by A. E. Sadler
When last we left our two traveling heroines in the June issue, they were barrelling down Interstate 10 towards Louisiana. Fresh--and a bit dusty--from the arid deserts and cacti and Indian reservations of the Southwest they drive, hellbent on getting to New Orleans ASAP, or as ASAP as you can driving across country in a rented Olds because.... In the bliss with which ignorance so often blesses us, our friendly narrator reveled in the new sensations that her discovery of the Southwest brought, unaware--until the third day into the trip--that all the while her stalwart companion Allison has been seething with resentment. Allison, as it turns out, hates the desert and informs our friendly narrator (me, that is) that she does not want to spend one minute more than absolutely necessary here in their zoom to get--quickly--to somewhere else. "Your itinerary dominates this whole trip," she complains. This is true, for one week prior to setting out my professor informed me--or rather, I realized that he was taking it for granted--that I would be stopping in each of the cities Jack Kerouac mentions in On The Road. In other words, New Orleans, New York City, Chicago, Denver, San Francisco, and L.A. Since the trip was initially predicated on the idea that I would bring back a thesis about this book, I don't feel I can argue that this is an unreasonable expectation. Only, Allison does not like cities. And, I come to learn, she likes even less this arid, tumbleweed-blown land of the Navajo and Hopi in which we've been dawdling these past three days. What she does like are national parks. So we add the Smoky Mountains to our plans and I offer to hop on a train and give her the Olds to take wherever it is that she'd rather be going. New Orleans is cool, she tells me. It's one city she has an interest in experiencing. So off we zoom, into America. We roll into New Orleans in the early hours before daybreak, straight from an all night drive that traversed dawn and dusk and the width of Texas.
--That's a poem being read by a UFP (Unidentified Flying Poet). He's coming in on a New Orleans station.... And it is Sunday. It's still Easter Sunday. We just crossed the Louisiana state line a few minutes ago.
Ah, postharmonic convergence and still the fish swim in the water with fervor, Still angry mobs chasing heads and tails downtown, mind over behind, Heretofore, theretofore. Excuse me, my unturned doorknobs, may I share my incredible paranoid scenario with you? MGM and the Academy of American Poets want to symbolically colorize all my poems, cut out the middle person, be foreshadowed.... All pesticides for the pests, Restrooms for the rest.
We're listening to all this on a special radio station for the blind.
When we were drivng in, in the dark, into Louisiana, images flashed by as I was looking out the window, dark, gloomy shadows. Very surreal. Now we're here in town, in the campground. There's something moist and mysterious.... There's something about the swamp, or something about this part of the world. I don't know. Some kind of mystery hangs over it.. Sort of like a boogie man from the swamp, his spirit stretching out.
I just heard something echo...it sounded like an animal calling. People along the way have been giving us these omens, to "Be careful" when we get to New Orleans. They haven't said that about any other place or any other aspect of this trip. Just New Orleans. Well, now we are here. We'll find out for ourselves why they keep telling us this.
At the beginning of On The Road, Kerouac talks about how there'd be girls, visions, everything. Somewhere along the way he'd find the pearl. Every night as I go to sleep--I can't seem to remember my dreams, but I get these visions as I'm drifting off. Strange visions, visions of people I've never seen before, images I've never had, that are new to me....
We're on the upper balcony outside on Bourbon Street at a restaurant now. It's Monday, the twelfth, and it just reminds me of Disneyland. All these old buildings. Main Street in Disneyland.
Allison: No. That's the part where you first come in, where they have the Electric Parade.
The walking machine is at it again.1
This is Disneyland.
This is where we wound up:
Put funk in your life and everything will be alright.
Bass Player2: You'll come partying with us. That'd be cool.
Bass Player: Where'd you park? Where'd you park?
Allison: Right up here.
Bass Player: In the truck? Blazer?
Allison: No, in that blue car.
In the old grandparents' car.
Allison: The grandparents' car. Right here.
Bass Player: Right here.
That be it.
Allison: I thought it had a rental car sticker on it. Thank God it doesn't.
