I have always loved the classics. Classic movies: The Godfather, The Shining, Ben Hur, The Quiet Man, Easy Rider, Goodfellas, the list goes on. Classic beauties: Sophia Loren, Greta Garbo, Maureen O’Hara, Ava Gardner, etc… The same holds true for classic bikes: old HD ‘Panheads’, Triumphs of the ‘Bonneville’ variety, Vincent ‘Black Shadows’ and the orphans as they are: Crockers, Hendersons, Indians, Matchless and Ariels . Who could argue? And while I may be a humble writer of biker musings, it is the classic writers that inspire me. Faulkner, Yeats, Thompson, Hemmingway, Twain and of course, Kerouac. Jack Kerouac is that obscure beat writer who inspires all of us bikers in a collective consciousness to roam the proverbial highways of America, both asphalt and imagined. He formed the core of the ‘beat generation’ after traveling the highways of America on drug and alcohol fueled road trips in the 1940’s, setting the cornerstone of his greatest novel “On The Road” (Viking Press). It was only his second, published novel but it brought him worldwide fame that he did not expect nor enjoy. It just so happens that his novel has since turned the corner of “50 years old”, as now I am. Fifty years, certainly past the half way point for me. February 16, 1964-my birthday. I feel no worse for wear, like the novel as fresh, with words as powerful as first penned by Kerouac half a century ago.
Kerouac oddly typed “On The Road” on a single scroll of paper 120 feet long and 1 foot wide, single spaced, with no indents or paragraph breaks in a 3 week period. Published first in 1957, it was kind of an ‘iron butt’ ride for writers. It was hailed by the The New York Times as “the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as ‘beat,’ and whose principal avatar he is.” So it was sealed as his fate that his fame would consume him and he drank his discomfort with it into oblivion. He died at the age of 47, but remains the spokesperson for an entire generation, the embodiment of the free love movement. He died not yet as old as his novel is now. He, under fifty, the novel over 50 and me, well, right at the dividing line. My life on-the-road was supremely affected by his novel, with profound words such as: “There was nowhere to go but everywhere, so just keep on rolling under the stars” and “Live, travel, adventure, bless, and don’t be sorry,” and most importantly, “Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.” So, he who has ridden the motorbike on the road, having read his novel or not, in pondering these words could not be affected by their thought.
In search of a connection to many of my heroes, I’ve visited their graves most times on a motorcycle, Kerouac included. They are scattered across the globe. An odd habit I agree, but an old school Catholic custom of honoring your dead. Brendan Behan (Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin Ireland), Teddy Roosevelt (Young’s Cemetery, Oyster Bay, NY), John F. Kennedy (Arlington Nat’l Cemetery, VA), Jim Morrison AND Oscar Wilde (Pere Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, France), I visited Kerouac’s grave in 1987 (Edson Cemetery, Lowell, MA) an hour and a half from where I attended Law School in New England. It was early fall and it rained most of the way. I was on a CB 750 and got soaked through and through. I shivered and caught a terrible cold on the day trip. Worth it. Whether you know it or not, he changed the game for all of us. With his classic American novel “On The Road,” he permeated our society with wanderlust to hit the highway. The book’s milestone of half a century has just passed us. Irony is not lost upon me that my 50th year abridges my youth to my old age. I have several old bikes at the 50 year mark. Unlike me, the older they are the better they get, patina worn like prideful scars of use, miles, life, and evidence of experiences on the road.
I did not read Kerouac’s novel until college. It was not required in my pre law curriculum. I do recall pinching a worn and dog eared paperback copy from my eldest sister Patty, some 6 years older than I, sometime in my early 20’s. By the time I read the novel I was on perhaps my 5th or 6th motor bike. I’d ridden the States and Eastern Europe and some in Mexico starting my life on the road. I strove to break free of the ‘approved’ reading lists to which a catholic high school had shackled me. Rolling Stone Magazine, the Kama Sutra, Sun Tsu, The Communist Manifesto, The Quran, The Borstal Boy – all late bloom risqué reading for me. Sister Vincent would not approve. I experimented with bikes in those years too. Beat up Japanese ‘sports,” older English ‘twins,’ mid-sized cruisers with luggage racks for books and gym bags, all dictated by a budget of typically less than 500 bucks. It only makes sense that I was drawn to Kerouac’s ‘On The Road.’ Like a dog chained in the hot sun I satiated my thirst for lit which was before censored. I read the required texts of whatever list the professors at my university compiled for me and my 20,000 schoolmates. I did this by day. But at night, ah, nighttime. After the bar closed where I worked, it was Dreiser and Ginsberg and Kerouac that I drank in. At the end of the bar, or in my tiny apartment in NYC with whatever 2 wheeled jalopy sat at the curb outside, I sat inside reading. Cable TV was a commodity for rich kids’ dorm rooms. Mine was to read, to consume musty novels ‘borrowed’ from professors or school chums or from older sisters. I ironically recall tossing “On The Road” into a leather saddlebag for trips to work and school and the to and fro of life in New York City. I do not believe that I ventured far from NY while engrossed in this book with its 320 pages. I probably never left the 5 boroughs while reading it. Though I do recall dreaming of making trips out into the American landscape aboard a better bike, wearing a better jacket, with perhaps a few more coins in my pocket. Simple dreams of being out on-the-road.
I wonder what happened to the copy I had. I packed it many times and moved it with me to progressively less seedy apartments. Jobs, degrees, career, kids, it didn’t make a box at some point. Relegated to a book drive or a recycling bin, I’m sure. I wish I had my original copy. Like I wish I had many of the bikes I’ve sold or traded for a fraction of their worth today. That’s the problem with getting older. The importance of simple things to read or ride becomes clear years after they are gone. We have libraries and even motorcycle museums to remind us. Thank God. What has separated the greatest civilizations throughout history has been their properly placed respect and cultivation of their arts. Be they bolted together or written. Our American history is comparatively short to those that span the globe. 200 years plus a few are a drop in the bucket across the millennia of human development. Yet we have produced some of the world’s greatest inventions, theories, medicines, political structures, literary works and yes, MOTORCYCLES. Kerouac, like Harley Davidson, Triumph or Ducati, weaves his words, plies his craft, with our collective two wheeled desire to throttle up and go. “On The Road” is more a statement of life than a work of literature. I’ve often heard it said that motorcycles are life. To live the life well ridden, Kerouac’s novel must be read. It must be analyzed. Consumed, if you may. It may answer your questions of why you ride. It may present questions of why you don’t ride more often. Either way, at ‘over’ 50, Kerouac’s novel has a long life ahead, as long as man’s quest to travel lives on. Me, I’ll take a few more miles, a few more bikes, and a few more years on the road, and be content. –Irish