I was halfway across America, at the dividing line between the East of my youth and the West of my future…—Jack Kerouac, On the Road
I knew we were in trouble as soon as Jim Brian pulled up before sunrise driving a sleek, red 1960 rag-top Cadillac. My jaw dropped faster than Paris Hilton’s undies. This was our ride.
“It’s totally cherry, man,” said Jim. “It’s got a kick-ass stereo, though, and a cruise control installed.”
He’d borrowed it from his Uncle Rawhide, who kept it in his garage, under a tarp.
“Man, imagine how many bodies you could fit in that trunk!” I said.
I was reminded of the red Cadillac driven by Hunter S. Thompson and his attorney, Oscar Acosta in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It was perfect, although our journey was a little different in scope and inspiration, if not the same in spirit, as Thompson’s wild romp.
We loaded our gear and pointed the Cadillac to I-90. As we climbed up the on-ramp at Orange Street, Jim let loose a blood-curdling whoop as he stomped on the gas pedal, causing the Caddy to slingshot directly into the passing lane, “merging” with traffic much the same way Mike Tyson “makes love” with a woman. The adrenaline surge simultaneously scared the crap out of me and knocked loose a ton of memory bricks.
“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live...,” wrote Jack Kerouac in On the Road. It was that line that crept into my head as we left Mount Jumbo in the rearview. I had no business sitting in a red Caddy doing 75 and heading east, partaking in an epic, middle-aged road trip with an old friend like a couple of teenagers hopped up on Red Bull. Save for that line from the book. Like a lot of Missoulians, I was deeply influenced by On the Road, Kerouac’s bible of the Beat Generation. And now I was on a quest to see the original manuscript in person.
In the book, Kerouac and his frenetic buddy, Neal Cassady, criss-crossed the landscape of post-war America in the late ’40s and early ’50s, in search of adventure and alternatives, exploring the wild and seamy underbelly of our button-down society. Their youthful quest for creative inspiration and hunger for new ideas led them to the highway; mine eventually led me to Missoula. This progressive little oasis of artists, weirdos, writers, musicians and barstool philosophers has become a mecca for so many of us who want to proudly let our freak flag whip in the wind. It seems we all had our Kerouac phase.
Jim Brian, a Missoula native, and I were art school classmates in Seattle when we discovered Kerouac during the acid-washed salad days of our mid-20s. Like most of our peers, I was reading a lot of counterculture titles: Naked Lunch, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and other books that helped widen my small-town perspective. I was especially drawn to some of the Beat writers—Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Kerouac—a generation of open-minded thinkers who rejected the Ozzie-and-Harriet mindset of mid-20th century America, and in the process paved the way for the entire hippie movement of the ’60s. (And you thought it was all Jerry Garcia’s idea.)
When I first read On the Road, I was galvanized by its raw, lyrical depiction of the traveling life. It kicked down the door, releasing me from the square-john world of corporate culture, mainstream thought and the whole obeying-the-law thing. Yes, the book told me, it’s okay to make your way through the world as an artist, without having to wear a tie and spend your day in a cubicle. Kerouac showed me that what makes you an artist is not just what you create, but how you see the world and interact with it.
Jim Brian and I began a lifelong obsession with the Beat writers. Fueled by cheap weed, jugs of Carlo Rossi Paisano and Jim’s excellent homemade burritos, we frequently stayed up all night in the little Seattle apartment we shared, chewing fiercely on conversations about anything and everything in our universe, emulating the great sharing of minds we’d read about in Kerouac’s book.
Now it’s 20 years later, and I’m living a creative but comfortable existence in my suburban fortress, on a hillside overlooking Missoula. I came here from Seattle 15 years ago, and it’s the smartest move I ever made. Like most others who came here as a lifestyle choice, I cobble together an income from several sources: graphic design projects, playing music, writing and, when things are slow, I consider robbing the occasional casino. I’m content, overfed, happily married with two kids and completely embedded in the middle-class soft life; a manatee with a driver’s license. The days of road tripping—or tripping of any kind—are a distant memory of another time, another place.
Then I heard about the scroll.
Somewhere along the line I knew there’d be girls, vision, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me.—Jack Kerouac, On the Road
News item, 2003: Robert Irsay Jr., owner of the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts, has purchased the original manuscript of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road for $2.4 million.
Same news item, 30 seconds later: Irsay has announced he will put the manuscript “on tour,” sending it to libraries around the United States, where it will be on full display for the general public.
I was still a little pissed at the Colts for slipping out of Baltimore in the middle of the night the way they did in 1983, but this was definitely a positive move by the team’s owner: the scroll was going on tour.
