Jack Kerouac wrote the final draft of On the Road in a period of 20 days—but this isn’t the full story.
In this episode, A.C.E. first reads the winning submission of this week’s Absurd Words Writing Contest: Hitchhiker by Veronica M. Singer
Then, he reads an extensive piece called Beat State. It is an analysis of Kerouac’s writing of On the Road combined with an account of A.C.E.’s first time hitchhiking.
Practicing his heavily autobiographical “spontaneous prose” style of writing , unproclaimed Father of the Beat Generation, Jack Kerouac, famously wrote the final draft of his cherished novel On the Road within a period of twenty days. He did this while his girlfriend systematically administered him benzedrine, cigarettes, bowls of pea soup and cups of coffee.
According to Kerouac, the book (now considered an American classic) was “really a story about two Catholic buddies roaming the country in search of God.” Yet, from a generational perspective, On the Road seems to have been misinterpreted as a tale of two drunken companions “out looking for kicks.”
In either case, Kerouac’s vivid first-person accounts of hitchhiking, spiritual jazz, and social transcendence quickly became somewhat of a religious reckoning and the basis for a characteristically distinct perspective that would eventually be termed The Beat Generation. Whether the Hippies themselves were products of On the Road is debatable, and Kerouac would likely cringe if someone made such a statement in his presence.
However, one thing is certain; I wouldn’t have started hitchhiking if it weren’t for that book…
Hours after an abrupt and accidental separation with my business partner, I stood alone, waiting with my thumb stuck towards the heavens. There, along an empty gravel berm fifteen minutes outside Ushuaia, carrying a box of corn flakes, I waited. And waited. And waited. And ate corn flakes.
From the asphalt beside a yellow billboard — “Chile 50 km”– a mangy black dog caught scent of my cereal and approached the box with his slimy pink tongue hanging out. My K-9 companion, as he was, looked to be a mutant experiment programmed to survive at all costs by some demented unseen hand of nature.
Swollen, balding lumps protruded from the beast’s matted coat, which ran in swirling directions over his crooked back and bowed hind legs. His appearance resembled the efforts of an elementary school art student attempting to paint a dog, but if that same student had recently consumed a sufficient dose of psilocybin containing mushrooms.
I imagined a wild sewer system orgy taking place beneath the streets of Ushuaia, with several generations of freaky cross-bred canines barking and splashing orgasmically; of course, going at it raw-dog.
His pimpled tongue graced my hand as I knelt in respect to his consumptual desires. “Now if I give you these corn flakes, you’ll guard me from any unwelcome sexual molesters, right? Yes? Ok, friend, here you go.” And just like that, we were intertwined. Harry and Hedwig. Solo and Chewbacca. Jesus and God.
Kerouac’s famous story reads like one long poem, pulsing in and out and up and down as might an improvisational jazz saxophonists lungs as he plunges through a twinkling piano riff. That is, if the musician were inspired by what the revered Beat author might call “it.”
“He has it!” might’ve said Dean Moriarty, the fictional character Kerouac used to embody a real life Neal Cassidy in On the Road. The notion of “it” today is lived as an intuitional state of feeling often called the “Flow State” by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and professional snowboarders.
Flow State is a humanoid experiential phenomena where thoughts blur into actions without ever being considered. Think pure human instinct, but on a tangible, technical dimension. People in the “Flow State” display seemingly superhuman feats and occasionally, depending on the activity, experience a euphoria more addictive than adrenaline.
Kerouac, it seemed, at least towards the end of his career, relied on a potent concoction of fermented beverages and prescription amphetamines to reach such an elusive state. Consumption habits aside, his previous years of practice writing novels and poetry should not be forgotten. He must have possessed quite a degree of trust between his work and inspiration, considering his premeditated decision to cut and tape strips of tracing paper together (into a 120 foot long roll) before beginning the twenty day creative bender that produced On the Road.
Not so uncharacteristically, Karouac claims the effort was “inspired by the Holy Spirit” and died considering himself a Catholic above anything else.
