Archives For Beatdom #6

Stuff from issue six.

A Transylvanian Tale

Searching for silence in Romania

Winter in the Eastern Bloc, it’s about 9pm, the night sky outside is blacker than hell. We are just about to cross the border by train between Hungary and the north of Romania; this is the frontier land before we reach Transylvania.

The train slowly grinds to a halt and a couple of brutish looking Magyar border guards approach us and bark the singular word “passport”’ in our faces. We oblige and hand over our British documents and the transaction passes without further incident. An American Jew named Brian who had become a travelling companion of ours is not so lucky; he is met with deep suspicion. Apparently the Hungarians don’t like the Yanks very much, something about too many Hungarian immigrants arriving in the United States. They look him up and down with a vague sense of ritualistic tradition and with unnecessary theatrics hand him back his passport.

The train begins to crawl into the darkness once again. An hour later my head is out the window and I am dragging on a cigarette, watching the bluish gray smoke swirl away into the night-lands as we pass them. Something feels different, something in the air. Through the murk of the landscape I get the sense that something is towering over us. As the tobacco exits my system and my airways clear up a little, it suddenly occurs to me what the difference is – it’s the atmosphere, the air is mountainous; we are in the Carpathians. I know from what little I’d read back in Scotland that our destination is somewhere in the middle of three vast ranges which are within these mountains. Some time later I fall asleep. Can’t remember what I dreamt.

Suddenly I am jolted awake by my travelling partner, “We’re here” he shouts. Sleepily, I respond, “Where?” “Cluj-Napoca!” I grab my backpack and my guitar case and jump onto the concrete of the dimly lit platform. Cold air smacks me in the face like a son of a bitch.

You know now how we arrived, for clarity’s sake I will go back in the narrative and explain why we were there in the first place. The two of us were art students at the time and in our 3rd year of study we were given the opportunity to escape on what is known as an Erasmus Scholarship. In the office the ‘coordinator’ handed me a slip of paper which had a list on it, a list of destinations. As I scanned my eye down the paper I saw the words ‘Cluj-Napoca, Romania, (Transylvania)’. My mind recoiled at the thought that Transylvania was even a real place. I thought it was from the archives of fiction. I had to find out for myself.

Cut to the train station in Cluj-Napoca. We enter into what I can only surmise is the waiting room. It is thick with cigarette smoke and foreign language. We walk through instinctually and emerge into the street. A gaggle of taxi drivers sharing stories raucously gesticulate and laugh. We stand blinking. 30 seconds later we hear the crack of a whip and some hollering and through the smog from right to left pass a horse and cart carrying around seven passengers being pursued by a pack of rabid looking dogs. I turn to my travelling partner, “It looks like the dark ages.” He nods grimly.

Within two minutes of arriving we are in a taxi speeding towards an unknown neighbourhood with an address written on a match box. We also have a phone number. The driver tells us in broken English that the address doesn’t exist. He proves himself to be a really nice guy by phoning our ‘contact’ on his mobile and not abandoning us until he knows we are ready to be abandoned. Eventually we find the international student halls and we wave goodbye to our driver. We walk through the door and are met once again by an authoritative looking man demanding our passports. He has been expecting us evidently but just wants to make sure we are who we say we are. Once he is satisfied we are shown to our rooms, or rather room. The distance between our beds was no more that a metre. We were going to get to know each other pretty well.

I have not yet told you about my travelling buddy and new roommate. His name is Kern, which comes from Scottish Gaelic and means ‘The Dark One.’ He was in fact a very jovial character, although he was always confused. His mind had difficulties in processing, names, dates, language and places which at first I found rather irritating. I did not understand. He is to this day the single most indecisive person I have ever known, but this was part of his charm. I will say one thing, he was fucking brilliant at poker because he had no idea himself that he was bluffing. You could never tell.

Over the next week or so all of the students had pretty much arrived. There were 2 Spaniards, 4 Poles, a Slovenian, 2 Lithuanians, a Hungarian, a German guy, a Mexican, 2 French, a Belgian girl, 2 Czechs, a Colombian, a Serbian and of course us 2 Scots. We were quite a mixed bag.

Our first venture out of the city as a group was quite extraordinary. I will tell you the tale. A few Romanians that we became acquainted with invited us to join them on a trip to a place known as ‘Retezat’. To this day I still have no idea where it is. All I know is that we got there by two trains and one minibus.

Around 20 of us piled into the train compartment and we sped away. The Romanians successfully managed to bribe both ticket collectors on both trains and the whole two hour journey came to about $5. We eventually alighted, after changing once, at some tiny village in the middle of nowhere and sat down at the village’s only bar/shop. It soon became clear that the owner also had a business of driving people up into the mountains. He closed up his shop up and we filled up the two minibuses.

We moved through the countryside and started climbing up through the hills. The hills became mountains and the road became ice. It was as if the road itself became a frozen river. The vehicle began to slide around and the passengers became visibly nervous. The bus that I was in was mainly full of boys, the other contained the girls. We reached a bridge that spanned a terrifying chasm. It was made of concrete and looked ridiculously flimsy. As the minibus crawled across we received a call, the bus behind was having severe issues with traction; it couldn’t go on. We were instructed to get out and walk from here on; the girls were getting our bus.

I walked very cautiously, placing one foot softly in front of the other. I felt like I was walking a tightrope, a ten foot wide tightrope made of concrete. The 1 foot high railing either side was twisted and broken in places and I was shitting myself. When we made it to the other side we discovered a row of graves, some even bearing the same second name. The driver with the girls pulled up, smiled and made a gesture which confirmed my suspicions. These poor bastards had plummeted the 400 feet or so to their deaths, probably in very similar weather.

We walked up and up for what seemed like miles until the bus came back down to retrieve us. We arrived at the first of three lodges and were treated with a thoroughly underwhelming meal of mashed potatoes, sauerkraut and tinned hot dogs. There was no road after this, only a path leading up through the eerie looking pine forests.

We arrived at the second of the lodges, the one at which we would be staying. They were mountain cabins made of logs and had no electricity or running water. The wood for the stove was frozen solid and it took great effort to get warm. The temperature outside was probably about -3. After some snacking and chat we all settled down for the night double-bunking for warmth. I thought I heard the howling of wolves somewhere up the valley but dismissed it as paranoia.

By morning spirits had hit rock bottom, the Spaniards had never before experienced snow and refused absolutely to get out of bed. We left them to their misery and climbed up the valley. The snow became thicker and at some points was close to a metre deep. On we went.

We reached the 3rd lodge at around 10 in the morning just as the sun was rising. This was the timberline. We were at about 1200m. The sun cast an orange glow as it rose over the vast mountain cliffs to our left which blazed on our right. After a real struggle we reached the 2000m sign-post which was on the edge of a frozen lake, completely covered in snow and invisible to those who didn’t know of its existence.

Some of the group went on to see a glacier which was further up but I remained where I was, alone. There were some huge boulders that were presumably swept down by ancient ice which I climbed up onto. From here I could look down the valley and past miles and miles of snow and dark pine forest. Mist was creeping up the valley, soon to engulf us. I suddenly realised how silent this land was. There was not a sound to be heard. I thought back and realised that I handy even seen a bird up here. There were no airplanes, we were far from any flight path, no telephone masts, nothing. It was the most profound silence I had ever experienced and it gave me an almost inexplicable feeling. I don’t think there is a word for it. I lit up a cigarette and inhaled the smoke mixed with mountain’s air. I’ll be searching for that silence for the rest of my life.

Written by Omar Zingaro Bhatia

A Postcard from Ginsberg

In January 1976, Columbia Records released Desire, the Bob Dylan LP, replete with liner notes by Allen Ginsberg. I was 18 years old at the time and worked at a newspaper in Allentown, PA, as a copywriter/copyboy. Continue Reading…

On the Road changed my life… Kind of

by Wayne Mullins

One of the most common quotes you will hear from fans of Jack Kerouac is how reading his seminal novel On the Road changed their lives. I have come to the conclusion that sadly this isn’t actually true. I myself went through the same emotional rollercoaster after reading this book, but many years on I have figured out that sadly it hasn’t really changed my life a great deal (if at all), but that I just really, really liked his book. Below you will find a short essay on my related life experiences and how I tried to emulate the adventures within the book and become more “beat” after reading Kerouac for the first time.

As so often happens in my life my introduction to something important and life changing, in this case Kerouac and the Beat movement, occurred purely by the most random of occurrences. In 2004 I had grown fond of an American animated series called “Home Movies.” The series revolved around a young boy named Brandon and his friends as they write, direct and star in their own home movies, while interacting with a number of memorable and off-beat characters. In one episode, the main character Brandon decides to run away from home and “Live on the road, just like Jack Kerouac.” This throw away line that would barely register with most viewers started to play on my mind and as a fairly young (24 years old) man with little experience of American literature; I had no idea who this Kerouac fellow was or why Brandon would want to emulate him.

A short trip to Amazon provided me with my first taste of the Beat visage. Glowing references and “classic” status were thrown about like confetti and littered many of the books on offer, but one in particular seemed to stand out from the crowd in its referential glory. That book of course was On the Road. Devouring the book chapter after chapter, the story of a young man seemingly looking for answers from other people in a society that he didn’t quit fit in struck a chord within me. Having grown up either being made to read “serious” books in school or trashy horror novels for fun, it came as something of a shock to discover that the printed word could be so personal, beautiful and meaningful. Though I didn’t fully understand it at the time, something had been identified inside of me. I then came to fully realise that my quiet social awkwardness and misplaced feelings towards myself and society, a feeling that I wanted to do my own thing and be damned with conventional culture were by no means unique. I had discovered, thanks to this cartoon, that these feelings had been experienced by people just like me 50 years earlier and that they had even gone through the trouble of writing books about it.

Always wanting to see the world, and in particular America, I had managed to experience a brief flurry of adventure in my nineteenth year, when a student work programme had allowed me to travel and work in America on a Summer camp for Jewish children in the Pennsylvania mountains. Though ultimately a false dawn in my new and exciting life of travelling the world and having adventures like a Welsh Sal Paradise, it did give me a taste of what was possible, even if the highlight of my trip to the USA was lasting just one weekend in Manhattan before flying home. Though brief, I started to believe that it was possible to have the kind of life I had only read about and it none the less provided me with some frame of reference for the future I wished to experience.

After returning to the UK, I took a menial and soul destroying job as an office administrator for the Health Service, with the sole intention of saving enough money in order to plan my next trip abroad. Around this time, however, I also started an illicit and secret affair with a femme-fatal-like, slightly older work colleague. I justified this to myself as a worthy and fun escape from the brain sapping monotony that everyday life in a modern office offers. Eager to impress and deepen our emotional bond I offered to lend her the book that had come to mean so much to me. She eventually returned it some months later upon my repeated request and when quizzed as to what was her favourite part of the book, she crushed me by replying “Ohhh, all of it.”  Needless to say, the book was unread and any further connection I was hoping to make with this woman would have to be purely physical and have nothing to do with something as unpopular and time consuming as intellectual attachment.

I’d love to say that my main source of joy in life was riding the pussy express all the way to fun-town, but I find that as I get older, people who have a brain capacity that limits them to banal soap operas are of no use to me. I am no longer willing to put up with know nothing idiots and empty headed hot-mouths, both of which Wales has too many off. Not being able to make a deeper connection with this woman over a movement and rich as the Beats and with something as personal to me as On the Road, eventually lead us to go our separate ways. Also, she was married, which somewhat complicated things.

But I will always remember my beautiful blonde and sexy office-lover; a woman who I will always remember (rightly or wrongly) as someone who was always five minutes away from either hitting the bottle in her sad, trapped despair or ripping my clothes off with her sweet, angel voiced fury.

Undeterred I vowed to continue my Beat studies and continue with my original plan to travel and apply myself to fully understanding the messages they taught. However, I was having trouble putting into practice what I had learned as I had always been a fairly quiet and shy person, but unlike Kerouac I had neither the constitution or liking for alcohol which helped him deal with the same problem. There is a part of my brain that I can never turn off, no matter how drunk I get and that was that I was never comfortable trying to be a person that I was not. I always have a damned voice inside my head letting me know in no uncertain terms that I’m faking it and the glazed, dopey and slouched appearance alcohol gives me makes me look like a dizzy school boy after his first hit of vodka.