Best thing about the Mississippi River is these green belts that border it called "levees." Where I am is a park. People come here in pairs, with pets. Some play frisbee next to a woman in a turquoise-and-white striped bathing suit nearby. Huge boats--this is now the third--pass loudly, look like tractors pushing through the muddy water.
The river itself? Anticlimactic--at this juncture, anyway. It's wide, but not hugely so. At least not as huge as I'd imagined. Flat. A dull brown with strange rolling currents, probably caused by the boats. The sun breaks in and out of the clouds. It's breezier here near the water. I sit on a wooden ledge--'bout the same width as a railroad tie. Stepped riprap--rocks overlain, bound with wire mesh. Treetops emerge from the water, which laps a soft soothing rhythm like the bay near where I live in San Diego. Other than this and the passing boats, it is still. Quiet. It is languid, peaceful South all over the place. Humid yeasty air, heavy and velvety like flower petals.
Perhaps this is as good as any place to contemplate Jack Kerouac--the book of his that is the reason for this traveling.3 It begins with him just trying to get on the road, to start his journey. Everything goes wrong. He heads in the wrong direction and doesn't realize it until he's wasted an entire day and night. With only $50 in his pocket, he's reduced to hitchhiking. Only it starts to rain...in torrents, and he realizes the huge error in setting out with nothing more substantial on his feet than a pair of huarache sandals.
Allison and I--like Kerouac--had a hard time getting out of town, getting started on our way. Planning to leave by late morning, we didn't get on the freeway heading east until nearly 5:00 pm--and still wound up doubling back to Pacific Beach--the westernmost, furthest-in-the-opposite-direction-from-where-we-were- headed part of the city--to find my front door left not only unlocked but WIDE OPEN. Our first pitstop, only a few short hours later at a McDonald's somewhere in the Arizona desert, I threw the keys--instead of the trash--in the trashbin, and we spent the ensuing twenty minutes sifting through the grisly garbage of fastfood, all in the darkness of the American night.
Though we weren't doing the 100+ mph Kerouac brags about when he and his Huckleberry friend Neal Cassady commandeer a drive-away Cadillac from L.A. to Chicago, we barreled down that highway without stopping or pausing to slow down, anxious to make up for the lost time. I worried that our trip would prove too tame, too mild-mannered, to even approach touching the sensations Kerouac describes, the outrageous glee of being an outlaw, of surrendering utterly to speed, the night, jazz and madness. The thing about keys, losing them, throwing them away, forgetting to lock the door behind me...a hesitancy to move forward? The moon over Arizona seemed to grow right out of the earth, like a huge and glowing pumpkin, larger than I'd ever seen it, that first night. The lunacy of this journey.
As I sit here now and think about it--as I sit here and think about the "literary" value of pursuing an experience embodied in a book...I begin to wonder, to question it all. I barely even need to look at On The Road, so immersed in it I've become these past few months. It's the great wide open spaces of the Southwest, sweeping green meadows of Texas...it's landscape dancing with your spirit--now unleashed from its tiny closet in that place you call home.
I sit on the Mississippi River, only briefly contemplating its history. It is not magnificent to me--just a resting place of clover and ants. What did Jack have to say about it?
Everyone we've met or talked to along the way has told us, upon hearing that we intended to stop in New Orleans: "Be careful." Even the people in New Orleans. But why, I kept wondering though Allison didn't. Why should New Orleans be so different from every other major city? After all, they all have their crime. Why should we take more precaution here? Dark spirits seeping in from the swampy Mississippi. We felt them our first night here.
Kerouac "hit all the dull bars in the French Quarter" and was back home with Bull by midnight. Allison said the bars along Bourbon Street reminded her of Las Vegas. We danced, drank, and after the bar closed went off to another bar, and after that bar closed went off with the musicians to yet another bar where I played a miserably embarrassing game of pool with the bass player and bullshitted with the singer, Bennie, who thought it hilarious that all I do when I'm home in San Diego is sit around and worry.
