Epistles from the Roadside

I don’t think I had any conscious concept of Whitman’s vision of the “Open Road.” I had to read Whitman in school, but hardly any of it took. Later in life I’ve come to love Whitman but I never delved that deeply into him. I agreed with everything he said, but there were a thousand other writers, artists influencing me to his point of view. My grandfather, my Dad and Mom were on the road literally and figuratively, to go out West, up to Alaska, to sail around the Horn, you name it, long before Kerouac, Guthrie or any of those guys. My Grandfather, a well-known naturalist and ichthyologist for years at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York took several dramatic sailing voyages around South America to Hawaii at the end of the 19th century.  He has the Wanderlust. Him and Charles Darwin.

My mother, who was French, from Brittany, but raised much in Barcelona, Spain (and made a refugee by Civil War and WW II from 1936), came to America for the first time in 1931 when she was 16. She was obsessed with visiting the American West.  She took a train out West in 1932 to Santa Fe, worked at Jesse Nussbaum’s Laboratory of Anthropology in Santa Fe, befriended people in several Indian tribes.  She traveled around the West, out to Los Angeles all over, went to movie studios, learned how to ride, throw a lariat. Loved everybody she met. I have a great picture of her out West, many images.  A favorite is of [her] on horseback wearing a cowboy hat, and chaps in the bottom of the Grand Canyon, I have her wonderful journals of her wonderful times in a wonderful land

My father was removed from prep school by my Granddad during his junior year. Thereafter he traveled all over collecting small mammals for the AMNH in New York.  In`935 or 36 he spent many months around Sutcliffe, Nevada near Pyramid Lake running traplines in the desert that he checked by horseback every day. He shot ground squirrels for his lunch.  He kept great journals. I grew up on his stories of the West. He was gregarious, schmoozed everybody, got along with everyone. Great sense of humor. He spent much of 1937 up near Cantwell, Alaska all alone trapping lemmings and such near Denali. For the AMNH. I have copies of his journals, letters, his field notes, and drawings. Hw took trains and boats to get around.  Also traveled on collecting expeditions to Maine, Florida, England.

In 1938 my Dad drove a Chevy Coupe he called the “greased Pig” from New York to Berkeley, California, shooting bats and trapping mice en route, camping out wherever. When he and my Mom got married in Dec. 1938 they took a boat from Paris to NY, then a train across country to Berkeley again. And for the nest 2 years they drove all over California, Nevada, Arizona, observing the land, birds, mammals, keeping in-depth field journals. They loved being on the road, self sufficient, camping. Their freedom was the marvelous wide land, its geography, its animal and vegetable life. My Mom died in Mimi Beach in 1942 at age 27.  Her whole life had been wanderlust and travel.  My Dad’s also . . .

Naturally, [after watching a film about American journeys] I thought of my old road adventures, my travels back and forth across the country on trains and buses in the 1940s and 1950s; the bus trip I took to Guatemala from New York in 1964 that changed my life; a couple of car trips across country with my dad (in 1951 and 1978), with my wife and child and on my own in a VW bus maybe 7 times in the late 60s and early 70s, and wonderful excursions through New Mexico and Wyoming I made with a couple of girl friends (and to a girl friend in Montana) in the late 1970s and 1980s.

I remember blowing my VW Bus engine in Terra Haute, Indiana driving back West to Taos from New York in 1973, and, while I waited for my engine to be rebuilt, I discovered the Eugene Debs House and wound up for three days drinking bourbon with the curator while we went through the scrapbooks Debs’ wife had kept of his career all her life.  That was a wonderful experience, which led directly to me reading Ray Ginger’s biography of Debs when I got home to Taos.

I used to drive. I used to be a contender. In 1980 or ’81 my dad gave me his 1973 Chevy Impala with 100,000 miles on it (which replaced my VW bus), and my god how I learned to love that car, despite my environmental politics.  The first time I drove that Impala from Colorado Springs to Columbia, Mississippi I knew what had made America GREAT. . . .

On The Road. I opened to page 110, the start of Chapter 6, and in the first few sentences got a microcosm. Bingo.

It was drizzling and mysterious at the beginning of our journey I could see that it was all going to be one big saga of the mist.  ‘Whoee!” yelled Dean ‘Here we go!’ And he hunched over the wheel and gunned her; he was back in his element, everybody could see that. We were all delighted, we all realized we were leaving confusion and nonsense behind and performing our one and noble function of the time, move.  And we moved!