The years slowly ticked by as my plans to travel gathered dust amongst the haze of car payments, work commitments and my own procrastinating nature. Salvation was to come however when a kindred spirit came into my life through work, a man by the name of Neil. Being single, fun and most importantly the same age as myself, it was an ice cold shower of a wakeup call when I realised that there was a universe beyond the middle-aged, sagging, dog-eared, dried up, miserable excuse for a women that seem to populate offices everywhere. The connection with Kerouac once again came to the fore as I soon found that Neil embodied the spirit and soul of Dean Moriarty, a friend that I had been unconsciously looking for (at least in my mind) since I first read On the Road all those years ago. Neil typified the complete embodiment of how to live life without regret. He was tall, good looking, insanely confident and the women loved him, everything I felt was denied to me, either through reality or my own warped view of self. To my surprise, he was also a good person and an even better friend.

Away from the attention of the dog-eared humpties, we spent countless hours talking about love, life, our hopes and dreams and our plans for the future. Though easy to dismiss as hedonistic in nature and loud and brash, Neil possessed a keen intellect and warm personality as he continually pushed me to expand my comfort zone and to explore life. To say we were complete opposites would be a fair assumption. While I was quiet and somewhat introverted, he delighted in shouting expletives at the top of his lungs in the middle of the street, always happy to be the centre of attention. With Neil in attendance it was a satisfying feeling knowing that I was finally starting to experience some of the counter culture and wild living that I had read so much about, though be it from the safety of a Friday night out on the town in deepest, darkest South Wales.

While I continued into my slow slide towards 30 with very little hope or salvation in sight and my plans of travelling now almost forgotten in the midst of time, Neil had dreams and goals of his own that he wanted to achieve. He wanted to travel, he wanted to experience life and he wanted to have fun. Quitting his job in the company in which we both worked for and leaving his rock band behind (yes, he was even in a rock band), Neil set out for Australia and South America on his journey of self-discovery and adventure. Though tentative gestures of an invitation were made to come with him to Australia early on in his planning, I felt I had to decline the offer at the time as I saw it as Neil’s path, a path which he should be allowed to walk alone for a while. Besides, I had my own path to walk at this point and decided to take a big risk by quitting my job after nearly 8 years and open my own business.

Over a year has since passed and it brings us pretty much up to the present at the time of writing. Having stayed in intermittent contact with Neil during this time, it was with great excitement that I received an email from him letting me know that he was planning on travelling across North America. I felt that this was the right time to make another change in my life and the thought of a real life On the Road adventure with my surrogate Cassady was too good an opportunity to pass me by. The dreams from my youth of travelling and exploring life dusted themselves off and I enthusiastically wrote back asking what he thought of the possibility of road-tripping with me around the USA. Sadly, his reply was not what I had hoped.

Somewhat tired from the constant travelling over the last 18 months, Neil had decided to spend the majority of his time when in the USA entrenched in the music scene in Nashville. Not planning on making any further road-trips in the immediate future, he none the less offered me a small crumb of possibility with a bitter-sweet “maybe, who knows?” final sentence. Approaching 32 year of age and with the possibility of making my long wished for road trip looking ever slimmer by the day, I lay awake at nights, well in the small hours, staring at the ceiling and running through all the possible adventures and trips in my imagination.

One night we are hitting the Jazz clubs of Manhattan, the next we are crossing the great deserts of Utah in an open top Cadillac, then maybe a stop off in San Francisco so we can take in the spiritual home of the Beats. But all the while I am reminded that even though my dreams of travelling may never now come true, the truth in the fantasy that I had learned from Kerouac and On the Road is that they have indeed changed my life.

They have taught me that my own mind can provide me with a life that I can live a hundred times in the space of a few hours while just lying in bed, while I wait for the lesser dreams to come.


Literature and the art of self-realisation

by Cila Warncke

To arrive where you are

To get where you are not

You must go by the way wherein there is no ecstasy

…In order to arrive at what you are not

You must go through the way in which you are not

And what you do not know

Is the only thing you know

And what you own

Is what you don’t own

And where you are

Is where you are not.

– T.S. Elliot

I was lucky. By the time I discovered that personal autonomy is one of those American tropes that gets full lip-service but absolutely no practical respect (see also: “all men are created equal” and separation of church and state), I’d read The Grapes of Wrath and it was too late. Already, tires on asphalt were singing and orange trees bloomed somewhere. There was also a dark undercurrent in Steinbeck’s prose, the murmured caution I might not survive the trip or, reaching an end, find what I was seeking.

The mythic American journey is a quest for self-realisation, a conscious effort to shake off the ties of convention and to seek truth through action. Henry David Thoreau showed the way when he went to Walden Pond to “suck the marrow out of life.” Note: it is okay to gather moss as you invent yourself. Movement, per se, is not the point. To actively choose a mode of being is what matters. Hunter S. Thompson put this as beautifully as I’ve seen, advising his kid brother: “Don’t think in terms of goals, think in terms of how you want to live. Then figure out how to make a living.” I first read those words on a bus rolling through the high plains outside Mexico City and they echoed in my head as we plunged south, through the impoverished streets of Acapulco to the wild beaches of Guerrero. It struck me that in all my years of work and education no-one ever suggested it is important to think about how to live. If I wanted any wisdom on that front I would have to find it on my own.

Inspiration is rare because twenty-first century America is obsessed with security. Running away to find yourself is disreputable. The joy of movement, of self-propulsion, is viewed with suspicion because it is antithetical to stability. If even a fraction of the dreamers shrugged off the encumbrance of property, life insurance and steady jobs the social order would collapse. So we’re allowed Easy Rider and On the Road, while being subtly shackled by 401(k) plans and 10 days per year paid vacation.

Daily life is full of opportunities to behave in familiar ways. The trick is to avoid doing so. This means taking a hard look at what convention has to offer, and refusing it. “This is why I left the States when I was 22,” rock icon Chrissie Hynde once remarked. “I saw that I was going to be trapped into buying a car so I could get to work so I could pay for my car.” Like all artists, she understands the vital importance of action, of embracing uncertainty. Such choices are fraught with insecurity; with the promise of bittersweet, intoxicating thrills.

“Nobody’s ever taught you how to live out on the street,” Bob Dylan hymns in Like a Rolling Stone, “And now you’re gonna have to get used to it.” Getting used to it is hard. If it wasn’t everyone would do it. Death and desperation drive the Joads; in Breakfast at Tiffany’s Holly Golightly runs from the wilderness to the glass canyons of New York City to the jungles of South America, never quite catching up to her dreams. Their journeys are tragic, not triumphal, yet the dream remains – wistful, stubborn – of California sunsets and the glint of diamonds. Travelling your own road requires a fervent belief in the infinite possibilities of freedom, but catastrophe and failure are always among the possibilities.

Vincent Van Gogh, who is unjustly dismissed as an ear-hacking auteur, wrote luminous, philosophical letters pondering his struggles to live with artistic integrity in a material world. “I think that most people who know me consider me a failure, and… it really might be so, if some things do not change for the better,” he wrote on his thirtieth birthday. “When I think it might be so, I feel it so vividly that it quite depresses me… but one doesn’t expect out of life what one has already learned that it cannot give.” What life, faced square on, cannot give is any assurance of a happy ending. There is powerful literary testimony to the fact that courage is no guarantor of success.

Martha Gellhorn, novelist and war-correspondent extraordinaire, knew this better than most. I’ve dragged her superb memoir, Travels with Myself & Another, across two continents as much for the spine-stiffening effect of her brusque prose as for her mordantly funny stories of ‘horror journeys.’ “Moaning is unseemly,” she concludes. “Get to work. Work is the best cure for despair.”

Contrary to popular belief, work matters to the wanderers. There is nothing lazy about going in search of experience. Hunter Thompson scraped, rowed and rolled across the Americas not because he didn’t want to work but because he wanted meaningful work. The tragedy of The Great Gatsby is that the idle rich flourish at the expense of hungry, intelligent young men who cannot find honest labour. Hell, even Dean Moriarty, “the most fantastic parking-lot attendant in the world,” pays for his adventure with stints of “working without pause eight hours a night.”

America trivialises the industry and vitality of people who carve their own paths because it needs well-rooted consumers to prop up its web of shopping malls, real estate brokers and HMOs. And because it is afraid of being called to account for broken promises about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In The Grapes of Wrath Steinbeck offers a deadly accurate diagnosis of establishment dread:

The Californians wanted many things, accumulation, social success, amusement, luxury, and a curious banking security, the new barbarians wanted only two things – land and food…. Whereas the wants of the Californians were nebulous and undefined, the wants of the Okies were beside the roads.

Land and food are buried deep in the heart of every personal saga. Even rolling stones need a resting place. (Kerouac first uses “beat” in the sense of beat-up, worn out, kicked around. Only later did it become a badge of honour.) Truth is, unhitching yourself from the comfortable yolk of everydayness is difficult business. It is an act of necessity, desperation even, undertaken by those who refuse to live half-lives. If you heed Thoreau’s injunction to “step to the music [you hear], however measured or far away,” you are liable to find yourself lost, cold, broke, alienated, adrift. Getting to California means crossing the cross the Great Divide. Like as not, your only encouragement along the way will be the books at the bottom of your rucksack. And faith the destination will prove worthy of the journey.


Capote, Truman Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Dylan, Bob ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ from Highway 61 Revisited

Eliot, T.S. ‘East Coker’ from Four Quartets

Gellhorn, Martha Travels with Myself & Another

Kerouac, Jack On The Road

Steinbeck, John The Grapes of Wrath

Thompson, Hunter S. The Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman

Thoreau, Henry David Walden

Van Gogh, Vincent The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh (ed. Mark Roskill)

The End of the Road

R. R. Reno

The road dominates the American imagination, from the Oregon Trail to Route 66. That strange, in-between time of escape, freedom, and adventure: On The Road, you leave behind all the ordinary routines and demands. Still, I was surprised when my daughter was assigned On The Road in her high-school English class. Kerouac’s frenetic novel seemed less obvious a choice than Moby Dick and less safe a choice than To Kill a Mockingbird.

But I soon discovered that daughter’s assignment reflects a new consensus about American literature. The Library of America series put out a Kerouac volume last year, on the fiftieth anniversary of the pub­lication of On The Road in 1957. A number of other books devoted to Kerouac and On The Road hit the shelves of the big bookstore chains. Literary journals published retrospectives. These signs point to a re­markable fact: Jack Kerouac’s evocation of the rag-tag beatnik culture of his day has entered the canon of Great American Novels.

On The Road is a thinly fictionalized account of Kerouac’s road trips in the late 1940s. A talented work­ing-class kid from Lowell, Massachusetts, Kerouac was recruited to play football at Columbia University in 1941. After two years he dropped out to become a writer, living in New York as the proverbial struggling artist.

It was there he met Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and other poets, writers, and wandering souls. Kerouac dubbed his little group the Beats. The name came from a slang term for down and out, but, when applied to the literary crowd, it came to capture the ragged, free-spirited existence of those who live on the edges of society. After the traumas of the great Depression and World War II, the vast majority of Americans eagerly returned to the relative stability of middle-class life, now reaching outward to the newly emerging suburbs. The Beats were the first wave of rebellion against this larger trend. They self-consciously set themselves against the postwar push toward normalcy by surviving on odd jobs, G.I. benefits, and donations from friends and family.

On The Road opens in this New York scene of aspiring poets, writers and seekers. The narrator, Sal Paradise, is trying to make his way as a young writer. But life has become suffused with the “feeling that everything was dead.” (In real life, Kerouac’s father died in 1946). The would-be young sages have reached various dead ends. “All my New York friends,” Sal reports, “were in the negative, nightmare position of putting down society and giving their tired bookish or political or psychoanalytical reasons.”

But a new possibility appears when there arrives in town a man named Dean Moriarty — based on Neal Cassady, a charismatic personality of great importance in the history of the Beats. Abandoned child of a drunk in Denver, sometime resident of reform schools, and con man, Dean is a man of unaccountable energies and appetites. The incarnation of pure American freedom, he casts his spell over Sal’s circle of friends. His zest of life galvanizes the seeking literary types living in dank walk-ups in Manhattan. But Dean leaves, and in leaving, he becomes the lure that draws Sal out of New York and onto the road.

