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Michael Phillips

Contemplating Kerouac: A Pilgrimage to Lowell

I was skirting the northern edge of the Catskills when a sign for the Schoharie Reservoir promised a chance to stretch my legs. I pulled off Route 23 into an unpaved lot and cut the engine of my ancient Toyota Corolla. It was mid-October, and the surrounding hills leaped with color. Fallen leaves clung to the reservoir’s still surface. After a short walk I sat at the side of the bridge that spanned the wide water and let my legs dangle. I had picked a great day to travel: not a single cloud blemished the sky, the roads were free of traffic, and I had already stumbled onto a new and beautiful place completely by chance. I had left Philadelphia that morning for a circuitous trip through New York and Massachusetts. My destination was the grave of Jack Kerouac in Lowell, Massachusetts.

Visiting a grave may seem like a morose way to spend fall vacation from graduate school, but paying homage to Jack Kerouac was something I had wanted to do since 1995, when, over the course of a few days, he changed my life forever. I was seventeen, a junior in high school, listening to nothing but Bob Dylan and starting to develop an interest in books, ideas, and writing, when one night I noticed a copy of On the Road on a friend’s bookshelf. Having read somewhere that Dylan admired the book, and wanting to emulate Dylan however I could, I asked to borrow the dog-eared paperback collecting dust on my friend’s shelf. I had no idea that I was about to follow a long line of American youths irrevocably corrupted by Kerouac. I was sitting in my room the next day, bored and waiting for dinner, when I first picked up the book. Sitting at my desk as the rain lashed my window, I poured through the first forty pages—an unheard-of sum for me at the time—and went to the kitchen for dinner. As I ate spaghetti and discussed my day with my parents, I felt unsettled. I couldn’t stop thinking, almost guiltily, about what I had read.

Over the next few days I hurried home from school and feverishly devoured huge chunks of the book. I didn’t know anything about the author; I had no idea if the characters were based on real people or if the events depicted ever actually happened—those things didn’t matter to me. All that concerned me was the movement. Kerouac’s book expressed me more fully and accurately than anything ever had. Before discovering On the Road I was a typical teenager: sheltered, inexperienced, and bored. I had no ambition to travel, no hunger for experience, and only the vaguest interest in writing. All that changed by reading On the Road. I became restless to the point of being in physical pain. I imagined myself hopping locomotives or thumbing rides on empty highways; I wanted to have wild intellectual conversations at three in the morning; I wanted to boost cars and dig jazz like Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise. I wanted my life to be bursting. And more than anything I wanted to write. At once the world became immense; experience crucial.

I left the Schoharie Reservoir and proceeded to get lost in the Catskills for over an hour. I wound through labyrinthine roads, up and down hillsides, and around endless bends, surrounded by thick woods that offered no natural landmarks to guide me. Normally I wouldn’t mind losing myself in the Catskills on a sunny autumn day, but I was on a mission. Evening was falling fast, and I had a lot of ground to cover. By the time I disentangled myself of the Catskills and picked up I-87, the sky had turned a hazy steel color. I still had at least an hour of New York before I could pick up the Massachusetts Turnpike.

By the time I hit the Mass. Pike, my legs and back were knotted. I consulted the map for a place to spend the night, settling on the town of Lee, where I zipped into the first motel I saw. I never knew how zealously Americans celebrate Columbus Day weekend, but every room in the whole town was occupied by vacationers and travelers. I went to four places and was welcomed by either "no vacancy" signs or apologetic desk clerks who all claimed to be booked solid.

I had had enough of driving by the time I reached West Springfield. I told myself I’d sleep in the car if I couldn’t find a room. After two motels turned me down I was ready to cry. My last resort was a place that looked like it could’ve been in a horror movie. They had one room left—the kind of room you pray you don’t get. I wouldn’t have been surprised to find a chalk outline on the floor and police tape across the threshold. I tossed my bag on the bed and stood in the middle of the room, afraid to touch anything. I knew I couldn’t fall asleep if I wasn’t very drunk.

I walked a couple of blocks to a T.G.I. Friday’s and watched the last two innings of the Yankee/Red Sox game, but the mood became so sullen after Boston lost that I cleared out after my second beer. I then went to a Mexican restaurant a few streets over and found myself at the bar discussing politics (of which I know nothing) with two guys straight out of The Sopranos. Maybe it was hanging out with gangster types or perhaps my road-weariness that inspired me, but after my third beer I decided to ditch my tab. I ordered a fourth draft, took a big gulp, then went to the bathroom. Anyone could see by my virtually untouched pint that I meant to return, but I slipped out a side door and bolted across the parking lot. I looked over my shoulder a few times, but I had made it. I assure you that ripping off bartenders isn’t something I do often. I was just so bitter about the cost of my crummy motel room that I felt West Springfield owed me. But I didn’t feel like going back to my room.

Deciding I might as well have a few more drinks, I marched toward a neon-trimmed building a few lots over that looked to be jumping. As ridiculous as it may sound after ditching a tab, I shelled out five dollars at the door. I went directly to the bar and ordered a beer. The bar was situated on a mezzanine; below was a floor the size of a football field holding about thirty pool tables. I found an empty stool and watched the action. It was a Saturday night, and close to a hundred people were playing pool or just hanging around the tables. Waitresses wove through the crowd shouldering trays of drinks and appetizers; music poured from massive speakers hanging from the walls; and the smack, smack, smack of colliding pool balls rang in my ears. Some of the players looked like real pros, whose breaks sounded like gunshots, while others shot around for fun, hardy sinking a ball the whole time.

I spent the next few hours nursing beers and looking for someone to talk to. I felt self-conscious and foolish sitting alone, so around midnight I settled with the bartender and began the long walk back. I was still a few blocks from my motel when it started to rain. I flipped the collar of my jacket and picked up my pace, jumping over puddles on the sidewalk and squinting at the headlights of the occasional passing car. I passed rundown restaurants, empty parking lots, and dilapidated gas stations. I cut across the parking lot of a closed-down movie theatre, which looked to have been vacant for decades: the roof sagged over the box office, the paint had peeled from much of the exterior, and grass poked through the cracks of the front walkway. I lowered my head and hurried on.

I had almost forgotten about the wretched ambience of my room when I opened the door to the stench of old cigarette smoke and what smelled a lot like a dead animal. I collapsed onto the bed and stared at the paint-chipped ceiling—drunk and worn out. As I started to drift to sleep I remembered a passage from On the Road that had always moved me, a passage that seemed appropriate in the moment. I dragged myself out of bed and grabbed my copy of Kerouac’s novel from my pack. It took a few minutes, but I finally found the passage. In it, Sal Paradise, having stopped in Des Moines on his cross-country trek, wakes up in a dingy motel room:

"I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn’t know who I was—I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I’d never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost. I was halfway across America, at the dividing line between the East of my youth and the West of my fortune, and maybe that’s why it happened right there and then, that strange red afternoon."

I guess that passage is what Beat literature, or the Beat lifestyle, is all about for me. Although definitions abound, I have never encountered a definition of Beat or Beat literature that satisfies me. It used to bother me that I couldn’t articulate what the concept meant, as if a definitive understanding of Beat would unravel Kerouac’s mystery to me, would somehow peel back the film from my eyes. But now I think Beat is just a feeling, much like you get when drunk and alone, staring at the ceiling of a rundown motel room while on a great journey.

I woke to the sound of rain tapping the window. I could see a sliver of gray sky in the space where the curtains failed to meet, and I immediately wanted to fall back to sleep. Somehow I managed to pull myself up, splash water on my face, and stumble out the door. I still had a couple of hours to Lowell. The rain fell in torrents; even my windshield wipers, on full assault, did little. With the rain and the fog, I could barely travel over fifty miles per hour on I-90. My spirits plummeted. I had imagined myself sitting at Jack’s grave, maybe thumbing a book, or twiddling a blade of grass between my fingers, but now I’d have to huddle under an umbrella in the rain like some grief-stricken widow. All I could do was forge ahead, on what seemed like a completely different journey than the one I had begun the day before.

It was shortly after noon when I swung north toward Lowell on I-495. The rain had subsided to a drizzle during the last thirty minutes of my drive, and my spirits steadily improved. When I reached Lowell I couldn’t believe how closely it matched the way I had imagined it while reading The Town and the City, Doctor Sax, and Visions of Gerard. Overhead hung a featureless sky, and all around were cold brick buildings, empty storefronts, and modest homes standing beside crooked sidewalks and patchy lawns. Lowell, which had previously been a mythical place for me, actually reminded me of the towns near where I grew up, like Scranton and Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania—towns which share a similar working-class provinciality that Kerouac attributes to Lowell in several books.

After stopping at a drug store for directions and an umbrella, I located Edson Cemetery and passed through its yawning gates. Clutching my directions, I found Lincoln Avenue, which I followed to 7th Street. I pulled over on the narrow pavement between 7th and 8th Streets and began to wander the plots. Although Edson is a fairly large cemetery, there was no one else around. I had only the rain and the dead for company. As I wandered through the wet grass, my umbrella bouncing against my shoulder, I spotted a pile of colorful debris several yards away. As I neared, I saw that the debris consisted of beer cans, wine bottles, and flowers. I had found what I was looking for.

