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    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 Paterson (3)


Blue Highways: Roosevelt, Whitcomb and Paterson, Washington

Unfolding the Map

We are riding and clenching our buttocks with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) as we hope to find a gas station somewhere along the Columbia River in Washington before we have to get out and walk.  Have you ever run out of gas, or almost run out of gas?  Feel free to leave a comment if you have.  If you want to see where all this butt-clenching is taking place, go to the map.

Book Quote

"On the highway again: at a cluster of closed buildings called Roosevelt, I noticed my gas was low.  The next town, according to the atlas, was Moonax five miles away.  Ten miles on, McCredie; fifteen, Alderdale; twenty, Whitcomb.  I drove unconcerned.  But Moonax was another Liberty Bond.  Same with McCredie.  Down went the needle.  I could see stations along the interstate a mile south across the bridgeless river.  No Alderdale.  I locked the speedometer needle on forty-five and my arms to the steering wheel.  A traveling salesman once told me that if you tense butt muscles tight enough, you can run on an empty tank for miles.  And that's what it was going to take.  Whitcomb was there, more or less, but the station was closed on Sundays.  Paterson, the last hope.  If it proved a ghost town, I was going to learn more about this deleted landscape on foot.  I drove, tensed top to bottom, waiting for the sickening silent glide.  Of the one hundred seventy-one thousand gas stations in the country, I needed one."

Blue Highways: Part 6, Chapter 10

Biofuel crops in Paterson, Washington. Photo at Washington State University's Biofuels Cropping Systems Research and Extension Project's site. Click on photo to go to site.

Roosevelt, Whitcomb and Paterson, Washington

We've all been in LHM's position, haven't we?  We're driving down a stretch of freeway, no exit in sight, and the needle on the gas gauge (or the digital graphic readout) is actually below the empty line.  We are tense, hoping that over the next small rise, or around the next corner, we will see our salvation in the form of a road sign that tells us that in one mile we'll find gas, food and lodging.  Or perhaps, peeking over the trees, a Conoco or Shell or Valero or some other gas station sign.

I used to drive on a lot of out-of-state trips on a job I had.  I would go from Wisconsin to New York, or perhaps down to the DC area, or to Philadelphia.  And I must admit that I was not one who was very risky when it came to gas.  If I noticed the needle down to, oh, lets say an eighth of a tank I would find the next gas station and fill up.  However, when you're driving roads you don't know, the problem is one of making the right choice mixed with a little bit of luck.  At the time I was traveling, in the early 90s, the internet was in its infancy.  Cell phones were huge contraptions with big antennae that only wealthy people or government workers in security agencies used.  Atlases and road maps were all we had to inform us of what was ahead on the road.  If it was on the map, then it should be there.

But if you're LHM, or me at that time, you liked to take drives along the blue highways instead of the interstate.  And that meant taking some risks.  Because, like LHM, you might find that the map was wrong and a listed town was actually not much or worse yet, it folded up some years before leaving behind a collection of morose, empty and rotting buildings.  Because I wasn't much of a risk taker, I would actually fill the tank more often during these times, so I wouldn't find myself out of gas on a lonely stretch of road where I might have to wait.  In winter, this was even more imperative.  The last thing I wanted to do was freeze to death in my car.

But despite my planning, I too had a few sphincter-tightening moments where I wondered if I'd make it.  It usually involved being on a blue highway, and it usually occurred in a very rural, if not forested, area where there were few settlements, and often on a Sunday.  I can remember, butt clenching rhythmically as I drove past small town after small town where either there was no gas station or the station was closed.  I would longingly look at the pump and wonder if I could shake out a few drops from the bend in the hose that would get me perhaps a few feet farther down the road.  I'd then hope for the best and drive for the next town.  If I saw a sign for an interstate, I would head down that way because chances were better that a gas station might be at the junction and, because people traveled interstates on all days, might actually be open, Sundays be damned.  I can remember at least two below-the-empty-line moments where I was sure I would experience, as LHM puts it, "the sickening silent glide."  But it never happened.