The body of the novel is divided into four main road trips, three crossing and re-crossing the United Sates, and the fourth from Denver down to Mexico City. Sal narrates his adventures in the fast-paced fashion of this happened and then that happened. He meets oddball characters. There are numerous stops and side adventures. And yet, the story comes quickly to focus on Dean. No matter where the road leads, it inevitably involves finding Dean, being found by Dean, launch­ing out on cross-country drives with Dean, partying all night with Dean, and finally, in Mexico City, being abandoned by Dean.

Kerouac is not subtle about Dean’s role. Although Dean steals without hesitation, cheats on his women, ignores his children, and abandons Sal when he is sick, Dean has “the tremendous energy of a new kind of American saint.” “Behind him charred ruins smoked,” the narrator tells the reader, but Dean rises out of the chaos he creates with a “ragged W.C. Fields saintli­ness.” Soaked in sweat, muddy, and reeking of urine, Dean radiates “the purity of the road.” Despite Dean’s erratic, destructive, and selfish behavior, Kerouac describes his achievement with clarity: “Bitterness, recriminations, advice, morality, sadness — everything was behind him, and ahead of him was the ragged and ecstatic joy of pure being.” The quintessential free spirit, he has the power to turn his back on all the hin­dering limitation that ordinary folks feel so acutely, the most limiting of which are moral conventions. “The thing,” he preaches, “is not to get hung up.”

As Kerouac tells us in a moment of revelation, “I suddenly realized that Dean, by virtue of his enormous series of sins, was becoming the Idiot, the Imbecile, the Saint.” The rhetoric of holiness so closely combined with sordid behavior can outrage the pious reader of On The Road, but it should not surprise. Kerouac is following a long literary tradition of juxtaposing high and low, sacred and profane, noble and base. Sal writes in order to convey his “reverent mad feelings.” Dean is angelic in his “rages and furies,” and Sal records that, in a night of revelry, “Dean became frantically and demonically and seraphically drunk.” Dean is a con man and a wise man, a mystical lecher, a debauched embodiment of spiritual purity.

The problem of happiness is at once social and existential. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau observed early in the modern era, social expectations alienate. The examples are many. Good manners dic­tate saying “thank you” even when we are not truly grateful. Prudence and anxiety — about the dire conse­quences of poverty encourage us to save for the future and resist the temptation to spend for the pleasures of the moment. Conventional morality condemns as sinful those actions that are based on some of the immedi­ate sexual desires of men and women. In each case, and in countless others, what we think and feel and want are at odds with what is expected.

Rousseau was a complicated thinker. His theory of the social contract can give the impression that he endorses the classical picture of happiness as socializa­tion into a community of virtue. But in his influential dramatizations of the good life, Emile and La Nouvelle Heloise, he outlined a new approach. Those who wish to live well must break the charm of social conventions so that they can live according to their truest impulses and innermost desires.

The bohemians followed Rousseau’s advice in nine­teenth-century Paris. Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman were New World bohemians, and in the twentieth century the tenements of Greenwich Village became an important center of American bohemian life. The personalities, motivations, and literary move­ments were different in each case, but they all viewed the rigid social and moral conventions of respectable society as impoverishing and unnecessary.

Rousseau’s counsel and the bohemian approach to life can seem an easy hedonism, but it never has been, or at least never merely. Rousseau knew that man is a social animal. We are hardwired to want to live in accord with social conventions. As a result, any sort of deviance that is intentional rather than pathological has a heroic magnificence — a status Rousseau proudly assigned to himself. Not surprising­ly, then, one of the signal features of the bohemian project has been a celebration of transgression for its own sake. Those who break the rules — whether artistic, lit­erary, or moral –gain the most admiration, because they have demonstrated their self-willed freedom from society.

The Beats were quintessential bohemians who felt the plain-Jane expectations of middle-class American life as an infecting, constraining force. Wife, career, mortgage, children, savings accounts, and quiet subur­ban streets: These were realities overlaid by the dead­ening expectations of conventional morality. Escape was essential, and, although Kerouac and the other Beats lacked Rousseau’s clarity about the constant impulse of human nature to accept and submit to social authority, they intuitively recognized the need for dramatic acts and symbols of transgression.

All of this makes it wrong to read On The Road as a story of adolescent self-indulgence and thrill-seeking. Just as St. Francis tore off his clothes in the city square and rejected life according to normal hopes and fears, so Dean is a man entirely outside society. His criminal­ity is not motivated by a mean desire for money. He does not steal cars to sell them, for that would simply be a dishonest way of getting the equivalent of a regu­lar paycheck. Dean commits crimes because it is in his nature to grab whatever is at hand to enjoy the moment. His transgressions, Kerouac tells us, were all part of “a wild yea-saying overburst of American joy.”

Dean wants to live, and, as Jesus advises, he worries not about the morrow while he pops pills, smokes joints, and downs shots of whiskey. In his conscienceless care­lessness, Dean is angelic. “He was BEAT — the root, the soul of Beatific,” living in the moment, one tap of the cymbal at a time.

In 1957, the New York Times review hailed the novel’s publication as “a historic occasion.” The review trumpeted that On The Road offers “the clearest and most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as ‘beat,’ and whose principal avatar he is.” Of course, as David Brooks so cleverly observed in Bobos in Paradise, we’re all weekend beatniks now. The counterculture of transgression that dominates On The Road has thor­oughly colonized our middle-class world.

Transgression and marginality have become the new normalcy. The bohemian rejection of social con­vention was first theorized as a normal stage of psychological development (“adolescent rebellion”), and more recently it has been made into both commercial fashions and academic dogma. Aging rock musicians go on tours and play their songs of youthful lust and rebellion to graying Baby Boomers who need Viagra. College professors theorize transgression as an act of political freedom. It’s easy to see that Kerouac road that leads from the Beat fantasies of primal innocence to our own day, where white boys from the suburbs dress like drug dealers, girls like prostitutes, and mil­lionaires like dock workers. Crotch-grabbing rap singers play the role of well-paid Dean Moriartys.

Perhaps that’s why some critics think of On The Road as simply early propaganda for our current cul­ture. Writing in the New Criterion, Anthony Daniels argues that Kerouac “was a harbinger” of an age “in which every intelligent person was expected, and came himself to expect, to forge his own soul unguided by the wisdom of his ancestors.” We care about Kerouac, Daniels claims, only “because he was a prophet of immaturity.” “To call Kerouac’s writing mediocre is to do it too much honor,” Daniels adds. The book’s sig­nificance “is sociological rather than literary.” And then with a hauteur one expects from the New Criteri­on, he concludes, “The fact that his work is now being subjected to near-biblical levels of reverential scholar­ship is a sign of very debased literary and academic standards.”

I don’t dispute that Kerouac’s accounts of beatnik life inspired the adolescent rebellion in the 1960s which eventually became the perpetual adolescence of our own times. But Daniels seems wrong, both about what On The Road says culturally and about what it achieves as a work of literature.

Kerouac was not a writer who anticipated the 1960s, which, in fact, he disliked and denounced before his premature death in 1969. He does not treat the road as a path into the supposedly real self, nor does it lead toward an imagined better society. On The Road disparages “the complacent Reichiananlyzed ecstasy” of progressive folks in San Francisco. It expresses no confidence that heroin or marijuana or whiskey bring us to some hidden truth about our souls. The novel is noticeably uninterested in social or economic utopias. There are no communes, no health-food cooperatives, no late-night meetings to talk about revolution.

On the contrary, Kerouac focuses on the disordered, episodic, and chaotic nature of his experiences. He seems less a prophet of any particular way of life than an observer of the inconclusive thrusts of bohemian desire for authentic life — and the counter-thrusts of reality. Sal despairs of “the senseless nightmare road.” Faced with embittered friends, Sal tells us, “I forgave everybody, I gave up, I got drunk.” The sentiment is resignation, not sybaritic self-indulgence. “Every­thing,” Sal recalls, “was collapsing” as Dean’s aimless antics lead to a dead end. Sal follows Dean, but the promises of the moment seem always broken soon after they are made. While traveling, Sal recalls a lonely song with a telling refrain: “Home I’ll never be.”

Kerouac ambivalence is not just a matter of clash­ing emotions that come from the highs and lows of life On The Road. The book is forever careening forward, and the story never rests in any particular observation or experience. Kerouac lists the towns that Dean drives through at high speeds —Manteca, Modesto, Merced, Madera, Pueblo, Walsenberg, Trinidad: Transition and movement agitate the novel and the reader.

Kerouac’s accounts of his experiences are either catalogues of indigestible detail or surreal sketches. On one page Sal is drunk in a San Francisco restaurant. A page or two later he is on a bus where he meets a Mexican girl and falls in love. Only a few pages further he abandons her to make his way back to New York. The novel does not develop. It tumbles. The rat-tat-tat of narration, the quick snap­shots of local color, and the raw emotions recalled give the story a feeling of restless seeking rather than sus­tained introspection, philosophical coherence, or care­ful social analysis.

This overall literary effect was not accidental. Ker­ouac took his trips with the self-conscious goal of gath­ering material for a novel. For a couple of years he struggled with numerous drafts, always unsatisfied with the results. In April 1951, Kerouac decided to begin again. This time he taped together several twelve­-foot-long sheets of tracing paper, trimmed to fit into his typewriter as a continuous roll. In three weeks he typed the entire story from beginning to end as one  long paragraph on the single scroll of paper.

The marathon performance became something of a legend, and it was romanticized by Kerouac himself as part of his later theory of “spontaneous writing.” And yet, the approach was not a cheap publicity stunt. As Louis Menand has observed, the taped-together sheets of paper constrained and disciplined Kerouac. The scroll prevented the sort of deepening of theme, char­acter, motive, and experience that comes with circling back to revise. Kerouac did revise later, but mainly to consolidate and simplify the various road trips into a more manageable form. He did not introduce layers of authorial reflection into the relentless flow of events and personalities.

As a result, On The Road does not emerge as a bohemian manifesto with a clear agenda or as an exis­tentially deep reflection on the inner life of a counter-cultural hero. The Beat lingo is omnipresent, and its slogans, aspirations, and hopes are plainly in view. Dean Moriarty is certainly a high priest of transgres­sion. But because all these elements of the narrative cas­cade through the pages, nothing stands out to sum up or interpret events. The details — and especially the dated existentialist slogans and Beat truisms — fall away because they fall behind. Prose racing forward, the road simply becomes a desperate, necessary, ancient quest for what Kerouac describes in a number of places as “the pearl.”

That feeling — of straining, desperate, and failed seeking — does not define the world we live in today. Our tattooed adolescents enjoy small pleasures of rebellion and collect the socially approved badges of nonconformity. Our literature is dominated by the languid Iowa Writers Workshop style: carefully wrought set pieces to accompany our studied and care­fully constructed self-images. On The Road may have given us our clichés about authenticity, but not our qui­escence — not our postmodern roles as managers of dif­ference, not the temperate transgressions on which we insist as middle-class Americans.

The self-congratulation of the 1960s is entirely ab­sent from On The Road. Kerouac does not compliment himself as a rebel after the fashion of Hunter S. Thompson. He is no Hugh Hefner posing as a heroic hedonist. Many scenes are debauched, but Kerouac does not tote up his demerits, like a high-school boy bragging about how many beers he drank. The book expresses hunger and never satisfaction, not even in its own countercultural image. “I had nothing to offer anyone,” Kerouac writes in a line that sums up the effect of the whole book, “but my own confusion.”

There is, however, an unexpected, subtle relevance, one that testifies to Kerouac’s achievement as a writer rather than his influence as a legendary member of the Beat generation. Sal consistently conveys notes of sad­ness that grow ever more palpable as the book draws to an end. One drunken episode brings not good times but instead memories of an earlier, urine-soaked and unconscious night on the floor of a men’s room. The road of transgressive freedom seems haunted by defile­ment. Sal’s final visions in Mexico City do not come from any high at all, but instead from fever-induced delusions as Dean leaves him. Sickness and abandon­ment take the place of the promised adventure and fellowship of the road.

