Articles

Chasing A Phantom in San Miguel de Allende: Beat Inspiration Neal Cassady

by Anthony Maulucci

The city of San Miguel de Allende is a rock garden built into a chorus of hills and blooming with the vibrant colors of Mexico: ocher, rose, burnt orange, and bright green. Its narrow streets (sometimes comically so), which can be absurdly steep in the city’s core, proudly display the stone work, carved wooden doors, arches, courtyards, balconies, and fountains dating from the time of the Spanish occupation in the 1600s. Rooftops, no more than three stories high, are graced with terraces and precariously placed potted cactuses. They frequently overflow with bright bougainvillea or other fragrant and colorful flowers.

Raucous laughter erupts from a corner saloon, live mariachi music booms into the streets, heaps of fresh fruits and vegetables at a local market await an eager customer and chickens roast on a spit.

Established among the native inhabitants are a tapestry of expatriates from the US, Canada, Europe, South America, and many other locations from all over the globe. The magnet that draws these divergent groups to this enchanted place is a magical mix of climate, visual beauty, and cosmopolitan culture. The ingredients that work their charm nowadays are the same ones that were responsible for the influx of Americans who began coming here in the 1950s.

One of those Americans was an intelligent literary legend and general roustabout named Neal Cassady, the man who inspired the character of Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s landmark novel, On the Road.

Ever since reading this book with an almost guilty pleasure when I was a neophyte rebel in high school in the sixties, I’ve been intrigued by the man who inspired the novel’s Moriarty character. I’ve always been in danger of falling under the spell of larger-than-life people, who are fascinating because they are so much out of the ordinary.

In the midst of moving to San Miguel de Allende in 2007, I found myself paying attention to the murmurs about the death of Neal Cassady in this small city on the cold night of February 5, 1967, a death that took place mysteriously on the railroad tracks leading out of the city towards Celaya. Most of these murmurings were being generated by the swirl of publicity surrounding the imminent arrival of a writing conference on the Beats which would be held at one of the largest hotels in San Miguel and promised an electrifying few days with someone who had known Cassady. How I managed to miss this conference is still a matter of personal conjecture, but miss it I did.

Making up for such a blunder is not easy, but this story is in some ways a compensation for that mistake. It is also a search for the psychological roots of our society’s tendency to become transfixed by the life of famous people and my own preoccupation with great artists and great men.

Was Neal Cassady an original thinker who inspired writers like Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg even though he himself never published a word?  Or was he a sham supernova who had burnt himself out and had spluttered into his last moments when he arrived in San Miguel in possible pursuit of an art student and a last glimmer of glory?

Was he consciously cultivating a myth from the legends that were rapidly blooming around him, or was he, like Hemingway and others, the victim of those legends?

One thing is certain: Cassady is not responsible for the media attention and subsequently explosion of the industry of Beat material that has been proliferating at an alarming rate over the last 40 years.

In many ways, the city of San Miguel de Allende is a pampered place, atypical of Mexico. The cultural life of the city is orchestrated to an extensive degree by the many American and Canadian expats who have made it their home. These well-intentioned, well-educated folks have transformed this city into an artists’ Mecca. It was only an arts destination in embryo when Cassady was here, but it still had the wild call of Mexico’s past.

Sitting on what is known as the Jardin or Plaza Principal in the center of the historic district as I often do, with the gorgeously Gothic/Baroque cathedral rising like a hymn in stone, the sounds of bells, voices, and a mariachi band forming an aural montage, I ruminate on the motives of the Cassady chasers who have explored the territory before me.

No doubt the motives of these individuals was mixed, as they always are in such cases, with perhaps the charisma of celebrity and the need to come in contact with that glamour predominating over the others.  In Cassady’s case, the extravagance can be said to come from the cost of a trip to San Miguel just to chase a phantom. There is certainly no glamour in the experience.

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I have my first glimpse of the railroad station. It is a two-story structure made of local stone with arched windows and is set back across a parking lot which is now used as a roadway by the many vehicles which are crossing the tracks to the new road to Guanajuato. Four or five freight cars stand like a line of mules off to the side.

The station looks forlorn and as I approach it appears deserted. Upon closer examination I can see that it is derelict. It dates from the 1930s and obviously hasn’t been used in decades. The windows have been smashed by countless rocks, the roof is battered, and the interior looks as if a hurricane has left the debris of three generations strewn about and heaped up in corners. Nevertheless, the place has a haunted sort of feeling and I can imagine that there are many ghosts and phantoms of hoboes, tramps, and despondent swirling about here. More lost spirits than just Cassady’s probably came here in search of some kind of escape.

The tracks on which Cassady met his end appear as mundane as most railroad tracks that reach out from the edge of a small city towards a far-flung metropolis. Still, I find the sight eerily romantic, especially on this overcast day.

Unaware of the exact spot where his body was recovered, I walk out as far as the sidewalk will allow, which is actually a good distance, passing the former railroad storehouses which have been turned into homes.

A lace curtain blows in and out of an open doorway. A motley-colored dog lifts his head lazily as I pass. Chickens huddle together in a side yard. Cultivated cacti plants cluster in another. The aroma of someone’s comidafloats tantalizingly across my path. No one peers out at me. No one appears anywhere.

At the sidewalk’s terminus I stare out at the two sets of curving tracks. There’s a small mountain on the horizon where the tracks bend to the right. On either side are fields with trees and brush crowding around patches of gardens or various forms of cultivation. There’s no distinguishing feature other than the mountain, and not much else to hold my gaze, and I quickly lose interest in this rather commonplace view.

Turning back, I make my way towards the station. A large ocher-colored residence I hadn’t noticed before sits about half way to the station. It resembles many of the grand haciendas I’ve seen in the Mexican countryside with towers and balconies and a large open courtyard, but the oddity of this one is that it was built so close to the railroad station and about ten steps from the tracks. Freight cars are still running here and the rumbling must penetrate into the depths of this house.

It serves as a small reminder of the human capacity to make a home anywhere, on cliff sides, in the frozen wilderness, in caves. The human spirit is indeed resilient.

And yet there are those like Neal Cassady, who don’t seem to fit in anywhere, who belong no where, and who are unable to make a home and are even perhaps unable to make peace within themselves.

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Anthony Maulucci is the author most recently of the collection of short stories, Anxious Love, as well as a poet, painter and novelist. Visit www.anthonymaulucci.com for samples of his work.