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  • On the Road
    On the Road
    by Jack Kerouac
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    Blue Highways: A Journey into America
    by William Least Heat-Moon

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Entries in bus (19)


On the Road: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Click on Thumbnail for MapUnfolding the Map

Sal reaches the city at the conjunction of two rivers that combine to form a mighty third.  He's out of money.  To get home from here, he'll have go back to hitching and waiting for a friendly ride.  To see where we are, click on the map.

Book Quote

"...and I slept all the way to Pittsburgh. I was wearier than I'd been for years and years."

On the Road, Chapter 14

Downtown Pittsburgh in the 1940s as Jack Kerouac would have seen it

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Pittsburgh is one of those cities I've always wished I visited, but haven't.  Most people that I've met that are from Pittsburgh, or lived there for a while, really like it.  I think of it as one of those mid-sized northern cities, like Milwaukee where I once lived, that holds on to its blue-collar identity despite the demise of the blue-collar economy because that's what made it strong and put it on the map.

I remember when I was young, watching the Pittsburgh Steelers win Super Bowl after Super Bowl.  The television sports announcers would extoll the hard working, industrial image of the Steelers with monikers like their "Steel Curtain" defense, and I grew to hate them with a grudging respect for their accomplishments.  Of course, I knew the nickname attached to Pittsburgh, the "Steel City."  But I was more intrigued by the name of their former football stadium, Three Rivers Stadium.  I liked the image of three rivers coming together.  I had no idea what those rivers were, but growing up on the coast of California and spending a lot of my summers 20 miles inland, swimming in a river that ran through some property we owned, I felt an attachment to rivers. I liked walking up or down them, learning what new features could be found with every bend or curve.

I think of Sal, coming to the city defined and delineated by three rivers, which I have learned somewhere in my adult life are the Monongahela and the Allegheny which combine to form the Ohio.  As I wrote in a previous post about the Hudson, rivers are representative of pathways to new places or even for escape.  I think of Huck Finn rafting down the Mississippi, or Lewis and Clark using the Missouri River to make their way into unexplored territories.  Even escaping prisoners often make for rivers to follow in the hopes that tracks will be washed away and scent concealed.  I was always told, when hiking alone in the mountains as a youth out at our property at Irmulco, California, that if I got lost and I found a stream or streambed, follow it down and continue to work my way along the water until I found someone or something to get my bearings.  I put this advice to use once, and it worked perfectly, bringing me back to the railroad tracks that got me back to our property.

But rivers are also boundaries, borders, and barriers.  The Greek myths place the River Styx at the boundary to Hades, where the boatman Charon ferries souls across to the afterlife.  In history, before it was possible to build bridges across large rivers, they presented significant obstacles to the movement of peoples and armies.  Even in the age of bridges and ease of travel, rivers can wash out crossings, flood their banks and create difficulties in getting from place to place.  In going home to see my mom during the winter holidays, I often end up staying longer than I intended because the rivers flood and roads are closed until they recede.

Perhaps I'm making more out of Sal's Pittsburgh stop than need be.  After all, it's the farthest he could get on the bus with the money he had.  But it seems symbolic nonetheless.  If he truly is weary, the confluence of two large rivers to create an even mightier third symbolizes a new strength and vitality.  It is also a boundary, where his bus ride ends and where he now has to rely on his ability to persuade others to take him the rest of the way.  Rivers continue to flow to their end, time moves on, and Sal's journey will continue through time and space back to Paterson.

If you want to know more about Pittsburgh

Digging Pitt
I Heart PGH blog
Pittsburgh Bloggers
Pittsburgh City Paper (Alternative newsweekly
Pittsburgh Green Story: America's Three Rivers
Pittsburgh Point of View
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Newspaper)
Three Rivers Arts Festival
View from the Burghchair
Wikipedia: Pittsburgh

Next up:  Harrisburg, Pennsylvania


On the Road: Columbus, Ohio

Click on Thumbnail for MapUnfolding the Map

Sal and a situational girlfriend (i.e. bus traveling companion) make it to Columbus, where they part ways and he continues his journey back home.  While her path diverges into the unknown, we'll keep following Sal to the conclusion of his.  Click on the map to get your bearings.

Book Quote

"She was coming from Washington State, where she had spent the summer picking apples. Her home was on an upstate New York farm. She invited me to come there. We made a date to meet at a New York hotel anyway. She got off at Columbus, Ohio..."

On the Road, Chapter 14

 1940s or 50s aerial view of Columbus as it looked when Jack Kerouac came through

Columbus, Ohio

In 1995, my fiancee, who was studying journalism at Marquette University, went to Columbus for a summer for an internship at the Columbus Dispatch.  She spent her time copy editing, usually getting home late at night to her apartment in Columbus' German Village.  We were due to be married that September, but she wasn't getting back to Milwaukee until August, so a large share of the wedding responsibilities were going to fall to me.  As most women understand, men aren't usually known for their involvement in planning weddings, and for me it seemed like a daunting task.  I got her settled in the German Village, and after a weekend helping her get situated, I drove away feeling quite lost and lonely and aware of the responsibilities that I would have to shoulder.  I hoped I wouldn't screw them up.

