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Kerouac Traveling

I would not consider myself a Kerouac scholar, but neither would I say that my knowledge is based in fandom. I came across Jack Kerouac in my early thirties when I discovered the Buddhist teacher, Noah Levine who mentioned his affinity for Kerouac’s spiritual adventures. His book’s title, Dharma Punx was inspired by Kerouac’s Dharma Bums. Because of his life and search, I found in Levine a teacher I could relate to and could translate spiritual teaching in a way I could apply to my own life. When he mentioned Kerouac, I decided to read On the Road, Dharma Bums, and The Subterraneans in one weekend, and I discovered another kindred spirit.

I have been on and off the road since my early twenties. Before I drove back and forth across the country, most of my traveling had circulated around the Midwest: Illinois, Wisconsin, Missouri, and Illinois. I had a good friend Pete whom I considered closer than a brother. He lived in Belleville, IL, and moved his family to Vandalia, IL, but worked in Effingham, IL. Whenever, I became weary with Indiana, I would go out to him for a few months for a change of scenery. The people, I did not care for because I found them narrow in their view and wildly bigoted. Everything had to be white and shallow including their faith, and they called me “city boy” as if that were insulting to me. Yeah, I grew up in a city with diverse groups of people and religions, and I went into other places like St. Louis and Chicago to experience their culture. I’ve a broader view of people, but I can see how I’m beneath small town Illinois where the residents barely graduated high school let alone touched a college application.

Before Pete got married we had an apartment in Belleville, IL about a mile from East St. Louis. In the early to mid 1990s East St. Louis was more dangerous than it is now. If you were white, and found yourself on State St after 6:00 pm, you would be shot. Pete went to St. Matthew’s United Methodist Church when he was in high school, and the church had a bus driver who made that mistake. He drove the church bus, and the words “St. Matthew’s United Methodist Church” were a bold red against a white bus. You can’t miss it, especially at six in the evening. The bus driver was on State St., and just as the bus lurched there was a shotgun blast shattering the window behind him. Similar violence spilled over into the parking lot of our apartment. Drug deals would go so bad so often that the gunshots were part of the evening air as crickets. No one ever bothered us, and the way our apartment was set up a stray bullet wouldn’t hit us. The times we had off work we would go to this place called Fultz just outside Millstadt with our three friends, Ashton, John, and Steve.

One evening at 11:00, Steve, Ashton, and John stop by to see Pete and myself. They wanted to go to Fultz. Pete and I didn’t know what they were talking about, but an evening ride to climb a steep hill sounded like fun, so we went. We arrive at Fultz close to 11:30. We had to park off the side of the road and climb a steep hill to get to the foot of the bluff. By the light of Steve’s flashlight, we could see trees and low branches.  We used the thick, medium-sized trees to hoist ourselves each step. On my back I wore a backpack holding a Bible, Hawaiian bread, grape juice, plastic cups, and two packs of Camel Wides cigarettes which caused a slight, yet manageable imbalance. I looked to my right, and I see Ashton holding a tree with his right hand and a cigarette in his left hand. He began hacking and complaining about being out of breath. “What do you expect genius? What kind of idiot lights up a cigarette while climbing?!” In between hard breaths he says, “Up yours, Ron! I wanted to smoke!” The other guys started taking jabs at Ashton.  Ashton fired his sarcasm through seemingly-incessant coughing. The jabs and laughs continued until we got to the foot of the bluff, but our climb was not yet finished.

Between us and the top of the bluff, there lied a cave with its entrance six feet above us. Steve told us we need to climb. There was a four foot wide crevice where we had to push our backs against one side and our feet against the other using the grooves in the rock to craw up to the cave’s entrance like deformed spiders. Steve and Pete were the most limber and were the first to climb to offer a stable hand to the rest of us. I tossed my backpack to them and made the climb followed by John and Ashton. When we were all standing in the cave, Steve told us to follow him while keeping our backs against the wall. The path was a semicircle, four feet wide and slippery from the dripping water. Steve kept his flashlight on so we could mind our steps, and keep from falling.

