How many times have we dreamed of taking a few months off from our worldly responsibilities and just hitting the road? Wanting to “live off the fatta the land”, as Steinbeck once put it, and blowing about the country like our now dearly departed autumn leaves is an age-old right of passage for the American youth.
Whether or not we actually heed that familiar call has almost become irrelevant. Even though the weighty pressures of college diplomas and a well-lit corner office often intervenes with the instinctual longing for travel and freedom, we can all recognize the impulse. Who hasn’t wanted to stomp out of a biology lecture or two with a finger of choice thrust promptly into the air and ride I-94 off into the sunset? At one point or another, we all want to roam.
In On the Road, Jack Kerouac captures this exact moment in a young person's life when the open highway begins to beckon with its smooth, welcoming arms. He chronicles a journey that today might only haunt our wildest dreams. Though dated in some details (hitchhiking has now become socially equated to snorting happy powder off of a toilet seat), the questions are the same. If I don’t leave now, will I ever? What kind of person do I want to be? Who am I really? Have I lived? And once these questions start to ping-pong against our brains, we begin to see the sand in our metaphorical hourglass slipping away grain by grain, prompting a daring few to hit the road in search for the answers.
Sal Paradise is one such daredevil, who leaves the comfort of his home to follow his friend Dean across a nation-wide search for truth and perhaps also happiness. Their story is based on Kerouac's own travels in his youth.
Born into a French-Canadian family in 1922, Kerouac's native tongue was French, and didn't learn English until the age of six. He was raised in Lowell, Massachusetts, and eventually landed a football scholarship to Columbia University, which was his ticket out of what had become a town riddled with unemployment at the onset of the Great Depression. So he moved to New York with the hopes of securing a financial future for himself and his family and also of writing the next great American novel sometime along the way.
Here are two of my favorite portions of the book so far:
"I've been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are 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 yawn or 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!" (5)
"In the whole eastern dark wall of the Divide this night there was silence and the whisper of the wind, except in the ravine where we roared; and on the other side of the Divide was the great Western Slope, and the big plateau that went to Steamboat Springs, and dropped, and led you to the western Colorado desert and the Utah desert; all in darkness now as we fumed and screamed in our mountain nook, mad drunken Americans in the mighty land." (55)
It's powerful, right? His writing draws you in with those paragraph-sentences and the beautiful images that they paint. Athletic and poetic, the talents never seem to end for dear Jack. And just check out the feature image - the man was a total hunk. I challenge you to think of a single reason to put off reading this one any longer.