I’ve got a theory. It’s about Jack Kerouac being one of the greatest liars that this country has ever seen. You see, after several cross country road trips, I’ve stumbled upon an ugly reality about this country. The bohemian paradise that Kerouac had so beautifully painted in On the Road is no more. Country corner stores have been paved over by 7/11’s. Diners have become increasingly obsolete as they kowtow to the almighty Big Mac. It’s no surprise that the flavor of this country is drowning in corporate mediocrity. It’s been happening for years, but now, more than ever, the dream that Kerouac had instilled in me at such an impressionable age; the free-spirited hedonism of a lifestyle long since dead.
But this isn’t about mourning the loss of a lifestyle. The Beats may have made it sound enticing, but it’s no wonder that Jack Keruoac died as a result of a failing liver before reaching the age of 50. There’s all that nonsense about the brightest stars living half as long, but the truth of the matter is, On the Road and Kerouac’s own lifestyle were reactionary measures: a celebration of the alternative to the nuclear family. Still, for what it’s worth, Kerouac captured the essence of the nation and everything he detested with On the Road.
Like I said, that lifestyle was never meant to last. I’ve come to terms with that. Still, there’s almost no trace of the America that Kerouac described. Having driven across the country twice now, I’ve taken both of the major routes. the Southern one takes you through the heartlands of Oklahoma before hitting the tips of the Southern-most states, like Texas and New Mexico. The road is peppered with small farms and the occasional billboard, but largely nothing until you hit the truck rest stops. The Northern route hits the scenic splendor of Utah and Colorado before diving into the dreary nothingness of Nebraska. Both times, numerous stops were made in search of something and nothing at the same time.
Now more than ever, I’m not sure if what Kerouac was describing was a place or if it was something more: an attitude or a feeling, maybe. It sounds pretentious to pontificate, but the fact of the matter is Kerouac, in his life of carelessness and hedonism, had something that I so desperately wanted. He had… nothing, to be honest. As the youngest of four and the son of two doctors, I’ve always been subject to the wants and needs of two well-intentioned, but seemingly overbearing parents. It’s a hard act to follow. Kerouac had an unparalleled sense of self.
As ludicrous as it may sound, in driving across the country, I have always hoped I’d be able to find a little bit of that. Maybe by finding the places that inspired Kerouac to rise to greatness, I might have hope. Instead, all I found was Walmarts and countless BP filling stations.
The closest I came was in a small town in Utah. After hours of driving, winding through the Colorado mountains and riding the peaks and valleys of Utah, we had to stop for gas. The nearest location for roughly 30 miles was just off the highway. Upon first glance, the gas station brought to mind scores of horror films, even with a dumpster provided to dispose of those pesky bodies. What was inside was something else entirely. The shelves were well-worn with snacks, some of which looked well past their expiration date. As the bell rang out when I opened the door, three people, sitting in lawn chairs inexplicably inside, turned to face me. A young woman looked me up and down, not with judgment but with a certain curiosity, before asking me if I needed anything.Gas, was my answer. Nothing more, nothing less. As I began to tell her which pump I was on, she smiled and said, “yeah, we know.” It then occurred to me that we were the only car out there. When she asked how much I needed, I had no answer. She simply told me to leave my card, fill up the car, and then come back inside for her to ring me up. The thought that I shouldn’t leave a card with a stranger never occurred to me.
After filling up, I went back inside and she proceeded to calculate the total. We made pleasant small talk while she worked the register. I told her where I was coming from and where I was going. She told me the minutiae of life in a small town, how some people would come in and cautiously leave their card, for fear that she would steal from them. Even though the exchange only lasted a total of, maybe 3 minutes, it was the most sincere conversation I’ve ever had with a stranger. It made me think that small-town America might still be out there, struggling to survive, but there all the same. I guess I just have to look harder next time.