I had seen pictures of Kerouac’s grave several times—most notably in the photo of Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg sitting before it, circa 1975—but to actually run my fingers over Jack’s name and over the epitaph “He Honored Life” made me forget all about rain, hangovers, and miles. I then traced Jack’s birth and death dates: Mar. 12, 1922 – Oct. 21, 1969. My eyes then shifted to the head of the marker, where a tattered American flag lay in a clump among the other items, as if an insane and patriotic party had taken place here the night before. There was even a brown bag with a poem etched on it, but the rain had smeared the ink, rendering the poem illegible. Elsewhere, the ground was muddy and trodden by visitors.

On the Road didn't just make me want to be a writer, it made me realize I had to be a writer. There was no choice involved, no decision I had to ponder; I simply felt it at the center of myself. Kerouac is the origin, the ground zero of my writing life. Like Chapman’s Homer for Keats, Kerouac opened vast realms to me; he folded back the veil and made me feel like “some watcher of the skies/ When a new planet swims into his ken.”

It’s difficult to describe how Kerouac informs my writing. Stylistically, I like Hemingway and Steinbeck; thematically, I identify with Andre Dubus and Raymond Carver; but Kerouac imbues my writing with a sort of romantic edge, a dual awareness of the beauty and suffering of the world that I am keenly aware of while reading his work. While drafting my own stories, I try to remember Kerouac’s advice to “preach living for life’s sake,” as he wrote in “Credo,” “not the intellectual way, but the warm way, the way of love.” I try to drive it home “American-wise.” It’s the beauty and passion, as well as the agony, of Kerouac’s words that made me want to be a writer in the first place. And I try to honor him with what I write.

That’s why I had to come to his resting place—to say thank you. And I realized, while standing at his grave, that Kerouac still means as much to me at twenty-nine as he did when I was seventeen. It’s not that I haven’t grown up, it’s that Kerouac has grown up with me. It has never been the speeding cars, jazz, drugs, or women that draws me to Kerouac. (I’ve always identified with Sal Paradise far more than with Dean Moriarty.) What I loved and still love about Kerouac is the stripped-to-the-bone tenderness in his writing. Kerouac was capable of expelling such sad truths, such lugubrious turns of phrase, that when I read works like Visions of Gerard or Big Sur it as though I am witnessing the rawest depiction of humanity literature can offer. If anything, my admiration of Kerouac swells more each year and with each rereading of his works.

Over the years, Kerouac’s work has become an increasingly spiritual element in my life. A lot of Kerouac’s work deals with journeys—actual and metaphysical—and I tend to think of spirituality as a sort of journey. And what is unique about Kerouac’s spiritual journey, as he depicted it, is that it ultimately proved a failure. There is something so sad and compelling in the fact that he never found what he was looking for. Despite—or arguably because of—the wild behavior, drugs, alcohol, and womanizing, Kerouac ended up spiritually bankrupt, lonely, and unfulfilled, much like many of the characters in his work. But who among us wouldn’t want to still take the ride? And that is the thrust of Kerouac’s writing. No matter how good or bad, no matter how satisfying or painful, it is the experience itself that counts; it is the experience that ultimately proves righteous.

Crouching beside the grave, I brushed a leaf from the stone and noticed ten or twelve pens sticking out of the ground at the edge of the marker. I took my pen from my pocket and added it to the bouquet. I then ripped a sheet of paper from my notepad and secured it on the tablet with a penny. Then I said a few words. When I was finished, I plucked a few blades of grass from around the stone and stuffed them, despite their being wet, in my copy of On the Road. I wanted to do and say more, for my gratitude was boundless, but it was time to go. The rain, falling hard again, cascaded off my umbrella. My soaked shoes must’ve weighted five pounds each. I said goodbye and walked back to my car.

I visited the Kerouac Commemorative and walked around Lowell, cold and huddled pathetically under my umbrella. The rain pounded down, and my clothes sagged. I caught a glimpse of the red-brick warehouses, chimney stacks, and the stagnant waters of the Merrimack Canal, but I had had enough. I needed to get warm, to put on dry clothes, and gather myself. Despite my wretched state, I was very happy.

I paced back to my car, put on a Dylan CD, and started for the highway. But I found, just as I was leaving Lowell, that I didn’t have the heart to begin home. I had to keep going, if only for another day. I couldn’t run straight back to Philadelphia; that would insult the spirit of the trip. I continued north into New Hampshire just to see what was up there, because, as Jack wrote, “There’s always more, a little further—it never ends.”

©2007 by Michael Phillips

Michael Phillips has published several short stories and poems in a variety of literary journals. He holds an MA in English, and works as an editor for a healthcare research institute. He currently resides in Eagleville, Pennsylvania.

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