My mind conjures Jack Kerouac every time I embark on a road trip, even one driving a U-Haul truck from Kansas to California. If Kerouac made this trip I imagine Neal Cassidy would do most of the driving with the box frame buffeting in the wind and allowing Jack little sleep.
Every rut awakens clangs and screeches but the truck holds together as if it were designed to instill a fear of disintegration and encourage the drivers to keep their speed under control. Just in case, the engine has a governor at 75, ensuring that other travelers and most semis will further pummel the U-Haul in their wakes.
I wonder if the interstate highways were in better shape during the idyllic fifties of Kerouac’s crossing. We pass expanses of road work between miles of worn pavement with the occasional surprise of a smooth surface and fewer decibels of tire noise. My kidneys welcome the respite though we know it won’t last.
I also ponder how much Kerouac would recognize the towns and landscapes strung out along the freeway. The gentle hills and sinuous rivers of the plains are still there, though suburbs have gorged on farmland like concrete kudzu. They sprout with the sameness of box stores, national brands, and three-bedroom abodes, though the scenery is still striking.
Along the front range near I-25 outside of Denver mountain peaks emerge from the fog and rise above the clouds with ghostly promise. I find it hard to keep my attention on the road, a weakness Cassidy never shows, but some of the structures in rural towns and ranches must have populated his vision.
Rusty beams and leaning walls mark abandoned farms where people once raised crops and cattle. Some larger, well-kept houses, and irrigated fields reveal the continued richness of the land, but many of the acres do not include a house, only the sheds and corrals of corporate ventures. The American dream of owning a family ranch seems more a myth than ever.
Kerouac would certainly be aroused by the increasing disparities of wealth and race along with the political separation between rural and city. He would be surprised by the lack of hitchhikers and our greater distrust of others.
On Kerouac’s road the social chasms were apparent but they seemed less stark. I sense in Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, and other beat writers an underlying belief that America will figure it out, even if it means transcendence more than political action, though political action is certainly a tool.
I want to believe there’s still hope for the American experiment of democracy and social equality despite our missteps and continued problems. That we can still load up our U-Haul and strike out across the country, trusting in the future. I want to believe Kerouac and Cassidy still share our road.
Check out my road novel, Lucky Ride: Lucky Ride