In the pantheon of risk and reward, riding on empty is probably not as high up the chart as, let's say, summitting Everest or surfing a monster Hawaiian wave or hang-gliding or jumping out of an airplane or even heading out to hike in the woods on a day that looks like it might become vaguely threatening.  And today the level of connectivity we have has made it even less risky.  Looking for gas?  You probably have an application on your sleek new Android phone or your handy new IPhone that will tell you where all the open gas stations in a fifty mile radius lie and direct you by synthetic voice along the shortest path to the place.  It'll even tell you the price and may, because you used it, get you a discount in the convenience store on your favorite bag of chips.  Out of gas?  Just call your auto club of choice on your cell, or I just found out, if you are out of cell range you can buy a device that allows you to turn your cell phone into a satellite phone and it will use your GPS to guide your would-be rescuer to you.

But where's the fun in that?  Where's the sense of adventure and thrill, when you drive into a gas station on the last remaining fumes of your previous 87 octane purchase, that you beat the odds once more and lived through something slightly dangerous?  Something that might have made you get out of the car and depend on the kindness of strangers to get you to a gas station where you could purchase a gallon in a plastic jug and then find a ride back to your car so that you could get a few more miles back to the gas station.

I was always a lukewarm watcher of Seinfeld, because I had a love-hate for the characters who seemed to me to be spoiled and whiny even as I thought the plots were clever.  If you'll remember, each show usually had 3-4 story arcs going through them that all tied back together at the end.  In one story line in an episode, the character of Kramer is test driving a car with a dealer representative, and the car is on empty.  (to see the clips from this episode relating to this story arc, click here.)  They choose to see just how far they can go, if they can push the needle farther below empty than anyone ever has.  At one point, the salesman says that the experience has expanded his horizon more than anything and has given him a heightened sense of what's possible.  After all, we are at our best in our work, thinking and problem solving when there's a little risk involved.

Musical Interlude

I can't think about this topic without Jackson Browne coming to mind.  Browne's music was a staple during my junior high, high school and college years.  This is a nice live acoustic version of his song Running on Empty, though in the video the sound appears to be slightly off from his performance.  Still, it's a great song and would have been relatively new when LHM was driving around the U.S.  I bet he probably heard it on the radio in Ghost Dancing while he traveled.

If you want to know more about Roosevelt, Whitcomb and Paterson

Columbia Crest Winery (in Paterson)
The Columbia River: Paterson Ferry
The Columbia River: Roosevelt
The Columbia River: Whitcomb Island and Whitcomb
Wikipedia: Paterson
Wikipedia: Roosevelt

Next up: Umatilla, Oregon


On the Road: Paterson, New Jersey (end of trip)

Click on Thumbnail for MapUnfolding the Map

Wow!  It's taken us four years to travel along with Sal Paradise across the country and back.  Along the way, we've seen a lot of interesting things and done a lot of introspection about life, both in the 1940s and all the way to today.  This is the last post in this particular string of literary wandering, but upcoming are more trips for you, and eventually, we'll also come back to Jack Kerouac.  So take a look at the map.  Also, be sure to check out the Google Earth kmz tour that has now been uploaded.  Click here, or click on the link to the left under "Maps."

Book Quote

"I had to panhandle two bits for the bus. I finally hit a Greek minister who was standing around the corner. He gave me the quarter with a nervous lookaway. I rushed immediately to the bus.

"When I got home I ate everything in the icebox. My aunt got up and looked at me. 'Poor little Salvatore,' she said in Italian. 'You're thin, you're thin. Where have you been all this time?' I had on two shirts and two sweaters; my canvas bag had torn cottonfield pants and the tattered remnants of my huarache shoes in it. My aunt and I decided to buy a new electric refrigerator with the money I had sent her from California; it was to be the first one in the family. She went to bed, and late at night I couldn't sleep and just smoked in bed. My half-finished manuscript was on the desk. It was October, home, and work again. The first cold winds rattled the windowpane, and I had made it just in time."

