Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Travel in "On the Road"

     Over the course of years full of extended travel away from home and family, I have never experienced that peculiar sentiment known as "homesickness". That is a reality that has likely always been the case, though the first time I recognized my total comfort with time spent in absentia of home and hearth came in high school. After three weeks spent traversing the deserts and peaks of northern New Mexico with my peers, I still remember my surprise at hearing the excitement with which friends spoke of going home. In fact, my father, who had volunteered his time as chaperone and guide for our adventures, recused himself from the week-long addendum in Colorado that a few of us had planned; the call of home and family proved too strong for even him. "I'm not supposed to be gone this long", he told me, before catching the last bus out of town bound for Denver and a flight home. 
     But despite my comfort with time away from Baltimore, there was once an occasion where a vacation failed to "feel" right. With only a single exception, my extended travels have always fallen into one of two categories: immersion into the wilderness somewhere in America, or absorption into a foreign culture where nonetheless I felt as though I belonged. The exposure to nature rejuvenates the soul, and for my Irish Catholic self, long trips to Rome and Ireland always felt wholly natural. All of these travels possessed a certain sense of purpose, and a definite quality of value. 
     For ten days in the winter of 2010, however, I traveled to British Columbia with a small group of co-workers for a ski trip just off the Canadian coast. The scenery and the environment were amazing. But almost immediately, the days fell into a routine. Breakfast with a hangover, thrills on the slopes, lunch, more thrills, after-thrill beers at the mountain base, followed by quick naps, showers, exorbitant dinners, and nights spent at new bars with the same microbrews. Halfway through the trip, the experience began to feel a little empty of meaning. By the seventh day, I felt an urgent need to break out of our newly constructed rubric. I asked after the Catholic church in town, skipped dinner with the fellas, and hitched my way (for the first time ever) to the little community a few miles out of town. The small church there hosted a wide variety of parishioners: fellow tourists from the world over, migratory Hispanics who worked at the resort, a few local Canadians, and a large contingent of Native Americans for whom the missionary parish was first established hundreds of years ago. Though the trip was a welcome break, my night spent amongst these folks in a place that felt strange but quite familiar remains my favorite memory from the trip. 
     That's three paragraphs of exposition meant to establish the fact that I believe I can relate to Sal in "On the Road". My days in British Columbia were first adventurous, then transitioned quickly to the monotonous, became restless, suddenly listless, and then became overwhelmed by a general sense of purposelessness. Traveling just for fun, or perhaps I could say only for the sake of traveling, I think as a matter of course must lose its appeal in due time. And I believe this is what Sal experiences towards the close of Part I of the novel. When Sal says--after becoming both a literal cotton-picker and a metaphoric slave to his chosen path in life--that "I looked up at the dark sky and prayed to God for a better break in life and a better chance to do something for the little people I loved", he expresses concern for the concepts of value and purpose. Sal realizes that for all of the fun and excitement that his cross-country travels have brought him, he is nonetheless devoid of contentment with who he is, and lacks a good reason for doing any of the things that he does. 
     What fascinates about "On the Road" is the underlying idea that a wealth of companionship--dare I say that even an abundance of friendships--is insufficient for a personal sense of contentment and purpose. There is an irony in the fact that it is when with Terry that Sal determines that it is time to leave. More disconcerting is the fact that the concept of "home" seems rather empty in the novel; Sal and Terry both come from failed marriages, and further broken homes are on the near-horizon. The characters in the novel appear to belong to nowhere--and to no one--in particular. Dean is so curious about whether he and Marylou actually belong to one another that he propositions Sal to sleep with her; Sal demurs because he prefers to wait until the appointed hour when he and Marylou might belong to one another. At this point in the novel, I believe that Sal is simply too self-aware to label his life and his situation tragic; but it is certainly sad. There is a mild fatalism to this story, evident in Sal's immediate response to the statement of longing quoted above: "Nobody was paying attention to me up there. I should have known better". The characters in "On the Road" are presented as cosmic cast-offs, fated to eternal meanderings and the constant search for value and purpose. 
     I think that the prose stylings of Kerouac perfectly fit the persona of his protagonist/narrator. Sal writes in total control of the story that he desires to tell. His character is quite aware, and his words reflect the observations that fill Sal's mind. The wanderlust that rises from the depths of Sal's character is matched by long, flowing sentences full of descriptions that seem intentionally constructed to reveal no drawn conclusions but only to convey experiences. But the conclusions do come in the form of these short declarative sentences that Sal regularly makes that say something about his experiences. Above, Sal experiences the desire for something more and this is all that he conveys. But this is immediately followed by a conclusion that his longings cannot come to fruition. Sal is a voyageur in life, and as he voyages, he experiences, and as he experiences, he ruminates about his experiences, and as he ruminates, Sal slowly develops a philosophy about what it is he is doing, and then questions the reasons for doing anything that he does. The words of this novel are travel.

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