With the film adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s novel finally in cinemas, ShortList’s Tom Ellen follows in the writer’s tyre-prints alongside Mr Hyde editor Jonathan Pile…
“I held the car to the white line in the holy road. What was I doing? Where was I going? I’d soon find out.”
That’s Sal Paradise – nomadic protagonist of Jack Kerouac’s 1957 novel On The Road – as he charges blindly through the South Carolina night in a battered ’49 Hudson.
However, it could just as easily be me – temporarily nomadic protagonist of this article – as I crawl slowly through the California afternoon in a spotless four-door sedan. I am lost in Santa Cruz. The fact that I am in Santa Cruz at all means that I am lost. I am supposed to be 70 miles north, in San Francisco. I hold the car to the white line in the holy road. What am I doing? I am retracing some of the tyre marks Kerouac put down in the cross-country trips that inspired his magnum opus. Where am I going? Nowhere.
I think I’m in the wrong lane.
Beside me in the passenger seat – attempting to flatten a blanket-sized road map – is Jon. My co-pilot on this cultural pilgrimage. We’re in this together; it’s us against the endless road.
He looks up from his map: “You’re in the wrong f*cking lane!” Sal never had this problem. Allegedly written in three weeks on a diet of pea soup and Benzedrine, On The Road charts the true story of Kerouac (renamed Sal Paradise) and his indefatigable hero Neal Cassady (AKA Dean Moriarty) as they tear back and forth across the US in search of “girls, visions, everything”. Upon publication, it transformed the humble car journey into a free-wheeling, life-affirming ritual and inspired an entire generation to creak open their front doors and see what was really outside.
With the long-promised big-screen version (a venture star Sam Riley spent a month at ‘beatnik bootcamp’ for) out now, Jon and I set off to recreate one of Sal and Dean’s early jaunts. Starting in LA, we’re heading up the coast to San Francisco – spiritual home of the Beat Generation – and then east, towards Reno, Salt Lake City and back again, to discover more about ‘Beat’ culture, the US and, with any luck, ourselves. Although, at this stage, I’d just be happy to get out of Santa Cruz. I’m still in the wrong lane.
DOWN BY LAW
Our journey begins a day earlier, in LA. And it begins quite badly. Like most cars in the modern US, ours is an automatic, which means you push one pedal to go and another to stop. It’s idiot-proof. It’s a glorified dodgem.
Despite this, during my first stint at the wheel, I accidentally slip the lever below ‘Drive’ into the (unmarked) ‘Manual’ position and we spend 45 minutes blazing down a 70mph highway in first gear. The engine screeches and howls in protest. Jon makes similar noises when we finally work out what’s wrong.
My mistake (eventually) rectified, we stock up on gas, Mountain Dew and beef jerky and begin the lengthy coastal trundle to San Francisco. In homage to Sal and Dean, Jon finds a jazz station and cranks the creaking, groaning sounds up to full volume.
As we wind through the sweeping grey-gold mountains towards Big Sur, the entire landscape vies for our attention. We stop to examine defunct drive-in cinemas; we brake to gawp at towering pine trees; we pull over to plunge into sun-speckled streams.
Even the places we zoom past – Constellation Avenue, Halcyon Road, Eagle Rock – suggest spirituality, tranquillity and freedom. Except Zzyzx Road (it’s real, Google it), which suggests someone trying to cheat at Scrabble. I spot a car behind us with blinking red lights across its front grille.
“Look at this idiot,” I say. “He’s done his car up to look like KITT.”
We study him for a few seconds.
I hadn’t noticed at first, but there are blue lights flickering among the reds.
“I think he might be a policeman,” says Jon. “Nah,” I counter. “If he was a policeman, we’d hear his siren.”
Jon turns the music down. We hear his siren. We have unwittingly been using ear-splitting Fifties bebop to block out the remonstrations of ‘The Man’. Somewhere, Kerouac is beaming down at us proudly. I pull over. The cop exits his car and strolls towards us.
“How you boys doing?”
“You were doing 70mph in a 55mph zone. Why did it take you so long to pull over?” I can’t tell him we thought he was Knight Rider. That won’t wash.