A year before that, she had gone to Topeka, Kansas as a summer intern for the Topeka Capital-Journal.  It was her first internship, and really, her first summer away from me since we had started dating.  I wasn't feeling as lost or lonely at that time, but she certainly was.  She got settled in an apartment with someone she didn't know, and I spent a couple of nights with her before driving back.  She was very nervous, couldn't sleep, and actually made herself nauseated with worry over her internship and my leaving.  She cried when I headed back to Milwaukee in the small van we rented to take her bed and other things down to Kansas, but she soldiered on and had a successful summer.

I mention these partings simply because human contact in a time of change seems so very important.  The emotional support is often needed and wanted by people undergoing change or facing uncertainty.  I can think of other times when my wife and I parted, such as when I made a four week journey to Bangladesh as part of my Masters program, or when she went to India for five weeks as part of a Rotary International Group Study Exchange, or when I most recently in 2008 spent five weeks in El Salvador at a language school.  The support she gave me, and the encouragement, was invaluable, and especially before my foreign trips where I was very nervous about heading into the unknown of a developing country alone.

Yet I often wonder if I would have felt so much apprehension, loneliness and even regret if I hadn't had that support.  Would I have just plunged in, devil-may-care, because there was nobody holding my attention, nobody I had to worry about, nobody who would worry about me?  I wouldn't trade my wife's worry for me for anything because it makes me feel special and loved.  But, how would my attitude have been different were I unattached?

I ask because clearly, Jack writes Sal's character at times as that same damn-the-torpedoes type of adventurer who has no attachments or worries, who takes off at the drop of a hat when he feels like it.  But at other times, he shows Sal to be a man of attachments; a man who pursues Dean Moriarty all over America, who shows the very human emotions of regret and wistfulness as he leaves Terry, and who seeks out female companionship on a bus ride across America back home.  I suppose we all have these two aspects of character as we travel to new places and search the unknown.  Mark Twain once had Huck Finn state his desire to "light out for the territories," and I often have that urge to just get myself up, out and on to exploration.  But as I grow older, and my attachments deeper, I have a better sense of what I leave behind when I go, and that makes it harder.

If you want to know more about Columbus

the 270-a Columbus blog
CMH Gourmand
Columbus' Best Blog
Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau
Columbus Dispatch (Newspaper)
Columbus Foodie
The Other Paper
Wikipedia: Columbus
Wikipedia: German Village

Next up: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania


On the Road: Indianapolis, Indiana

Click on Thumbnail for MapUnfolding the Map

Back across the heartland goes Sal, making out as he makes his way to Indianapolis.  Click on the map to travel with him.

Book Quote

"The bus roared through Indiana cornfields that night; the moon illuminated the ghostly gathered husks; it was almost Halloween. I made the acquaintance of a girl and we necked all the way to Indianapolis. She was nearsighted. When we got off to eat I had to lead her by the hand to the lunch counter. She bought my meals; my sandwiches were all gone. In exchange I told her long stories."

LS Ayres Department Store lunch crowd in 1940s Indianapolis

Indianapolis, Indiana

I've never been one to take the straightest and quickest route to where I'm going unless I absolutely have to be someplace and I only have a certain amount of time to get there.  Nor do I like taking routes around cities, the loops that allow motorists to avoid the downtowns and their traffic just like one might take a circular path around a person one doesn't really wish to see at a party or gathering.  So, while on a road trip one day approaching Indianapolis from the east and faced with the choice of taking I-465, the loop around to the north of the city that eventually joins with I-65 on the northwest, and shaving a few minutes off my trip back to Milwaukee, or heading into downtown Indianapolis, I aimed my bumper straight toward the downtown and didn't look back.  After all, I'd never seen Indianapolis.

I find the interstates to be another manifestation of our "Bowling Alone" syndrome in the United States.  Where once motorists, pre-interstate system, had no choice but to brave the unknowns of a city or town because the road would take them right through the center of it, now we have interstates looping us around towns and cities and even when we go through, we zip past at 55-65 miles per hour and barely register what we see.  We miss all the businesses flashing their products and services and are unhindered by stoplights making us take a moment to see place and surroundings.  We might get into a traffic jam that slows us down, but then our glimpse of where we are is spoiled by our anger and frustration at not being able to get up to speed and get the hell out.  We never get the tenor of a place because we don't have to stop and eat at a local establishment or converse with local people.  If we do stop to dine, it is at fast food chains that look the same wherever we are along the highway.

