satori – Pronunciation:
n. Zen. sudden enlightenment.
In 1957, Jack Kerouac, a French Canadian kid from the mill-town of Lowell, Massachusetts, published his second novel, On the Road, and became an instant celebrity. The book would become a stone thrown into a cultural lake whose ripple would grow to Tsunami proportions and wash across the American landscape. Forty years after its publication, in the summer of 1997, my buddy Dave Robinson and I packed up all we knew of life in the back of a black Ford Bronco and left our hometown for the west destiny highway. We burned out of town, leaving behind the worn bar brass polish of the Gaelic Club, the grease and bacon smell of Arthur’s Diner, the glory-day field of Cawley Stadium, and the heavy worn redbrick faces of the mills that always tempt to pull the world down into the sad black Merrimack canals. We burned out of Lowell. Kerouac’s hometown. Our hometown. Bouncing between route and interstates we wound across the open roads of the continental U.S. Some weeks later, near Broadway and Columbus, in San Francisco, outside “Vesuvios” and “City Lights Books”, we stood in front of the little alley known as “Jack Kerouac Street.” Our journey had been much inspired by Kerouac’s writing. As we stood there, I felt, if for just a moment, that swelling and erupting feeling of complete arrival that Kerouac had written of
Behind us lay the whole of America and everything I had previously known about life…We had finally found a magic land at the end of the road and we never had dreamed the extent of the magic.
Kerouac was hardly the first to create a work of inspirational travel. America itself has had a long tradition of literary travel. Huck Finn, Hiawatha, and Ishmael are all testaments to such tradition. These works show that the reason behind such travel is not necessarily the prize of arrival but the experience of the journey itself. And yet, while following in such literary tradition, Kerouac broke away from previous such works in that he wrote from, and of, a setting more intimately and uniquely American than rivers and oceans and forests. This setting was the American highway.
Nowhere in the world is there such a criss-crossed intricate web of comings and goings than on the American highway. Nowhere else can a person drive away from an Atlantic Coast fishing town on Monday and be wading in the warm surf that rolls in just beyond the Pacific Coast Highway by Friday, and en route see the mass multicultural strangeness of the United States. No check-points and no papers of passage required. The whole country is a breathing expectant free road mother of creation. Interstates and routes, city streets and suburban avenues – they all cut across the land in long asphalt scars connecting the Atlantic to the Pacific and Canada to Mexico. And in between is the beauty of chaos and commonality inherent in the American late summer afternoon. In On the Road, Kerouac wrote of screaming across these highways in a style of writing he called “spontaneous bop prosody.” Inspired by the mad jab melee between genius and incoherency that was Neal Cassady. Kerouac used this spontaneous prosody to reflect the highway driving speed, the drug and booze blitzkrieg, and the hot bop jazz that all came together to thrust him again and again across the American highway.
And yet the heroes of On the Road, Sal and Dean, do not launch themselves arbitrarily into this intoxication of music and movement. Kerouac sought to show two men on a journey of the soul, a religious quest for God and reason in an age heavy with the apocalyptic fear of nuclear war and America”s quest for homogeneity. Sal (Jack Kerouac) and Dean (Neal Cassady) were trying to break loose from the military industrial culture and cold war conformity of mid-century America. A sun spawned Promethean truth was what Kerouac was seeking as Sal and Dean stung their tires on the asphalt in Dean’s “old jalopy chariot with thousands of sparkling flames shooting out from it”. As Gerald Nicosia wrote of On the Road in his critical biography of Kerouac, Memory Babe,
… no matter how far they travel in the external world, they (Sal and Dean) are ceaselessly penetrating deeper into their own souls. They are constantly aware their travel, by the excitement and curiosity it generates, is a means to understanding themselves. Travel to them is a conscious philosophical method by which they test the store of hand-me-down truisms.
The highway journey, then, metaphorically becomes the ritual path on which you test the truths you have been told against the truths you have learned. On the highway, one finds the cosmic crossroads at which you determine your destiny. On the Roads between New York and San Francisco, Denver and Texas, or Chicago and Mexico somewhere racing along those stretching highways arrives the meaning and mastery of each possible moment of a person’s life.
Kerouac sought to move so fast and to live so hard so as to burn off forever the stiff mechanical mental wings and physical fuselage that bound him to this world. Thus he could be thrust into the universe by the absolute truth of the soul:
And just for a moment I had reached the point of ecstasy that I always wanted to reach, which was the complete slip across chronological time into timeless shadows, and wonderment in the bleakness of the mortal realm, and the sensation of death kicking at my heels to move on, with a phantom dogging its own heels, and myself hurrying to a plank where all the angels dove off and flew into the holy void of uncreated emptiness, the potent and inconceivable radiances shining in bright Mind Essence
So Kerouac lived to wash in the truth of experience, trying to find the people and moments that would bring him ever closer to that world-waking enlightenment. Kerouac, for his part, followed and recorded himself and his friends who were to him,
…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 say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”
It was in such moments of witnessed beauty when you feel the touch of the universe divine. It was this search inward for divinity that drove Kerouac to such external extremes.
While hardly his only work of art, On the Road, for better or worse, has become Kerouac’s most famous. It has become a catalyst for countless other restless and curious souls. The book itself spawned a cultural revolution, putting millions on new vision paths. At the same time it vaulted Kerouac to a fame that his quiet, religious soul was not prepared to deal with. The consumer culture that Kerouac sought to break with would ultimately consume him, as he fell into a flat spin of alcoholism and reactionary conservatism. Yet On the Road remains as a testament to the wandering pioneer spirit of America, a spirit that knows it is lost and attempts to be found. On the Road still sparks the piston psyches of readers everywhere. It showed people that sometimes it is just enough to point the soul and go, and keep going, not slowing down enough to stiffen up because only the dead should be stiff.
Kerouac wrote in On the Road that, “everybody goes home in October.” These words could not have been more prophetic, as Kerouac died on October 21, 1969, at the age of forty-seven.
So now, back on the East coast, in the lonely quiet of late August afternoon, looking over the antennas and satellite dishes of Boston rooftops where already the evening star has begun “drooping and shedding its sparkler dims” and already Autumn has its cool breath on the evening air, I imagine myself some twenty seven miles north pulling off Route 3 to the Lowell Connector where I take a right at the last exit. I imagine myself beyond the rundown dustiness of Ghoram Street, within the gated city of Edson cemetery, on Lincoln Avenue between 7th and 8th Streets, where a small marble tablet reads “Ti Jean John L. Kerouac March 12, 1922-October 21, 1969 He honored Life”.
And for all the sadness and bitterness that crept into Kerouac’s later years, there was a time, before the “hero-hungry” world dragged him down, that Jack Kerouac did “Honor Life.” More so than many of us could do in several lifetimes. Whether or not he ever completed his own vision quest is irrelevant in that he gave us a starting point and the first corner edge of a map to our own often lonely-road-search for soul and self.
What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? It’s the too huge world vaulting us, and it”s goodbye. But we lean toward to the next crazy adventure beneath the skies.
Matt Miller is an MFA graduate of Emerson College and a freelance writer who grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts.