I. Loving Someone More Than You Love Yourself
I’ve started Jack Kerouac’s On The Road and made it through part one. I’ve also seen the Bob Dylan Chrysler commercial often enough, looked over a series of possible hikes in the eastern highlands and watched a lot of road movies of late. It has led to some reflection of being on the road. Before I do that, however, I want to tell you what love is.
Love is when another person is more important to you than you are to yourself. I don’t know when I first heard that, but it is not unique to me though I’ve used that definition so much I have made it my own. With that I want to share a story of love that is also about being on the road.
When I was 17 I went by car around the island of Terceira in the Azores. To do this I had to fly to an RAF base in Mildenhall England where there was an American military presence then onto Ramstein Germany to catch the train to Frankfurt before making it to Lajes Field in the Azores. I was only able to do that as I was the dependent of a retired Army father and able to fly what is called space available. “Space A” also meant my father had to be with me
I am sure my dad did not want to make that trip. He enjoyed it, but it is really the last thing he would do. He had seen the world. Leaving Kentucky for the service shortly after high school, he went overseas to Europe and Asia. After marriage he went to Germany where I was born and onto the American southwest where my sister was born. As a child my military family found itself in Germany, Panama, and Thailand. My time in the States was limited to when my father was stationed here or when he found himself involved in the war in Vietnam, making it necessary for his family to be left back in the safety of America. During the war, my Dad purchased a house in rural Ohio and after he retired from the service, this was where he was content to stay.
I came of age in that home, but I was not content to stay and because I was not my father, loving me more than he loved himself, took me to the Azores one summer, a place which for some reason I developed a fascination for. While there we circumnavigated Terceira.
After that, I went on the road again….. a few times to be exact….vacations, the obligatory young adult trip to Europe….those sorts of things. I’ve become settled now, but I retain my fascination for the road, though unlike my youth when the fascination was about the where and how, now it is clearly about the why.
II. The Iconic Trips
Though adventure travelers disagree, there are two iconic trips. The first is backpacking through Europe and the second is hitting the American road. When I went to Europe during college it was a variation on the first involving arriving in Brussels and making my way to Paris. My parents were not thrilled with the trip. It had nothing to do with not wanting me to go; it was only that I was flying TWA on a government passport not too long after the hijacking of TWA 847. Though the threat of global terrorism was and remains very real, nothing could be much safer than the immense urbanity of Paris.
This brings me to point two. You can go out there and see two types of places: the city or the country. For college aged Americans, the European trip is mostly about the city. You can talk about backpacking, but unless you are visiting the Alps, it is mostly about dancing in Berlin or having coffee in Vienna.
Bruce Springsteen may have sang “it is hard to be a saint in the city,” but cities have a civilizing effect. There may be pickpockets to contend with and the not good areas of town, but the city is really about civilization. Trekking through Europe may involve a mountain range or two, but deserts are absent and there is usually a town a few kilometers up the road. You can always toke up or go home with someone, but the police are around to make sure you keep your youthful self in check and there is always a priest to whom you can confess.
The iconic American road trip is different. One travels that route with visions of Lewis and Clark. S/he may disdain the history of Manifest Destiny yet are content to follow the routes of the Pony Express and the Transcontinental Railroad all the while knowing they are on the trail of cowboys and outlaws. They are also in a place of vast distances. The police and clergy, though loved more in America than Europe, are often far away and whereas Europe is a land of canon and civil law as well as religion, America is a place of common law, lone justice and spirituality.
Having alluded to two excursions to Europe I turn my attention to America and my reading of Jack Kerouac.
III. On The Road
On the Road is a book you are supposed to read in your late teens or early twenties. I never did when I was that age as I was more into the likes of Camus and the beat generation did not appeal to me. But after putting many years behind me and having been on the road a few times, it seemed time to read it, though I only did this after reading Kerouac was a misunderstood man, always restless and seeing the spiritual dimension of the road. Besides here was a Catholic boy turned Buddhist turned atheist turned Catholic again and he spoke of grace and broken people, so I thought his quintessential road book (in fact the quintessential road book) must have a good takeaway. And as an American, I wanted a book about the American road.