Most poignantly of all, the novel opens with volu­ble talk about Nietzsche and Schopenhauer and Proust, but it concludes with Dean’s strange, incoher­ent effusions. By the end, Sal tells us, “He couldn’t talk any more. He hopped and laughed, he stuttered and fluttered his hands and said, ‘Ah–ha – you must listen to hear.’ We listened, all ears. But he forgot what he want­ed to say.” Dean’s mind is so fried by drugs and alcohol that he can no longer carry on a conversation. The seraphic mystic of “pure love” becomes a mute oracle. The great bohemian guru can no longer offer guidance. One feels the need for the road in Kerouac’s forward-leaning prose. But the reader also feels the failure. “I think of Dean Moriarty,” Sal the narrator writes in his final line, “I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found.” Then, as if wishing to ward off the demons of emptiness and loss, Sal repeats, “I think of Dean Moriarty.”

The sad sense of failure and decay of On The Road strike me as far more contemporary than the revelry and debauchery of the novel. We have not inherited Dean’s “wild yea-saying overburst of American joy,” nor have we found our way to the “joy of pure being.” True enough, we smile and congratulate ourselves for our progressive attitudes as we accommo­date ourselves to a society committed to embracing any number of strange “lifestyle choices.” But on the whole, our culture seems dominated by worries. The media lust for bad tidings, as if to insist that we must suffer for failing to find the pearl of great price. At lead­ing universities, one can be forgiven for concluding that our academic leaders believe that Western culture does not deserve to thrive or even to survive — a thought held even as they ride along the surfaces of a remark­able social tolerance, born of our tacit affirmation of the transgressive beatitude of Dean Moriarty.

It is as if we very much want to believe in Dean, but, like Sal at the end of On The Road, we know we cannot rely on him to give us guidance. We want to believe the promises of bohemian life — to live according to our own innermost selves — but we are surrounded by the sadness of disappointed hope. The transgressive hero­ism of our imagination now looks as tawdry as daytime television. Bohemianism becomes banal and disap­pointing as it becomes dominant. We suffer the failures of the countercultural project even as we surround ourselves with its music, its rhetorical postures, and its fashions.

I do not claim that Jack Kerouac was a great writer, but Kerouac’s lasting achievement in On The Road is beyond doubt. The manic, forward-leaning rush of Kerouac prose drives his writerly ego to the mar­gins of the narrative. This allows the novel to depict the bohemian project rather than offer a statement of its goals or summary of its philosophy or airbrushed pic­ture of its heroism. Kerouac was a witness to the Beat generation, not its poet or spokesman or philosopher king.

It is stultifying to approach literature always expecting moral instruction in the form of ready and true principles for how to live. And it is absurd to reject Kerouac simply on the grounds that he fails to teach sound morals. Literature can instruct at a deeper level. Literature can show us how and where our human par­ticularity overfloods our moral ideals.

And when it does, readers are left to navigate on their own — to test, as it were, the sufficiency of their own moral resources to make sense of the strange, pulsing, living, and almost always perverted and con­fused realities of human life.

So it was for me the first time I read On The Road more than twenty-five years ago. A bohemian fellow traveler of sorts, I had already been on my own road, hitchhiking many times across America. The book had a paradoxically sobering effect as I read it one day on the front porch of a hostel in France, outside of Chamonix, overlooking a meadow in late spring bloom. When I finished I felt a judgment on my Emersonian fantasies of originality.  My small efforts to escape from the safe streets and calm kitchens of mid­dle-class America were, I learned, part of an old story. I was going down an often-walked road with my emblematic backpack and blue jeans and torn T-shirt. I felt like a suburban explorer who suddenly realizes that the nearby forest is not the Amazonian jungle.

More slowly and more unconsciously, I also felt the sadness: the incoherent babbling of Dean Moriar­ty, the sulfurous red dawns that always seemed to follow the all-night reveries, the way in which what Sal wanted seemed to slip from his hands, the mute indif­ference of the great American landscape that Kerouac evokes so passionately, the hard asphalt of the road itself.

Kerouac’s manic rush of prose lays bare his own ambivalence and self-contradiction. He did not pack­age the bohemian experience with a peace symbol and the earnest pose of a young revolutionary of high moral purpose. He told a story that forces us to con­sult our moral compass. He helps us see that Dean Moriarty, the antimomian shaman of the American imagination, achieves no beatitude and has no blessings to give.

You can reach Dr. Reno by email at

The Crooked Path Towards Salvation


I pull into the parking lot of the Motel 6 at 3 am. I’ve been driving for 18 hours straight, most of them supplemented by heavy doses of caffeine and THC. The combination of fatigue, a waning buzz and hours spent in wistful rumination leave me in a strange emotional state. The best way to describe it is I feel as if I don’t exist. It’s like one of those out of body experience scenes in a movie where the spirit floats above the bed and looks down with detachment at its earthly form.  I see me sitting in my black sedan on a drab, cracked slab of concrete in Davenport, Iowa, in the center of a vast plain.

My view of the journey here is less clear. The nearly 1200 miles I traveled from New Hampshire passed in a string of flashing white lines and gradually flattening landscape that didn’t seem to have a definitive beginning or end. Images of the drive are burned into my head: a fine mist settling over the tops of the green hills of Pennsylvania, farmhouses and huge, long irrigation machines, an abandoned factory in some small, sad town whose name I’ve forgotten, a child’s face in an adjacent vehicle whose piercing gaze momentarily captivated me as I blazed past him on the highway.

All I have of the immense distance I just covered are a few random snapshots and even those don’t seem real. Nothing seems real. Any sense of purpose I had upon setting out is lost. The only thing I’m sure of is that this is Jack Kerouac’s fault.


I first read On The Road in August of 2005. Right from the first paragraph, in which Kerouac states he was getting over, “…my awful feeling that everything was dead” and “…I’d always dreamed of going west, seeing the country, always vaguely planning and never specifically taking off,”  he was speaking to me. Like Kerouac, I won’t bother going into much detail about what led to my particular depression except that it was the perfect storm of being rejected from the law schools I’d applied to, dumped by my girlfriend, laid off from work and having to move back in with my parents. Within the span of a few weeks the entire life I’d imagined for myself was gone.

In particular, one memory from my first reading stands out so clearly that I often suspect it’s embellished. I’d been entranced by Kerouac from the opening page, but the following line served to stir something in particular inside of me: “What is the feeling when you’re driving away from people, and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? –it’s the too huge world vaulting us, and it’s good bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”

After reading this I set the book down on the bed next to me.  The mid-afternoon sun was blaring through the bay window at my back. My journal lay on the bedside table with a pen stuck in the pages as a marker. I lay back in bed with my eyes shut and my arms folded underneath my head.  A feeling of calm washed over me.

I’ve often thought back on this episode, knowing it to be seminal in my life, but never completely sure why. With the passage of time I’m now able to discern just what happened in that moment: I realized, for the first time, that I wanted to be an artist; nay, that I was an artist and I needed to start acting like one. Pulling myself out of the hole I was in required living a spontaneous and creative life. A man who does not do what he was born to do is bound to toil in misery.


“Sir? May I help you?”

The voice comes from behind the reception desk, produced by one of those blond, round, low-income American women whose age is nearly impossible to determine.

“Sir, breakfast doesn’t’ start til’ 8 a.m.

I’ve been standing in the dining area, idly handling a miniature box of cereal. I haven’t spoken in nearly a day and when I reply, “Yes, of course,” it sounds like I’m shouting at her. I see fear in her eyes, the perception of danger at this swarthy out-of-stater gripping Frosted Flakes, yelling at her from across the lobby.

I set the processed, enriched corn product down and stride cautiously to the desk. The clerk hides behind one of those tight-lipped smiles that only narrowly masks discomfort.

“I need a room…one suitable for sleeping.” I try to discern if I’m still yelling.

She smiles awkwardly. “Is it just you tonight, sir?”

Sensing that my New England accent is frightening her, I merely nod.

“Sir, it’s $39.99 per night.”

I grunt, reach for my wallet and remember it’s in the car. I point to the parking lot and turn out my pockets, hoping she’ll understand. As I step outside I take inventory of the out-of-state plates. On the interstate cars pass east and west, motoring to some destination, setting a course towards the satiation of some need, all of us sharing Davenport at 3 a.m…never to know each other, never to know the outcome of even a chance meeting…all ghosts, floating across the phantasmal plains, acting on the perception that something must be done to gain peace, that we’re somehow doing the right thing.


The major epiphanies of one’s life tend to feel like they happen all in one instant even though they are usually the end result of things that have been gathering, fecundating in the mind for days…weeks…months…years…

For as long as I can remember, I always felt different. There is no simple or concise way to explain this. The feeling manifested itself most noticeably at the perception that everybody was taking life more seriously than I was.  I found myself attracted to anything that was cracked or a bit off kilter. Only the strange was of any interest to me. I was vaguely aware that I wanted something else out of life but I had no idea what it was or how to get it.

Like most kids I went along doing what I was expected to. This mostly meant doing well in school. Even when I was very young, though, I had no interest in my studies. It dawned on me early on that being a good student merely required rearranging information in a way that was pleasing to my teachers. This didn’t cause me to suffer in school. If anything, I became a better student. I was a cold-blooded killer who dispatched of assignments with a slightly disdainful indifference. It was all a game and winning meant figuring out the rules and following them.  The real problem was that there was nothing I cared to win.

By high school I had the feeling that everything I did was a wasted movement. I was stuck in the middle of nowhere spinning my wheels. I began experimenting with drugs and alcohol in the 10th grade. While not satisfying on any sustained, deep level, getting high and wasted temporarily alleviated my boredom with life. They met, in a crude way, my desire for a different perspective.

I entered university hoping that I would find my niche as my studies became more focused. Instead, I got more off track with each successive semester. I knew that the end game of my collective four years was a career. I was racking up tens of thousands of dollars of debt for a piece of paper that said I was qualified to do this or that. The unspoken mandate was that I get a job right away to pay back my loans. It was essentially a sophisticated form of debt-bondage.

The pressure was mounting to choose a direction. All around me, people were getting more and more certain of what they wanted while I became less sure. My reaction to having no vision of my own was to increasingly define myself in opposition to the goals of others and mainstream society. A man who knows himself only through what he is not is in fact nothing. This is how it was for me the first 24 years of life. I was a nothing man, taking stands against what I didn’t want or found egregious, but never knowing what I actually desired for myself.

There was nobody who seemed to share my plight. Even among my friends who understood me best there was a definite divide. All of them, in one way or another, were on a path to somewhere. I was wallowing in indecision, a starving beast in the wilderness, feeling more alone and crazy with each passing day. In an attempt to quell my growing angst I decided to just pick something and go with it. I got a full-time job, a girlfriend and began preparing for the law school entrance exam.


The hotel room has the same crass, homogenous attempt at charm as the lobby – a bland sterility that always struck me as uniquely American.It has likely been cleaned by another tick-like woman. The sheets have no doubt absorbed the semen of a traveling water-filtration salesman on his way to Wichita. I choose the bed with a slightly skewed angle of the television, thinking it’s less likely he wanked here.

It’s nearly 3:30. I’m on the brink of dead-tired and lucid- a point where it’s either sleep or smoke dope and navigate the doldrums of near-dawn Iowan basic cable. The latter strikes me as so depressing that slumber becomes the easy choice.

As I drift off to sleep flashes of the kids song, “..merrily merrily merrily merrily life is but a dream…” float through my head, sung hauntingly by children who don’t grasp the truth of what they’re saying, who may not until, years later, they find themselves in the midst of an enormous field, potentially lying in another man’s semen, knowing how they got there only theoretically.


When the future I’d banked on came crashing down around me it felt like I had lost everything.  In reality, the placebo plans I’d made had never been mine in the first place. The things I’d decided to do were merely a reaction to being lost. Stripped of them, I had a chance to start over.

I started to write every day in my journal, something I hadn’t done since high school. At first the words were cathartic, a way to release my inner turmoil. But as I pressed forward with them I began to uncover pieces of myself that had been so cracked and fleeting I was never able to pull them together. In particular, I revisited an idea of going out west that I’d entertained since beginning university. The move was vague, both in terms of geography and purpose, but that was the beauty of it. For sixteen years I had been pumped through the educational system where, generally, my choices had been dictated to me. What I wanted was to do something completely of my own volition.

In that time I also made a point to catch up on all the books I’d long been meaning to read. They were mainly a distraction from myself; none of them excited me in more than a superficial way. That is, until I picked up On The Road.