Once we were out of the cave, we took a small path to the top of the bluff. The path was dusty and had pebbles and patches of grass which helped give our steps traction. We found a flat place overlooking the trees and open field, and a train in the distance moved quietly with the breeze. Under the stars I unpacked the bread, grape juice, cups, Bible, and cigarettes. I lit up a smoke and passed the pack and lighter to everyone. Ashton unwrapped the bread, tore a piece and handed the bread to the others. Pete did the same with the cups and grape juice. We were lost in smoke and conversation when Steve opens my Bible and reads Psalm 8: “What is man that you are mindful of him? The son of man that you care for him? For you have made man a little lower than the angels.”

In the vastness of nature, we felt the weight of the words, and inhaled the tobacco in silence. We were miles away from any place resembling a city. The moon was full and its light gave our skin a bluish white tint glowing like somber candles in an empty church. The sounds we heard in the silence were a mix of chirping crickets, howling dogs, and yipping coyotes meshed together as if all three were having a secret conversation. The air was heavy with silent reverence, and our makeshift camp thickened with an unknown presence. We felt no dread, and took turns reading the Psalms by flashlight to honor what had come into our circle. After an hour of our own communion we make the descent, and arrive at the apartment at 3:00 in the morning. We were still in a state of quiet awe. We did not know what to expect going to Fultz, but we met something on the bluff. Call it God, call it the universe, call it whatever you want. In the presence of nature and each other we encountered something beyond ourselves that allowed us to see ourselves in the world and with each other. Fultz became synonymous for the unknown, a hidden self, made sacred with a name lost in the night’s translation, and after reading On the Road, I look back at Fultz and realize I had touched Dean Moriarity’s “IT.”

 

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The Smiths On the Road: Nebraska

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(The Platte River, I-80 in between Lincoln, NE and Omaha, NE)

 

Until 2015, I had never ventured west in the United States beyond Missouri; but not for lack of trying. I had a car, and I spent many times in the year making the four hour trip from Indy to St. Louis on I-70 to visit friends who lived in the area. There were talks of continuing west to California, but nothing materialized as money became tight, and friends started families. As the years passed, I lost my car because of expensive repairs, and I lost to my fiancé’s car after she ended our relationship. I returned to school at Ivy Tech in downtown Indianapolis by using the bus or my bike, and after two years there, I transferred to Blackburn College in Central Illinois. How I got to Blackburn with no car was a mixture of luck and a friend who happened to be generous with his time and money. He made the round trip from St. Louis to Indy, picking me up, taking me to Carlinville, and after I unloaded, he returned home. I focused on school, and I burned the lean tissue as I maintained a 3.5 GPA on my remaining three years. I met Ronnie during that time, and we started attending Federated Church in Carlinville where we found a spiritual home. It was such a home that the congregation did our wedding and reception, and donated quite a bit of money for us to go out west. One week after our wedding we were on the road.

We left Carlinville a few minutes after nine in the evening, and our first stop was Lincoln, NE—a seven hour trip without stops; but the drive took nine hours so we could stretch our legs and back. I’ve never traveled through northern Missouri, and as we drove closer to I-29 we saw quite a few blood stains on the road where semi-trailers hit deer. Travelling throughout Indiana, I saw my fair share of deer blood and remains on interstates and highways, but nowhere near the frequency I saw in Missouri that night. My wife and I were anxious, and we were on high deer alert. Except for the lights from the truck drivers making their run, we had nothing to check for roaming deer. Our nerves were frayed, and the shredded ends were as velcro keeping our eyelids open. Not until we saw the lamp posts of Highway 2 outside of Lincoln did we start to breathe easier; and we finally arrived to our hotel as the sun began to rise. We fell into our beds hollow, but grateful that we ended the first leg of our trip unharmed.