If you’ve never heard about the On the Road scroll, get a load of this:
Kerouac, a 100 words-per-minute typist, pieced together a 120-foot-long, continuous piece of paper by taping together several sheets of teletype bond. Then, armed with a pile of Benzedrine inhalers and gallons of black coffee, he sat down in his mother’s attic bedroom and wrote the entire first draft in 20 days in April 1951. The manuscript was typed single-spaced with absolutely no paragraphs or indents.
The scroll has become a legendary piece of work, hidden away in various vaults, closets and shoeboxes of the Kerouac heirs on down the line, until it was ultimately acquired by Irsay. For someone like me, whose life had been sent down a specific path because of reading this one book, the opportunity to see the original manuscript was a chance I simply could not pass up.
I also saw the opportunity to boil the fat off my relationship with my best friend, Jim Brian. I envisioned a road trip during which Jim and I could revisit our bohemian art school days, if only for a long weekend.
When I read the news item, I called Jim immediately and filled him in.
“When this thing gets anywhere near Missoula,” I told him, “We are going.”
Jim’s a man of few words, and his response was immediate and unequivocal: “I’m in.”
I counted minutes and subtracted miles. Just ahead, over the rolling wheat fields all golden beneath the distant snows of Estes, I’d be seeing old Denver at last.—Jack Kerouac, On the Road
A few months ago, I learned the manuscript was going to be on display in Denver in February and March, its last western stop before moving permanently back east. I called Jim and gave him the time frame. I also alerted Steve Kent, Missoula’s Zen mechanic and the third slice of our metaphysical friendship pie, and filled him in.
The three of us phoned and e-mailed furiously back and forth, adjusting our calendars and workloads and obligations so we’d be free to make our headlong, balls-to-the-wall pilgrimage to Denver. Steve, unfortunately, had to beg off—he couldn’t resolve the conflicts in his schedule. But he promised to keep in constant touch via cell phone.
So it would be just Jim and me. Neal and Jack. Or, as they were known in the book, Dean and Sal. Our plan: leave at dark-thirty Friday morning, drive 950 miles straight through to Denver. Crash at my buddy Chris Cutthroat’s house. See the manuscript on Saturday. Leave Denver at dark-thirty on Sunday, drive 950 miles back. Arrive back home alive, preferably with no diseases.
I built a pile of killer sandwiches the night before we left, just as Kerouac had done the night before he left San Francisco to return home after his very first trip out west. I packed cameras, notebooks, clothes and a battered copy of On the Road.
My wife Barb admitted she’d never read a book powerful enough to make her want to cross the street, let alone drive 1,000 miles so she could view the original draft, but she gave her wholehearted blessing.
Jim’s wife, Renee, gave him the green light as well, because she, like Barb, could tell this wasn’t just another excuse to drive far enough away where they’d never hear about any of the trouble we got into. No, our respective better halves sensed, rightly so, that this was a Holy thing. A spiritual quest.
We all jumped to the music and agreed. The purity of the road. The white line in the middle of the highway unrolled and hugged our left front tire as if glued to our groove.—Jack Kerouac, On the Road
Once Jim picked me up we cruised along for several hours, chattering nonstop. We’d both prepared for the trip by rereading the book, and we peppered each other with questions and theories about the beatnik era and the attitudes of Kerouac and his contemporaries.
“What do you think inspired those guys?” Jim said at one point. “I mean, you and I are spurred on by the Beats, but what do you think inspired them?”
“I think they were inspired by themselves,” I offered.
“Yeah,” said Jim, nodding. “The weren’t really following some previous generation or movement, or something like that, they were kind of…”
“Self-starting!” I said. We were slipping right back into our well-oiled banter, finishing each other’s thoughts as if the last 20 years had never happened. Unbound, we talked about religion, sex, creativity, being a father, being a son—all kinds of themes that just came and went like mile markers on the side of the highway.
“You know,” I said, as we passed Laurel, just west of Billings, “if we wait till Sheridan to have a beverage, we’ll still be pretty sober by the time we pull into Denver.”
“How far’s Sheridan from Billings?” he asked, suddenly concerned.
I consulted my chrome-plated sextant, stabbed a spit-smeared finger out the window, checked my 10-atmosphere Rolex diver’s watch, got a bearing on my Roald Amundsen signature compass, and held my right hand under my left armpit for 30 seconds.
“Too far.” I pried open the lid to our immense ice chest, peered into the heavily-insulated locker and let out a shriek.
“Holy shit—we got no ice!”
