LOWELL -- With Jack Kerouac in the rearview mirror, I set out for a road trip.
The idea was to retrace the first leg of the coast-to-coast odyssey chronicled in Kerouac's classic 1957 novel, "On the Road."
A map drawn by the writer in a notebook unearthed from the Kerouac archives in his hometown of Lowell served as my compass. It showed a crudely sketched shape of the United States and a ragged line that traced the journey due west by Sal Paradise, the novel's narrator and Kerouac's alter ego.
In the first review of the novel in September 1957 in The
"It is a generation that does not know what it is searching for, but it is searching," he wrote.
On the 50th anniversary of the publication of "On the Road," what does Paradise's search for meaning have to say for today? What would Paradise see if he ventured out onto contemporary America's melancholy, tawdry, extraordinary, and beautiful landscape.
Along the way, I met families on summer trips and college graduates moving out West and truck drivers and drifters. And there was one truth that rang out even a half century after the publication of the definitive road-trip novel: America still has a love affair with being on the road.
My trip began where Kerouac was born, the place that remained his urban muse even if his fictional Paradise hailed from Paterson , N.J.
The Merrimack River flows alongside Lowell's old factories and mill houses just as it did when Kerouac came into this world in 1922 in a tiny back room off the kitchen of a second-floor, walk-up apartment at 9 Lupine Road.
The city is hosting a summer long celebration of its native son featuring poetry slams, jazz concerts, and a car show with a 1940s Hudson like the one in which Paradise and his buddy Dean Moriarty raced across the country. There is also a display of the 120-foot typewritten scroll upon which Kerouac banged out the first draft of the novel.
I came here on a Saturday, June 23, the Lowell Spinners , the Class A minor-league affiliate of the Boston Red Sox . Since Kerouac was a great athlete and an avid baseball fan, the ballgame seemed a fitting place to start the journey.
Amid the hot dogs and Cracker Jacks with my wife and four sons, I asked myself if a family man with a minivan could go on the road in the spirit of the beats without appearing ridiculous. Probably not.
But I took solace knowing that what Kerouac loved about the road was movement and seeing the country and hearing the voices of its people. He wanted to see the fertile farmlands and arid deserts and truck stops and diners that he would invariably describe as "holy." I wanted to commune with that "holiness."
In the novel, he is frustrated with the slow pace of hitchhiking from New York and hops a bus to Chicago to jump-start his trip. In that spirit, I flew economy (the modern equivalent to a bus ticket) to Des Moines and disembarked in the heartland.
Just a few miles from the airport I passed the same train yards where Kerouac stayed in a dingy hotel that no longer exists. I parked the rental car on Locust Street.
I stopped at the Continental, a cafe where I had heard I might run into a local Kerouac fan named Chip Eagle. And there he was, seated at the bar in a Hawaiian shirt sipping a glass of red wine. Eagle, 48, explained that he wasn't just a Kerouac fan, he could quote chapter and verse. It turned out he has devoted his life to the jazz and blues music that provided the back beat for Kerouac and other writers. Eagle founded a music publishing company that borrowed a classic bit of dialogue between Paradise and Moriarty in its mission statement and he quoted the verse:
"Sal, we've got to go and never stop 'til we get there."
"Where are we going to go?"
"I don't know, but we can't stop 'til we get there."
Wondering whether this generation sees politics as "barren," I spotted campaign headquarters for Barack Obama across the street and decided to talk with a few volunteers.
Brian Van Riper, 26, of Pembroke, was working the phones in a small cubicle. He first read "On the Road" at Guantanamo Bay in late 2001 , when he was in the Marine Corps.
To him the book represented freedom and a bold dare "to do what you want to do." As soon as his service was over, he began a cross-country journey. While out West, he heard Obama speak and went to work for his campaign.
"I see a lot of my peers -- tired and not really engaged. I just see the look in their eye. They haven't necessarily dared to dream. I think you have to dare to dream," he said.
I was in search of pie.
Paradise lived on pie as he traveled across the country. As Kerouac writes, the dessert menus in diners got better as he got deeper into the country, "the pie bigger, the ice cream richer."
I stopped in Grand Island at the Farmer's Daughter Cafe , where customers insisted the proprietor, Deb Dalton , made the best pie in Nebraska.
I sampled her lemon cream, which was fresh baked and just chilled with a great white cloud of meringue. It was indeed what Kerouac would call "holy."
I pushed on to North Platte by the afternoon.
The town sits at the confluence of the North and South Platte rivers and is the nexus of a
Just before the entrance to town, I came upon a "hobo camp," as its residents referred to their tents and sleeping bags strewn along the riverbanks. A 70-year-old man known as "Mad Dog" was the self-proclaimed mayor. He had a great belly laugh and a dog named Highway.