In 1951 when I was 11, I drove with my Dad from Berkeley to New York in an epic journey. I remember vividly Reno and Elko (Winnemucca) Nevada., a blizzard crossing the Rockies into Denver, sliding on ice into a truck in Colorado and later almost turning over in a ditch (a tow truck pulled us out) , then hitting a pheasant in Kansas and putting it in the trunk to freeze (we ate it back East). And eating at a diner in Wheeling, West Virginia during a snowfall with hunters gathered around the truck with a very dead deer tied to it. I bought and saved newspapers from every town we went through. God I wish I had those newspapers now. America was wondrous.

Summer of 1957, 16 years old, I took a bus out West to New Mexico, and had extraordinary adventures that changed my life. Working for a scientist at AMNH research station in Arizona. Fighting forest fires with Chicanos and Mexican nationals in the Chiracahuas. Incredible time. I wrote my first novella about it, “The Journey.” How could I be so lucky? Effectively, I was repeating my father’s and mother’s first journeys out West . . . And then at the end catching a bus in Lordsburg that got held up for s flash flood, then meeting a girl in Amarillo and making out with her all the way to St. Louis. I loved the bus, talking to people on buses, looking at America out the window. It just seemed like I was on a quest, absorbing it all. I loved talking with strangers, and I would talk about anything. I was real friendly. People liked me. I absorbed and gobbled up whatever they told me. T felt wonderful and meant the world to me. I loved being on the road. Every landscape, every person I met was an adventure . . .

In May 1969 I drove out West from NY in our VW Bus to Colorado Springs then down to Taos, looking for a place to live. Taos was trippy and hippie. You wouldn’t believe my first day in Taos where I saved a guy’s life and wound up swimming nude with 30 freaks at a hot springs. My wife joined me, we found a house, then I drove nonstop back East [to retrieve furniture] with my wife and two new friends from the Taos Pueblo, everybody smoking dope and singing and eating while I plowed nonstop across America. . . . .It was still an extraordinary country . . . I never stopped at a motel on any of these trips. I could drive 36 hours straight, drinking coffee, eating Hershey bars and raisins. I sang songs all across America and back. I knew a thousand songs, Folk, campfire, Spanish and French, cowboy, rock and roll, blues, pop tunes, football college rants, you name it. I just loved to move. I remember stopping once, I think it was in Wilson, Kansas, and driving right into the middle of their “after Harvest Czech Festival.” Quite a lively carnival. Everybody in the town was an immigrant from Czechoslovakia! Dancing in the streets. How can you not love America?

Once in the early 70s I drove from Taos to Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania nonstop in 32 hours or something. Once I got out [of] the West I started hating America in the East, especially the Pennsylvania turnpike, all those whizzing trucks and dead animals. Too cluttered, too many people. It was way more fun to go from Eat to West than vice-versa. The West was really made for traveling around in cars.

So: many memories provoked . . . Curiously I never tipped into guys like Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Ferlinghetti, but certainly was immersed in blues and folk music and every other kind of music, playing the guitar, by the time I was 15. When I hung out at a place on Sullivan Street in the Village in New York in 1963, a place called the World Café, Gregory Corso used to come in, drunk out of his skull, and give me shit. Blabbing about how the Beats had made the New York scene, but now everybody since had fucked it all up. Since the World Café was an after-hours musician hangout filled with folkies, blues people, druggies all the time I gather he was shitting on my generation, people like Dylan and Phil Ochs, with whom (Phil) I used to play some sets, very briefly, on the MacDougal/Bleecker scene.

20, maybe 25 years later, in Taos I ran into Gregory Corso again, at a big party at the artist R. C. Gorman’s house, where Corso was blotto out of his mind again and still bitchin’ about it all. I also remember my first guitar gig in New York, 1963, was on the same bill with Tiny Tim, a blind poet named Moondog, and a standup comic named Hugh Romney.  Romney was funny.  He soon became Wavy Gravy and I ran into him also years later in Taos, toothless and probably on the arm of Lisa Law.

What goes around comes around.

I even married a woman, in 1994, who’d been born on the Penasco, New Mexico incarnation of the Hog Farm . . . But of course back in the 60s I was too busy being a ‘Marxist-Leninist’ to pay too much attention to the Beats or that Freak generation that followed.

