“The Road is Life” – Jack Kerouac
As a young man I became infatuated with Jack Kerouac. I know it is a hipster standard to claim that On the Road changed your life and that everyone dreams of backpacking across America. The book didn’t change my life because it was the life I had already lived for a very long time. My father joined the U.S. Army the year I was born. I never lived in one place for more than 3 years growing up. By the time I read On The Road I had already been to more states and countries than Kerouac. Yet, while I had traveled, I hadn’t traveled and experienced the world the way Kerouac had.
At the age of 14 my experience with “seeing the world” had been mostly dictated by my parents and the government. Living in Europe at an age I barely remember. My view of the United States obstructed by a backseat child-safety window on our trips to visit family for vacation (most folks in the military don’t go on vacation as much as they go home to visit their relatives). As far as I was concerned the United States was farm land dotted with the occasional oasis of gas stations and truck stops which were really just for relieving yourself and refilling petroleum or soda. So while the idea of traveling was nothing new to me this odd thing that Kerouac described seemed so exotic and alluring. At my naive age I was determined to get out of high school as quickly as possible and embark not to college but on my journey. An epic journey. A journey worthy of the great American novel I would write. Then I decided to join the Army.
Looking back on it there was never really any doubt that I would join the Army. While military service pays adequately enough to raise a family squarely in the middle income bracket of our society, my parents were far from where they needed to be financially to send their first born to college. The Army offered a metric-butt-ton (an actual unit of measurement in my world) of college money for a three year commitment of service. This was in addition to the opportunity to travel to foreign countries. I’d be knocking out two birds with one stone by getting the money I needed for school while getting the chance to see some unique places free of my parents dictates. Do three years and then get a degree from a four year university. Three years. That was it. Three and out, to borrow a football phrase. That was nearly 18 years ago.
In that 18 years I’ve traveled and had the types of adventures that could fill the pages of any Beat Generation novel. I’ve been chased by gun wielding men in Matamoros, Mexico. I’ve hitchhiked rides with Gypses in eastern Europe. I’ve slept in the luggage rack of an all night train across Germany. Woke up in a train station in Pusan, South Korea after missing the last train north. Meditated in a Seon temple outside of Seoul. I’ve danced around a bonfire on Halloween in Ireland.
Even though I’m not Catholic I’ve been to an Easter mass at the Vatican. Attended an audience with the Pope. Saw every sight in Rome and, unlike William Hunting, I can tell you what the Sistine chapel smells like (kinda musty actually). I’ve drank shots of Grappa while playing Scopa with legitimate, small time, members of the Neapolitan Camorra. I’ve sipped Chai with Iraqis in Baghdad, eaten roasted goat with Kuwaiti Bedouins, and shared a cigarette with a Pashtun while gazing out at the Hindu-Kush.
I’ve heard blues in Memphis, Jazz in New Orleans, House in Chicago, and Country played behind a dive bar housed in a double-wide trailer located in the parking lot of a dirt racetrack in Texas. I’ve eaten fresh boiled peanuts in Cairo, GA. I’ve had Chesapeake crabs that were caught only 20 minutes earlier near Baltimore, MD. Eaten Chili Verde in New Mexico and had étouffée in the Vieux Carré. And, once, I even had chilled monkey brains served in a porcelain skull.
I tell you all this not to brag but to illustrate that I’ve been places and done things that, at 35 years of age, most people don’t do in their entire life. So why do I still feel so driven to travel, to see, to experience? It may well be that I have a restless soul. Even in the longest place I lived (8 years in the Washington D.C. area) I moved 5 times.
Of course, now, as an older man with bills, responsibilities, and a body that doesn’t appreciate being kept up past 1:00 a.m. (and makes sure I know how unappreciative it is the next day) I take things a little slower. When I had just joined the Army I would drive 40 hours roundtrip straight through from Texas to Illinois and back to visit my girlfriend on a 3-day weekend. Now I cap any drive at 12 hours for the entire day and stay in hotels a lot more.
But I still dream of travel. I pour over pamphlets and surf Websites that promote “alternative” travel. Going places that offer adventure in addition to sight seeing. I dream intensely of living out of backpacks. Sleeping in tents. Of rain forest and Hindu Stupas. I dream of thru-hiking the Appalachian trail. I dream of getting up and getting out on the road.
I’ve long since abandoned the idea of writing the great American novel. I have no idea where my life will take me next or what will happen when I leave the Army in a few years to start the next chapter of my life. I know that I’ll always have this restless drive pushing me ever forward to get moving. For the sake of my wife I keep the demon at bay as much as I can. She is great at entertaining my odd jaunts down back alleys and into dive bars while we take in the more traditional tourist traps on vacations. She understands for me it is a need. I have to experience. I have to meet people and see things. It isn’t just a curiosity but more of a compulsion.
It isn’t something I plan to change about myself. It makes me who I am. For me the experience of traveling the world and seeing the incredible array of people, places, sights, sounds, and tastes is life. It is the living, breathing, heart beat of humanity. And if it is life than I want to be able at the end of my days to say, “I lived”.
So I can think of no better way to end this meandering summation of pointless babel than to borrow a page from the jazzist and riff on the words of the master himself: just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all the rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Sal Paradise, I even think of Old Sal Paradise the author I’ll never be, I think of Jack Kerouac.