a journal of modern society & culture

A Rambling Introduction

“I was a young writer and I wanted to take off . . .” Jack Kerouac, On The Road

If you don’t know where you are going, surmised Lewis Carroll, ravishingly logical as usual, any road will get you there.[1] Yet long and winding roads aren’t always moseyed by rigid souls who imagine they know for sure where they will wind up or what will befall them between stale departure point A and hazy objective B. Plenty of nimble wanderers never needed to know so much, or so little, about their upcoming itineraries. For them, getting there was most of the kick, even if the sinuous route warps, as it sometimes does, into an epic aching series of ordeals.

Why? Because travel, as an affable Frenchman in a low-lit Lhasa café, and accompanied by a chic wife with papoose baby, remarked to me, “is a drug.” I grinned back and nodded so hard I got a crick in my neck. Their sylph of a 7 year old daughter sat, or fidgeted, next to me—no trace of my own throbbing altitude sickness in her demeanor. These cheerful wanderers were on a year-long trek around the pre-9/11 globe. Not even fussy family strictures can keep you fastened if you yearn to go. That was slightly over a decade ago. Wonder how those kids are turning out.

Tibet, to be sure, is a mighty literal high road to take, motivated for many a Western traveler by childhood viewings of a flickering mutilated version of the 1937 movie Lost Horizon, fantasies of rescuing levitating local monks from swarming Chinese commie entrepreneurs, or a Herman Hesse-like notion of grabbing a handful of pure grace above the holy cloudscape.[2] Inside the butter lamp smog of the Potala Palace the next day, where pilgrims competed to perform extravagant sprawls of prayerful submission before each shrine, I was elbowed aside by two pugnacious supplicants jostling for favorable position. Near the exit I administered instant karma. For the sake of balance.

Alas and alack, the reality of most destinations is grimmer and weirder than sprightly written guidebooks imply, or else is tucked neatly behind glittery Potemkin village tourist facades. But that dismal fact won’t deter the impetuous trekker from prying into exotic spaces, from Taos to Kathmandu (and, yes, too often to the detriment of the destination).[3]  Being lured onto the road obviously is a lot different than being pushed onto it. Why you are on the road makes all the difference in how you experience it: trail of tears tragic trudgers, dust bowl refugees, hopeful hitchers, alienated beatniks, vagrants scooped into chain gangs, hobos riding freights, writers on a quest, tourist package holidaymakers, or rucksack revolutionaries devouring every stray experience in range.

America, since its stubbornly romanticized frontier era, is its roads—from dusty Daniel Boone trail to modern littered superhighway to ghastly Disneyland tinsel tour.[4] Pathfinder, after all, is one of the nicknames by which James Fenimore Cooper labeled the first great white literary American protagonist Natty Bumppo—“a saint with a gun,” as D. H. Lawrence described him.[5] You don’t go to America to stand still, do you? When you are young, and gas is cheap, roaming seems irresistible; those memorable ventures into unknown nooks and crannies of America and then out of them again, for many, to traipse foreign lands, as “innocents abroad.” (I first waded into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Ecuador, as it happened, and only much later did so along the storied shores of California.)  For many an avid adventurer, everything changed, and never quite in the way they expected. The road is a physical thing, but it also is a metaphor for personal and national transformation.

So Hollywood road movies are legion, perennially popular road songs proliferate, and iconic road images ambush us everywhere. Walt Whitman linked the ‘open road’ forever to an egalitarian state of being and, at very least, to ways of fleeing small town conformity and suburban close-mindedness. Whitman published Leaves of Grass – containing “Song of the Open Road” – in 1857. Woody Guthrie, taking his highly adrenalinized cue from the old poet, roamed a stricken nation in the 1930s strumming a host of classic tunes in accord with Whitman’s radical democratic spirit.

Another Whitman disciple, Jack Kerouac, after years of demoralizing delays, published On The Road in 1957. Initially, the critical reception was mixed, with Harold Bloom decrying Kerouac’s ‘drab narrative” and Time Magazine, snappy and snotty as always toward powerless targets, ordaining Kerouac the ‘latrine laureate of hobohemia.” A lot of heedless readers nonetheless understood perfectly what Kerouac was getting at. In Kerouac’s Dharma Bums, published the following year, Japhy Ryder, a stand-in for poet Gary Snyder, foretold a generation of

. . . Dharma bums refusing to subscribe to the general demand that they consume production and therefore have to work for the privilege of consuming, all that crap that they didn’t want anyway . . . a great rucksack revolution, thousands or even millions of young Americans wandering around with rucksacks, going up to the mountains to pray, making children laugh and old men glad, making young girls happy and older girls happier, all of ‘em Zen Lunatics who go about writing poems that happen to appear in their heads for no reason and also by being kind and also by strange unexpected acts keep giving visions of eternal freedom to everybody and to all living creatures . . . .[6]

It came and it went: it was called the 60s. While all that countercultural ferment was going on, ‘straight’ folks, who dutifully loathed the frivolous and risk-taking renegade ‘freaks’, were busy designing a legalized swindle of epic proportions over decades that threatens to reduce America permanently to a banana latte republic. They can’t help it; it’s what ‘straight’ people do.

Soon director Walter Salles of Motorcycle Diaries fame will release the long-awaited movie version of Kerouac’s classic book, and Alex Gibney just released a documentary about Ken Kesey’s merry pranksters bus trip, which seem good excuses as any for a lingering look at what the road means in our ever more confused and contorted American culture. This special section of Logos therefore assembles lively essays from exceptionally savvy travelers, who record and revel and occasionally rue their high-spirited criss-crossings of the landscape and, because America is an empire that cannot call itself one, adjacent overseas terrains too. The classic heyday of the mythic road, the one to which young people flocked voluntarily, has to be the postwar era—roughly from the end of 1945 until the first oil crisis of the 1970s.

