Although it would be incredible to hitchhike from New Jersey to San Francisco, that type of travel is now considered seriously unsafe. It is a shame that spontaneity is now stifled for fear of the unknown threats. Sal “was a young writer and [he] wanted to take off” (8)—and he did. Kerouac’s novel makes me question the limitations we have put on free forms of physical movement and the things we must do to overcome these barriers in order to truly follow passion and a call to adventure. A reflection on spontaneity, and its verging on recklessness and irresponsibility, is poignant as I begin discerning my post-graduate future. This story of the Beat Generation or the somewhat lost generation is centered on characters very similar to me (and many people my age). Sal describes them beautifully in one of the opening passages of On the Road:
“…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…” (6)
New doors are constantly available to us especially during this time of transition in my life, but the question arises of how to choose between certain opportunities, some more stable than others.
I feel almost like Sal as he wanders the city of Denver in a bit of a trance. He narrates that “the air was soft, the stars so fine, the promise of every cobbled alley so great, that I thought I was in a dream” (42). There is a lot of “promise” involved in being a college graduate. I could continue my education, participate in service domestically or internationally, work to save money or simply take a trip overseas. All of these options involve travel in one or many of the ways that we have discussed so far this semester. Travel brings with it the promise of experience, not only of new things but of new people and their stories. These encounters may be miserable or they may be perfect, but they always bring with them the occasion for change, growth and inspiration. Sal’s adventures across the United States represent a series of chance encounters, disappointments, changes in goals and new explorations.
Sal travels all the way to Denver to reconnect with Dean Moriarty, a prophetic image for Sal, and when he finally arrives in Denver he finds that “their talk made [him] want to get back on that road” (58). He decides to continue west to San Francisco and as he reflects his departing phone call with Dean, Sal realizes that he “hadn’t talked to Dean for more than five minutes in the whole time” (59). Sal then travels to Mill City to meet his college buddy, Remi Boncoeur, but abandons San Francisco. Terry, a Mexican woman, enchants Sal in a bus station and right away “[they] settled down to telling [their] stories” (82). This sharing of stories creates a bond between Terry and Sal and they continue their romance. At first they decide to hitchhike to New York (89); then they hope to “take a bus to Bakerfield and work picking grapes” (90); they planned to hitchhike to Sabinal (91); finally, Sal realizes that “nothing was going to happen except starvation for Terry and [him], so in the morning [he] walked the country side asking for cotton-picking work” (95). Ultimately, Sal returns to his aunt’s house. Sal’s trip involves much more than what I’ve outlined; however, his conversations with the random people who he meets, even for brief moments, color On the Road and show the importance of spontaneous movement and spontaneous connections. In the same way that a tattoo serves as a way to hear or see a part of someone else’s story, openness to random circumstances or haphazard conversation has a similar effect. Through all of these alterations to Sal’s plans, he begins to change as a character throughout the first half of the novel. Rather than endlessly pursuing his writing career while living with his aunt in New Jersey, the trip offers Sal the ability to avoid stagnancy. He constantly reevaluates his circumstances and searches for an ultimate end.
Just like Sal, I think we all must search for a passion which motivates us to do things we never thought possible. Dean represents an all-consuming madness for Sal, something that drives him to do impulsive (what some would call irrational) things. Sal follows Dean all across the country, leaving behind his GI Bill-funded education and his family life in Paterson. By the end of the second-half of the novel, Sal is headed back to California for a second and supposedly final trip west. He says that “the bug was on me again, and the bug’s name was Dean Moriarty and I was off on another spurt around the road” (115)—“it was only the beginning” (117). This idea relates to my reflection on Wendt’s short story, “The Cross of Soot.” In my blog post, I discussed the idea of finding something electrifying and galvanizing that can guide your journey of life. I did present a caveat, however, in my recommendation to be open to reevaluation of plans, routes, and aims. Even though I am only 21-years-old, there are many challenges to travelling the way that Sal does in Kerouac’s text. There are the structural limitations of our society and our economy and more personal pressures of family, education and finances, or lack thereof. I may not be able to hitchhike across the country after my dreams, but I should take advantage of the channels that are available to me and be sure not to limit myself unnecessarily. At the risk of sounding cliché, it’s ultimately worthwhile to follow your heart.
On the Road highlights the benefits of following an instinct because there truly are endless possibilities if you are willing to recognize them and push yourself into potentially uncomfortable situations at the outset. Sal encounters the Ghost of the Susquehanna and must sleep on the railroad station bench, he begins to question his life: “Isn’t it true that you start your life a sweet child believing everything under your father’s roof?” (106) Entering an unknown territory—a physical place, a group of people, an ideology—always provides a challenge which leads to an affirmation of one’s beliefs and goals or is cause for reassessment and a new improved direction. As Sal says at the beginning of his journey, “somewhere along the line I knew there’d be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me” (8).