By: Scott Nisley
Jack Kerouac, despite all claims to the contrary, was a horrible sickening drunk, who spent the last years of his life slumped in a chair, getting loaded off whiskey and malt liquor and burning away whatever was left of his booze-buzzard brain.
But he was also a genius and a pioneer in a literary movement, that not only influenced a whole generation, but also challenged the way people thought and looked at the world around them. He had the eyes of a child, the heart of a poet, and an unmistakable voice that was all his own.
He wielded it the way bootleggers of old must have clutched the steering wheel, making the midnight run up from the deltas and bungalows of the deep south, all the way to the speakeasies of probation-era Chicago. With the same kinda nervous twitch they must have felt carrying those illegal trunk-loads of raw un-aged moonshine down the highway, eyeing every pair of headlights, like they belonged to a cop or a state trooper.
Jack wrote with a kind of wild lyrical immediacy, often aroused by the grip of Benzedrine, a psychoactive stimulant, not unlike our modern-day Adderall. You know what I’m talking about. That little yellow pill you take to help cruise through your goddamn Chemistry textbook, the night before the big exam.
He’d sit down at his desk, all hyped up on the stuff, with a glass of whiskey to one side and an ashtray on the other, and go hour after hour, pulling whatever ideas he needed from his preconscious and punching em’ straight into the typewriter.
It was through that half-drunk, half-crazed approach to writing that Jack assembled his iconic breakthrough novel On the Road. It was first published in 1957 and became an unapologetic record of the seven years he spent bumming rides and hitchhiking down the long two-lane highways of America. And of course, a chronicle of those crazy coast-to-coast trips zooming along with his friend Neil Cassady at the helm of their hundred-mile-an-hour junk machine. They traveled all over. From New York, to San Francisco, to Denver, to New Orleans, and even Mexico City, all the while with Cassady at the wheel, screaming: “Yass! yass! yass!” as they tooled along below the western sun.
It was in the summer of 2013 when I read On the Road and got drawn into Jack’s world for the first time. My good buddy Adam Sherman had read the thing and said it was the kinda book that made you want to drop everything, pack your bags and take off down the road yourself, in search of whatever adventures or magic or mysteries lay just beyond the horizon. Adam even spent seven thousand bucks of his own dough and bought himself an old VW Bus to make the trip. But that goddamn jalopy was so banged up you couldn’t hardly shift into gear and make it up a steep hill, without risking your neck flat out. So we never made the trip like he’d planned it.
I’m not going to tell you how or why, but more recently over the summer my family decided to take a trip and fly out to California for a few days to sight-see.
“Maybe the last trip we take together as a family,” my father had said. “Especially with you about to finish college and all.”
I saw it as a chance to embark on the same kinda wild-eyed trip Jack and his buddies would have taken over half a century earlier. One big crazy boom to the West Coast and back, to catch some kicks before the end of the Summer. Only this time the trip would be by plane and not from the window of a speeding car. A single swoop from one end of the country to the next–nonstop without a single gas station in sight.
Now the idea of boarding a passenger jet didn’t exactly give me a whole lot of comfort. Especially on a long flight like this one.
I’ve never really enjoyed flying in the first place and always sorta worry every time that some little piece of space junk, the size of a golfball, is gonna tear through the cabin and start a massive decompression, sending the plane down with everybody inside. Not a pleasant way to go.
There are other downsides too. If you’re a cigarette smoker, making the trip from Newark to San Fran is even tougher.
There’s nothing worse than being trapped in a steel fuselage at thirty-thousand feet on the first leg of a cross-continental flight. You know right off the bat within the first few minutes after takeoff, that you’ve got another five-and-a-half hours till landing and another thirty minutes by the time you exit the terminal and make it through baggage claim, before you can light one again. That thought alone is enough to make you tense up and get you feeling claustrophobic inside the pressurized cabin of the plane.
But I figured the trip would be worth it. Plus pretty soon I’d be faced with that terrible business of being editor-in-chief of the college paper and have to face my own problems with the booze. I guess you could say, it was a good chance for me to sober up.
On the first couple days we wound up bumming around San Francisco, my brother and I especially. The two of us wandered around the city, checking out the last remaining cable-car lines–those lonely jangled railways running up and down old woebegone Powell Street, from Union Square all the way up the hill to Fisherman’s Wharf.
We even managed to stagger up a few of those impossible Frisco streets on foot and made it up to the crossroads of Haight-Ashbury, the birthplace of the whole hippie movement. In some ways it hasn’t changed much since the Summer of Love in ’67. You can still find the old pubs and head-shops, the cafes, pornographic theaters, maybe even a lingerie boutique, or a shop selling sex toys here and there.
Graffiti tags are tattooed all over the place and some of the storefronts even feature large intricate mural-work by the local artists. Psychedelic dragons wilder than any mythic monster born from fantasy and crazier than any hallucination aroused out of an acid trip. All kinds of weird beasts stripped of their flesh, exposing ivory teeth, nursery bones, and the ruby neon glow of those scaly internal organs.
Along Haight Street you can still find the same hippie-kids strung out on the sidewalk, you might have seen back in ’67. Whole groups of them huddled together on the corner with their acoustic guitars. Unkempt, bearded, smelling of weed, and blindly strumming the same three chords with their hats out, gathering up whatever loose change they could scrape up. These were the real hippies, the ragged drug-addled nowhere kids from all over America, who’d made the pilgrimage all those hopeful runaways had made before them nearly fifty years ago. The only difference was, the Summer of Love was over.
At some point we left all of San Francisco behind and piled in to that cramped econo-sized rental-car, barreling off to see whatever adventures lay next.
We even made a pass of the Golden Gate Bridge and crossed the bay to the other side to explore the Muir Woods and see those centuries-old sequoias–those great big redwood trees you see in postcards, that have been standing tall since the days when natives still roamed the land and before men had ever swung a ax against their backsides.
On the third day we wound up staying at this little bed and breakfast in the town of Pacific Grove. The Seven Gables Inn was this little yellow joint on the edge of Monterey Bay, about three hours south of San Fran, that faced the sea and sat in spitting distance of this long rocky peninsula called Lover’s Point, that stretched out all jagged and salty, a hundred yards or so out over the Pacific.
From the top of the Point you could get face to face with the seagulls and watch the waves roll in from the west and go crashing all white and foamy on the rocks like nautical champagne, uncorked from some unknown dregs in the sea.
At night the fishing boats would light up the bay and anchor down a mile off the coast to reel in the latest catch while all of Pacific Grove slept. In the quiet early-morning hours, I’d step out of our little yellow cottage with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other and sit down on the porch to watch em‘ dance in the harbor.
But it was on the fourth day that everything changed and we decided to visit Big Sur–that series of crazy majestic cliffs to the south, stretching out for miles down the coast along California’s Highway One. As it turns out, toward the end of his life, Jack had stayed on the Big Sur coastline, living in a little cabin-shack, owned by his buddy Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The success of On the Road and all the attention he was getting, had made Jack pretty jaded by the time the sixties rolled around. He was also beginning to drink ever more heavily. Ferlinghetti suggested Jack get away from the snoopers and the booze and go off to his cabin in Big Sur where everything would be quiet again. But the isolation only proved to drive the author mad, forcing him to leave the serenity of the woods and go back to the drink.
It was in 1962 that Jack published Big Sur, the book that chronicled his stay there and which proved to be one of his last great narrative novels. It wasn’t long after, that his lifetime of heavy drinking would finally catch up with him. Jack was on his deathbed seven years later from a hemorrhage brought on by Cirrhosis of the liver. He was 47. All the spontaneous energy and optimism that carried him through his youth was gone. Even that frenzied thrust of lightening that sprang him out on the road in the first place had finally sparked its last.
And now here I was on the Big Sur coast with my parents and my little brother, parked off to the side of Highway One, overlooking Bixby Canyon and the roar of the sea below. I swear, there ain’t no photograph around that’ll ever do it justice. You’ll see that long sky stretching out westward all the way to Hawaii and beyond. And hear the muzzle-flash of ocean waves, bluer and more vigorous than any little sputter-splash the Atlantic surf can muster on even the best of days at the Jersey Shore.
And you’ll see that jagged cluster of rocks rising hundreds of feet high, that make up the cliffs. A monument that glaciers–or maybe God himself formed a thousand years ago.
‘This is where Jack would have stood,’ I thought. ‘The very same place where the taxi cab would have let him off before he made the hike down the canyon to Ferlinghetti’s cabin.’
Part of me even toyed with the idea of venturing down the rockslide and trying to find that old dusty shack to see if anybody was there, or if it even still existed all these years later.
It was there standing on the edge that I got to thinking:
‘Jesus, Scott! Those guys at the newspaper are counting on you to be a leader to them and really take charge of this goddamn thing. And here you are getting drunk every night, stuck in this stupid awful habit. What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you shake it?’
It had all started the end of last semester. Brian Harris, the old editor-in-chief was graduating and almost ready to step down completely, when he asked me to take the reigns.
Suddenly the twenty-three-year-old white boy from Westfield was in the driver’s seat, about to take control of the most powerful instrument of communication on the campus. How did it happen? I never really pegged myself as much of a leader. Hell, I didn’t even see myself as being particularly ambitious. And yet here I was, two months away from the first deadline, practically scared shitless.
‘Ahh, don’t worry bout’ it ScottyBoy,’ I thought. ‘It’ll be fine, you’ll just quit later…’
But I didn’t trust the stupid thought for a second. It’s that same eerie voice that tells you to “jump,” when you’re standing on the roof of a tall building, or a high precipice, or even when you’re straddling the edge of Bixby Canyon. It’s only there to trip you up and confuse you and talk you into paralysis.
It was later that night after we made it back to our little yellow cottage at the Seven Gables Inn, that I began thinking of taking the night off and not drinking like I’d done every night since God knows when. But I caved anyway and went cruising down to the local 711 in Pacific Grove to buy a six-pack.
I always admired Jack and his work, but hated him for going the deep-end over his own misery and ultimately losing his battle with the booze. Part of that probably came from the fear that I’d end up the same way. A broken man as empty and lost as the shards from a broken whiskey bottle. Or maybe I’d end up going the way my grandfather went and suddenly collapsing in the bathroom one afternoon from a heart-attack, at the age of fifty-eight. Who knows?
I guess you could say I know what it’s like to walk in an alcoholic’s shoes. Every part of you wants to quit and yet you keep on going. You know it’s in your own best interest and the interest of everybody around you to stop, but that little insatiable voice keeps egging you on regardless.
‘One day I’ll shut him up for good,’ I thought. ‘By hook or by crook.’
After all, I had a whole newspaper staff to worry about. And not only that, but a whole campus to cover. Any honest effort to do that would probably be shot in the head if I kept on walking this awful road. I’d be a fool to let them down.
And somehow standing out there in the moonlight, I knew that I would stop. And that despite whatever fears or doubt I felt, everything would would turn out alright. Maybe it was the romantic or the optimist in me, at the moment I un-screwed the first beer.
“Here’s to you, Jack,” I said, whispering to the sea. “Guess we ain’t so different, huh?”