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?”
In the late spring of 1939, Weldon Kees, his wife Ann, and his parents, John…