Really, what I found in that book was sympathy. Sal Paradise was going through what I was. Kerouac’s prose expressed the angst of a young man wanting something out of life that wasn’t offered by conventional wisdom. His protagonist’s search for “IT” mirrored my long standing desire for “something else.”

“The straight line will take you only to death,” says Sal at one point in the book. In response to this ethos he and Dean Moriarty set off back and forth across the country in search of “kicks” which are a series of movements and deflections. All the while “IT” remains elusive and ill-defined, knowable only by experience. Through all of their starts and stops Sal and Dean follow an internal compass, circling in upon “IT,” that visceral state of awareness that will unite and give purpose to their divergent experiences.

Jack Kerouac was the corroborating voice I never had in my life. He showed me a way out of my dilemma, that salvation was possible. He was a New England boy, just like me, who had barreled headlong into the west, navigating by his own moral lodestar, creating crazy, beautiful art in the process. I never wanted to be the next Jack Kerouac. What I was looking to become was a truer version of myself. Dear ol’ Jack just pointed me in the right direction.


I open my eyes to brilliant sunlight reflecting off of ubiquitous whites, tans and beiges. I prop myself up on one elbow and as the hotel rooms comes into focus I recall the mad dash across a third of the country which led me here. The neurosis of last night is gone. In its place is a feeling of calm determination that I am one step closer to something worth pursuing.

The scene is reminiscent of one from On The Road when Sal awakens in an Iowa hotel and for a brief spell doesn’t know who he is. The difference is that I, perhaps for the first time, have a sure sense of who I am. The sun rising over the plains hearkens not just a new day in the middle of America, but the dawn of my new life. To borrow Kerouac’s terminology, never has “the East of my youth” felt further away or “the West of my future” closer. I experience a fleeting encounter with “IT.” It is a sacred taste, finally, of “something else.”

I shower, gather my things, dig in at the complimentary breakfast and get back on the interstate. Driving across the plains I think of Sal and Dean searching for kicks. Surely they traveled this same highway at some point, burning towards that “next crazy venture beneath the skies.” I find myself wondering more than once “What would Jack do?” But more often, and more importantly, I think: “What am I going to do?”

The Domino Diaries: The Havana Zoo


I saw a little girl get bit by a dog this afternoon in Central Park. I watched her from a stone bench beside the Esquina Caliente (Hot Corner) crowd of men arguing baseball just down the street from the Capitolio. She tried to pet one of these Goya-nightmare stray dogs and it snapped at her hand. She went off like a car alarm but it was the way she screamed that made the old men give up baseball and rush over to console her. In 30 years it is the solitary bonafide miracle I have witnessed. You’ll have to take my word for it, but if the Hot Corner heard Slim Pickens himself was falling from the sky straddling an atomic bomb, slapping his cowboy hat against his hip and yee-hawing his way down onto their heads—there wouldn’t be a flinch— “We’re talking béisbol here coño.”

Sweet bait on fearful hooks. That girl I mean. Or what was at stake.

Boy the face she made.

She’d never touch a dog again.

You’ll find a clock in a Vegas casino long before you find a veterinarian in Havana.

She might not even remember why she’d never pet a dog again.

The Esquina Caliente finally cheered her up enough that she smiled and jammed her head against her mom’s shoulder. The men went back to baseball and the mom carried her child home.

I closed up my notebook and followed the little girl and mom to Calle Neptuno where they caught a cab and I decided to walk over to the mother of a friend who sells guarapo (sugarcane juice) out of her garage near the Malecón.

I wondered if maybe that girl would pet a dog again.

I wondered why some of us are flexible on that point where others are hardened against something for keeps.

It was a strange day.

I’d gone to the park after boxing with some of the national team kids in their run down gym in old Havana. The gym at Kid Chocolate was being used for a weight lifting competition.

The gym, Rafael Trejo, is located near a famous neighborhood called San Isidro. The biggest funeral in Cuban history was for a resident of this neighborhood, Alberto Yarini Ponce de León, who was a politician but more famously a pimp. Women from all over Havana would converge on the path he took each morning to get his coffee at the Cafe El Louvre. He seduced the most beautiful woman in Cuba and her lover, a French gigolo named Luis Lotot, challenged the Cuban for her love and ended up murdering him in revenge.

I’d started a laughing fit at the gym that day because I’d mentioned I wanted to meet Felix Savon, the three time Olympic Heavyweight gold medalist. Most the coaches at Trejo are either Olympic gold medalists themselves or have coached Olympic gold medalists either on the national team or the Olympic team. Everybody knows everybody in Havana anyway. I wasn’t aware that a not-too-closely-guarded state secret was that Felix Savon was a homosexual.

(I’m standing on a platform here, Felix is 6′5 to my 5′10)

“Sure you can meet him! We’ve already talked to him about you. He’d like to meet you in the Presidential suite at the Nacional this evening. He’ll bring his medals to show you but he won’t wear them around his neck.”

The Cubans have a saying you’re reminded of on a daily basis, reinforced with good and bad material: “Life is a joke to be taken very seriously.”

While I was grinning to myself about this, I got to a street corner and noticed a sweaty, filthy, beaten up old man crawling on the ground like a crab across the intersection. All he had on was a loincloth. Out of perhaps 400 people walking on the sidewalk, and the 15 taxis, 10 bicycle taxis, forty cars on the road, I had the only pair of eyes staring. I appeared to be the only person unaccepting and remotely concerned of this man’s role in the universe. Keep in mind there aren’t all that many traffic lights or stop signs in Havana and yet I’ve never ridden a local taxi going under 45 miles an hour through a street as busy as Times Square. In New York they have arguments with their horns, in Havana they have opera. As he progressed to the center of the intersection, still in the middle of the street with the cars patiently waiting for him to pass, I noticed there was a rope attached to his ankle tied to something that remained off stage behind a lamppost. I reached into my breast pocket and took out a cigarette waiting with my match until I saw what in the baker’s fuck he was dragging. Then I saw the edge of the rock and with some more heaving and Sisyphean anguish, the full bulk of its size: a truck’s tire.

I lit that cigarette and zigzagged a few streets till I got to that garage where my friend Lesvanne was jamming sugar cane into a grinder while his mother dumped a pail of guarapo into carafes full of ice and poured one of those into the cups of waiting construction workers on their break. After the first sip you have to wipe the chilled foam off your lips.

Lesvanne had just come back from Miami.

Lesvanne used to sleep with American tourists for gifts provided they weren’t from California. He was a man of principle.

The first time I met him he showed me his worn digital camera. He showed me a few photos of his common-law wife and a few hundred photos of the American tourist female “friends” he’d made.

I’d asked him if his American “friends” presented any kind of problem with his “wife” and he asked why it should?

“Would you like to see a video of my wife?” he asked.

I said sure.

All I could make out was underwater blurs of color undulating in curious ways.

“What am I looking at here?”

“That’s her gallbladder. Isn’t she beautiful?

Later, when I could breathe again, I asked him why he would film his wife on the operating table having her gallbladder removed.

“Because I love all of her, man. Inside and out. I want to know all of her.”

Lesvanne also looks and dresses a helluva lot like Sinbad which makes his principles and wisdom especially surreal to contend with.

Emotionally, I’ve never met a Cuban who required you taking your shoes off before entering into their lives. Self-consciousness isn’t really part of the equation. Lesvanne has a little more fun with it. He taunts you with his enjoyment.

“How was Miami?”

“Let’s walk. I’ll show you the pictures.”

“First I have a question.”


“Two questions.”


“Felix Savon?”

He smiled. “What about him?”


Obviously. Proximo pregunda (Next question).”

“On my way over here there was a guy in the middle of the street dragging a fucking boulder. Nobody was evening looking at him.”

Big smile.

“Why was he doing this?”

“Religious thing. For 3 days he drags the stone across Havana.”

“Down the middle of the street?”


“3 days?”

“What can you say? Colorful people in my city. Let’s go.”

We walked from Old Havana into Centro Habana.

From Centro Habana past the University into Vedado.

He showed me photos from his visit to Miami. While he tried to show me the pictures he was stopped in the street dozens of times. People from their homes invited us for coffee. Kids egged him on to play pelota. Store keepers shook his hands. Old women selling sweets and flowers asked about his mother. He kept embracing people over and over with affection and warmth. Every time he tried to show me a photograph people came over to look and ask questions about his trip.

Nearly all of the photos were an inventory of all the stuff Lesvanne saw in Miami that he was determined to own once he moved to America and got busy making a success of himself: hummers, houses, pools, jewelry, women, bars, boats. Lesvanne had one favorite outfit he wore nearly everyday that he washed every night. It was blindingly bright.

I didn’t say anything until he’d finished showing all the pictures.

I’d lost count of how many people he’d kissed and hugged hello on our walk. It threw me because after breaking up a couple times with long term relationships I went months before I realized that I was having no human physical contact. How did that happen?

We found a bench in a quiet park and I noticed a statue of John Lennon on another bench down the path from us.

“Castro put that statue here because he banned the Beatles in Cuba. He was embarrassed about it later so he put this here to apologize.”

“So you want all this shit once you’re settled in Miami?” I asked him.

“Of course I do. I’ve never had anything here. I’d like to work for these things.”

“Castro should have you fucking shot.”

“It’s true.”

“Okay. You get all that shit—hummer, house, pool, hot wife, jewelry, yacht. That whole photo album of other people’s stuff becomes your stuff. You’re loaded. Then you’re happier than here?”

“Why not?”

“Okay, so you’re loaded but maybe you’re also afraid of losing everything all the time. Your afraid your wife is gonna take you for half. You have to live in a gated community because you’re afraid of everyone. You have no sense of community or even give a fuck about your neighbor. Your kids don’t respect you and just want money to buy shit to distract themselves from being bored all the time. All the old people you know are in old folks homes because nobody wants to deal with them. You can’t be friends with any kids because everyone will think you’re a pedophile. You can’t can’t hug any guys because they’re afraid you’re gay orthey’re gay or everyone is gay. You can’t really touch anybody without second guessing it.”

“If I couldn’t touch anyone I’d die, man. I’d die. This country is a fucking cage. Cuba is a zoo.”

In Tangier

by Steven O’Sullivan

“A true document of human desperation.”

-Playwright Tennessee Williams on Mohamed Choukri’s autobiographical novel about life in Tangier, 1973.

The release of Choukri’s For Bread Alone came in the midst of Tangier’s development as a hideout for expatriate writers and artists. American writer Paul Bowles was one of the pioneering residents of Tangier and responsible for the English translation and release of For Bread Alone, a novel that would stand for years as a controversial testament to the darker realities of Tangier. These harsh realities coupled with the glistening promise of creation drew in expatriates seeking new approaches to life for many, many years.

Bowles had worked predominantly as a composer in New York, but when Doubleday approached him with a contract for a novel he felt it was time to make a change into full-time writing. Bowles noted, “I came here because I wanted to write a novel. I was sick of writing music for other people.” He had visited Tangier intermittently for 16 years prior and he moved there permanently in 1947. His wife, Jane, followed a year later. They would remain in Tangier together until his death in 1999.

Upon Bowles’ initial arrival, the city seemed detached from the rest of the world; isolated by endless sand dunes from the south and the waters of the Mediterranean at the north. Bowles felt a mythical, enchanting quality vibrating thru the city. From Bowles’ accounts the city feels similar to Henry Miller’s Paris of the 20s. Dirty bars, broken streets, and prostitutes in everyone’s bedroom were hallmarks of the dark side of Tangier. Despite the upscale, colonial European neighborhoods, violence stood strong in the shadows of the forgotten slums.

However, Bowles moved south into the sahara to write much of his novel. He shacked up in the decrepit desert hotels and wrote like a madman. These times are vividly reminiscent of Antonioni’s landmark film The Passenger. One can easily imagine Bowles as Jack Nicholson’s desperate journalist losing his mind in the midst of alcoholism and the stark white walls of the hotel. Regardless Bowles did manage to accomplish his goal. The novel was written.

Doubleday rejected the completed manuscript, much to their later regret. Within months, thru an independent publisher, The Sheltering Sky had gone thru three printings and sat at the top of the New York Times book list.

With the success of The Sheltering Sky, Bowles established himself as a serious writer. And throughout the 50s and 60s countless others would be driven to Tangier seeking that same maddening inspiration that had grabbed Bowles with such a vengeance.

