On “On the Road”
“I’ll be back in thirty minutes,” Stu said to me, his glazed-over eyes had that spark of craziness that fuels the worst and the best fires of humanity. Amid the rabble-rousing of a dimly lit Brooklyn bar, a tension released in Stu’s wake. Not because he was not likable or interesting, but as his intake of alcohol increased so did his intensity. Before he left he had been crescendoing until his eyes popped from their sockets as he wildly told his tales. The impromptu friends at our table began looking at him in the same way one looks at a sparking galore of electrical wires.
I wouldn’t know why he left until he returned.
When Stu had departed I turned to Matt Stabile, my editor at The Expeditioner, who seemed to breath a sigh of relief. I was in New York for the first time, up for the release party for the book The Expeditioner’s Guide to the World. It was my first time actually meeting one of my co-editors, the other editor was the infamous Montana outlaw, Jon Wick. For the last year the three of us had been putting together a book without having actually met each other. And my mother warned me about writing with strangers!
I’d met Stu earlier in evening at another bar. He joined a conversation that I had struck up with a woman seated alone at the bar. Stu succeeded in scaring the woman away and so he and I had left for another bar where we slowly brought smaller groups of Wednesday-night revelers to a single table. When Matt came, Stu had already made his transition from lively and interesting to intense and crazy.
“I think we should get out of here.” I said to Matt. Stu had now become a liability to my goal of meeting more people. He seemed to frighten strangers.
“Do you think he’s coming back?” Matt asked me.
“He said he’d be back in like thirty minutes. That was thirty minutes ago.”
In answer to the question, Stu entered triumphantly through the front door. In his hand was a paperback copy of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.
Had he left just to retrieve that? Earlier in the night I had mentioned that I was re-reading On the Road, and I was planning to write about it. Seeing Stu, a NYC transplant from Seattle carrying the book with a reverence reserved for the Bible or Koran, made some understanding about the book click. I realized how alive the book still is. If the book were a dance, then it is one that is still being intrepidly danced wherever youth and longing still seize the day.
Stu’s intensity seemed to inhabit some part of some vision held by the Beat Generation—a vision today’s travelers still see. That wildness in Stu’s eyes is the same passion I imagine Kerouac’s Dean Moriarty had that drove him and those he enthused to travel back and forth from East coast to West coast.
Kerouac’s book is based on events he experienced. His fictional identity, Sal Paradise, asks himself, “What do you want out of life?” and then answers, “I want to take her and wring it [life] out of her.” Strong words, but Stu seemed to be doing that very thing he passionately traveled through what for many was just another Wednesday night. For Kerouac travel was not just a part of life, it was life at its most earnest.
“The road is life,” Sal reflects at one point. “The road must eventually lead to the whole world…There’s always more, a little further—it never ends.”
At one point Sal is asked by a sheriff, “You boys going to get somewhere, or just going?” Sal does not understand the question still but reflects, “It was a damned good question.”
Nothing about On the Road is sugar-coated. It is as real an account of traveling, and the struggle to define meaning in it, as exists in print. It’s filled with struggles, failed attempts at finding un-fleeting happiness, jadedness, hope, discovery, disaster and longing.
For a book about going, it never really seems to arrive anywhere definitive, and maybe it is onto something there. It is less about the geography and more about the people inhabiting it. For if un-traveled-to places were not filled with unmet people, would there be as much reason to go? You’ll meet some “crazy” people along the way. When you do, be sure to contemplate if those same people are perhaps the sanest among us. Perhaps it’s they who have cast aside the invisible shackles that limit the rest of us. If you’re really lucky, they will leave the bar only to return carrying a copy of Kerouac’s masterpiece—this perfect combination between madness and meaning is still up for grabs for anyone who is sincerely seeking.
What On the Road makes me realize more than anything is that travel is often the search for things that we did not know we were looking for. It’s about taking part in the ongoing dance of the world, using the limited time that we all have to participate before leaving the dance floor to let younger bodies sweat out the night.
If you’ve read it, read it again and see what newness you find. If you have not read it, what the dickens are you doing reading obscure online travel writing when one of the greatest reads of your life is still out there undiscovered? Go buy the book. Oh, and buy The Expeditioner’s Guide to the World, royalties go to help pay the editor’s bar tab—as good a cause as any my friends.
About the Author
Luke Maguire Armstrong lives in Guatemala directing the humanitarian aid organization, Nuestros Ahijados. His book of poetry, iPoems for the Dolphins to Click Home About (available for sale on Amazon.com) is especially enjoyed by people who “don’t read poetry.” (@lukespartacus)