Five years ago I took an important road trip with my best friend. We piled into a borrowed 1960 Cadillac and drove from Missoula to Denver to witness the original manuscript for Jack Kerouac’s seminal book “On the Road.” The scroll was on display at the Denver library. We left on Friday, dug the scroll on Saturday, and drove back Sunday. In honor of the 91st anniversary of the birth of the King of the Beats, I’m posting my account of that memorable trip we took five years ago.
It’s Monday morning, the 85th anniversary of the birth of Jack Kerouac. I’m exhausted, brain-dead, and stove up. The wind is howling outside my window, the sun is shining, and a huge rainbow is stretching across the Missoula valley, visible from my hillside bunker. As usual, I presume the rainbow has been created solely for my own enjoyment, and this time I’m thinking it’s a message from Mr. Kerouac: “Well done, man.”
See, I just pulled in last night after a 15 hour drive from Denver. My best friend and beat brother, Jim Brian, picked me up before sunrise Friday morning and we drove to Denver to see the original manuscript for Kerouac’s iconic book, “On the Road.” We’d stumbled across the book during our salad days as art students in Seattle, more than 20 years ago, and the impact was immediate and huge. It was the Right Book at the Right Time.
It inspired me to ditch my life in Seattle and hitchhike to Denver. As for Jim, he worked his way to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, to spend a few months living in the town where Kerouac’s running partner, Neal Cassady, had met his demise on the railroad tracks.
When I heard a few years back that the manuscript had been sold at auction and the buyer was going to put it on tour, I alerted Jim.
“When that thing comes within striking distance of Missoula,” I promised, “we’re going.”
Denver was as close as it was going to get, so we hatched a plan to drive the 950 miles there on Friday, dig the scroll on Saturday, and drive home Sunday. Most people we shared this with (including our wives) thought we were seriously unbalanced. But our wives also understood the importance of this pilgrimage, and gave their blessings. We were told to have fun, but return home alive, and preferably without any diseases.
So I was up till midnight the night before the trip, putting together ten sandwiches, just as Kerouac had done before returning home from his first hitchhiking trip to the West. I suppose we could have flown to Denver, but that would have seriously damaged the authenticity of our trip—the journey was at least as important as the destination. Plus, plane tickets were $800, fer chrissake.
Jim pulled up at the prescribed hour, behind the wheel of an enormous red 1960 Cadillac convertible.
“Where did you find this thing?” I asked, incredulous, as I loaded the Sedan deVille’s cavernous trunk with my cameras, bedroll and guitar.
“My Uncle Rawhide,” said Jim. “This has been sitting in his garage, under a tarp, ever since I was a kid. Turns out he actually maintains the thing, so he let me use it for the trip.”
This vehicle immediately injected a strong Fear and Loathing element into our weekend, which we both felt was perfectly fitting, as we were driving straight into Hunter S. Thompson’s backyard. In fact, Thompson often acknowledged Kerouac’s influence on his own writing.
We’d both prepared for the trip by re-reading “On the Road,” and peppered each other with questions and theories about the beatnik era and attitude during the entire drive down. As we crossed the state line into Wyoming, I called Barb on my cell phone to see how things were going at home. She was fighting a bad cold when I left, but she’d insisted that she’d be fine and I needn’t worry.
“Rusty woke up with a fever, so he’s been in bed all day,” she sniffed. The cold wasn’t getting any better. “And Speaker picked up a case of head lice. We had to throw away all her stuffed animals and burn her mattress. The dog threw up something that looks like a hood ornament, and you were supposed to volunteer at the school this morning.”
“Okay, hon,” I said cheerfully. “I’ll see you in a couple days.” I snapped the phone shut and turned to Jim. “Well, sounds like she’s got everything under control there. You gonna call your wife?”
“Can’t,” he said, rolling down his window. “There’s no service out here.” He tossed his phone out onto the road.
By 3:00 we’d eaten half the sandwiches, and gone through a lot of music: Hendrix, Talking Heads, Neil Young, early Dylan, Bob Marley, and David Sedaris reading his “Six to Eight Black Men.” It felt like we were sitting in someone’s living room, smoothly flying down the highway in the Caddy at a steady 85 mph.
It was after dark as we approached Cheyenne, and we saw a great glow in the sky, similar to the one you can see above Las Vegas from 150 miles away.
