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Sunday, September 09, 2007

"On the Road" Stories

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the book, "On the Road" by Jack Kerouac. There's an interesting recollection of Kerouac and the book - by Joyce Johnson, a former lover of his and award winning author in her own right - that appears in Smithsonian Magazine.

I don't know how many beatniks read the book and jumped into their old V8-engine Chevys to seek adventure. (I was only four when it came out.) But I do know it was read by legions of shaggy-haired kids in VW vans or thumbing for rides along roadsides all across America in the 70's. There was nothing as liberating or as therapeutic, cleansing, and sometimes transcendental as an interlude "on the road."

The first time I hitchhiked was with my buddy Charlie in 1971. We made a sign and hid it under his bed when I came to visit him at his family's apartment in Forest Hills, New York during Christmas vacation of our freshman year. Next morning we took public transportation just out of town and then hitchhiked to Atlanta, Georgia to visit friends. I was hooked on the built-in quality of the unknown, the sense of movement, and strange form of intimacy with those who picked us up. For the duration of that hitchhiker-friendly decade, I depended on such excursions for renewal, a sense of story, and a feeling of self-sufficiency. (If my kids had started doing it in 2001 when they turned 18, I would have freaked out with trepidation.)

I would love to hear "on the road" stories from anyone who might read this entry with a combination of nostalgia and some vague or vivid memories.

The one I'm remembering today is from a trip I made in the reverse direction in '73, from Atlanta to Washington D.C. where there was to be a series of July 4th weekend anti-war demonstrations. After a pleasant night in Chapel Hill, NC, where I posed as a summer school student and was given a dorm room at the University, I was picked up by a young woman, my age (20), on her way back home near DC. It turns out she was diagnosed with esophagal cancer the week before and had gone to Chapel Hill to tell her sister. She found it impossible to tell her sister (or her parents for that matter) and so I was the first person she heard herself say it to. We talked about it for a short while. In retrospect, I suppose neither of us had much of a notion about mortality at that point and the cancer was probably almost as unreal to her as it was to me. She was a vivacious and positive person and the conversation covered a lot of other ground. We bought sandwiches and had lunch together in some park. About six months later, I received a Graham Greene book from her with a letter that said the spot on her esophagus had somehow gone away. (I can't remember what it turned out to be.) Two years later, I was passing through that area and we got together for dinner. She was quite healthy and happy.

Johnson characterizes the three year roadtrip of "On the Road" protagonists, Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise, as a quest to "pack as much intensity as possible into each moment...They were waiting for some prophet to deliver the Word to them, and the Word was: 'Wow!"

I suppose there was something contrived about the "Wows" that they and all their proteges got while "on the road," an experience where time is compressed or transcended in some parallel ways to an hallucinogen-powered "trip." But isn't that the goal of a 50 minute therapy session or an hour of meditation? Maybe it's just that instead of "wow," in those cases it's "aha!"

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