Tuesday, December 15, 2009
"These roads don't move, you're the one that moves."
I wrote a novel once, back when I was young and still believed in everything. It was the true story of a cross-country journey I took in a Volkswagen bus with my old buddy Ray. The stated purpose of the journey was to track down another old buddy who'd gone off the radar -- or so we believed. The true purpose of the journey came to reveal itself in other ways, such as the writing of the novel.
The true purpose of the journey may continue to reveal itself, as I continue to retrace the seemingly disconnected routes of my past.
One thing I do know -- there was another Presence riding along with us in that old VW. An unseen Guide, who whispered strange incantations during lonely stretches of endless moonlit highway, and howled with crazy Zen laughter in the mist-laden dawn. His name was Jack Kerouac.
Like everybody else, I first learned about Kerouac from his novel, On The Road. Reading On The Road was like a rite of passage, an initiation into the counterculture, the Boy Scout Manual for Bohemians. On The Road was the beginning of a journey that wound its way through the mythological landscape of the American soul, with a Charlie Parker soundtrack playing on the dashboard radio and the ghosts of forgotten poets towering above the distant horizon. It was a call to action, a prayer for deliverance. It made a young man want to move.
So, one crisp spring morning, I set out from Middletown, Connecticut, with my thumb stuck out over Route 9, headed south. I hitched my way down to North Carolina where I met up with Ray, on his way east from Illinois. We had little money and nothing to eat. We slept on the cold ground and wandered under the hot sun. We visited some girls we knew from high school, hoping they would fall in love with us.
But they didn't.
We hitched our way west to Nashville and stayed with another old buddy named Gary. Got drunk and slept it off. Then hitched north, back home to Louisville. All along the way, we met crazy characters and saw wondrous visions. We talked about Life and Love and Music and Truth. We lived in the moment. And we kept moving.
We were on the road.
About a year later, it was time to move again. Winter this time, and I had a vehicle. A blue and white Volkswagen bus with the middle seat taken out. Just a simple caravan, a Conestoga wagon for crossing the Great Plains. We had different reasons for making the trip -- to go to California, to find a lost friend, to continue on our journey. But once we got going, we knew why we were there. The wheels rolling under us, the road spooling out endlessly ahead. The past disappearing in the rear-view. The future just beyond the windshield.
I kept a journal of our voyage -- it seemed like things were unfolding in important and historic ways that had to be recorded. Life had become a novel. Fiction was reality. We were characters, living chapter to chapter. We didn't know what was coming until it happened. Each day was written fresh and then the page was turned.
We got a small apartment in Oakland near Lake Merritt. We got jobs. We worked and slept, ate and drank. Went to movies and concerts. We found our errant friend and failed to lure him home. We argued, commiserated, dreamed and planned. Pages turned. Chapters were written.
A couple of years later, when I actually began the task of transforming my road-journal into a full fledged road-novel, I read Ann Charters' biography of Kerouac, and learned a bit about his unconventional writing methods -- some of which I adopted. As I wrote, carving out chapters from the various scattered episodes and stringing them together in a structure that felt logical, I began to see some sense in what had happened. Or perhaps I imposed some sense onto what had happened. Either way, I was creating order from chaos and finding meaning in the void. I was being a writer.
My one unbending principle was that everything I wrote had to be absolutely true. I believed that telling the truth would give my story a noble authority that would elevate it beyond the reach of my meager talents. I have since discovered that what is true is not always worth telling -- and what's worth telling is not always true. But back then, in the spirit of Kerouac, I wrote exactly what happened, exactly the way it happened.
Of course, the names were changed to protect the (not so) innocent.
After that fabled journey, there were many others. Three more times across the country -- once using the same auto-driveaway service that Kerouac used. Several hitchhiking adventures, including a wild ride through Pennsylvania in a van full of hippies. And one late-night, high-speed run through Alabama that ended up with me leaning against the hood of an Oldsmobile while a State Trooper pointed a shotgun at my head. I even went on the road in Europe, driving from Paris through the Swiss Alps into Italy and then by ferry to Corsica and back into France. That trip felt a little more like Hemingway than Kerouac.
But all of that, as they say, was long ago. I stopped driving, for the most part, when I moved to New York City. My old Plymouth Valiant, which I had operated for years without the benefit of license or registration, sat in my sister's driveway, having become a combination mouse condo and canoe rack. I took the train or the bus instead of driving. Most of my wanderings consisted of long walks on the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Here in LA, one spends quite a bit of time behind the wheel, and I often found it a relief to park the car on Friday night and not see it again until Monday morning. But I did enjoy a very memorable drive down the coast one summer with my nephew. We started in San Francisco, where we visited the City Lights Bookstore and Jack Kerouac Alley, then headed south along the Pacific Coast Highway. We stopped for the night in Big Sur, where Kerouac lived one summer in a tiny cabin beneath the Bixby Canyon Bridge.
I didn't really know much about Kerouac's life in Bixby Canyon. I'd never read his book, Big Sur, about his attempt to escape the trappings of fame and alcoholism and find some kind of spiritual connection in the rustic tranquility of the California coast. I just knew that he'd lived there and that it was one of the most beautiful places on earth.
A few weeks ago, though, for my birthday, my Mom sent me a documentary called One Fast Move Or I'm Gone, which tells the story of Kerouac's Big Sur retreat. She heard about it on NPR, which my Dad listens to 24 hours a day, and thought I might like it. She was right -- I loved it.
Accompanying the DVD, there is a CD of songs by Ben Gibbard and Jay Farrar using Kerouac's words as lyrics. I've been listening to that CD non-stop since my birthday, and one song in particular has gotten stuck in my head. I hear it when I'm swimming. I find myself singing it when I'm out for a walk. The chorus goes: "These roads don't move, you're the one that moves."
At first I didn't know what that meant. It was just a catchy little phrase I kept repeating to myself. But as I listened more closely to the rest of the song, it started to make more sense. It was like Kerouac, still hovering over my shoulder on that moonlit highway, had one more mysterious message to impart. "These roads don't move..." All this restless wandering isn't taking you anywhere. "You're the one that moves." The transformation happens within.
After all these years, I guess I'm still on the road. I'm just not going anywhere.