. Indeed the real "road" could be said to have begun in their home village of St-Hubert-de-Rivière-du-Loup in Quebec, or even in the Brittany from which one side of the family originally hailed. That places Jean-Louis Kerouac not so much as the poet of the beat generation but as a celebrator of the great drama of human mobility that is North America. "There was nowhere to go but everywhere so I just kept rolling under the stars."

Paul Theroux is one of the best contemporary travel writers active today.  He is good at what he does because his accounts are personal.  His recent book Dark Star Safari retraces the route he took over 40 years ago down the east coast of Africa from the Mediterranean to South Africa, and his latest, The Last Train to Zona Verde, describes his trip up ‘the Left Coast’ of Africa, from South Africa to Angola. Theroux is a very confessional writer, frank about his age (71) with its increasingly limited abilities and possibilities; insightful about new friendships and acquaintances, placing them within a cultural context, and honest about the loneliness and personal challenges of travel in harsh environments.

One of his most interesting books is called The Tao of Travel in which he collects the writings of travel writers from Ibn Battuta (ca. 1350) to J.P.Sartre and himself.

Henry Shukman, reviewing the book for the NY Times (6.14.11) captured the essence of Theroux’s book – that travel is transformative, allowing for an introspection than routine living inhibits:

Thoreau said he couldn’t preserve his health and spirits unless he spent four hours a day “sauntering.” Rousseau passed most of his last 15 years in walking. “Everything is finished for me on earth,” he declared, a touch melodramatically. “People can no longer do good or evil to me. . . . Here I am, tranquil at the bottom of the abyss, a poor unfortunate mortal, but unperturbed, like God himself.” Words­worth walked about 180,000 miles in his lifetime, in spite of being “not a well-made man,” according to Thomas De Quincey (who added that his friend’s legs were “serviceable”). When a visitor asked Wordsworth’s servant to show him his study, she answered: “Here is his library, but his study is out of doors.”

Travel in the United States is different.  After four decades of wandering the bush in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and challenged in the same ways described by Theroux I have returned home and begun to travel in my own country, a very different journey indeed.

Perhaps because travel to Timbuktu was so foreign, so harsh and uncompromising, it forced me to be introspective and personal. I, like Theroux in his last book, asked myself, “Why am I here?”.  Why did I choose to be so far from family, friends, and the familiar.  Why did I choose to risk my health, safety, and well-being?  Out of these journeys to the interior I emerged with personal insights that I would never have had at home.  I questioned my patience, my courage, and the inner resources that failed me after weeks alone in a desolate place.

Since leaving the international life I have begun to explore the United States, particularly the Deep South.  I began my journeys to Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina not expecting any personal epiphanies or even insights, but understanding. “Unless you understand Southern history”, I concluded, “You can never understand American history”; and in many ways the Deep South is very much a foreign place, and so different from the Connecticut where I grew up in that I have had to use my cultural spectacles.

As much as I have travelled throughout the South, however, I have never experienced the same challenges and personal revelations that I had during the period of my foreign travel.  As different as the region may be from New England, it still is America with the same strip malls, small towns and urban sprawl no matter where I go.  Politics and political philosophy may different from North to South, but beliefs and convictions are easy to understand.  They come from the same early place of the Founding Fathers.

Nevertheless, I am captivated and fascinated by my US travels.  I have ratcheted down my expectations.  I no longer fly into Luanda one month and Lima the next; but visit Columbus and Paonia. Both are small towns – one in northeastern Mississippi and the other in western Colorado – and both have a similar, familiar small town feel.  They are very different of course, formed and molded by geography and history, and I have tried to shave the layers of both to find out what they share and what they don’t.

The trip from Washington, DC to Columbus is long, difficult, and tedious; and I survive the long stretches of Interstate with audio books. Far from the rote monotone readings I expected, these versions read by trained actors capture mood, accent, and nuance.

The trip, however, is hard time; and yet, I like it and far prefer it to air travel.  Perhaps it is because I have had my fill of African airports, delays, equipment malfunction, and inefficiency beyond my control that I don’t mind road trips; but it may be that I have succumbed to the very American sense of The Romance of the Road.  I remember discussing travel with an English colleague of mine in the Sixties.  For her, born and raised in a small town in the Midlands, a long journey was 50 miles, and the enormity of the United States was downright scary.  Not only was England a small country, but one tended to stay put.

Not so in the United States, said. We are a nation of itinerants.

These trips through the Great Plains or across the Rockies to California were done by necessity, but the romance of travel is derived from the same risk-taking, adventurous spirit. Although Peter Fonda and Jack Kerouac travelled for fun and personal reward, their spirit comes from the same place:

Truck drivers has a reputation for being the epitome of the Romance of the Road – free, independent, women at every stop, scenery, and adventure

I stopped at a roadhouse in Texas
A little place called Hamburger Dan's
I heard that old jukebox a-playing
A song called the Truck Driving man

Pour me another cup of coffee
For it is the best in the land
I'll put a nickel in the jukebox
And play the truck driving man
                
The waitress then brought me some coffee
I thanked her but called her again
I said that old song sure does fit me
'Cause I'm a truck driving man

                          
I climbed back aboard my old semi
And then like a flash I was gone
I got them old truck wheels a-rolling
I'm on my way to San Antone (Terry Fell, Buck Owens)

Reality, of course, is far different, and Johnny Cash captured the life in his music. No, says a truck driver when asked, there wasn’t a pretty waitress crying for him every 100 miles:

“He said, if you want to know the truth about it, Here’s the way it is/ All I do is drive, drive drive.

Try to stay alive/ And keep my mind on my load/ Keep my eye on the road

I got nothin’ in common with any man/ Who’s home every day at five/ All I do is drive, drive, drive” (All I Do Is Drive, Johnny Cash)

I have met enough truck drivers in my life to know that their kidneys have been banged to shit; that they have slid on black ice and been crippled, or jackknifed and been smashed in their cab, suffered alcoholism, divorce, and mental disorder; and who only continued because they had to make ends meet.

Gone is whatever romantic notions I ever had of truckers.  Now I am just plain pissed at them hogging both lanes on I-66 or barreling down I-95 at 80.

At times, however, I flow with the American energy and movement around me – trucks hauling California lettuce and North Carolina furniture, bedroom sets and toys, frozen chickens and car parts.  I admire those who ride for fun - Airstream retirees headed West; snowbirds headed South; college kids travelling east, U-Haul-It vans moving households, motorcycles with hippie gear; campers, surfers, hikers, and bird-watchers.

Although as I get older I have less desire to move out of the ordinary, a road trip is always invigorating and exciting. The Hampton Inn in Abingdon is no Singapore Raffles, but who might I meet at the bar? What secrets might they tell only to a complete stranger? Where is that fat family going? Why don’t I eat at Dot’s Kitchen 30 miles off the highway and see what I find? Some final excerpts from Kerouac’s On The Road

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.”

Sal, we gotta go and never stop going 'till we get there.'
'Where we going, man?'
'I don't know but we gotta go.”

One of Kerouac’s best thoughts about travel was the following, again from On the Road. It is as descriptive, insightful, and personal as anything of Theroux and other international writers:

So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, and all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars'll be out, and don't you know that God is Pooh Bear? the evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all the rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what's going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.”

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