Sep. 5, 2007


by Nancy Henry

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Poem: "Keys" by Nancy Henry, from Our Lady of Let's All Sing. © Sheltering Pines Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission.


When things got hard
I used to drive and keep on driving—
once to North Carolina
once to Arizona—
I'm through with all that now, I hope.
The last time was years ago.

But oh, how I would drive
and keep on driving!
The universe around me
all well in my control;
anything I wanted on the radio,
the air blasting hot or cold;
sobbing as loudly as I cared to sob,
screaming as loudly as I needed to scream.
I would live on apples and black coffee,
shower at truck stops,
sleep curled up
in the cozy back seat I loved.

The last time, I left at 3 a.m.
By New York state,
I stopped screaming;
by Tulsa
I stopped sobbing;
by the time I pulled into Flagstaff
I was thinking
about the Canyon,
I was so empty.
Thinking about the canyon
I was.

I sat on the rim at dawn,
let all the colors fill me.
It was cold. I saw my breath
like steam from a soup pot.
I saw small fossils in the gravel.
I saw how much world there was

how much darkness
could be swept out
by the sun.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1957 that Jack Kerouac's book On the Road was published. His inspiration for the book came 10 years earlier, when he decided to follow his friend Neal Cassady west across the country. Cassady was an ex-convict from Denver who had actually been born in a car, and who became a car thief when he was 14 years old. By the time Kerouac met him, Cassady had stolen more than 500 cars and had been arrested 10 times. Kerouac later wrote, "All my other current friends were intellectuals ... [but Cassady] was a wild yea-saying overburst of American Joy."

Kerouac was stuck in New York trying to finish a novel, while Cassady had headed back to Denver. They kept up a correspondence, and Kerouac began to fantasize about heading out on the open road to find his friend. He started reading histories of the great American migrations out West. He studied maps of the new highways that ran all the way from the East Coast to California. He was particularly attracted to Route 6, drawn in a red line on his map, which led from Cape Cod to Los Angeles. He made up his mind to follow it all the way to Denver. He scraped up enough money for the journey and set out in July of 1947.

Kerouac's journey did not start out well. He rode a trolley to the edge of Yonkers and then hoped to hitchhike the rest of the way across the country. But when he reached Route 6, at the border of Connecticut, he got caught in a rainstorm and there were no cars to pick him up. He finally gave up, made his way back to New York and used almost all his money to buy a bus ticket to Chicago.

Kerouac didn't start hitchhiking for real until he got outside of Chicago. He spent nights in YMCAs and broken-down hotels, and he ate almost nothing but apple pie and ice cream along the way. When he crossed the Mississippi River, he began to feel that he was really part of the American tradition of migration. In Omaha, he saw his first real cowboy, a man in boots and a 10-gallon hat. Riding through Nebraska, a rancher told him stories about the great Dust Bowl migration. He rode all the way from Nebraska to Wyoming on the back of a flatbed truck with a group of hobos.

He arrived in Cheyenne, Wyoming, at night and slept in a bus station. He later wrote, "I woke up with a big headache [and] I went outside. And there in the blue air I saw for the first time, far off, the great snowy tops of the Rocky Mountains." When he finally made it to Denver, he met up with Cassady and then went by himself to San Francisco, where he worked odd jobs for a while. He finally took a bus back to New York City in October, and he was so broke that he had to panhandle for bus fare to get to his mom's house in Ozone Park.

Kerouac knew he wanted to use the experience for a novel, but it took him a long time to get started. Finally, in April of 1951, he sat down at his kitchen table, wound a continuous roll of paper into a typewriter, tuned his radio to an all-night jazz station, and in 20 days wrote the first draft of his new novel. He changed Cassady's name to Dean Moriarity and his own name to Sal Paradise, and he told the basically true story of their adventures together. The result was his first successful novel, On the Road (1957).

Jack Kerouac wrote, "In America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it ... and nobody, nobody knows what's going to happen."

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