“I’m sorry, we’re English,” is the only thing I can think to say. So I say it. The officer frowns. So does Jon. Apparently neither is convinced by Englishness as an excuse for excessive speed.
The officer writes me a ticket. In Kerouac’s novel, Dean’s response to being fined for speeding is to threaten to “shoot the cop as soon as he [has] a gun”. I’m all for getting into the Beat spirit, but this seems like an over-reaction. We merely offer apologetic grins and drive off. Slowly.
Finally, after 14 hours, an unscheduled tour of Santa Cruz and approximately three cows’ worth of jerky, San Francisco’s silhouette peers out at us through the darkness.
HOME OF THE BEATS
San Francisco is one of On The Road’s most frequent backdrops. Cassady lived here for years and Sal’s claim that “my whole soul leaped to it the nearer we got to Frisco” makes it clear how Kerouac felt about the place.
It is also home to City Lights Bookstore, the independent retailer responsible for publishing one of the Beat Generation’s central texts – Allen Ginsberg’s controversial poem Howl.
The Beat spirit is clearly still alive and well inside. I buy a book by Fifties-era French surrealist Boris Vian (call it getting into character). The cashier, glancing at the author, tells me: “I dig him, man, he’s a gas.” This is what he actually says. Presumably it’s all part of the staff training.
Across the street from City Lights is the Beat Museum, where Jon and I go to learn more about the movement’s origins. “The term ‘Beat’ originally meant beaten, broken down,” explains the museum’s founder, Jerry Cimino. “But Kerouac – a spiritual guy – shifted its meaning to ‘beatitude’ [from the set of Christian teachings on love and humility]. For him, ‘Beat’ meant compassion and sympathy.”
He continues: “On The Road’s theme is eternal – disaffected youth searching for meaning. However, because Kerouac and the Beats were non-conformists who spoke openly about sex and drugs, politicians were quick to brand them anti-American. Kerouac resented this hugely – he was just about celebrating life.”
Our next stop is one of the places Kerouac celebrated life most raucously – legendary Beat bar, Vesuvio. We pop in to sink its ‘Kerouac’ cocktail – a borderline undrinkable blend of tequila and cranberry juice – by which time the road is calling again (or our hotel is insisting we check out, whatever), so we bulk-buy jerky and head east.
THE LONELIEST ROAD
Reading On The Road, it’s easy to see why Kerouac felt aggrieved at those accusations of anti-Americanism. While that other iconic beat novel – William S Burroughs’ Naked Lunch – attacks “basic American rottenness, spurting out like breaking boils”, Kerouac’s book is essentially a love letter to the country – its aesthetics and (cops aside) its people.
Rarely does he have a bad word to say about any of the places he visits. Even Reno, Nevada – Las Vegas’s grubbier, less successful brother – is infused with a romantic wistfulness as he praises “twinkling Chinese streets”.
Reno’s streets don’t so much twinkle as challenge your eyeballs to a fight. Driving into the city at night, you lose the traffic lights in a sea of screaming roadside neon.
At 7am, I wander through one of the city’s many gaudy casinos. I sit down next to a weary-looking woman inserting coins and yanking levers with a grimly robotic determination.
“Have you been here all night?” I enquire.
She nods. “I’m up,” she says. “Just.”
I’m not sure whether she’s referring to her finances or her level of consciousness.
We zip out of Reno to find the roads flanked by mad, jagged rocks the colour of Neapolitan ice cream. Trees ebb away to be replaced by scrawny desert weeds. Acres of worthless scrubland engulf us. Everywhere you look there is nothing.
We stop in Fallon, Nevada, to buy supplies for Route 50 – a 400-mile stretch of featureless highway known as ‘The Loneliest Road In America’. Gas, bagels, cheese, jerky. And lots of water.
Jon predicts the size of the roadkill will increase the further on to the Loneliest Road we get. He’s right. After 50 miles, we spy a bulky black shape on the horizon. It turns out to be the vast, bloated corpse of a cow. Its blank eyes fix us for a second as we pass. It wears a straitjacket of flies. The jerky suddenly seems less appealing.
