‘On the Road’ Book marks 60 years of inspiring impromptu trips, soaking up life

On a certain road, at a certain hour of long shadows and molten copper light, adrift on the asphalt equivalent of fair winds and following seas, not too fast and not too slow, there’s a moment.

It’s a thirst that surges into need, into craving, into greedy, devouring lust — for everything, all of it, a crazed moment of wanting to whip off the shirt, peel back the skin over the sternum, unhinge the ribs and swing them outward, exposing a desperately pounding heart.

If only it was possible to breathe it all into those lungs, into that wild heart — everything, all of it — to keep it there, feeling it pulse and course through arteries and capillaries, outward to ankles and ears and fingertips with each blissful beat.

Or maybe not even that. Maybe just to exhale and dissolve into it, whatever it is. Life? The fathomless panoply of it? The eternal horizon? The incoming onrush of sunrises and sunsets, seasons and cycles and the seemingly infinite?

Anything, anything, just get in the car.

Get in the car, because it’s that “On the Road” time of year, and for some it’s that “On the Road” time of life. Jack Kerouac’s classic wasn’t actually published until September 1957, so the true 60th anniversary is several months away, but right now, right this moment of commencements and west winds and horizon meets sky, this is “On the Road” time.

“In a certain way it’s that urge to travel, that urge to make a voyage out,” said John Nizalowski, an instructor of writing at Colorado Mesa University and author of “Land of Cinnamon Sun.” “It’s that sense of the adventure of the voyage and the voyage as the way of learning about yourself, the voyage out into the external landscape becoming the metaphor for discovering the internal landscape.”

Those of a certain disposition, then, three generations of them, for the 60 years they’ve been able to get their hands on a copy, have gone through an “On the Road” phase.

Oh, yes, it might sound cynical to call it a phase, jaded in the ways of middle age, smugly condescending to — yet forgetful of — that incendiary blaze, that conflagration, that frenzied sense that there’s something, something, and so much of it, just waiting to be consumed.

Ergo, the mad ones, as Kerouac wrote, unaware of a million tattoos that his words would inspire (and the subsequent backlash, the cliché, the accusations of poseur, like it’s a contest and living can somehow be qualified):

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’”

Please remember when that caused not an eye roll or literary critique, but a catch of the breath, a frantic desire to sprint somewhere immediately and not stop, never stop, chasing clouds and birds and boxcars in the distance, chasing an intangible, immediate sense of now.

Remember when “On the Road” was the coolest thing in the world, a manifesto and a handbook for living, a road map for figuring stuff out, you know? Maybe this is done via jazz joints and apple pie and impromptu trips to Mexico, because answers are out there. They must be.

Except are they?

In her October 1957 review of “On the Road” for The Atlantic magazine, Phoebe-Lou Adams wrote, “The book is most readable. It disappoints because it constantly promises a revelation or a conclusion of real importance and general applicability, and cannot deliver any such conclusion.”

Ah. That. The central disillusionment that is realized with re-readings beyond age 30, or even age 40. The quest for answers when, listen: There may be none.

A lucky few find them, or say they have, and the rest toss out anchors of meaning in the swift current of time. During the “On the Road” phase, the mortgage, the Little League, the twice-a-year vacations and Crock-Pot dinners seem like an airless, beige death of a million Facebook posts.

There is much turning to Kerouac’s spiritual forebear, Henry David Thoreau: “And not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”

Oh, that sounds good. So good, so pure, so real.


Mechanic bills are real, too. So are Sunday pot roasts and employee of the month certificates. So are termite damage and slow two-steps, drainage districts and tomatoes on sale, cello lessons, wet fireworks, headstones with a blank space, heart medicine and training wheels.

What is anathema during an “On the Road” phase becomes the stuff of life, and Dean Moriarty, the book’s hero/anti-hero based on Kerouac’s friend Neal Cassady, fades like an imaginary friend.

To meet him years later, revisit him at whatever trackside flophouse he landed, is to realize he’s kind of a jerk — terrible husband, disrespectful of women, fairly bad friend, flake, tiresome pedant who just won’t shut up.

And Sal Paradise, the narrator stand-in for Kerouac, seems to realize it, to a degree, looking back through the years. Sal Paradise the character was young, restless and enamored with the ethos of freedom Dean represented, but Sal the narrator has learned things and seen things.

In the throes of an “On the Road” phase, this seems more wonderful than sad: “What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? — it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”

An “On the Road” phase prohibits feeling the excruciating melancholy of that, or the moment when Sal “realized these were all the snapshots which our children would look at someday with wonder, thinking their parents had lived smooth, well-ordered lives and got up in the morning to walk proudly on the sidewalks of life, never dreaming the raggedy madness and riot of our actual lives, our actual night, the hell of it, the senseless emptiness.”

The ennui comes. Oh, yes it does. The awareness that to always be passing through, to be in a place but not of it, belonging nowhere, with great stories to tell at the bar but an empty bed waiting in an anonymous room, one of a string of anonymous rooms, well. That’s tricky.

There is transcendent joy in setting out, pursuing the glimmering horizon, windows down and hands dancing hula ripples in the onrush, no plans, no agenda, taking it all as it comes and discovering newness in a world that can seem beyond discovery.

But there is joy in coming home, too.


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