On The Road to Lowell

20:24, Feb 23 2013
kerouac
Road's end: Just a gravestone, some well-worn grass and the bones of a bloke who died a 47-year-old fat alcoholic wash-out.

When I first think of how Jack came into my life and what effect he had on me, I think of the maimai at the back of our family farm near Taupo. It’s a maimai that doesn’t really get used much these days, because my old man isn’t into duck shooting any more. The corrugated iron walls are all rusted and bent, and the roof is buggered too; caved in where the door is.

About eight odd years ago, I walked up to that old maimai with Jack’s On the Road in hand, feeling all melancholic and sorry for myself. I was 21 and had just returned from my third year of university. I’d been studying engineering, but I shouldn’t have been. The course was bloody hard, and I was failing most of my papers.

The drinking – that age-old Kiwi uni habit – had been my focus for the previous two years. Most of my mates seemed to do it and pass their papers, but I wasn’t. I’d drink and drink, and do all this crazy boozy stuff. Look for scraps, take that odd punch, throw one back. Go to parties at flats, and trash them when that certain time of night came.

KEROUAC
On the road: Writer Jack Kerouac in younger days.

I’d go to these parties, and look for something real that was happening. Try and find some real connections. Some spark. Some dance. I couldn’t find it. All I found were people like me – lost, it seemed – but with the ability to disguise it much better than I could. 

The jig was up, and I knew it. I went home, back to the farm, knowing that I’d have to leave uni. Drop out. The thought of that wasn’t a pleasant one. I mean, hell, that was what we do in New Zealand right? Leave high school, go to uni, get pissed, get a degree, get a girl, get a job, go to London, come home, get the house. And so on. Plenty of my mates were in the system, but I just couldn’t do it.

I found the book at some second-hand book store in Napier. On its cover was a picture of this really beautiful redheaded woman, her hands on her hips giving me that smoky hotel-room look. On the Road, the title read, by Jack Kerouac. On the back, the words of some newspaper review: “Crazy-mixed-up novel about frustrated youth going nowhere fast.” Shit, I thought. This is a bit of me. Only six bucks too. Bargain.

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Once I started reading, up at the maimai, I couldn’t stop. The words, man, they just danced. I mean, hell, writing for me had always moved, always held something. My old mates – Byron, Keats, Rimbaud, Eliot, Yeats, Thomas – they could make the words dance too, but in a different way. Theirs was more a waltz – slow, with practised eloquence and the longing of locked eyes in a room where the crowd is watching on.

But Jack, man. His stuff really grooved. The tempo was fast and unstable, moving towards an uncertain end using whatever means available at any given time. It had the beat – the beat. 

On the Road, which Jack wrote some time in the late 40s, was essentially about the adventures of himself and his wild mates. They would drink, talk, hang out, hop in a car and just cruise. The destination was irrelevant – the movement was key. You had to be moving, Jack preached, to really understand this life. His writing embodied this.

Jack’s travels took him from New York to Denver to California, and down to Mexico City. Between those places was all the pure joy, longing, anger, frustration and heartbreak one can expect on such a series of expeditions. But beyond their experiences, which were mostly sad ones really, there was a resonance that seemed as true now as it must have in 1947.

I sat up at that maimai and read all 320 pages before I went back to the house, in a stupor. Pretty soon, I was hooking into Jack’s other books: The Dharma Bums, Desolation Angels, The Subterraneans, Doctor Sax. I read them greedily, and soon my decision to leave uni seemed like the right one. Bugger that garbage, I thought. To hell with their routine. I’ll find something good. I’m gonna really start looking.

For three years, I wandered. I worked as a shepherd for a while, a labourer on dairy farms, on a fishing boat in Napier, as a brickie in South Auckland, and with a chippy in Hamilton. I spent plenty of time in the bush, hunting. I moved around a lot. I slept in my car a fair bit. I drank. I listened to lots of Lou Reed. 

I never had any money – my jobs were all pretty much minimum wage gigs – but I didn’t give a shit. It was the movement that mattered, and, more specifically, the understanding of that movement. I wrote, trying to emulate Jack. The writing was mostly rubbish, but it didn’t matter. It felt good to write.

