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« On the Road: Ogallala, Nebraska | Main | On the Road: Gothenburg, Nebraska »

On the Road: North Platte, Nebraska

Click on Thumbnail for MapNote:  Originally published on Blogger on July 11, 2006

Unfolding the Map

Almost through Nebraska, Littourati! Click on the image to see how far we've come!

Book Quote

"The greatest ride in my life was about to come up, a truck, with a flatboard at the back, with about six or seven boys sprawled out on it, and the drivers, two young blond farmers from Minnesota, were picking up every single soul they found on the road....'Whooee, here we go!' yelled a kid in a baseball cap, and they gunned up to seventy and passed everybody on the road....I was glad when the two Minnesota farmboys who owned the truck decided to stop in North Platte and eat...'Pisscall!' said one. 'Time to eat!' said the other. But they were the only ones in the party who had money to buy food....Montana Slim and the two high school boys wandered the streets with me till I found a whiskey store....Tall sullen men watched us go by from false-front buildings; the main street was lined with square box houses. There were immense vistas of the plains beyond every sad street. I felt something different in the air in North Platte, I didn't know what it was. In five minutes I did....'What in the hell is this?' I cried out to Slim. 'This is the beginning of the rangelands, boy. Hand me another drink.'"

On the Road, Chapter 4

North Platte, Nebraska

Once again, we are left with these little snippets of towns in On the Road that don't really correspond to the rich details that are available. Of course, simply passing through town, Jack Kerouac may have not picked up this information -- Sal certainly didn't. But the North Platte Canteen, as you can see below in the links, served up beverages and food to 6 million soldiers passing through by train during World War II, closing in 1946 (just a year before Sal travels through).

In Sal's mind, he is looking on "sad" streets filled with rows of box houses. In reality, from everything I read, this town was full of spirit, with up to 50,000 volunteers staffing the North Platte Canteen during the time it was open. Perhaps Sal is overwhelmed by the plains just beyond -- the rangelands, as Slim calls them -- and in his hurry to get to Denver does not get a true feel of the town. I don't know any of this other than that delving into the places he stops, I find a lot of things that Sal (and Jack) miss about the America that they profess to want to discover.

On the other hand, it is easy for me to be hard on Sal for not being me, for not responding to a place like I would. Sal's goal, to get to Denver, is within sight. He is passing time with a number of other "beat" characters on the back of a flatboard pickup driven by two slightly insane farm boys. After a ride like he describes, perhaps I too would get off and look for the nearest liquor store. And truth be told, with the North Platte Canteen having been shut for a year by 1947, North Platte may have gone through an economic and social slump -- 6 million visitors in 5 years tends to bring lots of economic activity. Once the soldiers were gone, there very well might have been little activity and lots of sullen men glaring from storefronts.

Be that as it may, I hope following Sal through these places yields a little bit more about the America that he discovered, and that he could have discovered. Hopefully, this will enrich our understanding about the book, and about the places mentioned in it.

If you are interested in learning more about North Platte

Bailey Yard: Largest Railroad Classification Yard in the World
City of North Platte

City Data: North Platte
North Platte Bulletin (Newspaper)
North Platte Canteen
North Platte Telegraph (Newspaper)
North Platte Convention and Visitors Bureau
Wikipedia: North Platte

Next up: Ogallala, Nebraska

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Reader Comments (1)

In the 1970's my brother & I rode freight trains from Oakland heading to get home in Boston. At every freight yard we went through the yard men warned us about the RR detective in North Platte. I had remembered Kerouac's lines describing the town in On the Road. We planned to jump off the train as it came in on the west end of the yard and pick up the next train out on the east side of the yard as we had done in our 3 prior stops. We fell asleep coming into the yard and were greeted by the RR Detective with his gun pointed at us. After declaring the "No one rides the Union Pacific for free" and giving us the option of jail or spending any money we had on tickets that would take us to Ames., Iowa. (we had some hidden money in a sock that he missed)

Covered with soot & grime from the box cars we got to wonder around the town for a few hours while we waited for the passenger train. We did eat in the Canteen and I think I remember a pool hall. My hair was down to my shoulders and similarly sooty and grimy so we are quite a site but treated with curiosity more than fear or distain.

When we got back on the Amtrak the conductor took one look at us and said, "Riding the freights, uh?" We all had a laugh and he checked out tickets through to NYC and we hitch hiked home from there in time to make some Labor Day parties on Cape Cod.

September 10, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTom Mcmackin

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