Note: Originally posted on Blogger on June 17, 2006
Unfolding the Map
In this post I offer reflections of motel stays and loss of self On the Road. As usual, click on the image to see the progress of Sal Paradise's journey across the country as we move place by place through the book.
"Now I wanted to sleep a whole day. So I went to the Y to get a room; they didn't have any, and by instinct I wandered down to the railroad tracks - and there're a lot of them in Des Moines - and wound up in a gloomy old Plains inn of a hotel by the locomotive roundhouse, and spent a long day sleeping on a big clean hard white bed with dirty remarks carved in the wall beside my pillow and the beat yellow windowshades pulled over the smoky scene of the railyards."
On the Road: Chapter 3
I don't really know much about Des Moines, other than that it is the state capitol of Iowa and that nearby Ames is the home of Iowa State University, but I like this passage because of how Sal describes his room. In my 20s, I did a lot of traveling by car, and I stayed in a lot of cheap motel rooms because I didn't have a lot of money for extra amenities. I can't say that I've ever stayed in someplace where filthy graffiti is written on the wall next to the bed, but you can see how for Jack Kerouac and perhaps Sal Paradise, that's a mark of distinction. Really, one doesn't care what the room looks like, if you're tired enough. As long as the bed is clean, you are doing fine.
One thing that always happened to me when I stayed in motel rooms is that I would always oversleep -- I would plan to leave the next day around 9 or 10, and I'd go to sleep. The next morning, I invariably would awake to the sound of the maid, and find that it was easily 12 or 1 o'clock and that they were wondering if I was dead or something. Part of the problem is that instead of the "beat yellow windowshades," most motels would have those heavy dark curtains that kept the room dark even on the brightest sunny days. When you combine that with the old air conditioning units and heaters which made a lot of noise, and the fact that I was really tired from driving about 14 hours, it was a perfect combination to keep me sleeping.
The other thing that Sal realizes, after he sleeps, is that he doesn't really know who he was. As he describes it:
"I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I'd never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and rally didn't know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn't scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost. I was halfway across America, at the dividing line between the East of my youth and the West of my future, and maybe that's why it happened right there and then, that strange red afternoon."
On the Road: Chapter 3
I think we've all had that experience where we don't know who we are. For me, it seems to be related with age. I wake up, and realize that I'm now 42. My 20s AND my 30s are behind me, and I'm still trying to figure out what I am supposed to be and do in this life. Sometimes I know who I am, whether it's flattering or not, and sometimes I don't. And unlike Sal, I can't say that I'm not scared sometimes.
Next stop: Adel, Iowa