Personally, as I'm driving toward a city, especially an unknown one, I have a thrill as I see the buildings rise higher on the horizon.  I think it might remind me of a favorite movie when I was a child, The Wizard of Oz, where in later scenes the Emerald City shone in the background, full of mystery, adventure and hope for Dorothy.  As I enter a city, it feels like I'm privy to something special, and the way I enter a city makes a big difference.  Entering by the interstate, I see the city in all of its finery.  The glittering buildings proudly stand with erect postures almost as if they have been coached in charm school.  If I look carefully, sometimes I can see that all the glitz is really makeup caked over blemishes, or false elegance on a faded beauty.  Entering by a back road, I often see a more intimate portrait of the city, sometimes one that perhaps the city doesn't really want me to see - the tattered hem or the ragged holes concealed behind the glittery curtain.  Either way, it is more interesting to me to see these aspects of a place than to avoid them altogether.

I sometimes wonder whether, in our country's increasing polarization, our avoidance of place and of each other degrades our sense of community and country.  I wonder if the interstates were torn down and the fast food chains went belly up, and we went back to a simpler age where once again our travels made us wander into the hearts of strange towns and cities, and we had to interact, however briefly with local people, if we might once again find our sense of national community and solidarity?  Whenever I approach Indianapolis, or any other city for that matter, I will always try my best to take the road through, not around, and I will even try to stop awhile, just as Sal gets off the bus and heads with his female acquaintance to the local lunch counter.  After writing all this, I almost feel like I owe it to my country.

If you want to know more about Indianapolis

Indianapolis Bloggers Ring
Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association
Indianapolis Star (Newspaper)
Indy Social Media
Nuvo Newsweekly
Star Neighbors
Wikipedia: Indianapolis

Next up:  Columbus, Ohio


On the Road: St. Louis, Missouri

Click on Thumbnail for MapUnfolding the Map

Sal hits the Gateway City, before the Gateway Arch was built, but for him the gateway points east.  Click on the map to see his progress.

Book Quote

"We arrived in St. Louis at noon. I took a walk down by the Mississippi River and watched the logs that came floating from Montana in the north-grand Odyssean logs of our continental dream. Old steamboats with their scrollwork more scrolled and withered by weathers sat in the mud inhabited by rats. Great clouds of afternoon overtopped the Mississippi Valley."

On the Road, Chapter 14

Littourati Intersection

Blue Highways: St. Louis, Missouri


Quiet downtown St. Louis street, 1940 (at Louis, Missouri

Once, while flying over St. Louis on a cloudless day, I looked down from my window seat and saw the Gateway Arch from about 30,000 feet.  Even from that height, it was clearly visible as a landmark at the edge of the Mississippi River.  I vowed to myself that I would see the Arch someday from ground level.

In spring of 1993, I got my chance.  I had to drive to St. Louis for business, and after 8 hours from Milwaukee I could see the Arch, it's magnificent metallic parabola beckoning travelers to pass through it to the wide open spaces of the West.  Unfortunately, you can't drive underneath its span, but the symbolism is very clear.

I don't know of any other landmark in any large cities where I've been that so captures a spirit of exploration and discovery.  Most landmarks are some form of large, upthrusting buildings that attempt to touch the clouds.  Even though the Arch is high, it doesn't point anywhere.  It's simplicity belies its amazing architectural and engineering accomplishment.  One's eye travels from base upward but is then led back down to its base again.  The sun's rays do not bounce off it in angles like they do off large skyscrapers, but instead seem to play around and glint in different directions.  And the Arch's unique design is visible from practically everywhere in the downtown, where it frames most buildings within its arc.

I took the opportunity to take the clunking little cars, themselves an engineering marvel, up to the top of the Arch.  There, in the little viewing area, I looked out across the country but, it wasn't the same as actually looking at the Arch itself from the ground.  From up there, it was like looking out of any other tall building, except that I knew that instead of 50 floors stacked below me, there was nothing but air underneath the thin skin of metal holding the arch in place.

And then, I was brought back to reality as I looked down toward the river and noticed my car, which I parked in a parking area that gently sloped to the water.  When I parked there, the river was some way away, but in the intervening time that I took in the museum below the arch, and then the trip up into the arch itself, the river had somehow risen and its waters were lapping at the passenger side wheels.  I got on the next car down, and by the time I got to the car, water was up to the passenger door and the car was slightly bobbing on the right side.  I barely got it out of there before it was claimed by the great Mississippi floods of 1993, which actually flooded the basement museum and closed the Arch.

Of course there was no Gateway Arch when Jack Kerouac came through St. Louis.  But even then, St. Louis has always been seen as a gateway to the West.  While much of its architecture and culture is influenced by the East Coast, it still has a Westward lean and was the last stop where travelers from the East Coast would find things that were still familiar.  From there, they traveled into alien and hostile lands.  The Arch, to me, is a fitting and elegant monument to this reputation as a portal to someplace different.  In their travel back from the West, Jack and Sal probably found that in St. Louis, they passed through the portal back into the familiar.

