Thursday, October 12, 2006

On the Interstate

Traveling was simpler when Jack Kerouac and his pal Neal Cassidy set off after World War II to see America, a trip memorialized in On the Road. In the novel, Cassidy as Dean says "we gotto go and never stop going until we get there." And Kerouac as Sal asks "where we going, man?" "I don't know," Sal tells him, "but we gotta go." And they head across America in a beat up car, meeting hipsters and digging the sights. Kerouac's testament continues to motivate and inspire:
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 things, but burn like fabulous roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue center light pop and everybody goes "AWWW!"
The other day, on this mad, crazy dash across New England, I tried to find Kerouac's grave in Lowell. But off the interstate, I got lost in a tangle of city streets and failed to find the Edson Cemetery on Gorham Street. I needed Dean Moriarty by my side as co-pilot helping to navigate the path to the past. Rest easy, Sal.

My intentions were good. Setting out in a rented Chevy Malibu with more technological bells and whistles than I could understand, I stayed off the interstate yesterday morning and headed north into the autumnal wilds of New Hampshire in search of the perfect cappuccino and a free wireless for my laptop. The day was overcast and rain was promised, so the fabled leaves on the rolling forest trees around me were less than vivid. Still, the procession of small towns and the antique barns in between, not to mention the charm of Halloween decorations along the way, made the relatively slow journey enjoyable. On the road I began to see "Moose Crossing" signs, and at a rest stop I found a workman touching up the paint on the statue of a moose. Moose country!

A connoisseur of college towns, my first stop was Hanover, home of Dartmouth. I quickly got lost in a maze of tiny streets wrapped around a corner of the campus. After several hours of driving, I was in need of a pit stop, which I soon found in the Collis student center where the cluttered tables and ever-present laptops reminded me of Lulu's back home. Refreshed and renewed, I went into the Dirt Cowboy Cafe where the wireless was not functioning and the cappuccino was less than excellent. Back on the street I found that this portion of Hanover (was there any other?) was glitzy shops past which walked men in suits and dressed up ladies. A few penniless students in patched jeans could be seen, but the whole atmosphere was upscale. Where were the homeless? I'm sure Dean and Sal would have been appalled, so I split.

Since the day was advancing and I had places to go, I got on the interstate and headed into Vermont.
What's your road, man?—holyboy road, madman road, rainbow road, guppy road, any road. It's an anywhere road for anybody anyhow. (Dean in On the Road)
This was not just any old interstate. It was 89 and it wound like a snake through the midsection of the state, accompanied on my AAA map by a dotted line, which meant that the scenery would be beautiful. Now if only the clouds would lift and the sun would come out to illuminate the leaves.

Besides looking for a cheap motel, my goal for the afternoon was to revisit Goddard College. In 1970, when I was working for Atlantic Records, I attended the Alternative Media Conference there, a gathering of underground newspaper and radio personnel, as well as countercultural spokespersons like Baba Ram Dass, Michael Rossman, Wavy Gravy with his Hog Farm, and musicians such as Dr. John the Night tripper and the J. Geils Band. On the last day of the conference, the punch in the dining hall was spiked with acid and I barely remember a glorious trip into the countryside where I swam naked in a stream with rock writers Richard and Lisa Robinson, a lady who later did the PR for Woodstock, and Lenny Kaye, who not long after became the guitarist for Patti Smith. I found Goddard but the place looked empty and rundown. I learned their undergraduate program had been disbanded four years ago, and now they apparently only have a few graduate programs and the facilities are used for conferences. But the memories of that wild moment 36 years ago refused to reactivate during my brief stop.
Something, someone, some spirit was pursuing all of us across the desert of life and was bound to catch us before we reached heaven. Naturally, now that I look back on it, this is only death: death will overtake us before heaven. The one thing that we yearn for in our living days, that makes us sigh and groan and undergo sweet nauseas of all kinds, is the remembrance of some lost bliss that was probably experienced in the womb and can only be replaced (though we hate to admit it) in death. (Sal in On the Road)
Disappointed by two college towns, I pressed on in search of the perfect motel, cheap and providing wireless and HBO. Montpelier seemed perfect. Situated in a valley in the Worcester Mountains and alongside the Winooski River, the gold dome of the capital beckoned invitingly. But the Capital Plaza Hotel downtown was filled up, and the Comfort Inn on a hill out of town was sold out. I pushed the pedal to the floor and roared down the interstate toward South Burlington and the promise of motel paradise, according to the Triple A Tourist Guide. I passed up a free tour of the Ben & Jerry's ice cream factory in Waterbury. But the next two motels were also full, and when I pointed to the empty parking lot, the clerk said simply "tour bus," and I immediately imagined a big bus filled with senior citizens on their own version of Kerouac's journey.

I finally found a motel in Shelburne, south of Burlington along Lake Champlain. It's a grossly overpriced Travelodge with no HBO, two broken lights, but a strong wireless signal. Turning on the TV, I learned that another plane had flown into a building in New York City, but this time it was piloted by a pitcher for the New York Yankees trying without success to fly home to Florida. Across the street I soothed my sorrows with a local beer and a rib eye steak. This search for redemption in 21st century America is hard work.
So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, and all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars'll be out, and don't you know that God is Pooh Bear?

The evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie which is 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 Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found. I think of Dean Moriarty. (Sal in On the Road)
Today I'll tour Burlington and environs, rain or no rain, and I'll think of old Jack.

No comments: