Thursday, January 7, 2010

We hit the road Kerouac style in the early 1960s

                A recent re-reading of Jack Kerouac’s classic American travel novel, “On the Road,”  has made me realize that we’ve lost the ability to hitchhike or drive across the continent and actually experience the country, rather than watch the countryside speed past us on a freeway, with stops at the same fast food places that are at every interstate exit.
                The irony is that freeways and the Internet have expanded our worlds, but at the same time have diminished our ability to experience it.
                When ever it’s practical, I get off the freeway and take the old state roads that wind past small mom and pop operations, and look at the skeletal remains of towns and businesses that once thrived on travelers who were “On the Road.”  My own travel blog, On the Road in Michigan is a homage to Kerouac and that time in the 40s and 50s when we could experience the country by traveling.
                My family’s first trips were from Detroit to Arkansas to visit family members, and I remember in the fall driving through cotton country and seeing African-Americans in wagons pulled by mules, taking the cotton to market. I also remember a fuss in a gas station when a black man tried to use the rest room. I didn’t have to read about racial intolerance, I experienced it.
                But even those were the bad old days, there was still a sense of excitement to travel, the was a sense of the unknown that we’ll never be able to recapture in these days of GPS coordinates in our vehicles, and apps on our phones that put every bit of road information at our finger tips.
                For some reason writers tend to portray the 50s and early 60s as a placid era when everybody was boringly compliant, dull and conservative. I think it’s based on the assumption that somehow the late 1960s were a more exciting time, with the Vietnam War going on, civil unrest in major cities and drugs rampant.  Take your pick. When would you rather be 10-years-old, 1958 or 1968? My pick is 1958.

                Kids were still free to roam. For Kerouac hitching a ride was a way to see the country, but for the kids in my Westside Detroit working class neighborhood in the 50s and 60s, it was a way to get around. Not everybody had a muscle car.  And it was acceptable.  My football coach advised us to wear our letter jackets because it was easier to get a ride if motorists thought you were a jock.
                On occasion, friends would go the Kerouac route and hitchhike to California, with a variety of consequences. Some made it out there, others ended up in jail along the way when money ran short, and petty larceny was the only way to get out of a small town in Iowa.
                My neighborhood wasn’t exactly made up of college bound, preppy kids portrayed in the TV show “My Three Sons” – it was pretty solidly blue collar, with a lot of auto workers.  For a while in the early 60s, the thing to do was drop out of school and join the Marine Corps, which you could do at the time.
                These 17-year-olds who returned home, many of them hitchhiking, in their uniforms looked pretty romantic to us, and they talked about what seemed to be faraway places like Parris Island or San Diego.  They were headed to places like Okinawa.  We hadn’t yet heard about Vietnam that was yet to come.
                They’re experiences opened up the world to us, and we were able to get a few places by hitchhiking.  One of my early hang outs was a pool hall about five miles from my house which I regularly hitched a ride to. It exposed me to a world of pool hustlers and other con men, when I was about 14 years old. In my small way, I could be part of Jack Kerouac’s world of shady pool hustlers, con men and guys who spent their afternoons at the race track.
                I once told my then teenage sons they should get out of the house and go hang around on a street corner, like I had done. Their answer ways that I was “old fashioned.”
                And what should I expect from a generation that grew up on video games and computers? Why bother to go see something, when we can look at it via Google Earth? There it is on our computer screen in living color, so why bother to take the trip?
                Kerouac still has the answer, to get the feel of the country.  In “On the Road,” he paints a broad mural of what America looked like in the late 1940s, with the beauty of the countryside and all the warts of big cities like New York or Los Angles.
                His descriptions of pool halls, bars, teen soda fountains and greasy spoons took me back to my teenage years in the 1960s when we hung around on street corners, and hitchhiked where we wanted to go.  We weren’t trapped in subdivisions, like kids are now; we had the city of Detroit at our disposal either via bus or our thumbs.  We were free to roam unlike middle class teens these days who are tethered to the parents via a cell phone or text messaging. 
I remember my parents asking me where I was going and my response was “out.” They’d then ask when I’d be home and my answer was “when I got there.”  These days I suspect that would be considered child abuse. But those days seemed much safer in retrospect, and it’s understandable that my parents didn’t have too many worries about letting me wander around the city.
Recently, I quizzed some folks about my age who grew up in my old neighborhood about hitchhiking and general street life.  One woman said she met her husband when he was hitching a ride, and another friend told me about the people he picked up. “One guy was wearing a fur coat in July. Another asked me what planet we were on.”   On another occasion, he picked up a woman, and the conversation turned to where they worked.  He told her about his job, and asked her where she worked. Her reply was: “I’m working right now.” She then asked to be dropped off on a street corner, where she went back to plying her trade.
It’s all pure Kerouac and kids now don’t know what they’re missing.

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