French thief-turned-writer Jean Genet as well renowned playwright Tennessee Williams would both settle in Tangier, turning out many promising works.

Bowles’ fiction also inspired Beat madman William S. Burroughs to take up residence in the city in 1953. Burroughs’ infamous lifestyle and actions had led to an outlaw status in his favorite cities, thus he needed a new refuge in which to create. One Burroughs biography states that he rented a room above a homosexual brothel. In addition to this, drugs flowed easily and cheaply in the streets of Tangier. These surroundings left Burroughs quite at ease and he began the initial work on what would eventually become his magnum opus, Naked Lunch.

Burroughs’ first stay in Tangier was brief as he attempted a return to America after only a few months. However, his standing in the eyes of friends, family, and publishers remained tarnished. Even Allen Ginsberg, once his closest friend, refused him on all accounts. At this time Kerouac was neck deep in a Buddhist devotion, working on a biography of Siddhartha Gautama.

So, back to Tangiers it was.

Despite a modest allowance from his parents back home, royalties from Junkie were still not coming thru, so he began turning out travel articles on Tangiers to supplement his income.

With the comfort of a cornucopia of exotic drugs (not readily available back in the States) and sexual counterparts, Burroughs dug in deep and worked tirelessly on the Naked Lunch manuscript.

For the following four years Burroughs remained in Tangier continuing to write until his departure for Paris in the fall of ’59. And in the meantime his inspirations grew.

Eventually, his reputation at home began to heal, and his friends sought him out. Kerouac and Ginsberg arrived in Tangier in 1957. Up to that point, Burroughs was the only one with any kind of global travelogue and perhaps his confidants were looking to catch up with him and experience firsthand some of the visions that Burroughs had caught wind of and sent home in letters and stories. Additionally, they were able to offer a guiding editorial approach in refining the wild-eyed manuscript which at the time was merely a scattered stream-of-conscious narrative running amok in Burroughs’ mind.

One must remember that Burroughs’ first two publications, Junkie and Queer, while controversial in content were conventional in terms of style. Sure they were graphic tales of drug-induced homosexual depravity, but they were written with a literary suit and tie in hand. Naked Lunch was his first attempt at a non-linear narrative and such a radical approach to writing was certainly going to take some trial and error shots at refining. Just as Kerouac and Ginsberg had found their own unique voices with On the Road and Howl respectively, Burroughs was about to come into his own.

The style Burroughs developed at this time, and later at the Beat Hotel in Paris, can be seen as a natural evolution resulting from an adaptation to his surroundings. Just as George Orwell did with Down and Out in Paris and London, Burroughs took in the desperation of his circumstances, financial strain and social disdain, and fueled a machine with them. A machine powerful enough to turn out a work that would radically redefine literary concepts across the globe. This style would become his weapon, and with everyone subsequent work following Naked Lunch he would wield that weapon with a devastating efficiency.

One can imagine Kerouac and Corso dashing from one bodega to the next, desperately eluding dawn. Drink, drink, drink it down, down, down… chasing blindly after women, men, cats, dogs, and mice… thoroughbred Americans ravaging Tangierian nighttime with shouts and screams, kicking the air, and pumping fists at darkness… then, finally, facing the inevitable sun-up of the shattered glass of last night’s Grecian vase… stumbling back to the brothel and Burroughs delivering a scolding at arrival… having been up all night typing away at the masterpiece fueled by a Eukodol kick (crazy German-made opioid).

Of course, true to his restless nature, Burroughs left Tangier with Kerouac and Ginsberg in 1959 and the trio met up with Gregory Corso, and later Peter Orlovsky, taking up residence at the Beat Hotel in the Latin Quarter of Paris.

Yet Bowles, the grandfather of Tangier madness, remained. Who knows if Burroughs and Bowles ever even crossed paths. Regardless, Bowles’ influence on Burroughs is indisputable. Hell, beyond mere literary influence, Bowles inadvertently led Burroughs to Tangier in the first place which in hand provided the backdrop and experience that pushed Burroughs into new territories as an artist.

And that’s where we’re going to leave Burroughs. On his way to Paris. Since this is a travel issue, I want to focus on one man and the mythology he created at one destination. So we return to Bowles.

When Bowles initially arrived in Tangier he regarded it as an attractively unassuming city. Yet no more than ten years later in 1958 Bowles had witnessed a complete transformation. No more was the peaceful white city Matisse had taken inspiration from the in the early 1900s. The city had experienced a deranged westernization. The traditional cloaked garb of the Moslems had been replaced with jeans and t-shirts. Yet this change Bowles witnessed was not, in his eyes, for the worse, “The foreigner who lives here on a long-term basis will still find most of the elements that endeared the place to him in the old days.”

The above quote came from a travel article on Tangier Bowles penned in 1958. A bit later on in the article Bowles gives an account of the prevailing cultural mash-up found in Tangier. His words are devastating:

You will run into a Polish refugee who arrived ten years ago without a penny… and today runs a prosperous delicatessen and liquor store; an American construction worker who came to Morocco to help build the United States air bases, and has since become a freelance journalist; a Moslem who spent years in a Spanish jail for voicing his opinion on Generalissimo Franco, and now is a clerk in the municipal administration offices; an English masseuse who was passing thru Tangier twenty years ago on a holiday trip and somehow has never left; a Belgian architect who also runs the principal bookshop; a Swiss businessman who likes the climate and has started a restaurant and bar for his own amusement; an Indian prince who does accounting for an American firm; the Portuguese seamstress who makes your shirts. . .”

It is this diversity that gives Tangier its beauty and appeal. It’s as if time slows down in the secluded city and each resident finds an expression and appreciation for life they’d not yet possessed or had perhaps lost along the way. Maybe it comes in quietly from the coast with the tides or maybe it blows in stiffly with the winds from the southern desert.

Of course, even in Bowles’ time the bastardization of Tangier had begun. The city was beginning to modernize with the destruction of the classic and old to be replaced with brand-new European eyesores. Yet Bowles maintained that even in lieu of such drastic changes that Tangier never lost its aesthetic appeal.

To hear Bowles tell it there was a deep, dark charm to the city in the years prior to his writing the article. In the 40s and early 50s (around Burroughs’ time of arrival), the Zopo Chico served as the hotspot of most social life. The Zopo Chico was essentially the town square, housing many of its nightclubs and sidewalk cafes. Bowles recalls a time when the cafes were open all night and all day and he would go in at 5 a.m. to watch the nightclub cats stumble dutifully home with the night’s luster still in their eyes.

Thru Bowles’ eyes the beauty and charm of Tangier would be forever preserved by its topography. The buildings and the streets might change, but there was nothing anyone could do to change the rolling hills surrounding the city, the high plain on which it stands, or the mountains off in the distance that frame the whole picture. Bowles brilliantly noted that the beauty of the sky and landscape could never be destroyed in that,

“You don’t look at the city, you look out of it.”

Keep it burning.

Lest We Forget

-In Memoriam of HST-

by Steven O’Sullivan

It might behoove us all to take one ordinary, grey Samsonite suitcase, stuff it full, clamp the fucker shut, climb into our little aluminum shitboxes and barrel down the pavement towards unknown lands.

Hop onto I-10 West out of Houston and don’t look back. Preferably at night, around 12:30, when you can go screaming off into the blackness with enough neighbors still up to hear you go and turn to their wives in bed watching Cheers re-runs and wonder aloud just what the hell kind of banshee moved in next door.

The skyline’ll be burning bright and you watch it fade in the rear view. That slick silhouette will always guide you back home.

So, that’s how you start. But quick, listen!

How to pack a last second suitcase:

1) No more than one extra pair of pants from the ones currently on your body.

2) A thoroughly random assortment of shirts (preferably with lots of buttons to be worn loosely and with abandon) so as to appear in public with just the right touch of mismatched eccentricity to keep the hounds off you. Hotel lobbies are the gauntlet of the hospitality industry.

3) People always talk about taking cameras on trips. Personally, I don’t know what the fuck to do with them. Take pictures?

4) Toothbrush. For scraping the death off your tongue in the morning.

5) A coat or jacket of some kind. Never forget that wherever you go and wherever you are, it’s cold out there.

6) A formidable roll of cash.

7) DO NOT take all the dog-eared copies of books by your favorite authors (i.e. ones discussed in this magazine). Leave that shit at home. We’re getting out, remember?

8) Notebook or typewriter. Laptops cause problems but if push comes to shove. . . tomato, tomahto.

Rules 9&10 are only of so-so importance and are purely for impulsive situations and involve a small bottle of sambuca, a bag of coffee beans, and a dozen plastic straws.

Impulse suitcase: check.

Of course, if you’re not the loneliest of bastards (or simply, an idealist), then surely you’ll have yourself a traveling companion of some sort.

Thus, let me introduce, coming along on our binge, the Good Dr.: Mr. Hunter Thompson.

If Hunter’s along for the ride we’re going to have to make a few last minute changes.

Quick now, dawn and debauchery wait for no man!

First and foremost, we’re going to go trade in the aluminum shitbox for some real driving power: A pearlescent white Pontiac ballbuster. Gritty American muscle and a bottle of Jack Daniels coming out the exhaust. Heave, ho!

You can barrel down I-10 in one of those mothers and lay waste behind you. This ain’t dustin’ crops, boy. You’re up with the big dogs now.

Additionally, while the ink is drying on the ballbuster, Hunter’ll be loading the trunk with two double-barrel shotguns and a bag of golf clubs. With plenty of shells and balls to boot.

Soon as the ink’s dry we slide in and peel out of the dealership, nicking the curb on our way out. I’m no pock-marked Englishman, but even I could give you a drawing of the madness soon to ensue.

Destination: Ace Hotel, Palm Springs.

We trade shifts and bitch the whole way arguing about who’s to buy the first round of drinks at the hotel, but we manage to pick up enough steam on the home stretch to pull into Palm Springs with plenty of sun on our backs.

As we pull up in front of the Ace, Hunter clambers out readjusting his green dealer’s visor and clutching his leather carry-all to his chest, cigarette hanging out of his mouth. I toss the keys to an unassuming dwarf (valet?) and hope for the best.

Inside, the lobby’s almost completely empty. We’re definitely not in at peak season and it’s mid-week on top of that. I should have known by the dwarf that times were slim. Surely we’re dead in the water.

But look we’re not here to re-live the goddamn Kentucky Derby.

Shit, what are we here for?

Where’s the bar?

After acquiring, via a couple messy John Hancock’s, some gold-plated Willy Wonka pass key, we make for the Amigo Room. The Ace Hotel Palm Springs is in a mid-century modern building that housed a Howard Johnson back in the 50s, and the Amigo Room was the name of the bar at that time as well. Some things never change. For the best.

The bar is about as crowded as the lobby and we take a few seats near the end as inconspicuously as we can. But what with a fucking green visor and all…

The bartender is young, but classy. Probably hipper than I’ll ever be, but he knows his stuff I’m sure. A down jive motherfucker.

I order two Singapore Slings with beer and mescal chasers. The slings are sweet and go down fast along with the mescal. We nurse the beers and order some Anniversario on the rocks. A good rum like that will last you a while. Venezuelan women, however, are another matter.

Hunter gets into an argument with the bartender over smoking inside, but eventually I convince him to retreat poolside with me as smoking is allowed out there, as well as drinking.

You don’t just go ordering a madman like Hunter to please, very kindly put out his cigarette. Oh well, not the bartender’s fault. Hunter’s been dead for five years now.

We’re at a table under a bright green umbrella poolside. The pool, like the rest of the hotel and grounds, is a step back into a retro era. It even seems like the blonde bombshells are skimped out not in the latest runway fashions, but in Rita Hayworth’s beachwear. Either way, a 20 year old girl getting a sun tan is a 20 year old girl getting a sun tan regardless of the attire.

Hunter takes off his windbreaker and I kick my shoes (no socks) off. I flip the key card around in my hand and Hunter stares at the young beauties walking by. The ice is melting in our glasses as the sunlight begins to fade. We haven’t even seen the room yet.

I guess we’ll have dinner at King’s Highway. Steak sounds good.


The author would like to note that, while this piece is primarily for entertainment purposes, it is not without its underlying merits.

