Note: First published on Blogger on June 29, 2006
Unfolding the Map
Sal reaches Omaha by bus, and is ready to start thumbing again. You, dear Littourati, can click on the image for the updated map if you wish.
"Then Omaha, and, by God, the first cowboy I saw, walking along the bleak walls of the wholesale meat warehouses in a ten-gallon hat and Texas boots, looked like any beat character of the brickwall dawns of the East except for the getup. We got off the bus and walked clear up the hill, the long hill formed over the milleniums by the mighty Missouri, alongside of which Omaha is built, and got out to the country and stuck our thumbs out."
On the Road: Chapter 3
Omaha brings to mind an Indian, but not just any Indian. This Indian stared stoically in profile at the end of a television program that I watched every Sunday when I was growing up. The show was Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, and I used to be captivated by the exploits of Marlin Perkins and his trusty sidekick Jim. With Perkins' voice narrating, almost quavering on the edge of old age, he and Jim, or more usually Jim, would find some fearsome jungle critter, tag it, and send it on its way, usually not without some sort of drama. If there was any wrestling to be done, Jim usually tackled the creature, holding it down while the sedative was administered or the tag applied. I remember that it used to come on right before the Wonderful World of Disney, and I liked it better than the other animal show, the name of which I can't even remember.
Omaha also brings to mind Omaha Steaks, which my mother happens to supply us with every few months or so. I'll come home, and big styrofoam chest will be sitting on the porch, inside of which is the remnants of dry ice, and frozen steaks, or pork, or ham, or burgers, and sometimes even a chocolate cake.
I suppose in Sal's mind, Omaha is the beginning of the real West, which he announces by pointing out the first cowboy he sees. Here, a number of American icons come together -- the Missouri River which winds across almost the entire Western half of the country, Sal's cowboy, the beginning of the open plains, and the name itself from an American Indian tribe. However, at the middle of the 20th century, the myth of the old West is rapidly fading. Where once 50 years before Omaha was truly on the edge of the wilderness, if not smack dab in the middle of it, by the time Sal comes through it it is a small city. Later on, Sal will briefly describe some Indians he sees, and his description of the "beat" cowboy gives an indication that the polish has worn off of what was once a new, untamed frontier. To Kerouac, "beat" meant many things according to John Clellon Holmes, author of "The Philosophy of the Beat Generation." (1958) It could mean a world-weariness, but it could also mean an emptiness of the sort which made one tired of the conventions and ready for new experiences. Here, in describing the cowboy, I take it to mean that he meant the former, a worn-out cowboy, fifty years too late and out of his element in a town that once would have belonged to him and others like him, wandering the streets like an anachronism.
To Sal, however, the plains beckon, and in his own beatness, the plains are a metaphor. They are wide open and seemingly unending, where new possibilities and experiences lie just beyond the horizon. In that sense, maybe Omaha still did lie on the edge of a new frontier in 1947, less physical and more of the mind, but still tangible and realizable.
To learn more about Omaha and the Missouri River
Next Up: Grand Island, Nebraska