Each journey is unique. You could follow exactly in someone’s footsteps, stay in the same motels they stayed in, hit the same bars, but you’d still have a completely different experience of the trip, and thus a different opinion of it. So I was left with the trouble of figuring out who to listen to about where to go. Aside from American friends who have given me ideas about where we should be going (usually this involves the vicinity of their hometown (and who can blame them?)), I have had two great influences. To be honest, their collective influence has burned and shaped my mind for almost all of my adult life and they are probably jointly responsible for planting in me the seed of this idea in the first place: may I salute Jack Kerouac and John Steinbeck. Two great, gone heroes of the USA who traveled and roamed and, each in his own way, turned America inside out, showing it for all it was, safe in the knowledge that its shortcomings would more than be made up for by its wonder and magic.
I once went to a book club, which actually turned out to be the tennis club meeting for drinks, in Italy, full of overblown soulless girls looking for guys with money or a free English lesson (preferably both). The leader then stands up and introduces the book he had brought “It’s called ‘On The Road’ it’s by this guy called Jack ker-oww-ak and it’s basically about traveling and drinking.” Idiot. If he didn’t like the book, then that’s fine, but he did like it… he just didn’t get it.
In the middle of the night we overtopped the lights of Palm Springs from a mountain road. At dawn, in snowy passes, we labored towards the town of Mojave, which was the entryway to the great Tehachapi Pass. The Okie woke up and told funny stories; sweet little Alfred sat smiling. The Okie told us he knew a man who forgave his wife for shooting him and got her out of prison, only to be shot a second time. We were passing the women’s prison when he told it. Up ahead we saw the Tehachapi Pass starting up. Dean took the wheel and carried us clear to the top of the world. We passed a great shroudy cement factory in the canyon. Then we started down. Dean cut off the gas, threw in the clutch, and negotiated every hairpin turn and passed cars and did everything in the books without the benefit of accelerator.
(On The Road)
The thing which strikes me most about Kerouac is that he is the archetypical Rolling Stone. The great rambler, forever moving on in search of something, kicks, adventure, freedom, himself, mysticism. His America unfolds as a microcosm of himself. He always gets within its sights, but can never quite grasp it… one thinks of Moses staring wondrously at the Promised Land. He gathers no moss as he moves, painfully but lovingly ekeing out his dialogue with his “Great Mother Earth”, and can do nothing but move on. Steinbeck is similar in ways, but also quite different… then he was writing from the viewpoint of old age.
The Gallant Mr. Steinbeck
Well, the battered copy of Travels With Charley that I own has seen a few places now. I was given it by my dad who must’ve had it for eons. Scrawled with biro from someone’s (probably my) childhood, minus its brown 1960s dust jacket. It has character. I’m afraid I will always be one of those people who like their books to be battered and broken and with folded-over corners, with pen notes scribbled in… “well read”. Some might say “abused” but I don’t think this is the case. I love and cherish my books, but if they are to have any value to me, they have to come with me on my travels, be that to work on the bus, or on an airplane heading off to some other land. In fact, the more I love the book, the more likely it is to visit the world with me, and hence the more likely it is to get “beat” along the way.
It seems to me that Montana is a great splash of grandeur. The scale is huge but not overpowering. The land is rich with grass and color, and the mountains are the kind I would create if mountains were ever put on my agenda. Montana seems to me to be what a small boy would think Texas is like from hearing Texans. Here for the first time I heard a definite regional accent unaffected by TV-ese, a slow-paced warm speech. It seemed to me that the frantic bustle of America was not in Montana. Its people did not seem afraid of shadows in a John Birch Society sense. The calm of the mountains and the rolling grasslands had got into the inhabitants.
(Travels With Charley)
Traveler and rambler as he might be, Steinbeck is no rolling stone. He has his family safe back at home, he’s got provisions, stocks and supplies, money in the bank. Yet he still goes out there to discover. He’s not trying to discover himself; he’s already quite sure he knows who he is. he goes out to discover the country, and to return with that, and whatever turmoil that knowledge might bring, to his life, his roots.
The first and fundamental aspect of these books is that they could have been written yesterday. They touch the great nerve of the human soul in general, and in particular, of that ephemeral entity, “the great American Novel”. If you like, these two then represent the colliding point of the American Dream. The original phrase “rolling stone” comes from an old adage — but it’s not an exhortation to movement and the rock n roll lifestyle — it’s a warning: don’t be a rolling stone, or you’ll gain no moss (roots). But after Dylan got hold of it it’s hard to see that original ethos in the phrase we know today. To be a rolling stone, or not to be a rolling stone? And isn’t that the Dream embodied? The pressure to go on, move up, get out; juxtaposed with a deep yearning for a homestead somewhere, basking in warmth and loving?
I guess what I’m looking for, as my two heroes look down, is a synthesis. I will try to live the crazy life of Kerouac, the nights, the wilderness of the soul, the exuberance, and to merge that with the staid and mature longing for human and worldly balance of Steinbeck. We will, after all, be coming back home at the end, and I’m planning it pretty well (I hope) but the plan will mostly play second fiddle to the quest, the excitement, and the emotions of the trip.
With this in mind, I open up my guidebook.
It’s about the only guidebook we could find that covers the whole USA and not just a part of it. That gives us two benefits: first, it means that we get all the info we need in one inexpensive handy little package; and second, it gives us enough information (what’s there to see, some major landmarks, dates, festivals, towns that we wouldn’t want to miss) without giving us too much information and spoiling the adventure. In keeping with a desire to create my own dialogue with life, I’d like for the trip to take us as much as we take the trip, and with my three books for the guide, I think we’ll do a fantastic job.