Jim, a seasoned drinker with lightning reflexes and overdeveloped salivary glands, immediately caught the next exit and pulled into a convenience store. We had actually paid for two sacks of ice at the Butte fill-up, but neglected to snag them before we pulled out. So I grabbed two bags out of the ice bunker at this gas station, figuring things were somehow even, and we jetted.
Just as we crossed the state line, my cell phone began to play “Manic Mechanic” by ZZ Top. It was Steve Kent.
“Hey, man, where are you guys?”
I told Steve about the ice episode, and he made a disapproving groan.
“Man, you can’t use karma like it’s a line of credit, Bob,” he said. “Here’s what I want you to do: at the next gas stop I want you to buy six newspapers and leave them on top of the newspaper box. Call me tomorrow when you’re at the library.”
“Okay,” I said. I snapped the phone shut.
It was after dark as we approached Cheyenne, and we saw a great glow in the sky, similar to the one you can see above Las Vegas from 150 miles away.
“Man, I didn’t know Cheyenne was that big of a town,” I said to Jim.
“It’s not,” he said, steering with one hand and rolling a Bull Durham with the other. “That light’s from Denver.”
I’d forgotten just how big, how sprawling Denver is. We found my friend Chris Cutthroat’s house just north of the city, easing the Cadillac into his driveway at 10 p.m. He was sitting in a kitchen chair on his front porch, with a rifle lying across his lap.
“Problems with the neighbor kids?” I asked, pulling stuff out of the trunk.
“Bunnies,” he said, picking up the rifle and sighting on a rabbit that was moving along his fence. He squeezed off a shot from the .22, missing the rabbit but putting a neat hole in the fence plank. “Bastards are everywhere,” he said, taking a pull from his beer.
Holy flowers floating in the air, were all these tired faces in the dawn of Jazz America.—Jack Kerouac, On the Road
The next morning Jim and I sat in the Ralston Cafe in Arvada, north of Denver, having breakfast. I ordered chicken fried steak, eggs straight up, pancakes, hash browns. A champion breakfast for a hungry road warrior. Jim had the breakfast burrito. Soon as the waitress left, I delivered him a large order of shit.
“Breakfast burrito? Goddamn, man, we found this joint so we didn’t have to eat something wrapped in a fucking paper.”
Jim recoiled at my outburst. He then nodded sagely, removing his round, wire-rimmed glasses and cleaning them with his ever-present do-rag. He quietly replaced the glasses and pulled a packet of sugar out of the holder on the counter. He methodically stripped the paper off the top of the sugar packet, and slowly pulled it to his mouth.
Mesmerized, I leaned forward on my stool and followed the hypnotic arc of the sugar packet. When it touched his bottom lip, he blew a sharp gust of air right at my face, sending a million stinging granules into my wide-open eyeballs.
“Eat me,” he whispered. It was just like 20 years ago.
After the usual amount of getting lost, we got to the Denver Central Library a short time later. As we entered the building I had my camera under my arm, ready to start documenting the pinnacle of the trip. But we were immediately stopped when a security guard leaped into action from his post behind a desk (well, actually, he just put down his magazine).
“No photography anywhere in the building,” he said.
I told him we needed some footage of the Evil Companions display for our high school literary project. If we didn’t get some footage, we’d have to go to summer school.
“Uh huh,” he said, eyes roaming over our graying hair and lined faces. “Enjoy your classes.”
We were in. We rode the elevator to the fifth floor, and as the doors slid open I jumped out. I hung a quick left, and there it was. I strode to the display case, ready to see the focus of my four-year obsession.
The sheer volume of words was the first thing to hit me. Jim walked up beside me, and we took in the incredible length of the paper. And this was barely half the scroll! I guess when you type 100 words-per-minute all day, every day, this is what it looks like. I saw as much as 2 feet of vertical scroll that had absolutely no errors. The man was the Eric Clapton of the manual typewriter.
“Wow,” I said. “It looks all…typie.”
Jim and I drifted apart, needing to absorb this thing on our own. And a magnificent thing it was, people. It was the last 60 feet or so of the scroll, unrolled onto a fine-weave burlap-looking background that you could actually see through the manuscript. The paper itself, whether it was tracing paper or onionskin or whatever, was fairly translucent. Fragile. Old. It was like staring at the Declaration of Independence. Or Merle Haggard’s rap sheet.
I soon realized you have to look at this thing in several ways: It’s the first draft of the mid-20th century’s (arguably) most influential work of literature. It’s a Herculean feat of typing. It’s a major endorsement for Benzedrene. It’s Kerouac’s valentine to America. It’s the blueprint for an entire school of stream-of-consciousness writing. It’s a stunning travelogue and an unflinching diary.