If you want to know more about St. Louis

Commonspace Blog
Explore St. Louis
Gateway Arch website
Pretty War STL
The Riverfront Times Blog
St. Louis Beacon (Online newspaper)
St, Louis Daily Photo
St. Louis Places to See
St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Newspaper)
STL A La Mode
Urban Review STL
Wikipedia: St. Louis

Next up: Indianapolis, Indiana


On the Road: Flagstaff, Arizona

Click on Thumbnail for MapUnfolding the Map

I'm back.  After a year and a half since the last post, I'm finally set about finishing this trip and making this blog a regular occurrence.  First, it's exciting to be on Squarespace where I can host my maps as well as the blog.  Second, I'm excited about what this blog will be.  Littourati is not supposed to be academic criticism.  The blog's subtitle is "Life, literature and maps."  That's what it is.  The life is mine; it is what the literature evokes in me.  It is my points of reference on my own inner map, revealed by the physical map that is referenced in the work I'm reading.  You are all free to add your own points of reference; in fact I encourage it.  It is my hope that the melding of all of our inner and geographical points of reference will enrich our understanding of the literature we read.  After all, what is literature unless we can connect and relate it to our experiences?

So, strap in for the bus ride back to Paterson, New Jersey, and to whatever literary works, points in our imagination and points on the map this blog takes us!  And if you haven't figured it out by now, click on the map to see where we've been and where we are.

Book Quote

"Then we swung north to the Arizona mountains, Flagstaff, clifftowns. I had a book with me I stole from a Hollywood stall, Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier, but I preferred reading the American landscape as we went along. Every bump, rise, and stretch in it mystified my longing."

On the Road, Chapter 14

Postcard of 1940s FlagstaffFlagstaff, Arizona

Flagstaff lies at the base of the San Francisco Peaks in Northern Arizona.  When I think of it, I think of it in an alpine setting, surrounded by mountain meadows in the midst of pine woods.  At least, that's how I remember Flagstaff on my four or so times visiting or passing through the area.

My first visit was when I met my wife in Sedona after a conference she was attending.  I drove past the outskirts of Flagstaff on I-40 and picked up my wife.  We wandered around the vortices and red rocks, and then camped in Slide Rock State Park in Oak Creek Canyon.  We visited Flagstaff, and then made a stop at some of the cliff dwellings that Jack speaks of in the quote at Walnut Canyon National Monument.  The other times I've been to Flagstaff, it has been mostly passing through.

Flagstaff is, I believe (but I don't know for sure), the highest point along I-40.  Route 66 traveled through here - the route that Jack's (and Sal's) bus probably traveled as it made it's way east.  To the north, past the mountains, lies the Grand Canyon and this juxtaposition of high points and deep chasms offers an interesting landscape of contrasts.  To the south, one descends toward Phoenix and its present air-conditioned, rip-away-the-desert life.  To the east, one marches along a plateau through Albuquerque until making a long, slow descent into Texas.  To the west, the road descends into California and eventually, the LA area.

Flagstaff is also a city of trains.  Sal does not mention the trains, but Flagstaff is a major railroad crossing point, with anywhere from 75-85 trains a day passing through.  When we got a motel room there, we made sure to stay away from the railroad tracks so that we could get some sleep.  I'm sure that when Jack passed through, the trains paralleling his bus had the assortment of down-and-outs hiding in boxcars, ready to jump off before they hit the Flagstaff railyards so they wouldn't get beaten and arrested by the railroad bulls.  I wonder if Jack ever rode the rails?  When I lived in Milwaukee in the 80s, I knew a modern day hobo, who would hop freight trains every so often to get to another place, and once I saw, standing on an overpass while a freight train passed underneath, a small group of people riding in an open car.  They waved up at me as they went past.

I see Flagstaff as a high point, where depending on one's perspective and direction, they can stop and take a look at the possible directions they can travel.  However, Sal's mind is set directly on East.  The book he mentions, but is not interested in, tells the story of a hopeless romantic at the crossroads of childhood and adulthood.  Perhaps Sal is at his own crossroads, passing from his previously romantic dream of the West, tarnished a little by his experiences and his lost love, and longing for that simpler worldview represented by the American landscape as his bus hurtles east, toward adult responsibility and the comfort of the familiar.

If you want to know more about Flagstaff

Arizona Daily Sun (Flagstaff newspaper)
City of Flagstaff
City of Flagstaff Blog
Flagstaff Convention and Visitors Bureau
Flagstaff Daily Photo Blog
Northern Arizona University
Wikipedia: Flagstaff

Next up: Dalhart, Texas