He hadn't heard of Kerouac, but told stories about 40 years of "riding the rails" and hitchhiking across America. As a man who found Jesus in prison, he liked the sound of a character named Paradise who described everything as "holy."
"I will die on the road. Yes , sir, I will die out here because I love it. The road is holy. Yes indeed, the road is holy," said Mad Dog.
In the morning, I got a ride quickly out of North Platte and soon after landed a few other short rides of 15 to 20 miles that took me most of the way through what was left of Nebraska.
One ride took me into Sutherland , where I headed for the home of Barb and Woody Falkena , who were featured in the newspaper for buying an old diner and Skelly Oil filling station and lovingly restoring them in a big metal shed behind their home. The scene was frozen in 1957. A crackling recording of Louis Armstrong played on the jukebox. A 1957 Chevy was parked in front of the chrome-lined diner, which had all original detail right down to the napkin holders.
Despite their love for all things from the 1950s, the Falkenas had never heard of Kerouac or "On the Road." Barb had a vague recollection of "the beats" and remembers hitchhikers would sometimes come through town.
"They were sort of scary and also exciting. They were going somewhere. We were just the folks who stayed behind," she said. When asked about the beat generation's view of the "imminence of war" and "barrenness of politics," Barb said, "It sure sounds like today."
I moved on, making it across the state line into Wyoming , where I was warned by a passing police officer not to hitchhike. I called my colleague Dominic Chavez , the photographer working with me, and we resumed the journey together in the rental car.
When we reached Cheyenne , a frontier town created by the arrival of the Union Pacific, we took rooms at a beautiful landmark hotel called The Plains .
In town, mock gunslingers shot blanks at each other for the benefit of tourists. It seemed sad to have to work so hard to preserve the spirit of the Old West.
By nightfall we were in Utah, hurtling past Salt Lake, which was lighted in the moonlight.
We spent the night at a dreary Motel 6 in Wendover, a town that sits on the state line with Nevada. A mile down the road, the neon of a small casino named the Red Garter winked in the bright morning light at a tall statue of a neon cowboy dubbed "Wendover Will" that pointed the way back to the highway.
We drove on and stopped the next night in Reno, where the casinos are bigger and the neon burns brighter.
We left early.
We battled traffic through Oakland and went over the bridge into San Francisco's Chinatown , where we rolled down the windows and took in the smells and sounds that drifted in the long shadows of the late afternoon.
We had arrived at the promised land of the beat generation.
This was where in the 1950s the seeds of a hip, new culture planted by Kerouac and the poets Allen Ginsberg , Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Gregory Corso formed the buds of the beat generation that would flower into the counterculture of the 1960s.
I walked up Columbus Avenue to the intersection of Grant and made my first stop at the legendary City Lights Books , co-founded by Ferlinghetti in 1953.
A small alley between City Lights and the still-great watering hole of the beats, Vesuvio , is named after Kerouac. And kitty- corner from there on Broadway is The Beat Museum , where the iconic photograph of Kerouac with his arm around his road buddy Neal Cassady is featured in a larger-than-life mural.
Cassady, a Hollywood- handsome, brilliant, and mischievous former car thief, became the muse for Kerouac and other beat writers. Moriarty in "On the Road" is based on Cassady.
Museum founder Jerry Cimino 's passion for the beat writers comes through as he describes the origins of "bop spontaneous" prose for museumgoers amid the music of bebop jazz legends such as Dizzy Gillespie and Dexter Gordon.
Cimino made a call to Carolyn Cassady and her son , John (Neal died in 1968, a year before Kerouac) . John Cassady lives in San Jose and his mother happened to be visiting from England. I drove down to see them.
Carolyn Cassady has written her own book titled "Off the Road," which chronicles her life with Neal and an affair with Kerouac. She sat poised in a straight-back chair, backlighted by the sun, calmly elegant in her 80s.
Cassady believes most of the younger generations who seized upon "On the Road" have missed its essence.
"The kids all thought the book was to promote drugs and free love and irresponsibility, but actually Jack was so responsible and polite and passionate. That so many kids misunderstood his work, well, it just destroyed him," she said, describing Kerouac's descent into alcoholism that led to his death in 1969.
"What I always got from the book was the celebration of life, from the grass to the mountains to the rivers to the highways to apple pie," Cassady said with a laugh.
"To me it was just so inspiring, a message to appreciate everything that is free and everything that is on the road," she said. "And Jack just couldn't get enough of it."
Charles M. Sennott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.