The Ace Hotel Palm Springs is a real hotel. Ace Hotel is a boutique chain founded in Seattle by Alex Calderwood right before the turn of the century. The hotels cater to a younger, bohemian crowd for a retro-campy feel. Now, more than ten years later, there are chains in Portland, Palm Springs, and New York as well as the original Seattle location. The chain is notable for its highly affordable rates and flexible rooming options as well as more aesthetic touches such as the vinyl record players found in most rooms.

Essentially, if you’re in the mood for an old school, classy kind of hotel to hide out in and craft your latest travelogue masterpiece (ala Fear and Loathing), consider giving the guys at Ace a shot. Then send the finished manuscript to the editors here at Beatdom.

Furthermore, this article exists because we at Beatdom do not want our readers to think that we have neglected Thompson’s important influence on travel and travel writing in any way. Thompson’s braggadaccio and guts n vitriol approach to life on the road is inspiring and refreshing. Particularly when it occurs in the nicest Vegas hotel.

Most references in this piece, from the drinks ordered at the bar to the white Pontiac ballbuster, are specific details drawn from different articles Thompson composed over the years. One such goldmine would be “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved.”

And finally, as a nod to the recent passing of Hunter’s 5th Death Anniversary, the mention of shotguns and golf clubs is a nod to Thompson’s final article for ESPN titled “ShotGun Golf With Bill Murray.” Available to read online, the article and sport described therein are classic Thompson: hazy-eyed, utterly mad, but dead serious between the eyes.


The Beat Generation and Travel

More so than any other literary movement, the Beats have influenced the world of travel and have helped shape our perceptions of the world around us. From obvious influences on hitch-hiking to more serious questions relating to the environment, Beat Generation literature and history has played a major role influencing people over the past fifty years.

We often look to Jack Kerouac as the great backpacker, whose On the Road is credited with sending thousands of readers literally on the road… but he certainly wasn’t the perpetual traveller many think, and the other members of the Beat Generation – whom are less well known for their journeys – travelled far more.

It is strange that when one thinks about the Beat Generation one invariably thinks of New York or San Francisco, because between there lay thousands of miles that they all travelled, and beyond them lay a near infinite abyss that many sought to explore. But these were mere catchments for the meeting of minds; where the young writers and artists of their day met and exchanged knowledge – knowledge that lead them on the road, and was informed by their own personal adventures.


Jack Kerouac

Hitch hiked a thousand miles and brought you wine.

JK, Book of Haikus

Kerouac is the logical starting point for an essay about the Beat Generation and travel. On the Road is undoubtedly the most famous Beat text, and concerned – as the title suggests – travelling. The book detailed Kerouac’s journeys across North America, and inspired subsequent generations of readers, writers and artists to take to the road for spiritual (or non-spiritual) journeys of their own.

Interestingly, Kerouac was not always fond of hitchhiking, although he has had a huge impact upon hitchhikers. He didn’t really do as much travelling as people seem to think, either. Kerouac grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts and stayed there until he went to Horace Mann Prep School in New York at seventeen years old. A year later he went to Columbia University on a football scholarship, but broke his leg and eventually signed up for the merchant marines during World War II. He sailed on the S.S. Dorchester to Greenland.

At twenty-five, Kerouac took his first cross-country road trip, and a year later he took his first trip with Neal Cassady. These journeys took Kerouac from one end of America to another, and eventually found their way into the American road classic, On the Road.

On the Road is one book that has changed America. Whether you’ve read it or not, it has had some impact upon your life. Kerouac’s masterpiece has inspired people ever since, and is still as relevant as ever.

“The road is life,” is one oft-quoted phrase from On the Road. It is one that resonates in American society – a country of immigrants, whose classics include Mark Twain, Jack London, Jack Kerouac and Bob Dylan. The road has always meant something to America; their histories are irrevocably linked.

The idea of the wilderness and self-reliance has been entangled in American literary history since the beginning, and was most notably explored in the works of Emerson and Thoreau. Kerouac also believed that it was important, saying in Lonesome Traveler:

No man should go through life without once experiencing healthy, even bored solitude in the wilderness, finding himself depending solely on himself and thereby learning his true and hidden strength.

But mostly it was the idea of non-conformity that appealed to people fifty years ago, and which has inspired readers ever since. Kerouac’s call to “mad” people came at a time when people needed to rebel, and his wild kicks on the roads of America were a wake-up call for millions. The idea of rebelling then became tied to that of travelling – of gaining freedom and independence through running away and exploring the world, and to hell with society’s expectations.

Kerouac explained in The Dharma Bums:

Colleges [are] nothing but grooming schools for the middleclass non-identity which usually finds its perfect expression on the outskirts of the campus in rows of well-to-do houses with lawns and television sets in each living room with everybody looking at the same thing and thinking the same thing at the same time while the Japhies of the world go prowling in the wilderness.

In both Japhy Ryder and Dean Moriarty Kerouac portrayed an attractive outsider that stood against everything society demanded. He presented romantic depictions of these footloose individuals that etched in the consciousness of his readers a desire to be that free soul.

Japhy Ryder was based on Zen poet Gary Snyder, whom Kerouac met in San Francisco, after travelling across America with a backpack full of manuscripts. His Buddhist wisdom inspired Kerouac to attempt communing with nature, as depicted in The Dharma Bums.

Perhaps his Book of Sketches is a better example of Kerouac’s travel-writing. He details a nearly three thousand mile hitch-hiking journey from 1952, as he travelled from North Carolina to California, by way of Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Utah and Nevada. In the book he describes every town he visits and every ride he took in travelling across America.

In 1957 Kerouac travelled to Tangier, Morocco, with Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky. He didn’t enjoy his time there, but helped Burroughs with the concept and title of what would later become Naked Lunch. This journey was recorded in Desolation Angels – which also details his musings on life as he wanders across North America and Europe. The chapter titles in this book include: “Passing Through Mexico,” “Passing Through New York,” “Passing Through Tangiers, France and London” and “Passing Through America Again.”

Later, suffering from his inability to deal with fame and his disappointment at not being taken seriously by critics (as they viewed the Beats as a mere fad), Kerouac attempted to heal himself by escaping to Big Sur, as described in the novel of the same name.

After Big Sur, Kerouac returned to his mother in Long Island and didn’t stray far from her for the rest of his life. They moved together first to Lowell, Massachusetts, and then to St. Petersburg, Florida.

William S. Burroughs


Burroughs doesn’t exactly strike the same image in the minds of travellers as Kerouac, but certainly travelled more than the author of On the Road. His books are hardly odes to nature or travel, but in his life Burroughs moved frequently, and saw much of the world.

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Burroughs went to school in New Mexico, and then studied at Harvard. With a healthy allowance from his parents, Burroughs travelled frequently from New York to Boston, and travelled around Europe after studying in Vienna. He returned and enlisted in the army, but was soon discharged and moved to Chicago, where he met Lucian Carr.

Carr took Burroughs to New York, where he met Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Whilst in New York he and Joan Vollmer Adams had a child. The family soon moved to Texas, and then New Orleans. Some of this was described in On the Road.

After being arrested on account of incriminating letters between him and Ginsberg, Burroughs was forced to flee to Mexico, where he famously shot and killed his wife in a game of William Tell.

In January 1953 Burroughs travelled to South America, maintaining a constant stream of correspondence with Allen Ginsberg that would later become The Yage Letters. “Yage” was the name of a drug with supposed telekinetic properties for which Burroughs was searching.

In Lima, Peru, he typed up his travel notes and then returned to Mexico, where he sent the final instalment of his journey to Ginsberg. This later became the ending of Queer.

In 2007, Ohio State University Press published Everything Lost: The Latin American Notebook of William S. Burroughs. The book details Burroughs’ journey through Ecuador, Columbia and Peru, and gives insight into his personal troubles.

When Burroughs’ legal problems made it impossible for him to live in the cities of his choice he moved to Palm Springs with his parents, and then New York to stay with Ginsberg. After Ginsberg reject his advances, Burroughs travelled to Rome to see Alan Ansen, and then to Tangier, Morocco, to meet Paul Bowles.

Over the next few years Burroughs stayed in Tangiers, working on something that would eventually become Naked Lunch. He was visited by Ginsberg and Kerouac in 1957, and they helped him with his writing.

In 1959, when looking for a publisher for Naked Lunch, Burroughs went to Paris to meet Ginsberg and talk to Olympia Press. Amid surrounding legal problems, the novel was published. In the months before and after the book’s publication, Burroughs stayed with Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Peter Orlovsky in the “Beat Hotel.” Ginsberg composed some of “Kaddish” there, while Corso composed “Bomb.

After Paris, Burroughs spent six years in London, where he originally travelled for treatment for his heroin addiction. He returned to the US several times – including to cover the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago – before moving to New York in 1974. He took a teaching position and moved into the “Bunker,” a rent-controlled former YMCA gym.

Burroughs travelled around America from time to time, before moving to Lawrence, Kansas, where he spent his final years.

Clearly Burroughs possessed more of an instinct to travel the world than Kerouac. However, his writing rarely glorifies the act of travelling, unlike his friend, who celebrated the road.

In an unpublished essay that can be found in the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection, Burroughs writes,

As a young child I wanted to be a writer because writers were rich and famous. They lounged around Singapore and Rangoon smoking opium in a yellow ponge silk suit. They sniffed cocaine in Mayfair and they penetrated forbidden swamps with a faithful native boy and lived in the native quarter of Tangier smoking hashish and languidly caressing a pet gazelle. …


This isn’t exactly the sort of image that invokes pleasant thoughts for most readers, but it shows that Burroughs considered exotic locations and global travel as extremely important. He set these things as a goal for himself, even from a young age.

In his work one could argue Burroughs was more interested in the notion of time-travel than of terrestrial journeying. From actual references to time-travel to the cut-up techniques that carried readers across space and time, Burroughs seemed very interested in having everything in a constant state of flux.

In his essay, “Civilian Defence,” from the collection, The Adding Machine, Burroughs argues for space travel as the future of mankind. He seems to be suggesting that to change is to survive, that we need to move to develop.

Man is an artifact designed for space travel. He is not designed to remain in his present biologic state any more than a tadpole is designed to remain a tadpole.


Allen Ginsberg


From the Allen Ginsberg Trust:


Ginsberg might have been an American by birth, but through his extensive travel he developed a global consciousness that greatly affected his writings and viewpoint. He spent extended periods of time in Mexico, South America, Europe and India. He visited every continent in the world and every state in the United States and some of his finest work came about as a result of these travels.

Ginsberg spent his tumultuous youth in Paterson, New Jersey, before moving to Columbia University and meeting Kerouac and Burroughs. He met Neal Cassady there and took trips across America – to Denver and San Francisco. In 1947 he sailed to Dakar, Senegal, and wrote “Dakar Doldrums.”

Ginsberg returned to New York and attempted to “go straight,” but moved to San Francisco and became heavily involved in its poetry scene. In 1951 he took a trip to Mexico to meet Burroughs, but Burroughs had already left for Ecuador. In 1953 Ginsberg returned to explore ancient ruins and experiment with drugs, and in 1956 he visited Kerouac in Mexico City.

In 1955 he read “Howl” at the Six Gallery and became a Beat Generation icon. When Howl and Other Poems was published, City Lights Bookstore was charged with publishing indecent literature, and the trial helped made Ginsberg a celebrity.

During the trial Ginsberg moved to Paris with his partner, Peter Orlovsky. From there they travelled to Tangier to help Burroughs compose Naked Lunch. They returned through Spain to stay in the “Beat Hotel” and help Burroughs sell the book to Olympia Press. In a Parisian café, Ginsberg began writing “Kaddish.”

In 1960 Ginsberg travelled to Chile with Lawrence Ferlinghetti for a communist literary conference. He travelled through Bolivia to Lima, Peru, where he tried yage for the first time.

In 1961 Ginsberg and Orlovsky sailed on the SS America for Europe. They looked for Burroughs in Paris. From Paris he travelled through Greece to Israel, meeting Orlovsky, who’d taken a different route.

Together, Ginsberg and Orlovsky travelled down to East Africa, attending a rally in Nairobi. From Africa they travelled to India, first to Bombay and then Delhi, where they met Gary Snyder and Joanne Kryger. Ginsberg and Snyder travelled throughout India for fifteen months, consulting as many wise men as they could find.