We roll past an even more disconcerting sight next – an abandoned Chevy truck, the flap to its fuel tank hanging open ominously. Another victim of Route 50. Vehicular roadkill. There’s no sign of the driver.
The afternoon sun beats down while we cut the desert in two. Finally, we reach civilisation. Sort of. You’ve heard of a ‘one horse town’? Austin, Nevada, is more like a one seahorse town. Its population is 250. You could practically throw a tennis ball over it.
Driving through, we come upon an incredible junkyard – a sprawling mechanical cemetery littered with the rust-bitten skeletons of bikes, cars, even school buses. Among the wreckage, there’s a fittingly grizzled old man pottering about.
“Let’s speak to him!” I say.
“We’re not speaking to a strange man in a junkyard,” says Jon. “Haven’t you seen Stand By Me?”
I have, but that doesn’t stop me pulling over. This is the US you don’t normally see; the one that can only be unlocked by a 400-mile drive through a desert. We approach the man – who seems mildly perturbed at the sight of other human beings – to ask how on earth he ended up tending a junkyard in the middle of nowhere. “I come from Idaho,” he tells us. “There wasn’t any work there, so 40 years ago I moved here and set this junkyard up.”
This, surely, is Kerouac’s American Dream come true. Can’t find a foothold in conventional existence? Embrace the freedom. Drive as far as your car will take you and open a scrap yard.
We bid the man goodbye and before long we breach Utah – our third state in three days – where the wind bats impenetrable salt mists against the windscreen. Jon and I swap weary smiles. We’ve done what cows, Chevy trucks and unemployed Idaho emigrants couldn’t; we’ve reached the end of the Loneliest Road.
LEAVING LAS VEGAS
From Salt Lake City, we wind down among Utah’s red-rock Martian landscapes until we circle back into Nevada. In four days, we’ve clocked up nearly 2,000 miles. And still the car gobbles up the road in front of us.
We roll through Las Vegas at 8am. Casualties of the previous night shamble around like broken puppets. Prostitutes’ calling cards pebble dash the pavement. Jon goes for supplies while I explore the Strip on foot.
En route, I misjudge the length of a green light and narrowly avoid being quartered by several honking trucks.
I reach the curb to find a man on a bench openly cackling at me.
“Aw, man!” he laughs. “You trying to get killed?”
This, it transpires, is James. James is in his late forties, sporting faded blue jeans, white T-shirt and a beard you could lose a croissant in. “I spent years on the road, man. I didn’t even mean to end up in Vegas. I was just passing through on my way to Georgia when my knees finally gave way. I injured them playing football. The guys I played with hit so hard it made
you holler. Like this.”
He cranes his neck back and screeches into the sky. Heads swivel in passing cars. Even in Vegas, this is unorthodox 8am behaviour.
“So, now, I’ve got to get myself some new knees.”
“Don’t know, man.” He shrugs and gestures grandly around him. “But why worry about that when there’s a whole country to explore?”
Despite my time in City Lights and Vesuvio, James is by far the most ‘Beat’ character I’ve encountered; a life-celebrating yeasayer cut from the same ragged cloth as Sal and Dean.
As we head back on to the freeway, James’s words ring in my ears. Why concern yourself with trivialities such as jobs, money and knees when, as Sal points out, “All the golden land’s ahead of you and all kinds of unforeseen events wait lurking to surprise you and make you glad you’re alive”?
I hold the car to the white line in the holy road. What am I doing? Where am I going? I’ll soon find out.
Jon leans across: “You’re in the wrong lane again.”
Take the trip
Get there: American Airlines (Americanairlines.co.uk). Pick up a car at Holiday Autos (Holidayautos.co.uk, quote the code HAUSA30 for £30 off US and Canada car hire*).
Where to eat and sleep: Hotel Union Square in San Francisco (Hotelunionsquare.com). Dinner at Squatters in Salt Lake City (Squatters.com), and hit Zion National Park (Nps.com/zion) and Snow Canyon State Park (Stateparks.utah.gov/parks/snowcanyon). Discover America (Discoveramerica.com) will keep you on track.
We ate at the Michelin-starred One Market Restaurant in San Francisco www.onemarket.com