It’s the absolute best “What I Did On My Summer Vacation” ever.
Some of the typing is noticeably darker in places, especially where Kerouac seems to get pissed off about something, like when Dean got pinched by the cops. I read up and down the sheet, looking for stuff I remembered from the book, but, you know, I haven’t memorized it, and it’s quite a lot of freaking words. His pencil notations in the margins and between the lines are tiny and precise. Between the oblique lighting and my forgotten reading glasses, I couldn’t make a lot of them out. I did note one interesting bit, where he’d typed “Neal was breathlessly silent,” and drew a line through the word “breathlessly,” writing “tantalizingly” above it. It gave me chills. Or perhaps that was the chicken fried steak making a return visit.
Jim turned an eye to our fellow Kerouacophiles and started up conversations with several people. I soon sidled up to eavesdrop.
Ryan Workman, a Denverite in his early 20s, spoke enthusiastically about how reading the book inspired him to become a writer. We told him we were writing an article about the manuscript, and about our journey from Western Montana to Denver.
“You drove 15 hours yesterday just to see this thing?” he asked, incredulous.
Jim and I nodded, puffing up with pride.
“And you’re leaving tomorrow?”
More nodding, more puffing.
“Man,” said the kid. “Y’all are retarded.” He turned and walked to the far end of the display, shaking his head.
Another guy was draped over the case, completely absorbed in reading the scroll. He looked like an amalgam of every old hippie I know in Missoula. Gray beard and ponytail, Greek fisherman’s hat pushed back on his head, skinny reading glasses balanced on the end of his nose. He had several notebooks in the crook of his arm, and was writing furiously on a legal pad as he read.
Jim stepped over to him and asked how the guy had been affected when he first read On the Road.
“Never read it,” he answered, not taking his eyes off the text. “Just wanted to come in here and see if there’s any literary quality to it.”
His wife stood a few feet away, arms crossed, tapping a finger, looking bored.
“Wow,” I said. “This is the first time you’ve read any of it?”
“Hell yeah,” he said, looking up, “and I just don’t see it. It all seems kind of self-indulgent, you know? Say, did anyone ever make this thing into a book?”
Jim and I traded looks. “Well…yeah,” said Jim. “I’m sure they’ve got copies right here in the library.”
The guy stood up straight. “Then why the hell am I wasting my time reading this piece of shit?”
He went on to tell us that he, also, was a writer, and we talked about how Kerouac had produced the book in a three week burst.
“Yeah, and I heard he was all doped up while he did this, right? Well, that would be a problem for me, because I don’t drink and I don’t do any drugs.”
“Maybe you should start,” his wife said.
We left the two to their squabble, and went over to talk with a teenage girl and her friend, who seemed to be there begrudgingly with an older woman. Jim asked the younger one, a shapely young specimen of about 18, if she’d ever even heard of the book.
“Oh, yeah, I read it a couple years ago when I was on vacation in Mendocino. I read it in the bathtub.”
Jim and I looked at each other.
“Bubble bath, or clear water?” I asked.
“Um, a bubble bath, I think. Anyway, I didn’t really understand a lot of it at the time…”
“Was it one of those big old-fashioned tubs, you know, with the claw feet?” asked Jim.
“Was the water real hot? I mean, how long were you in there?” I said. “Long enough to get wrinkly?”
The girl looked at her friend, and they rolled their eyes and went off.
I walked over to an alcove and took out my cell phone to call Steve, as promised. I described the scroll, the scene and the people. I heard him sigh. It helped put into perspective how lucky Jim and I were to be there.
In all, we were with the manuscript for over three hours. Seeing the story in one continuous piece made me think of how our life’s journey is just that—continuous. It’s not broken into chapters or sections when it happens, it’s always happening. We only slice it up in our minds for the convenience of organization.
We wandered around the exhibit, looking at the black-and-white blow-ups of 1940s-era Denver. One photo was a well-known shot of Kerouac with Neal Cassady, in front of a brick wall on Larimer Street, arms thrown around each other’s shoulders in affectionate camaraderie. Jim and I stood next to the photo and spent a few moments getting the pose just right, and asked the old hippie to snap a photo.
He obliged, but when he handed me the camera, he shook his head and said, “Jack and Neal? Shee-it. You two are more like Sponge Bob and Patrick.”
