Note: First published on Blogger on July 11, 2006
Unfolding the Map
Here's the map -- crawling across Nebraska at the speed of Sal Paradise. Click on the image if you want to see where we are now!
"I waited in our personal godawful Shelton for a long, long time, several hours, and I kept thinking it was getting night; actually it was only early afternoon, but dark. Denver, Denver, how would I ever get to Denver? I was just about giving up and planning to sit over coffee when a fairly new car stopped, driven by a young guy. I ran like mad.
'Where are you going?'
Well, I can take you a hundred miles up the line.'
'Grand, grand, you saved my life.'
'I used to hitchike myself, that's why I always pick up a fellow.'
'I would too if I had a car.'
And so we talked, and he told me about his life, which wasn't very interesting, and I started to sleep some and woke up right outside the town of Gothenburg, where he let me off."
On the Road: Chapter 3
I just learned this, and Sal Paradise doesn't mention it, but Gothenburg, the town he gets left off at, lies very close to four major historic thoroughfares across the United States. The Oregon Trail passed very close to Gothenburg, about 4 miles south of the town. The Mormon Trail also passed very close, following the north bank of the Platte River which flows just north of Gothenburg. The Pony Express Route also ran through here, which though short lived thanks to rail service that began a few years later, opened up the possibility of a country that could be unified not only in words but in commerce and communication. Also, the Overland Trail Mail Route also ran along here, following the Oregon Trail until splitting off and heading south into Colorado.
I'm not sure if Jack Kerouac knew that these former pathways were in the area when he was writing (it's kind of hard to believe that he didn't considering that he most likely completed a similar journey himself), but whether he did or not it is another important symbolic representation of Sal's journey. Sal is following in the footsteps of thousands of others who left the East and made their way, for reasons documented and undocumented, to what they hoped would be better fortunes in the West. For Sal, the reasons are more nuanced than immediate - he is not planning as far as he knows to settle in the West and make his living. But he is looking for something that will similarly bring him better fortune, and looking for people, specifically his friends, who are somewhat like himself and who had made their way West also. And as we'll see, after Shelton, where he seemed to be stuck physically and in other ways, Gothenburg becomes the opening stage for "the ride of his life," a quick burst across the plains toward his first major goal, Denver. Perhaps the confluence of all these thoroughfares, and the travelers who traversed them, reached across time and brushed Jack and his character Sal with their ghostly fingers.
If you want to know more about Gothenburg or the Oregon, Mormon and Pony Express Trails
Next up: North Platte, Nebraska