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Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts and Jack Kerouac's 'On the Road' scroll
Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts and Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" scroll, unrolls the manuscript at his home in Carmel, Ind. The piece goes on display in Lowell on Friday, June 15. (Michele McDonald/Globe Staff)

The long and winding 'Road'

It's been a strange trip for scroll on which Kerouac wrote his Beat classic

CARMEL, Ind. -- Jim Canary was nervous. In the morning, the conservator would be flying to Logan with his steady travel companion, the fragile, $2.43 million scroll on which Beat icon Jack Kerouac hammered out "On the Road."

The scroll, yellowing and mounted on two Plexiglas spools, goes on display today for the first time in Lowell, Kerouac's hometown, as part of an exhibition at the Boott Cotton Mills Museum celebrating the 50th anniversary of the book's publication.

But before coming to Boston, the scroll would have to get through a photo shoot for Vanity Fair.

That's how Canary found himself just north of Indianapolis earlier this week, delivering the delicate document to the gated mansion of Colts owner Jim Irsay.

Irsay bought the scroll in 2001, urged on by the late great gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson and film director Cameron Crowe, a friend. The multimillionaire collector, who inherited the football team from his father, is known for hanging with rock stars and waxing poetic about Dylan. He also loves photo ops with the scroll.

For the shoot, Irsay proposed that he hold an unrolled section of the nearly onion-skin-thin paper in one hand, with "Tiger" draped over his lap. That's the guitar Jerry Garcia played for more than a decade. Irsay bought it after the Grateful Dead leader's death.

"Uh, that's iffy," Canary said softly, rubbing his chin.

"In terms of what?" asked Christopher Griffith, the Vanity Fair photographer.

"It terms of this thing needs to go on exhibit Friday," said Canary. "And we can't have it damaged."

In the end, Canary won out. Tiger stayed to the side. After all, the real star wasn't the custom-made axe. It was the 119 1/2-foot scroll, an oddity by any publishing standard.

Kerouac made the scroll by taping together rolls of art tracing paper so he could work without interruption on the book, which chronicles his travels with road buddy Neal Cassady. Desperate to capture the free-flowing cadences of his friend, inspired by improvisational jazz, and capable of typing 100 words a minute, Kerouac pumped out roughly 125,000 words over three weeks in 1951, fueled by pea soup and caffeine. Sections of the book had been developed years earlier, but the result had the stream-of-consciousness feeling Kerouac was aiming for.

Rejected at first, an edited version of "On the Road" came out in 1957, a seminal work of the Beat generation. Kerouac became famous -- and tortured, unable to live up to the spirited ideals embodied in his book. He began to drink heavily and died at 47 in 1969, having largely fallen out of favor.

For years, the scroll sat in a former editor's desk drawer, nearly forgotten. But in 2001, with Kerouac reputation's restored -- and his marketability risen to Gap ad status -- the family of Stella Sampas, Keroauc's third wife, put the scroll up for auction. Irsay raised his paddle. He says he would have paid as much as $10 million for the piece he calls "The Holy Grail."

"Thankfully, there wasn't another madman at Christie's that night," Irsay said.

Early on, some Beat historians criticized the sale, fearing that the scroll, which had been periodically displayed at the New York Public Library, would no longer be available for public viewing. Irsay had other ideas. In 2004, he launched a tour that has taken the scroll to numerous cities, including various places of significance in Kerouac's life.

"The main thing is getting it out to the people," Irsay says. "To me, it's like being 'The Wizard of Oz' behind the curtain. You want to create joy, you want to create theater with it."

The scroll doesn't go anywhere without Canary, 53, a conservator at Indiana University. He and Irsay make an odd couple: the brash football mogul, 48, and Canary, who speaks just above a whisper, sports a gray pigtail, and models a wardrobe he says was largely purchased at Goodwill. Kerouac's "The Dharma Bums" once inspired Canary to hitchhike across the country and, after he returned to his native Indiana, live for several years in an abandoned cabin with no electricity or running water.

When the scroll went up for auction, Canary realized it would be too expensive for the university's rare books library in Bloomington to purchase. Then after the sale, Irsay called looking for assistance. In return, Canary says, Irsay has given generously to the library.