I stumbled along with the most wicked grin of joy in the world, among the old bums and beat cowboys of Larimer Street.—Jack Kerouac, On the Road
We had a quick drink at a little English pub on Larimer Street, and made our way back to Chris Cutthroat’s house. He’d been skiing all day, and pulled in about the same time we did. I had brought a Ziploc bag of my homemade spaghetti sauce, so dinner was easy. Chris invited a guitarist friend over, and we jammed until 4 a.m., heedless of the fact that Jim and I needed to leave before 9.
I woke up under the dining room table at 7, an empty Chivas bottle for a pillow. I made my way to the bathroom (or, as Chris calls it, the “situation room”). A shower helped me pry my eyes open, but I felt strangely un-hung-over. Jim took his turn in the shower, and Chris finally came stumbling out of his bedroom, a little bleary, a little worse for wear and tear, as we were carrying the last of our stuff out to the Cadillac.
“Bob, I had so much fun! We have to get together again soon, man. Maybe I can get up to Montana with my daughter this summer.”
I put my arm around Chris’ shoulder and gave him a light punch on the chin. “You stink.”
I took the first shift behind the Caddy’s hula hoop of a steering wheel. We wound our way out of the neighborhood and headed for I-70. I love Chris like a brother, and felt a little guilty that I’d used the last of his coffee to fill my thermos. But I knew he’d understand.
The highway began to unwind behind the Cadillac, and I had the cruise control set on a steady 81 mph. The ride was so smooth it felt like we were in someone’s living room. I was thinking about the scroll, but we didn’t really talk. We mostly listened to music. I’d burned a dozen CDs of hand-picked music for the trip, and Jim kept feeding them into the stereo. We each ate one of our whopping sandwiches somewhere north of Cheyenne, and around noon we decided to stop at a little roadhouse for a red beer and a shake-a-day.
The bartender gave us a big smile, exposing a row of widely spaced, tobacco-stained little teeth. “All My Children” was on the set above the bar.
“You boys passin’ through?”
I wanted to say, no, we’re retired, and my longtime companion and I have decided to build a little bed and breakfast right here, 10 miles south of the middle of nowhere. But I just said yeah. We drank our red beers, lost a buck each on the shake-a-day and walked back out into the bright sunlight, rubbing our eyes. At least 10 more hours to go, and we were flagging.
We picked up a box of NoDoz and each ate two tablets, which is the equivalent of, I think, four cups of coffee. Washed ’em down with coffee, and soon we were flying down the highway again, exhausted but alert.
We talked about a feeling of accomplishment, of having reached some sort of peak by viewing the manuscript. I felt a real connection, a palpable sense of homecoming when we were in that library. The fact that we’d been looking at an object worth $2.4 million never occurred to me. The impressive thing was the volume and intensity of creative output we saw firsthand. It both humbled and inspired me.
The sun was setting as we approached Billings, and Jim was driving. I put my hand on his shoulder.
“Jim, I’m hungry, man, and I just can’t face another sandwich.”
“Why don’t we find a decent place to eat in Billings,” he said. “It’ll be our last huzzah.”
“You mean hurrah.”
“Whatever. Take your hand off my shoulder already.”
So, after a good half hour of driving aimlessly around Billings, we found a good Mexican restaurant. It felt great to sit down after all that, uh, sitting down. We tucked into a huge meal, and tried to distill some of the stuff we’d seen and done over the last three days (“You think it really was a bubble bath?”). We drank three pitchers of water. Jim paid our check (he bought the food all weekend; I sprung for the gas), and I climbed behind the wheel for the last leg of our trip.
It was pitch dark now, and I futzed with the AM radio, searching for a talk show to keep my mind occupied while Jim slept. It all started to sound the same after awhile, so I shut it off and drove along the nearly deserted highway to the rhythm of Jim’s snoring.
I’m one lucky son-of-a-bitch, I thought. I’m 47 (the age at which Kerouac died), and at this stage of the game I should be sweating about IRAs, watching my cholesterol and stockpiling Viagra pills. Instead, I grabbed a little chunk of my past and fulfilled a rare dream.
Just after midnight, five hours after we’d left Billings, Mount Jumbo loomed in the darkness, backlit by a star-filled sky. I couldn’t keep a shit-eating grin from spreading across my face as I peeled off the freeway and rolled down the Orange Street exit. We’d done it. Everything had gone right. No broken bones, lost wallets, cuts or abrasions, or even hurt feelings.
Jim and I had finally come full circle. My favorite passage from the book, the very line that filled me with a lust for life years ago, flashed in my memory:
The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars…
So we returned, satisfied, to the familiar comfort of Missoula, where I’m surrounded by those mad people, all these mavericks and free spirits who vibrate with Beat energy. They’re the same people who populated that scroll a thousand miles away and 50 years ago, in the book that started it all for me.