On the Road, Always

“I was surprised, as always, be how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility.” 

― Jack Kerouac, On the Road


These days, it seems that almost anyone with the “travel bug” will try to justify his or her affliction by quoting one of three literary figures:

St. Augustine: “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.”

Mark Twain: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do…” 

Jack Kerouac: “Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.”

I was no exception to this trend.  My Facebook and blog were littered with my over-eager attempts to prove that a life of travel is the manifestation of a “carpe diem” mentality.  But as more and more of these quotes began to pop up on my social media feeds, many from people who probably couldn’t even tell you who St. Augustine was, I started to feel a sense of obligation.  If I was going to adopt Kerouac’s philosophy, I should at least have read his work.

So I headed to the public library.  There, I battled the crowds of sleeping homeless people and half-drunk boys who were checking out half-naked girls on Facebook to find a copy of On the Road. 

Although it was classified as fiction, the characters and adventures that the protagonist faces were very closely based on Kerouac’s own experiences.  As one of the most-referenced pieces of travel literature, and a source of my personal travel inspiration, I expected to love the book.

A journey starts at any age.
A journey starts at any age.

I didn’t.  I won’t go as far as to say that I hated it, but let’s just say it took me over a month to get through.

I found Kerouac’s never-ending stream of thought and ceaseless movement exhausting.  “Sal,” Kerouac’s alter-ego, never took roots long enough for me to get to know the places he visited.  He could never decide what he wanted, or where he wanted to be.  Sal couldn’t even afford to travel, and he lived one G.I. check to the next, each time cashing it in to fund a few more days on the road.

Despite my frustration, I refused to give up on it.  I read On the Road on the LRT, my city’s version of a metro, and between chapters I would look up and watch as we hurtled through a frozen sea of white.  As the pages of April fell of the calendar, the sea shrunk to form small islands, but the snow just wouldn’t disappear.  Bored with the book and my daily routine, my mind began to wander.  One morning, I brought Lonely Planet: Botswana and Namibia on my commute instead, and decided at once to forgo my strict budget for another adventure.

I had planned to save before moving to Europe this summer, but now decided that I could squeeze in another trip.  Oh, and perhaps a couple of weeks in Vancouver, too.

Still, I put my trip planning on hold so I could finish the novel.  I made steady progress, but found another flaw in “Sal’s” attitude.  He failed to realize that life back in New York was as good, or better, than in any place he visited.  Sal was never content.

One afternoon, I glanced up from the novel when a camera flash caught my attention.  Two high school exchange students stood on the bus, snapping photos of the cookie-cutter houses in my newly-developed neighbourhood.  The girls wore pleated skirts and blazers with the logo of their school in Japan.  One carried a cloth shopping bag that said “We’re new in town.”  I supressed a smile as a 17-year-old with braces struggled to make awkward conversation.  The girls giggled.  Yes, they liked Edmonton – Canada was great.

The next day, I found myself on the last few pages of On the Road.  I skipped a night of dancing to stay in and finish it.  Sal kept on traveling until almost the final paragraph, and when the book did end, I wasn’t sure if he had finally given up on life on the road, or if he would keep on moving until the day he died.

Life on the Road
Life on the Road

Kerouac himself died young, at the age of 47.  The official cause was liver failure, the consequence of years of voracious living.  I wondered if he would have regretted his lifestyle.

When I was done with the book, I watched the movie at once.  I wanted another perspective.  The film version of Sal didn’t exhaust me.  He seemed less maniacal; more of an independent spirit, and his escapades appeared more purposeful.

But that’s what happens when you make a film from a novel: the director cuts corners and summarizes.  When we look back on our past, we forget the chaotic details, the mishaps, and the flustered feeling that sometimes creeps in to our days.  We reflect on the high points and the low points and see the way that one event leads into another.

In the end, our lives truly are one long, adventurous road.

I finished the film, and went online to book a flight to Africa.