by A. E. Sadler
Author's Note: Jack Kerouac gave me an excuse to run away from home at a time I was long past the age for getting away with it. I longed to travel across the country, to hunt and gather the sights and sounds and places and faces of America, to somehow piece everything into some all-encompassing piebald quilt. Initially, I imagined doing this with a camera. Instead, as mentioned in last month's Eclectica article, I wound up doing it as a thesis project for grad school (which I justified in the name--and promised study--of Kerouac's infamous novel of the late 1950s, On The Road). The trip culminated in a motley assortment of spontaneous prose1, postcards and poems and, yes, even photographs. But setting out, I didn't know that. I'd managed to convince my professors that my journey would somehow lead to interesting literary discoveries, but what if I found nothing? What if I came back emptyhanded? Such worries would flit in and out of my mind throughout the trip, though mostly later than sooner. The first days of traversing the continent simply stretched out before me like an infinite possibility. I had what I'd sought--the world opening in front of me as if I were floating above it in a great hot air balloon. I was FREE. To go, to come, to be anywhere and everywhere. It tasted like a wild and wonderful promise, the wish that finally comes after you blow out all the birthday candles. What follows is an excerpt from my journal at the outset of going on the road.]
I've been running around since 8:00 a.m. trying to get everything squared away before I go tomorrow. And still I haven't talked to Allison, who's coming with. A fellow grad student, she's got in mind some feminist project she's planning to do on the trip, a Woman-on-the-Street kind of deal from what I gather (she's bought a tape recorder with an impressive professional-looking microphone, had business cards printed even, in preparation for conducting interviews with women around the country). Aside from this, she's told me she's trying to get away from some yucky corporate-y job that's had her in its clutches far longer than she's ever intended--or wanted. My friend Brian was supposed to come with us, but he's been in and out of the hospital all week. A lifelong diabetic, his body's been giving out on him as long as I've known him.2 I guess I knew all along this might happen, but still I really wish he could be with us.
What else is going through my head tonight? Not much. My brain cells are pretty fried. I wanted to photograph the moon earlier. There was this one moment when it emerged from the clouds--they were just wispy over it And I thought of what Loretta the astrologer had said. About it being the perfect time for me to go because the full moon represents harvest and the completion of something, the birth of something new. Gestation of the idea is now complete and ready to come out in the world. But by the time I'd gotten my camera, the moon was already back behind the clouds, and I wondered whether or not I should stand there in the street waiting for it to emerge again. I was so tired, so "beat" that I told myself, "Well, I'm not going to do everything tonight." And, as it turns out, I'm not.
It's about...it's 6:30, or is it? We're getting closer to out there. Our clock in the rental car has not responded intuitively to the time change. We're in a high tech blue Oldsmobile that is beyond our technical prowess. We decided on a rental car because we figured neither of our cars would make it all the way. Mine's got over 120,000 miles on it, Allison's runs okay but was built three decades ago.
We're heading towards Arizona. We're on I-8, we're going to be getting real close to the Mexican border and what else? The white line of the highway isn't really a line, it's a series of dots, like the ellipsis. Allison, do you have any departing comments that you would like to record for posterity?
Allison: Keep an eye on the road--
That's because I almost plowed into a car that looks as conventional as ours but of course ours is traveling at better (meaning faster) speed. We're not keeping up with Dean Moriarty3 but that's okay. I can't believe that we're on the road. It's been so involved getting here. Maybe after we've been traveling for a couple hours I'll start to feel it. We're going seventy miles an hour but it feels like we are crawling. The sun's coming in from behind. We're getting to see the backside of the sunset. Everything seems covered by this weird haze. Mountains of stone out in the distance. We're getting into cowboy country, animals grazing.
We've gotten on the other side of the mountains and everything is flat. That's what I've heard about Arizona. That it is flat, flat, flat. The frames that hold up the power lines look like a series of giant metal robots.
We are on the road. First stars are starting to come out. Or maybe it's just a plane. The moon is this great huge orange ball. It's just like a baseball. Or some kind of mad Jack-O-Lantern. Looks like it's about a foot off the ground in the distance. It seems like we're getting closer to it, the full moon. A harvest moon. And now the face, the face I always see is starting to come in so much clearer than I've ever seen it before. It's always reminded me of the Mona Lisa but now it seems like a Picasso version of the Mona Lisa. Allison says it looks like Mister Bill. Instead of following the sun, we're following the moon. Just like Kerouac, we're traveling in the American night.
Just passed Gordon's Well, and it's easy to see how William Least Heat Moon got totally into cataloguing all these small towns he went through that had these colorful interesting names, names that have so much personality to them.4 But, you know, it's something I don't think translates to the page because, well, Kerouac didn't catalogue, I think Kerouac translated it to the page. But cataloguing isn't the way to do it, because it got real tedious, like an encyclopedia when Least Heat Moon wound up doing that. But it's easy to see how he started desiring to try to get it down. Bugs splattering against the windshield.
We're passing through the Southwest, heading towards Sedona. The mountains are beginning to look like sand paintings, with their striated cliff faces. The soil is so red, so rich. I just love it. There is something about this land...it seems to speak of ancient, older ways of living. Isn't it the desert, that prophets always go to? There's something about the desert that's sacred? The place of the red dirt, the red clay. The tawny dirt. Soft as velvet, soft as powder. I Went to the Mountain by the Indigo Girls is playing on the radio.
The mountains here, the hills, the rocks...have so many different formations. They're like cumulus clouds--you can see just about anything in them. A patch of trees looks like spiders, makes me think of Spiderwoman or the old crone. Bare leafless trees.
It's an interesting feeling when you're driving and you can't see the road beyond a few feet in front of you because it's dropping down. You don't know if it's going to curve, or what. It's like going into the unknown.
The road reaches up into the sky. Mirages melting away like rainbows. Flat topped buttes. A snowpeaked mountain in the distance rising above a sea of trees. And every once in a while, there's even another car. You know it's deserted when there's a crow sitting in the middle of the road.
We're coming down from the Grand Canyon and crossing over into the Hopi reservation and on into New Mexico. The Navajo reservation is a land of pastels, washed-out arroyos. The hills look like pink sandcastles.
The highway is like a ribbon, rolling over all the stretches of red rock earth. Rolling, winding. And the horizon just seems to disappear. Driving through here you definitely know why being on the road makes people feel so free. My car is like a magic carpet. Just keeps going. Hardly have to do anything. Here comes the moon to guide me.
1 (spon-ta'ne-es proz) n. modified by adj. A phrase coined by Kerouac to indicate the product that results when adhering to his eight essentials for writing, which include Procedure, Method, Scoping, Lag in Procedure, Timing, Center of Interest, Structure of Work, and Mental State (it might be prudent here to note that he was an alcoholic and copious drug user). Can be found on page 57 of The Beat Reader for those compelled to know more.
2 Upon my return six weeks later I discovered Brian had suffered a stroke which cost him his sight and, two years later, his life.
3 Protagonist Sal Paradise's pedal-to-the-metal buddy in On The Road, based on real life Kerouac pal, Neal Cassady.
4 William Least Heat Moon wrote Blue Highways: A Journey into America, published by Houghton Mifflin Company in 1991.