Well I’m so tired of cryin’ but I’m out on the road again.
I ain’t got no woman just to call my special friend.
And I’m going to leave the city, got to go away.
All this fussing and fighting, man I sure can’t stay.

“On The Road Again” – Canned Heat


Last weekend, I wrote about Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values which is, at least in structure, about a motorcycle journey from Minnesota to California that he made with is son. It is an on-the-road-of self-discovery story.

If you ask most readers which book exemplifies being “on the road” they will probably say the book that carries that as its title.  On the Road is Jack Kerouac’s now classic novel of his travels that defined for one generation what it meant to be “Beat.”

Like Pirsig’s book, the novel comes very close to being non-fiction. Jack and Neal Cassady are obviously the fictional Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty in this series of scenes from their search for knowledge (self- or otherwise) and sometimes just the search for new experiences.

Kerouac (left) and Neal Cassady

I read it in my later teen years when there was the possibility that I just might do my own road odyssey. I never did. And I didn’t really admire the book, although I knew I was supposed to admire it. I did love the idea of it. It seemed a bit pretentious and phony. I read it in the early 1970s and the 1950s seemed old and a bit corny, like 50s rock and roll. I know that my own students in the 1980s felt the same about Catcher in the Rye, a book I loved in my youth.

It’s hard not to like the the characters’ carefree attitude, and sense for adventure. It’s tough to admire their attitude towards the women they meet along the way.

The book is in five parts, three of them describing road trips during 1947 to 1950. There is a lot of  jazz history included. There are the obvious themes that any journey novel offers.

There was a  film adaptation of On the Road that screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012 and was nominated for the Palme d’Or. It was produced by Francis Ford Coppola and directed by Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries) and stars Sam Riley as Sal, Garrett Hedlund as Dean Moriarty, Kristen Stewart as Mary Lou and Kirsten Dunst as Camille.

I never made the road trip across America, so I relied on others to take me there in words and pictures.  I loved watching episodes of On the Road with Charles Kuralt which used Kerouac’s title but was far from jazz and Beat. It was 1967 when Kuralt, a CBS broadcaster, hit the road in a mobile home to find America. That was a few years before Easy Rider. Billy and Wyatt hit the road on motorcycles and found an America that was hard to love. Kuralt found on backroads and in small towns, the extraordinary in the ordinary.

I actually identified with an old man in another camper on the road book more than Kerouac’s novel. I have already written about John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley in Search of America.

The other road book that I connected with was Blue Highways: A Journey into America by William Least Heat-Moon. It was published around the time that I got married. I knew then, not in a bad way, that I was not going to do my solo road trip across America on a motorcycle or in a camper.  William Least Heat-Moon headed on the road after separating from his wife and losing his job as a teacher. He was 38. I was younger, but I didn’t want a divorce to put me on the road. I was fine with reading about his travels.

He decided to follow the “blue highways” – the smaller road drawn in blue on his Rand McNally road atlas. He was in a small van with a bunk bed, a camping stove, and a portable toilet. He carried along Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and John Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks. The latter book gave him the idea of using the Native American resurrection ritual term “Ghost Dancing” as the name of his van. Steinbeck had christened his camper “Rocinante” after Don Quixote’s horse. Moon was on the road for three months and covered 13,000 miles.

Kerouac told the tale of how he wrote his book in a feverish three weeks in April 1951 typing continuously onto a 120-foot roll of taped sheets of paper in a style that was like a letter to a friend and owed something to the improvisational nature of jazz.

Can you find yourself on the road? Can you find America?

Here are four roads where you might start your journey.

Blue Highways

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Travels with Charley

On the Road