“Man, I didn’t know Cheyenne was that big of a town,” I said to Jim.
“It’s not,” he said, steering with one hand and rolling a Bull Durham with the other. “That light’s from Denver.”
I’d forgotten just how big, how sprawling Denver is. We found my friend Chris Cutthroat’s house just north of the city, pulling triumphantly into his driveway at 10:00. He was sitting in a kitchen chair on his front porch, with a rifle laying across his lap.
“Problems with the neighbor kids?” I asked, pulling stuff out of the trunk.
“Bunnies,” he said, picking up the rifle and sighting on a rabbit that was moving along his fence. He squeezed off a shot from the .22, missing the rabbit but putting a neat hole in the fence plank. “Bastards are everywhere,” he said, taking a pull from his beer.
We bunked on the living room floor of his tiny house, and in the morning Jim and I made our way downtown, where the manuscript was on display at the Denver Central Library. We spent over three hours perusing the seminal screed, writing questions and observations in our notebooks, chatting up other Kerouac disciples who milled about, and fouling the air with eye-watering road farts.
The manuscript was typed on a single, 120-foot long scroll Kerouac fashioned by Scotch-taping together several lengths of teletype paper. The idea was to not have to waste time changing paper as the entire “spontaneous prose” spilled out of him over a three-week period of nonstop writing. Sixty feet of the scroll was unrolled and displayed under glass in a long, narrow, waist-high display case.
I’d researched the display on the internet, and discovered that no photography was being allowed. I took this as a challenge, of course, and managed to snap off a few blurry shots with my little spy camera, which looks like a Zippo lighter on steroids.
When I snapped off my second photo, making sure the ceiling-mounted security camera was to my back, we heard an alarm go off in the hallway out by the elevators. Jim and I looked at each other in panic.
“Act casual!” I hissed, jamming the camera in my pocket.
Jim pulled out his tobacco, rolled a quick cigarette, and leaned against a wall, mimicking a pose Neal Cassady was making in an old photo from his Denver days.
“What the hell are you doing, man? You can’t smoke in the library!” I said.
Jim took a drag, hooked both thumbs in his pockets, and blew a stream of smoke toward the ceiling. “I’m acting casual.”
Nothing came of the alarm, however, and we went back to viewing the manuscript, reading the passages that Kerouac had nixed, and pointing things out to each other.
We finally reached the point where we felt we’d seen enough, and left the library to find a dive bar where we could have a drink and share our thoughts. Then it was back into the mad Denver traffic, to Chris’s house where we had a spaghetti dinner featuring my Famous Sauce. The lead guitarist in Chris’s band came over, and we drank and played Uncle Tupelo and Steve Earle songs into the night.
I never knew I had a taste for Scotch, but we polished off a fifth of Chivas Regal and I used the empty bottle for a pillow when I finally passed out on the couch at 4:30 a.m. I was awake somehow at 7:00, and realized that we had to set our clocks forward an hour. I made the adjustment on my watch, and hoped that my hangover also progressed an hour into the future. We showered, gathered our things, and bade a bleary-eyed Chris goodbye.
Driving north from Denver, we saw all the countryside that had been hidden in darkness during our trip down. We took turns at the wheel, gulping No-Doze and sucking down bottle after bottle of Gatorade. We stopped at an old cowboy bar in a little Wyoming town around noon for a red beer and a shake-a-day. We ate the last of the sandwiches. By late afternoon, as we finally crossed the border into Montana, I suggested a nice, relaxed Mexican dinner in Billings, after which I’d take the wheel and Jim could snooze.
We pulled into my driveway just after midnight, having made it from Billings in five hours flat. The Caddy had carried us 2,000 miles without complaint. We had no broken bones, lost wallets, illnesses, cuts or abrasions, or even hurt feelings. Everything had gone right, and we both realized that we had pulled it off. We’d come full circle by witnessing the original version of the book that was instrumental in sending us down our respective life paths, and we’d made the journey in style.
Jim and I are both 47 years old, the age at which Kerouac died. The coincidence was not lost on us, and our landmark road trip to see the King of the Beats’ massive outpouring of creative brilliance is still resonating within us both. Our journeys are far from over, though, and there is much work and creativity yet to be accomplished.
Happy birthday, Jack. And thank you.