Canary said he sometimes has to pinch himself when he considers his relationship with the scroll. That doesn't mean it's always easy to serve as its keeper.

While in his possession, the scroll stays in a special box, 14 by 8 1/2 inches, which Canary crafted out of wood and colorless linen. The box sits in a climate-controlled vault at the library, alongside a first edition of Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" and a 1623 volume of Shakespeare's plays. Canary washes his hands before handling the scroll and carefully monitors light and humidity readings.

Irsay doesn't operate by the same rules. Over cocktails once, the owner says, he and a couple of buddies read portions of the scroll by candlelight. Another time, he unrolled it completely on the floor of his indoor, full-length basketball court.

Press opportunities have created some memorable moments. For one article, Irsay decided he wanted to pose with the scroll wrapped around his body. For another, he choreographed a scene in which he held a pair of scissors to the paper and Canary simulated a punch to the jaw.

"That's where my Buddhism comes in," says Canary. "Some conservators would have walked off. I talked to him about it."

In a back room at the library before heading to Irsay's mansion, Canary carefully unwrapped the scroll to show a small section. No paragraph markings, no page breaks, just type bleeding through the tracing paper.

"It's hard to read," says Canary. "You're bent over, and you get lost in the sea of words. I get sick in the car when I read, and I get that same feeling when I read [the scroll] too long."

But he says close examination is rewarding. He read one passage out loud.

Here's the published version: "My aunt once said the world would never find peace until men fell at their women's feet and asked for forgiveness."

In the scroll, the section runs four times longer and wraps with: "If these men stop the machine and come home -- and get on their knees -- and ask for forgiveness -- and the women bless them -- peace will suddenly descend on the earth with a great silence like the inherent silence of the Apocalypse."

"Holy moly, man," said Canary. "That's a whole different book."

At Irsay's house later that night, a group gathered in the massive kitchen. An assistant walked in and placed the Colts' Super Bowl trophy on the counter, next to Tupperware containing food.

Irsay, as always, was running late. A few minutes past 7 , he strode in wearing a flashy black suit with white pinstripes and a white tie. It's what he sported that night at Christie's in 2001. He posed for photos with his new Super Bowl ring, then sat to talk about the scroll in his wood-paneled office with five television sets on one wall.

The conversation was rambling, peppered with references to various objects in his collection (John F. Kennedy's cigar box, a letter written by George Washington). When asked about "On The Road," he described a book that mattered because it moved the country out of the conservatism of the '50s and touched a generation of kids his age.

"You know, that incredibly romantic time when you're a young person but you're old enough to have your independence, and so you get in a car and just go," he said.

Irsay has big plans. Actor Johnny Depp, a Kerouac fan, would like to take the scroll on tour, maybe with a rock band. Irsay is also contemplating what to do with it when he dies. At present, he does not intend to leave the scroll to a museum or his children. No, he's considering having the scroll hermetically sealed and buried. Then a series of clues would lead somebody to the scroll. Finders, keepers.

But wouldn't he miss watching the chase?

"I could fake my own death," he said, laughing. "That would be pretty cool."

A few minutes later, Irsay reported for the Vanity Fair shoot in a downstairs room outfitted with a wooden stage. At first he stood stiffly under the lights, holding an unrolled section. The photographer seemed unhappy. "How about this?" Irsay barked, and slapped on a thick pair of granny glasses. He mugged for the camera with his mouth gaping open.

Canary laughed. "Let the party begin," he said.

Over the next half-hour, Irsay struck more poses, raising a fist in mock anger, flashing a peace sign. One improv didn't go so well. Irsay took off his suit jacket and tried to hang it on one of the scroll's spools. The jacket brushed against the fragile paper. Canary walked over to calmly end the moment.

Finally, Irsay started screaming in the voice of a mock preacher, his eyes bulging.

"The time is a time of vindication, for us to rise up! I ask you, will I have your vote in 2008?"

Dropping to his knees, he continued the performance as the room filled with laughter. Canary, though, was distracted. He'd noticed that a slight tear, no larger than a fingernail, had opened up on a poorly done patch made by another restorer years ago.

Did he wish the scroll had stayed in the vault until his trip to Lowell?

"No," Canary said calmly. "It's an easy fix. It'll be ready by Friday."

Geoff Edgers can be reached at