On The Road starts promising enough. Sal (Kerouac) leaves behind the civilization of New York and heads west. It is a road trip after all and when it comes to road trips, “the west is best.” Besides there are no roads east of New York.
Sal makes it to the place he calls “great Chicago” taking in the Loop and the bop joints of Clark Street. He then hitches across the place the people of the East Coast call flyover country spending a good amount of time in Nebraska where he follows the Platte from the prairies to the Plains drawing ever closer to the mountains and friends in Denver. After spending time in the Colorado metropolis, he heads to San Francisco. Part One ends with Sal heading back to New York after a relationship with a migrant woman, whom he leaves to never see again.
IV. Creation and the Creature
There is a great beauty in the creation. There is a greater beauty in the creature. Kerouac gives time to creation. He rumbles through Nebraska knowing it is God’s country, though he does not call it this. He is not thinking of the girls he plans to meet or the drugs he’ll do. He is instead mesmerized by the changing environment where the trees are giving way to a green and brown speckled carpet of grass and brush and an increasingly bumpy geography.
For a time, he is in the company of a thirty year old named Eddie and an older man he calls Cowboy. They are more taken with the creature and pay little attention to the creation. Cowboy tells him he has little use for Nebraska recalling that when he was a younger man it was nothing but a cloud of dust. Cowboy is only in Nebraska because his wife is in Grand Island waiting for him to meet her so they can go on to Montana, a place of which Cowboy is much more complimentary. As for the reckless and exuberant Eddie, he is on the road to get to his woman in Denver.
I know enough of On The Road to know Sal will approach the creature differently than Cowboy and Eddie. Still as he made his way through Grand Island, Gothenburg, Ogallala, Cheyenne, Estes, Longmont, and Denver fascinated by the Plains and mountains I could forgive him for this. Besides people are essentially beautiful and there would be people other than fellow hitchhikers and those who gave them rides soon enough. When people did come on the scene, however they were broken folk.
Broken people come in two types. Those who walk through the muck of life clinging to grace when it is to be had and those who make a mockery of the muck and the grace as they revel in the mistaken notion joy is to be had in selfish action. By far the least palpable thing about Part One of this book, at least in the last half, is the former is disdained and the later glorified. At this point the read, though interesting, is hard to take. I will stay with it though. I’ve heard too much of Kerouac giving us a glimpse of the American soul to give up. Besides after starting Part 2, his characters though no less pathetic and only slightly nobler are beginning to garner my empathy.
V. Only Grace (Sola Gratia)
“Nothing else in the world matters but grace, God’s gift to suffering mortals.” Jack Kerouac 1961
I will keep with Kerouac. I will do so because he was a man who dealt vehemently with grace even if he often got it wrong. I do not have to like all of his actions and the characters he introduces me to, but I do understand that each of us are echoed in these. We are all on the road and we are all in need of grace, that mysterious thing for which we cannot understand why we are the recipient. And though grace is something that is universal to all times and places, each of us know it in the particular circumstance of the times and places unique to us. For most of us, the place is our homeland and the time is now where we dwell in both the present and with the fond memories of our past.
When I went to the Azores, I was able to go because of someone who loved me more than he loved himself. When we got there, he insisted on travelling by car recalling the grace of travelling with his wife and children on the open roads of places like Nevada and North Carolina. When I went to France, it was because of stories that were made on the interstates leading from Columbus to Indianapolis and Washington DC. Because these are American stories of American grace, I will continue to read On The Road. It will not be my story and there will certainly be much in it that will give me no pleasure, but it will be a story of a place I am familiar with and a place that so often I see the beauty of the creature and the grace of the Creator.