On the Road book cover

Back in Paterson, New Jersey

Coming home after being away is always an adjustment, at least to me.  At the time of this writing, I am 46 years old, but going home is always fraught with peril.  I fit very easily into my old family functions, and dysfunctions, and even after 25+ years out of my mom's house, I sometimes find that it is difficult for me to don those roles again.  Why does my mom treat me like the teenager she used to when I visit the kitchen, hovering over everything I do there?  Why is it we talk so easily over the phone, but when I get home getting her to talk to me about something serious is like pulling teeth?  My wife comments on the weird relationship I have with my mother.  Over the past three years, my sister has been living with my mom, and now those two have come to some sort living arrangement that makes interlopers like my wife and I even more uneasy sometimes because of unknown boundaries and rules that they've worked out for themselves.

I don't want to give the impression that I don't feel welcome at my house.  I do.  But I also keenly aware that "my" house, where I grew up, isn't my house anymore.  So even though I'm at home, I'm not really at home.

I compare and contrast this with Sal's experience.  He comes home, and his aunt welcomes him with words of concern.  She also talks as if he hasn't been gone for months, but has been gone for a day and has maybe gotten himself into some trouble.  I'm sure Sal, after traveling for days with little money and wondering if he is going to get home, is happy for some loving care.  I think, however, that it will be difficult to answer his aunt.  Sal's world has expanded so exponentially that there is no way that he's going to be able to adequately convey his experiences to this kindly, uncomplicated woman who is worried about how skinny he looks.

My experience with my mom is similar.  I find that there are "safe" topics that I can discuss with her.  The weather.  The doings of our neighbors.  The animals.  What my sisters and extended family members have been up to.  She usually picks out whether I feel down and tells me platitudes that she's built up over the years:  "You have to stop and smell the roses," or "It's time to pick yourself up and dust yourself off and put your best foot forward."  But my mom has a high school education and does not understand a lot of my reality since I left home.  I can give her generalities about the difficulties of being a PhD looking for a job, or what life in Albuquerque is like, or discuss vaguely the things that I find interesting, but I can't fully connect with her on these things.  It creates a bit of a gulf between us.  My wife, on the other hand, has a very accomplished family.  Her father and one sister is a PhD, her brother is in information technology in health care, another sister is an MBA, lawyer and CFO, and another sister is a highly accomplished artist.  Her mother is also very accomplished as well.  My wife can bring up anything with them and have good discussions with them on practically any topic.  I would like to have this kind of relationship with my mom, but my overeducation precludes it, though I value what my mom gives me as she is.

So Sal is now back home, his life stretching before him, a manuscript of a book waiting for his attention, and a kindly aunt taking care of him.  Before long, the itch to travel will overtake him again, and he will meet up with Dean Moriarty and once again make a cross-country trip.  It's hard to resist the lure of adventure and the road, especially when you have a devil-may-care friend.

I will close this string of reflections on the first trip of On the Road with my gratitude to everybody who has read from this blog.  There have been few comments but many visitors, and I hope it has been enjoyable for you.  I will start on a new book and a new set of reflections shortly.  I will probably also come back to Kerouac sometime in the future, because he made three trips that are chronicled in On the Road, and I've only mapped out the first one.  So look for more Kerouac eventually.  Comments are welcome, if you wish to make any, about anything you see in this blog.

If you want to know more about On the Road or Jack Kerouac

30 Writing Tips by Jack Kerouac
Haiku by Jack Kerouac
Kerouac Quotes
On the Road online
On the Road Symbolism, Imagery and Allegory
Penguin Reading Guides: On the Road
Youtube: Kerouac interviewed by Fernanda Pivano
Youtube: Kerouac interviewed on the Steve Allen Show
Wikiquote: On the Road quotes

Next up: Wherever another book takes us


On the Road: Paterson, New Jersey

Click the Thumbnail to go to Map

Note:  Originally posted on Blogger on May 22, 2006

Unfolding the Map

At right is a screenshot of the the first point on the Google Map of Sal Paradise's first journey to California in Jack Kerouac's On the Road. You may click on the image to be taken to the actual Map. The map will not look the same as the screenshot because it changes as points are added.

