With a title like On the Road, it is not so far-reaching of a speculation to insist that there is something meaningful to be extracted from the travels of Sal Paradise. Kerouac challenges the typical thoughts and themes associated with travel as a transformative process that initially began to be uprooted in the wake of the Lost Generation. The popular ideals inherent in Horace Greeley's “Go west young man” and other testaments to the effects of travel on the human spirit and condition caused dissonance for many young peoples still reeling from war and displacement. Both The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises, as products of the Lost Generation, presented travel as a dead art: the green hills that inspired the country are gone and replaced with gaudy houses and there is no escape from it anywhere. Kerouac seems to echo these sentiments as the colloquial father of the Beat Generation which followed in the footsteps of the previous war-struck generation, yet as is characteristic of the style, he pushes the claim and seeks new truth in what was originally believed to be annihilated.
The opening chapter concludes as Sal gets the itch to get up and go, “ready to take off,” and Kerouac punctuates this first step to begin the journey with a hopeful banner to be pursued throughout the rest of the novel, that “somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me” (8). This pearl of wisdom is to be expected, but interestingly enough, Kerouac leaves out the means by which it will be handed to Sal. He is not obtaining it himself, so who gives it to him? Or what? And where? Thus the first nuance of travel is posed to the reader and it is not an unfamiliar one for our class; each time one sets out to discover, the method of discovery may be something wildly unexpected. It is certainly unexpected to Sal, whether the realization strikes him during or after the journey.
Another element of travel starts to become clear when Sal reaches the Mississippi river. Though not necessarily the “beginning” of the West, it is a landmark that remains consistently relevant in expeditions throughout American history. Huckleberry Finn being one of the most prominent bearers of the image of the river, it bleeds through the page into chapter 3, where Kerouac writes of the waters that it “smells like the raw body of America itself because it washes it up” (12). It mirrors the moment when Huck and Jim encounter the houses and books and other matters of materialism come flowing down and corrupting the nature of the river. Sal has not quite left the East just yet, and that which he is trying to escape is still close by to him. Even in Des Moines, the “dividing line between the East of my youth and the West of my future,” he feels separate and distant, like “somebody else, some stranger” (15), so the further he gets, he begins to realize something about his own condition. It begins to seem that a transformation is taking place despite the places themselves being not all that different from where he left.
Standing on the edge of the West coast does no better for Sal than his experiences on the East. He looks over “the great raw bulge and bulk of my American continent,” but his mind and heart are drawn to the “something brown and holy about the East” (79). Having achieved what it was he set out to do, fulfilling all standards of seeking new frontiers to find your own life, Sal is inevitably drawn back to the place that he came from. He alludes that he was ignorant to feel that the West was “emptyheaded” (79), but it can be supposed that what there was to find in West was not specific to the West itself and rather in the passage from East to West (and back again) which allowed Sal to venture into the deepest parts of himself. He sees his desperation for love in Terry and the collapse of himself in Remi's company. Traveling as prescribed to Hemingway or Fitzegerald or Gertrude Stein may have become reveled to be a trumped up idealistic view of experiencing oneself, but Kerouac reroutes this description in describing traveling as a mindset rather than a series of actions and checkpoints. Approaching the halfway point of the book, Sal may only describe this nuance as “the bug [that] was on me again,” but he sees it in the person of Dean Moriarity, constantly in motion and seeking both knowledge and horizons (115).
I saw a man pursuing the horizon;
Round and round they sped.
I was disturbed at this;
I accosted the man.
“It is futile,” I said,
“You can never —”
“You lie,” he cried,
And ran on.
-- Stephen Crane