From townside, moving in our direction, waltzed a twiggy, conquistador-looking fellow wearing a knit beanie atop his braided dreadlocks.
Having woken up well before dawn, I was logically entitled to first dibs in the pecking order. This was my berm. These were my corn flakes. But that didn’t stop this undignified invader. No, he walked closer and closer, before silently taking a stance — with his own thumb stuck up towards the heavens– a mere twenty-five meters down the road in front of me.
I smirked at my flea-ridden partner with a furrowed brow, and he stared back, using his one functional eye.
“What are we going to do about this, champ?” I asked, kneeling down to get his opinion. The dog woofed and I felt a layer of moist, vaporous saliva form on my face. “Good idea,” I said. “Let’s go with that.”
I turned in direction of the speechless invader and cupped my hands together, forming a makeshift amplification system, and informed him, politely, that this was my turf. He stared a moment, then started walking back towards town.
Elated with the effectiveness of my assertion, I called out again: “Yeah, that’s right! Keep on walking!” which, as it turned out, wasn’t a very good idea. The dreaded disruptor clipped a rock from the ground and started charging towards us with savage rapidity.
“Oh shit!” I yelled, fleeing further up the berm, showering an arc of cornflakes in the process. “What are you doing? Get him boy!” But the dog only galloped along, slobbering gleefully. So much for our deal, I thought, and we retreated up a small hill, defeated.
Though the final draft of On the Road was completed in twenty days, Kerouac spent five years or more beating around the United States by means of stuck-up thumb, hard labor, and good will; all the while scratching notes, persistently building on previous drafts, and laying out a storyline for the eventual finished product. He recorded quotes and spontaneous “sketches” of scenes as he saw them at their exact moment of occurrence, using whatever words flowed, and supposedly left editing to the wayside in his final draft, despite constantly revising and rewriting his notes.
This deep interdependence with spontaneity, or the flow state, was notably connected to his faith in the Holy Spirit and the Catholic God while he wrote On the Road. According to his biographer, Douglas Brinkley, nearly every page of his diary during this period featured a sketch of a crucifix, a prayer, or an appeal to Christ to be forgiven.
When Kerouac was six years old, he was asked to say a rosary as penance after his first Catholic Confession, during which he heard God tell him that he had a good soul, that he would suffer in life and die in pain and honor, but would in the end receive salvation. This experience, in addition to his later studies in Buddhism, would inform the worldview of Kerouac’s writing.
Drivers employ a variety of signals to communicate the simple phrase “screw you dirty hippy” as they carry on, dejecting your request for charity.
The most common, and most annoying, is an attempted proclamation of innocence in the form of a frantic forward pointing motion; as if they did not understand I would have felt beyond blessed receiving a mere five-minute joyride, just to say I’d hitchhiked.
But the worst way to say it, the truly soul crushing one, is the complete disregard of your existence. Stark-faced and frowning, they drive past without offering even the slightest glance of empathy. A lonely crippled homeless man, stepped on and over, by dignified, middle class citizenry.
Until someone does stop, in a black van, with electronic salsa music rattling its doors.
“Where you go, Gringo?”
“Chile,” I said, staring in the face of my potential savior.
“Vamos!” Let’s go.
I threw my furry friend a mound of golden flakes and cranked the metal portal shut.
We didn’t talk, my driver nor I, until we reached the border crossing when he said: “You go.” and pointed at the office gate.
Naturally, I got out expecting him to pull on through and meet me on the other side, but I was only fifteen feet from the door when –Skrreeeeaaaccch — the sound of whining rubber filled the chilly Patagonian air. There he went, my savior, raging back towards town.
A lonely Gringo once again, and damn, he drove off with my cornflakes.
If he were alive today, Jack Kerouac might either be a tongue-speaking born again Christian minister, or maybe, just maybe, a meditating ashram-bounded Buddhist monk.
Instead, he died at age 47 on October 21, 1969 of an abdominal hemorrhage; not as a minister or monk, but as a writer, writing whatever came to him. The man flowed with God and wrote it down, up until he hit the final border, beating in a state of thumbs-to-Heaven generation glory.