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.”