Sooner or later everyone falls on their feet. They get sucked back into the system. Through a series of flukes, I did it with journalism. Getting paid to write for a living – that’s not a bad bloody lark, I thought. And it’s not. It’s a great job. All the while, I kept promising myself that I had to go and see Jack. Go and thank him. Go honour the bastard. Jack was buried in his hometown of Lowell, which is about an hour north of Boston in Massachusetts, in the States.

Last October, I did it. I flew to New York, hanging out with Puerto Ricans in Brooklyn for a week, before heading up to Boston.

The day after I arrived up there, I took the 1305 train to Lowell. I sat on the train, thinking how crazy this was. Old Ben, you bloody character, you’re heading up to Jack’s grave. Bugger me. I thought about how things had played out over the last six or seven years, and began to tear up a bit under my 10-dollar fake Aviators. Outside it was a beautiful autumn day in New England, the leaves changing colour on trees framed by vast blue skies above. I looked at the houses and paddocks we passed in the train, and thought to myself how lucky I was.

I got off the train and walked into the middle of the town. Lowell, which is about the size of Hamilton, is a bit of a dump really. Back in Jack’s day, it was a milling town and it really hummed. Even now there are still plenty of old brick cotton mills with big tall chimneys around the Merrimack and Concord Rivers. But time has moved on, and the old money is gone.

Lowell has a big population of Cambodians and Latinos these days, and the two don’t see eye to eye. Plenty of drugs are bought and sold and scrapping between the two cultures is reportedly common, and violent. But that didn’t concern me. I was here to find Jack.

Edson cemetery, where Jack is buried, is a couple of kilometres out of town. The walk there was a pleasant one. I’d searched how to get to Jack’s grave on the internet that morning, so finding it wasn’t hard.

I thought there might be a few people hanging around his plot, given his culthood, but there were only two: a young Danish couple. I walked up and announced, to no one in particular, “Well, I’m here, Jack.” The guy turned around. “Isn’t it awesome?” he said. “It’s Jack, man. Shit.” We both stood there looking at Jack’s gravestone, grinning.

The gravestone was small and modestly made, without exaggeration. There was a collection of empty booze bottles sitting on it, and various poems or notes his followers had left there. “Ti Jean,” the stone read. “John L. Kerouac. Mar 12 1922 – Oct 21 1969. He honored life.” The Dane’s girlfriend stood a bit back from us, checking her cellphone. Her man shook my hand, excused himself and the two left.

I pulled out a cigarette, lit it and sat down. I looked at the gravestone, trying to feel something significant. 

I thought about Jack, his writing, and what he gave me. 

I thought about how he was able to make his words move – make them dance. How he inspired me. I sat there for probably an hour, and I didn’t feel anything. Where was the lightning bolt? I’d always hoped there would be some ghostly crossroads or something sitting at this place for me – something to point me in a brand new exciting direction. But there was nothing. Just a gravestone, some well-worn grass and the bones of a bloke who died a 47-year-old fat alcoholic wash-out. It felt anticlimactic.

I wrote a little thank-you note to leave there and placed it under a piece of pumice I had brought from home. Before I stood, I touched the gravestone. “One thing, Jack,” I said. “I’ve come all this way. Can you see that I find some romance on this trip? I would appreciate it.”

I was being a bit spacey, but a week later in San Francisco, I’d find the girl. She had green eyes, lovely blonde hair and a sad story to tell. For five days, the two of us would drink, smoke, talk shit and make love in a cheap Chinatown hotel. It was beautiful, and if Jack had a part in it, well, cheers.

But when I went to leave Jack’s graveside, I was feeling pretty underwhelmed. There was no crossroad sign, no moment of clarity or inspiration. This was the end of the road for Jack. His movement was over – his dance, no longer. I could keep moving. I could go home, and go in who knows what direction from there. That excited me, and I thought to myself, well, this grave means nothing, but Jack, you prick, you live on.

I took a dozen or so steps away from the grave, and turned around, hoping that something different might be there. Something inspirational. There wasn’t. I turned around, walked into town and got the first train I could back to Boston.

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