by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
September 6, 2007
ON THE ROAD WITH JACK
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- I've always blamed Jack Kerouac.
"On the Road" was published on Sept. 5, 1957, making it 50 years old this week. With it, Kerouac gave an overarching identity to his friends on both coasts - including poet Alan Ginsberg; traveling buddy Neal Cassady - who is Dean Moriarty in the book; poet Gregory Corso; and writer William Burroughs. They were the "Beat Generation."
Beat as in beaten down - denizens of the lower depths, rebels and rejects from a conformist society. Beat as in the beat of a jazz bass line. Beat as in the Beatitude of Kerouac's Catholicism.
In the Sixties, a lot of us wanted to be Beat. We wanted to be "gone." We wanted to be "hip." We wound up being called "hippies," which was an epithet. Most of all, we wanted to be on the road.
We wanted the romance of constant movement. Of parties and philosophy and writing and poetry and jazz. Of adventures. Of pain, suffering and sorrow. Of cops and jail. Of friendships with madmen, of adventures like Jack London's, of hanging out heavy the way Hemingway wrote about in "The Sun Also Rises."
Hem and Lady Brett on alcohol and bullfights and sunlight and death. Woody on guitars and hobos and freight trains and this land-is-your-land-America. Gary Snyder learning Buddhism 101. Kerouac, Cassady and Ginsberg on speed, movement, wine, pot, bebop and the city - it didn't matter which one. The adventure was in the rush, the ping-ponging from coast to coast and the characters you met along the way, everybody high on talk, strange drugs, hustling and sex.
Bob Dylan read the book in 1959 and said it changed his life. I read the book the same year, and never noticed that only the guys were having the adventures.
Kerouac and Cassady were love 'em and leave 'em types, and the pivotal word in that sentence isn't "love." (Although Kerouac was remarkably tender with his women, and his first wife, the mother of his only child, who left him because she couldn't stand being poor, regretted leaving him every day of her life.)
Unless they were sex objects or caretakers, women were absent from Kerouac's adventures. Corso later explained that the times were wrong. In the Fifties, women who were nonconformists - who railed against the patriarchy, for example - were sent to mental institutions because they had to be crazy, right? Lovely time to grow up female, the Fifties.
In any case, the book planted a seed in my mind that took 15 years to flower.
It was 1974, a propitious year. Ginsberg and few of the other Beats still standing were founding a new Buddhist school, Naropa Institute, in Boulder, Colo. I was at loose ends, having left my husband of seven years and my career as a theatrical costume designer. I was living in New York City and floundering for direction. I started studying oceanography, hoping I could find a new life somewhere.
I was invited to become a student at Naropa that summer, and hang out with the great aging Beats. But I was shy, and I knew I would only be an observer in that scene.
My brother was already on the road, then, in India - he had taken the well-worn hippie trail leading from London through Katmandu to an ashram in India. He would send his friends to me when they passed through New York. Exotically dressed and bejeweled, they drew Tibetan tonkas and took opium on the floor of my loft. I was in awe of them and, frankly, terrified.
There was one other factor that summer. As a costume designer, I had worked with many of Andy Warhol's "superstars." One of them, Tiger Morse, a wiry, red-headed woman burning with anger and energy, sat me down one night and told me how she had once escaped from a Moroccan jail. I don't know if she had ever read Kerouac, but wow, the Fifties were over.
Girls could have adventures, too.
Not quite sure where I was going, I packed a duffle bag, sublet my loft, and headed for the Greyhound terminal. I bought a ticket for Boulder, then changed my mind and bought one to Miami. Then I changed the ticket back to Boulder. Just before the bus pulled out, I jumped off, grabbed my duffel and hopped onto the Miami bus. The next thing I knew, I was in Guayaquil, Ecuador - a place I couldn't even pronounce.
Why? Something to do with oceanography and going to the Galápagos Islands, I think - a trip I have never made. But for almost 14 years after that, I was on the road!
I had a big Beat moment down in the Peruvian jungle, too. I was taking a barge down the Putumayo River, but I got tossed off in a dank hole called Puerto Leguizimo. The next day the river level went down. Boat traffic stopped and I was trapped there. The second week, the police came and escorted me to the station to "sign the book." It was a huge, leather-covered, lined ledger, only half full, with all the names written in faded brown ink. As I idly turned the page, I saw that Burroughs had signed it, too. You can read about his experiences in "The Yage Letters."
It took four weeks for the water level to rise and for boats to start moving down the river again. I caught one of the first barges and two days later, in the middle of the night, it sank. I lost everything except my life. The next day I borrowed a few cents, bought a child's notebook at a tiny Indian tienda, and became a writer.
A collection of Joyce Marcel's columns, "A Thousand Words or Less," is available through joycemarcel.com. And write her at email@example.com.