Since 1969, my idea of the Open Road has been to stay in one small place for the last 40 years! But of course it’s been infinity in a grain of sand.  And I have to admit for a long time I made many forays into the outside world, working on films, doing book tours, whatever.  Now I can barely drive a car.  I hate travel except in my mind or through television documentaries or through books. Which means, I suppose, that the journey has never stopped. I read so voraciously . . . And tonight had a long conversation with a friend, who’s a documentary filmmaker, about Jared Diamond and Guns, Germs and Steel, all about conquering  (our conversation); Cortes and Pizarro and Coronado, etc. Diversions into the Werner Herzog film, “Aguirre, Wrath of God.’ And my friend was recently shooting a documentary involving the history of black Buffalo Soldiers sent to Massacre Canyon in the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico to try and chase down the Apache chief Vittorio. They got slaughtered.

History. Love it or leave it.

Between 2000 and 2009 my main travels were into the high mountains near Taos.  I mean high, like 13,000 feet.  Alpine.  Tundra. Bighorn sheep.  I’m not sure what possessed me, but all my life here I’ve rambled Taos County’s wild country, across the mesas, down in the Rio Grande gorge, up several watersheds and little rivers that go from 7,000 to 10,000 feet, and then, when I turned 60 I became a high mountain freak.

And I made the same hike every time, from 10,000 to almost 13,000 feet, I climbed one mountain, Lake Fork Peak, god knows how many times I was determined to learn alpine biology, botany, weather, fauna, you name it. Of course, every trip was different. And incredibly hard work for aging me.  I came to love boulder fields, talus and scree fields, cliffs, exposed tundra, excessive wind, and other weather. I became a big fan of bighorn sheep, followed them with a spotting scope, learning a lot from observation and from reading books, talking to biologists. Same with ravens and other high altitude wild life.  In winter I tromped up high relentlessly (though not quite as high for fear of avalanche danger when alone), and had many blizzardy adventures. I took voluminous field notes every trip, often making two trips a week. Those excursions became one of the great adventures of my life.  Of course I shoulda done it when I was 30, not 60!

Recently I got diagnosed with CHF, and I also blew out my right knee, many meniscus and some ligament tears, and haven’t had orthoscopic surgery yet, so this year my hiking has been limited to lower climes. But so far I have kept moving.  It’s all part of the Open Road, Que no? I remember my football coach in prep school telling us to always keep moving, even after a play was whistled dead. He said it’s when you stop at the whistle that somebody clobbers you with a late hit and you’re crippled for life.

Last year I read a bunch of stuff about the Pacific War.  My Dad was on Bougainville in the Solomons.  God, the book I read on New Guinea was distressing; so too E B Sledge’s book on the invasions of Peleliu and Okinawa.  I still do not understand war.  How can people be trained to do that?  “This way for the gas, ladies and gentlemen” . . .

Well. That’s a lot of rattling on.

Adelante, siempre; p’atra, nunca,


John Nichols is a novelist, best known for his ‘New Mexico trilogy” (The Milagro Beanfield War, The Magic Journey, Nirvana Blues), and screenwriter. He also is author of half a dozen works of nonfiction. He lives in Taos. We are grateful for permission to reprint these portions of his correspondence.


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

By Kurt Jacobsen: A Rambling Introduction

By Paul Hoover: The British Small Arms Company: A Motorcycle Memoir

By Andrey Gritsman: Stranger at Home: Poetic Sensibility across Cultures and Languages

By John Nichols: Epistles from the Roadside

By Leonard Quart: Revisiting in the Heat of the Night

By John Long: Got My Kicks on Route 66

By Max Vanzi: Traipsing after Sawada: An American Foreign Correspondent’s Memoir

By Phaedra Greenwood: Two for the Road

By Warren Leming: Looking for Woody

By John Sinclair: Still on the Road

By Anne Waldman: Interview with Anne Waldman: On All Kinds of Roads

By Thomas de Zengotita: Modernism Revisited: Artistic Works, Academic Disciplines, Divided Minds

By Vincent Czyz: Plato’s Gospel

By Joseph Lowndes: Looking Forward to the History of the Tea Party

By Stephen Eric Bronner: On Judging American Foreign Policy: Human Rights, Political Realism, and the Arrogance of Power

By John Clark: Bad I.O.U.: Badiou’s Fidelity to the Event

By Carmen Francesca Banciu: Pollen and Diamonds

By Aaron Leonard: Twilight Saga of the American Empire?

By Lawrence Davidson: Review of Basem Ra’ad, Hidden Histories: Palestine and the Eastern Mediterranean.

By John Ehrenberg: Tristram Hunt, Marx’s General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels

By Denise Poche Jetter: Steven Shapin, Never Pure: Historical Studies of Science as if it were Produced by People

By Jason Scott: Megan Boler, Digital Media and Democracy: Tactics in Hard Times