Our gleanings include:

Poet Paul Hoover enticingly wraps telling tidbits of tie-dyed history around a fable of his fleeting ownership of a cherished BSA motorcycle. New Mexico writer John Nichols (author of one of the truly great American novels The Magic Journey), shares sun-burnt reminiscences of transcendent joys and jarring moments traversing America’s roads, especially out West. Nichols hiked and hitched and motored all continental America and, like other esteemed contributors, more than once. Author and expatriate John Long chimes in with vignettes of his own delirious days wheeling down celebrated Route 66 where terribly trite things become excitingly true and sometimes downright deadly. Writer and photographer Phaedra Greenwood as a roving young woman helped fulfill a rash promise by ten gallon-hatted Wavy Gravy (Hugh Romney) on stage in 1969 at Woodstock to whip up breakfast in bed for four hundred thousand, and etches her personal acid-enhanced odyssey during that enchanting cosmic moment on our sore, sorry planet.

Max Vanzi, former foreign correspondent (and later a friend of Kerouac’s star-crossed pal Lucien Carr at UPI) skirts perilously along the razor-edged borders of embattled American interests across Asia – from Pakistan to Cambodia – and pays poignant tribute to a lost colleague.[7] Vanzi had to cross several Asian war zones to come back to the good old USA to get beat up by cops. Warren Leming, musician and filmmaker, recalls riding across the country in 1960 in a patched-up, rundown 1948 auto on a pilgrimage to the then-scorned Oklahoma shrine of the most legendary American itinerant of them all, Woody Guthrie.  Poet and activist John Sinclair surely has been wherever ‘there’ is, done whatever ‘that’ is, but he keeps on trucking with defiant flair and artistic brio through a 21st century cross-Atlantic rendition of bohemia.

In a wide ranging and generous-spirited interview poet Anne Waldman with ample insight and humor probes the multiple meanings of the road for all those with a yen to break away. Who said a road must be paved, or, for that matter, be something you can touch, to be a source of change, to shake you up? Some roads are metaphysical; perhaps all roads we explore for the sake of exploring are.  For our audio-visually inclined audience we include a hyperlink to a 4 minute preview of a new documentary exploring all the foregoing themes from an emphatically Whitmanesque point of view too.

The upshot?  What all this willful wandering portended, as T. S. Eliot figured out, was that many of the scruffy Magi, the dharma bums, the valiant vagabonds, would return to their starting point “to know the place for the first time,” and, unlike Elliot, even dare to try to change it, after filing their reports to the rest of the unawakened tribe.[8]

 

Notes

[1] This oft-quoted line is actually a paraphrase of an exchange between Alice and the Cat in Chapter 6 of Alice in Wonderland.

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where–” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“–so long as I get SOMEWHERE,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”

[2] See Lee Feigon, Demystifying Tibet: Unlocking the Secrets of the Land under the Snows (Chicago 1996) and Pankaj Mishra, Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond  (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2006)

[3] See Hal Rothman, Devils’ Bargains: Tourism in the Twentieth Century American West (Topeka: University Press of Kansas, 1998), Dennison Nash, “Tourism as a Form of Imperialism” in Valene L. Smith, ed. Hosts and Guests: The Anthropology of Tourism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989, Susan C Stonich, The Other Side of Paradise (Cognizant Communication Corp, 2000) and, even further afield but very relevant, Scott Laderman’s Tours of Vietnam: War, Travel Guides and Memory (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009).

[4] See Robert C. Drinnon, Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian Hating and Empire Building (Tulsa: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997); David H. Murdoch, The American West: The Invention of a Myth (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2001); Richard White and Patricia Nelson Limerick, The Frontier in American Culture (University of California Press, 1994); Patricia Nelson Limerick, Unbroken Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (New York Norton, 1987) and Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth Century America (Tulsa: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998).

[5] “Yet the Leatherstocking books are lovely. Lovely half-lies.” D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (London: Penguin, 2003), Chapter 5.

[6] Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums (New York: Viking Press, 1958), chapter 12.

[7] Lucien Carr, a close friend and catalyst of the beats in New York, wound up stabbing an addled admirer David Kammerer to death in 1944.  The circumstances were murky then, and more so now, and so worked in Carr’s favor in court.  After a brief spell in prison he embarked on a career as an editor for UPI.  Max recalled Lou Carr’s wit at work with reporters fiddling too long with copy: “Hey, They’re not going to bind it in leather, you know.” (In conversation with Vanzi.)

[8] T. S. Eliot, “Little Giddings”, Four Quartets (London : Faber & Faber, 2001).  The effects were predictably unpredictable. Speaking of Martinique, Fanon, for example, notes, ‘The black man who lived in France for a length of time returns radically changed.’  Those ‘who return to their original environment convey the impression that they have completed a cycle, that they have added to themselves something that was lacking.’ Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (London: Pluto Press, 1952). p. 19. Many American blacks returning home from eye-opening experiences overseas during the Second World War became the backbone of the Civil Rights movement.

Kurt Jacobsen is book review editor for Logos and a Research Associate in political science at The University of Chicago. His latest books are Freud’s Foes (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009), Pacification and Its Discontents (Prickly Paradigm Press, 2009) and, with Sayeed Hasan Khan, Parables of Permanent War (Lexington Press, forthcoming in November).

Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on Facebook

1 comment

1 buell kazee { 08.31.11 at 8:22 pm }

A great collection to those of us who did hit the road so long ago. Glad to see that those were not wasted years, and in retrospect they seem to surpass what now passes for “adventure” in the land of the lame and the brie.