Lincoln, NE is a small city with over 200,000 people, and the streets are laid out as a grid so it’s next to impossible to get lost. Because of the size and layout most of the driving is in town, and access to I-80 becomes a slight hassle especially when there is construction. Ronnie and I woke up and ate a little food before we checked out of the hotel to begin the next leg of our trip to Riverton, WY—a ten and a half hour trip across the plains. After navigating out of the construction on 56th St, we got on I-80. Nebraska, outside of Lincoln, is quite flat, and the sky is overwhelming. There are hardly any trees to cover anyone from the watchful clouds and they silently move across the plains, and in the distance, sky and earth touch; however, as we drove further into Nebraska the landscape wasn’t so flat and eternal. Ronnie drove for the first couple hours, and we noticed the hills were rolling with green waves of crops and country houses. Watching the land from our speeding car, America seemed to unfold, flowing to the Pacific; but we were in the plains, and it was tornado season.

The sky before us was a bluish white with little clouds speckled throughout the horizon, but to our left, on I-80 East, the sky was dark and menacing. We saw white lightning streaking across the sky and ripping the air with its charge. We felt the wind pick up, rocking our rented SUV, and for the first time of my road-going, I felt fear. I’ve only read about tornadoes on the plains and looked at pictures of shattered houses and gutted farms. Living in Indiana, I’ve witnessed a few tornadoes, and living in Indy, there were plenty of places to take shelter. Ronnie experienced the same thing living in Bolingbrook, IL. She and her family were not far from Plainfield, and that area had been dubbed “Tornado Alley.” She lived in a suburb of Chicago, and, like me, had plenty of places to hide; but this was Nebraska. The only urban areas in that state are Omaha and Lincoln. There was no place to take shelter—not even a ditch, and the closest house was a mile away off the interstate. We had no idea what to do but keep driving and watch the sky. Thankfully, no funnel clouds formed and we let out a sigh of relief with all of Nebraska.

The drive from Lincoln, NE across the state to the Wyoming border is a five hour drive, and the drive is across Middle America. Until I went through Nebraska the longest, boring state I have driven through is Pennsylvania. The state is a straight, flat line of nothing until you get to the mountains separating you from the New York state border—a drawn out, uneventful bridge between the Midwest and the eastern seaboard.  The Midwest is as equally boring, but there is the added variety of going through different states in a couple hours. Driving from Indiana through Illinois on I-74 can be a dull drive, but the cities from Danville, IL to Peoria are forty-five minutes apart, and intervals of stopping and snacking soothes the numbed mind. Not so with I-70. The drive from Indy to Terre Haute is a little over an hour depending on the presence of the state police, but once you pass the Wabash River, Illinois becomes a dreary, three hour trek to St. Louis. Nebraska, though, is a different story.

After four hours of driving through nothing, Ronnie and I were hungry. Ronnie looked on the GPS to find any local places to eat, and discovered a Perkins in Sidney, NE. Perkins is familiar, and sitting down in a place Ronnie and I frequented in our respective cities took our mind off the road—we still had another six hours of driving. There isn’t much to Sidney except for a few restaurants and a Walmart, and the roads are in disrepair along with potholes in the parking lot; however, people were kind and not at all aloof towards us. As we were seated, Ronnie and I saw this Perkins had potato pancakes. She never had them, but I haven’t had any in years. My great-grandmother would cook them all the time when I lived in her home, and she had the recipe from her German in laws. I was given the option of ketchup or applesauce to put on my pancake, and I opted for the applesauce. Ketchup on a pancake did not appeal to me; but I love a good cake, and I insisted Ronnie should try them. “If you don’t like them, I’ll eat them, and you can order something else.” The cakes came out with the right balance of firm and fluffy, and I assumed the cooks came from some old school, German stock. We took a bite, and it took me back. The cakes were just like my great grandmother’s, and Ronnie liked hers as well. I prattled on to Ronnie about those warm childhood memories, and I told our waitress to praise the cooks because they knew their way around a proper potato pancake. We lingered for a bit longer, and after we paid for our food, Ronnie and I walked around with our cat before we got into the car. We were an hour from the Wyoming border, and sky was a ruddy purple as the sun began to set.