The white fortune teller at the voodoo shop last night: "The Project is only two blocks over that way. The blacks there'll point a gun at you for $20, and be willing to shoot you after you give it to them. Some real bad things have happened to tourists who ventured out of the main district."
There is no wire fence here. I have no idea how long this park has been here--but everything else in New Orleans seems very old.
My mystical experience came not from watching the Mississippi, but from driving through the plains of Northern Arizona and New Mexico with the earphones on, listening to country western on the radio and old Neil Young songs, from hanging out in bars along the way...from riding in the back of the car as the night flashed by the windows.
Sitting on the Mississippi--is relaxing, yet not a singular catalyst, the way it was for Kerouac.
This is the first--New Orleans, that is--of the Kerouac cities on my route (those remaining are NYC, Chicago, Denver, SF, LA...in that order). The specific places themselves may hold little, or maybe even no illumination--I may find that it is the space--the outside of time space of constant motion, of continuously moving along the highway that is the binding connection; my own personal illumination of On The Road.
I know I am escaping.
It is the fourteenth, Wednesday. We've been on the road now for...this is our eighth day. We're getting ready to head out of New Orleans. I wanted to go down to the railyard, just to check it out, where old Dean and Sal were playing around hopping freights.4 Asked this one guy how to get there, and he gave me a look of such concern, and then wound up trying to talk us out of it. Said he wouldn't go down there himself, and he had muscles so big that Allison noticed his shirt was ripping.
Shopkeeper5: It must take lots of money.
We're doing it on a shoestring.
Shopkeeper: When you get into town you find a camping ground, huh?
Allison: Yeah. We have a book that has all the ones...they're pretty safe and everything. Sometimes they have security guards.
Shopkeeper: And there's accommodations and showers and all that kind of stuff?
Allison: Some have swimming pools.6
Shopkeeper: Oh, really?
Allison says that all the streets in Louisiana are long and involved and the people too lazy to say them right.
Even on the freeway, the foliage on either side...it's green, green, green. Trees, grass. It's the swamp. It's all this luscious greenery. Trees with branches like arms that can hold you, just like in that main street, St. Charleston, leaning over the street. Reaching. Reaching for something. Now here we go over the Gulf. Just as brown as the Mississippi. Waves pumping up and down, little tiny waves pumping up and down. Little white caps in the distance. It stretches forever. Much rockier than I've ever seen the Pacific. It is huge, it goes as far as your eye can see, farther. Was Kerouac really just a different brand of tourist? Ooweeing and awwing and fascinated with everything just like the "halfway tourist" does over designated landmarks?7 He picks the undesignated landmarks, that's how he distinguishes himself as being different than they are?
They say there's a tornado watch in Mississippi, south Mississippi and Louisiana on the radio. So I look to the east, and the horizon is blackening. There's a mist in the air, like that dull eery quiet before a storm breaks.
The rain brings out color, everything just gets so bright. Dirt is like copper. We're racing the storm north out of Mississippi.
I'm driving through a swampy forest right now. The road bisects it, flat line down the middle. I feel like Frankenstein, with the sparks flying out my fingers. The Southwest is wide open spaces and this makes you feel expansive and free. The South is moist and sensuous. Swamps reaching out like cloying fingers.
Every time we've entered a city, we've become entangled by it. Civilization clawing at us. Headlights fading into the rearview mirror. It's nightfall.
The trees of the forest that border either side of the highway, becoming dark shadows against a paler black of sky. One long flat line, gated on either side by these enormous hedges. Locusts hissing in the swamps, somewhere back, beyond, where we can't see. We're heading into the black night. For all I know we could be heading into mist, into the black mystery, shrouded.
Last night when I was falling asleep I felt a dark voodoo spirit coming to call. It's spooky. New Orleans is a place of split personality. Disneyland on the surface but beneath, dark mysterious places.
We're moving north and I think we've made it ahead of the storm. Got out of there before it got us. We're once again heading into the American night. We're rushing into it. Black void. This time with no moon to guide us.
To be continued....