“You boys going to get somewhere, or just going?” We didn’t understand his question, and it was a damned good question. – Jack Kerouac, On the Road
I first visited Jack Kerouac’s grave in Lowell, Massachusetts when I was 20 years old. Once I knew where it was I’d stop in now and then to visit in my younger days. Usually there would be some scattered bottles of whiskey or some other tribute piled about. I’ve seen similar tributes with Thoreau and Twain’s graves, but Kerouac’s was first. It was there that I learned the sticky bond between a great writer and his readers.
It was always mañana. For the next week that was all I heard—mañana,a lovely word and one that probably means heaven.
Funny thing, I was wrapped up in the history of Kerouac, but I kept putting off reading his classic On the Road for years. Maybe I didn’t want to be disappointed if I didn’t like it. Maybe I had an image of what it was but wasn’t willing to see for myself what it was all about. But it was always mañana with this book. Until a friend posted a picture of his grave on social media that triggered me and I immediately downloaded it and started reading.
“What is he aching to do? What are we all aching to do? What do we want?” She didn’t know. She yawned. She was sleepy. It was too much. Nobody could tell. Nobody would ever tell. It was all over. She was eighteen and most lovely, and lost.
I think if I’d read On the Road at 20 I might have hopped in my Ford F-150 and crossed the country right then. Because at 20 you understand how Sal and Dean feel. The lost souls bouncing coast-to-coast searching for answers. When you live a bit you realize you’re searching in the wrong place most of the time. Most of the answers you need are right where you started. What are you aching to do? What do you want?
“The days of wrath are yet to come. The balloon won’t sustain you much longer. And not only that, but it’s an abstract balloon. You’ll all go flying to the West Coast and come staggering back in search of your stone.”
Wandering about in life sounds romantic, but Kerouac paints the grim reality of the quest. The abject poverty, the desperation and rootlessness. The descent into drugs and sex and casual regard for anything meaningful. The pursuit of what’s next. If Sal and Dean had iPhones they might never have left New York. They may have scrolled blankly through their Twitter feed. The search continues one generation to the next, the characters just use a different mode of transportation.
He made one last signal. I waved back. Suddenly he bent to his life and walked quickly out of sight. I gaped into the bleakness of my own days. I had an awful long way to go too.
It took a few decades but I finally finished On the Road. And really, I don’t have an urge to immediately drive across the country chasing dreams. Well, maybe a little bit. But mostly I understand. I see how it influenced the Baby Boomer generation when it was published in 1957. I hear it echo in Bob Dylon and Simon & Garfunkel songs (Listen to America and you’re On the Road with Jack Kerouac). I understand now how it influenced me even without reading it. What took me so long? I don’t know. But I’m happy I’ve finally crossed that bridge.