I chose On the Road as the first book to "journey" partly because it was what I was reading when the idea for this blog came to me. On the Road is a novel about a man's journey, not only across space but also within himself. Sal Paradise, the protagonist, represents Kerouac at a time when his life is still uncertain before him and he wants to fill it with excitement, adventure, and understanding about himself and the wider America he lives in. The book careens from place to place, with Sal following his friend Dean Moriarty and barely stopping but always looking ahead to the end point, like San Francisco, or back to New York. However, he travels through interesting places along the way, runs across interesting characters, and offers a snapshot of America in the late 1940s. This was a time of developing possibilities, changing styles and the flowering of the next great period of jazz. Some places Sal stops, either by necessity or curiousity. Others he simply mentions as he blazes on by in a bus, or while hitchhiking in a truck or car. Each of these places will be mapped and reflected on in turn as he makes his virtual journey across the blog. For more information on Kerouac or On the Road, visit the following links:

Jack Kerouac Wikipedia entry
Jack Kerouac Beat Museum Entry
Dharma Beat
National Public Radio story on On the Road
On the Road Wikipedia entry
Youtube: Jack Kerouac reads from On the Road

Book Quote

"In the month of July 1947,having saved about fifty dollars from old veteran benefits, I was ready to go to the West Coast...My aunt was all in accord with my trip to the West; she said it would do me good, I'd been working so hard all winter and staying in too much; she even didn't complain when I told her I'd have to hitchhike some. All she wanted was for me to come back in one piece. So, leaving my big half-manuscript sitting on top of my desk, and folding back my comfortable home sheets for the last time one morning, I left with my canvas bag in which a few fundamental things were packed and took off for the Pacific Ocean with the fifty dollars in my pocket."

On the Road, Chapter 2

On the Road: Chapter 2, Paterson, New Jersey

At the beginning of On the Road, Sal is a struggling writer living with his aunt in Paterson and making regular trips to the nightlife in New York City with Dean Moriarty when he makes the decision, prompted by a letter from a friend in San Francisco, to travel west. He is also encouraged by the fact that a number of his friends, including Dean, are also traveling and he hopes to meet up with them on the road.

My personal experience of Paterson is limited. I have only been to Paterson once, and that was to meet a friend and colleague there for lunch as I was passing through. Other than that, I have little knowledge of the city. My remembrance was meeting for lunch at a little place there off the freeway. I was driving back to my home in Milwaukee after a trip back to the East Coast. What little I saw did not make much of an impression upon me.

However, like Sal, I too have faced the wide open landscape of my life and, as Mark Twain wrote, "lit out for the territories." After my college graduation, the enormity of the challenge of finding a job with an English major led me to make what then seemed like a rash choice. I joined a volunteer organization, the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, and moved from California to Milwaukee to start what proved to be two years of living and working in one of the most challenging inner-city environments in the nation. However, part of the allure was to go somewhere new, and see something that I'd never seen before. I too wanted to discover something of America beyond my California experience, just as Sal was interested in new experiences. I didn't exactly leave with $50 in my pocket, but I went into a life of voluntary poverty, in a way, and dependence on a community of new friends in the volunteer program.

I remember well my leaving. I went to the San Francisco airport and boarded a United flight to Chicago. It was my first time on an airplane, and I was 22 years old! I was nervous about flying and what I would meet "out there." It was, up to that point, the most exciting time of my life.

If you are interested in learning more about Paterson

Do you have any comments, reflections, stories, or photos about Paterson, On the Road or Kerouac? Feel free to leave comments or suggestions. Until the next post, happy touring!