After India, Ginsberg travelled on his own through Bangkok, Saigon and Cambodia, and then spent five weeks in Japan with Snyder and Kryger. He wrote “The Change” on a train from Kyoto to Tokyo.

In 1965 Ginsberg travelled to Cuba through Mexico, but was kicked out of the country for allegedly calling Raul Castro “gay” and Che Guevara “cute.” The authorities put him on a flight to Czechoslovakia. In Prague Ginsberg discovered his work had become very popular and used his royalties there to travel to Moscow. He travelled back through Warsaw and Auschwitz.

Back in Prague Ginsberg was elected “King of May” by the students of the city, and spent the following few days “running around with groups of students, acting in a spontaneous, improvised manner – making love.”

Eventually he was put on a flight to London after the authorities found his notebook – containing graphically sexual poems and politically charged statements. In London he partied with Bob Dylan and the Beatles, and organised a big poetry reading.

On his return to the US Ginsberg learned that his previously deactivated FBI file has been updated with the warning, “these persons are reported to be engaged in smuggling narcotics.” This was not helpful to someone as passionate about travel as Allen Ginsberg, and for two years he travelled around the US.

In 1967 he flew to Italy and was arrested for “use of certain words” in his poetry. He then travelled back to London and on to Wales, before returning to Italy to meet Ezra Pound.

In1971 a plane ticket to India and West Bengal was anonymously donated, and Ginsberg travelled to the flood and famine ravaged area.

Back in America, Ginsberg was always travelling – seeking wisdom and change. He moved around the country, participating in demonstrations and rallies. He trained with Buddhists, founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa, in Boulder, Colorado, and toured with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review.

Ginsberg toured Europe again in 1979 – visiting Cambridge, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Paris, Genoa, Rome and Tubingen, among other places. He was accompanied by Gregory Corso and Peter Orlovsky.

In the early eighties Ginsberg settled in Boulder, to play a more active role at Naropa, following a series of problems that had troubled the school. During this time he travelled to Nicaragua to work with other poets on stopping American interference in the politics of other nations. (He returned to Nicaragua for a poetry festival in 1986.)

He spent eight weeks in China following a 1984 poetry conference with Gary Snyder, and in 1985 travelled in the USSR for another poetry conference. In August and September of 1986 he travelled throughout Eastern Europe – performing in Budapest, Warsaw, Belgrade and Skopje. In January of 1988 he travelled to Israel to help bring peace to the Middle East. Later that year he returned to Japan to help protest nuclear weapons and airport developments.

After twenty five years, Ginsberg was re-crowned King of May upon his return to Prague in 1990. A few months later he travelled to Seoul, South Korea, to represent America in the 12th World Congress of Poets.

Continuing to travel right up until 1994, Ginsberg went to France in ’91 and ’92, and then toured Europe in ’93. His four month tour took him around most of Europe, including a ten day teaching job with Anne Waldman.

After selling his personal letters to Stanford University, Ginsberg bought a loft in New York, where he largely remained until his death in 1997.




Neal Cassady


Neal is, of course, the very soul of the voyage into pure, abstract meaningless motion. He is The Mover, compulsive, dedicated, ready to sacrifice family, friends, even his very car itself to the necessity of moving from one place to another.

William Burroughs, on Neal Cassady

His name may not be as famous as that of Kerouac, but Cassady is well known to any Beat enthusiast. He was portrayed as Dean Moriarty in On the Road: the man Sal Paradise followed on his cross-country trips.

Whilst he may remain most well known for inspiring Kerouac, Cassady influenced many people to enjoy their lives, and to break free of convention. John Clellon Holmes talked about him in Go, Ginsberg referenced him in “Howl” and Hunter S. Thompson mentioned him (unnamed) in Hell’s Angels. He was not only a hero of the Beats, but of many during the following psychedelic era.

It could be said that Cassady lived and died on the road. He was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, and raised by his alcoholic father in Denver, Colorado. He was a criminal from an early age, always in trouble with the law. He was frequently arrested for car theft, and known as an exhilarating driver.

After meeting Kerouac and Ginsberg in New York City, Kerouac and Cassady travelled across America and into Mexico. Kerouac was inspired by Cassady’s life and his letter-writing style, whilst the latter sought advice about novel-writing from Kerouac, who’d already published The Town and the City, a novel featuring a far more conventional style of writing than that for which Kerouac later became known.

Both the subject and style of On the Road owe their existence to Neal Cassady. His impact upon Kerouac cannot be understated.

Cassady settled with his wife, Carolyn, in San Jose, and worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad. He kept in touch with the rest of the Beats, although they all drifted apart philosophically.

In the sixties Kerouac withdrew into alcoholism and what seems like an early onset of middle-age, whilst Cassady took to the road again with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. In a bus called “Furthur” Cassady took the wheel and drove the Pranksters across America. It was a trip well documented in Tom Wolf’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

Cassady travelled to Mexico many times, and in 1968 he died on a railroad track, attempting to walk fifteen miles to the next town. Shortly before his death he told a friend, “Twenty years of fast living – there’s just not much left, and my kids are all screwed up. Don’t do what I have done.”

In his short life, Neal Cassady travelled back and forth across North America. His wild antics, footloose life and driving skills inspired many who met him to follow him where he went. He was immortalised in art and literature, and continues to be an inspiration today in sending people on the road.


Gary Snyder


Lawrence Ferlinghetti commented that if Allen Ginsberg was the Walt Whitman of the Beat Generation, then Gary Snyder was its Henry David Thoreau. Through his rugged individualism and Zen peacefulness the young poet made quite an impact upon his contemporaries, introducing the culture of Asia to the West Coast poetry scene.

Snyder was both interested in the teachings of Asian culture and the tough landscape of North America, and his relationship with both is most famously recounted in Kerouac’s Dharma Bums.

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, Snyder quickly learned the importance of place. He spoke of a Salishan man who “knew better than anyone else I had ever met where I was.” The mountains and forests of his part of the world were dangerous and beautiful places, and respect and awareness of them were key to his development. Knowing himself inside and out was essential for Snyder’s growth and survival.

From a young age Snyder was fascinated with Asia. He grew up on the West Coast of the United States, revelling in the diversity of the cities.

The geographical significance of East Asia to the West coast was palpable, as I was growing up. Seattle had a Chinatown, the Seattle Art Museum had a big East Asian collection, one of my playmates was a Japanese boy whose father was a farmer, we all knew that the Indians were racially related to the East Asians and that they had got there via Alaska… There [was]… a constant sense of exchange.


After years of studying Asian culture and teaching himself to meditate, Snyder was offered a scholarship to study in Japan. His application for a passport was initially turned down after the State Department announced there had been allegations he was a communist. (This was shortly after the 1955 Six Gallery Reading, at which Snyder read “A Berry Feast.”)

Snyder studied and travelled in Japan, and eventually became a disciple of Miura Isshu. He mastered Japanese, worked on translations, learned about forestry and formally became a Buddhist.

His return to North America in 1958 took him through the Persian Gulf, Turkey and various Pacific Islands, whilst he worked as a crewman on an oil freighter.

Snyder returned to Japan in 1959 with Joanne Kyger, whom he married in February 1960. Over the next thirteen years he travelled back and forth between Japan and America, occasionally living as a monk, although without formally becoming a priest.

As mentioned in the “Allen Ginsberg” section of this essay, Snyder and Ginsberg travelled together throughout India, seeking advice from holy men.

Between 1967 and 1968 Snyder spent time living with “the Tribe” on a small island in the East China Sea, practicing back-to-the-land living. Shortly after, Snyder moved back to America and settled with his second wife – Masa Uehara – in the Sierra Nevada mountains, in Northern California. He maintained a strong interest in back-to-the-land living after returning.

Gary Snyder’s poetry often reflects his relationship with the natural world. Throughout his life he worked close to the land, and in his poems we see intimate portraits of the world around him. Issues of forestry and geomorphology are frequently addressed in his poems, as well as in his essays and interviews.

In 1974 Snyder’s Turtle Island won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. “Turtle Island” is a Native American name for the North American continent, and Snyder believed that by referring to it as such, it was possible to change contemporary perceptions of the land to a more holistic, balanced viewpoint.

Mountains and Rivers Without End was published in 1996, and celebrates the inhabitation of certain places on our planet.

Today there is an incredible volume of work concerning the poetry of Gary Snyder, and it largely divides its focus between his interest in Asian culture and the environment. It is pretty much agreed, however, that the natural world and a strong sense of community have pervaded his works throughout his entire career.

Gregory Corso

The only member of the Beat Generation to have actually been born in Greenwich Village was Gregory Corso. He was the youngest of the Beats, and had an extremely tough childhood, growing up on the streets of New York without a mother and did time in both the Tombs and Clinton Correctional Facility.

He met Ginsberg in a lesbian bar in New York and was soon introduced to the rest of the Beats. In 1954 he moved to Boston and educated himself. His first book of poetry was released with the help of Harvard students.

Corso worked various jobs across America, and stayed for a while in San Francisco, performing with Kerouac and becoming a well known member of the Beats.

Between 1957 and 1958 Corso lived in Paris, where he wrote many of the poems that would make up Gasoline, which was published by City Lights. In October of 1958 he went to Rome to visit Percy Byssthe Shelley’s tomb. He travelled briefly to Tangier to meet Ginsberg and Orlovsky, and brought them back to Paris to live in the Beat Hotel. In 1961 he briefly visited Greece. In February 1963 he travelled to London.

It seems that Corso came to consider Europe his home, in spite of having been born in New York. His travels there inspired him, and he spent many years living in Paris. During a return to New York he said: “It dawns upon me that my maturing years were had in Europe – and lo, Europe seems my home and [New York], a strange land.”

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Ferlinghetti claimed to have been a bohemian from another era, rather than a Beat. Indeed, he isn’t often viewed in the same light. He was the publisher of the Beats, more than a Beat Generation writer, and he lived a more stable life. While Ginsberg, Kerouac and co. were on the road, gaining inspiration and living their footloose lives, Ferlinghetti was mostly settled in San Francisco.

He travelled a little – going to Japan during World War II and studying in Paris after attending Columbia University. He lived in France between 1947 and 1951.

Politics and social justice were always important to Ferlinghetti, and he was active with Ginsberg in protesting and demonstrating for change. He read poetry across America, Europe and Latin America, and much of the inspiration for his work came from his travels through France, Italy, the Czech Republic, the Soviet Union, Cuba, Mexico, Chile and Nicaragua.

His poems are often political and social, but also celebrate the natural world.

Michael McClure

McClure has never been renowned for his travelling or travel writing, but rather for his depictions of nature and animal consciousness. His poems are organised organically in line with his appreciation of the purity of nature. They carry the listener (as McClure’s delivery of his poems is fantastic, and often accompanied by music) to totally different place.

He first read his poetry aloud at the Six Gallery in San Francisco, and has since read at the Fillmore Ballroom, San Francisco’s Human Be-in, Airlift Africa, Yale University, the Smithsonian, and the Library of Congress. He even read to an audience of lions at San Francisco Zoo. He has read all around the world, including Rome, Paris, Tokyo, London and in a Mexico City bull ring.

His travels have carried him around North America, South America, Africa and much of Asia.

Bob Kaufman

Kaufman was one of thirteen children, and at age thirteen he ran away from the chaos of his New Orleans home. He joined the Merchant Marine and spent twenty years travelling the world. It is said that in this time he circled the globe nine times.

He met Jack Kerouac and travelled to San Francisco to become a part of the poetry renaissance. He rarely wrote his poems down, preferring to read them aloud in coffee shops.

Kaufman was always more popular in France than in America, and consequently the bulk of his papers can be found in the Sorbonne, Paris. Today his written work is hard to find.

Harold Norse

Norse was born in Brooklyn and attended New York University. After graduating in 1951 Norse spent the next fifteen years travelling around Europe and North Africa.

Between 1954 and 1959 he lived and wrote in Italy. He worked on translations and used street hustlers to decode the local dialects.

In 1960 Norse moved into the Beat Hotel in Paris, with William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso. Whilst in Paris he wrote the experimental cut-up novel Beat Hotel.

Like many of the Beats, Norse travelled to Tangier after reading the work of Paul Bowles. He returned to America in 1968 to live in Los Angeles, befriending Charles Bukowski, before spending the rest of his life in San Francisco.