Pilgrimage to City Lights

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June 25, 2016

A pilgrimage needs a destination—a place where, as one writer puts it, God dwells. Having left Maine at 3:00 this morning to get by a bus and two planes to San Francisco, I find myself in front of one of my destinations, City Lights book store, known since 1953 as alternative culture’s literary landmark. I’m here because City Lights was a home for the writers of the so-called Beat Generation: Allen Ginsberg, Gary Synder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and the god at whose feet I once worshipped, Jack Kerouac.

Many readers see the road trips in Kerouac’s autobiographical novel, On the Road, as a series of pilgrimages, whose destination is, as one critic writes, “a limitless pursuit of possibility.” Certainly in the early 1960s, as I left adolescence and began stumbling along that dark and mysterious road to adulthood, On the Road was a beacon proclaiming that I could achieve anything I desired. A senior in high school, I made up my mind to leave behind the old farts, dumb parents, and dim-witted classmates who lived in the small Maine town in which I’d grown up, and challenge conventional thinking, search out new vistas. That summer, I left Maine for the first time in my life to visit the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, and a year later, I found a summer job working on a hotshot crew out of McCall, Idaho, fighting conventionality as well as forest fires. When I returned to The University of Maine the following fall, I continued to pursue an inchoate image of myself as romantic hero—sitting in the back of the Bear’s Den in my black Frisco jeans, khaki shirt, and smokejumper boots, disdaining the guys in pinstripes and chinos, the girls in plaid skirts and white blouses, for being weak-spined conformists. I read Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, identifying with the protagonist who works in a forest fire lookout tower in the Cascade Mountains of Washington State where I’d been on a fire. I switched my major from forestry to English, and decided to become a Great Writer.

Of course, like so many others of my generation, I was just dabbling in the Beat life. I didn’t participate in sex orgies—seldom dated at all—didn’t have peyote or mescaline visions (I’ve never even smoked pot), wasn’t rolled through the streets of New York in a barrel. It didn’t take more than a couple of years for my dreams of tooling down the road less traveled to wither away in a desert of loneliness, and for me to buy some chinos and pin striped shirts, get married three days after graduating from college, and become a high school English teacher.

Some twenty years later, however, when that marriage had become sterile and I found myself suffocating in my own pseudo-academic self-image, I reread On the Road—lying awake at night remembering the joy of driving across the country at 2:00 a.m., the endless cups of coffee, the third pack of cigarettes that day, my eyes burning like headlights cutting through the darkness. I began to recognize a spiritual component to the time I’d followed Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty on the road: the highway stretched out straight and flat before me, my body tingling, free, filled with a combination of joy and longing.

And in some ways, I’ve come to City Lights to honor having extricated myself from that marriage and from that self-image, which I now think of as just one of my many false selves. I’m in California with the woman I never would have found if I hadn’t bucked conventionality, the woman with whom I have shared pilgrimages for the last thirty years. It’s our wedding anniversary and we’re celebrating by visiting San Francisco before heading north into redwood country.

Eyes itchy, stomach vaguely queasy from lack of sleep, I peruse the three shelves of books by and about Jack Kerouac, and decide, in homage, to buy a book I haven’t read, Big Sur. I take it to the checkout register, where a young woman with dyed black hair, pale skin heavily tattooed, and bright red lips, rings me up.

I give her my best Kerouac smirk.

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July 2, 2016

On the plane ride home, still trying to process the holiness of the redwoods, I read Big Sur, and notice facets of Kerouac I’d not noticed in my earlier lives. I see that what may have drawn me to him in ways that Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs and Gary Snyder never did is the lower middle class New England background he and I share, a strong, even dominating, mother, and our inability to let go of early religious upbringing. I am also introduced to a Kerouac I’d heard about, but ignored: Kerouac the alcoholic.

Written some years after the author’s best-known works, Big Sur follows “Jack Duluoz” and his descent into alcoholism after the unwanted fame of On the Road. Using a cabin in northern California (the property of the owner of City Lights book store), as the focal point, Kerouac details his alcohol delirium tremens, his insecurities, his transient joys, his deep sorrows.

Many of the scenes show him to be nasty, self-absorbed, and combative, with occasional bursts of spiritual insight.

I can identify.

The day after my eighteen-year-old daughter Laurie died of cancer, I turned the guest room where she used to stay when she visited into a den, in which I spent the next three of four months drinking myself into a stupor and writing nasty letters to my former pastor, Laurie’s doctor, and the superintendent of schools. I kept a journal in which I railed against the evils of our society, everything from athletes using steroids to my students taking drugs to women getting Botox treatments to men popping Viagra. I ignored my wife and her son, shortchanged my students, made biting remarks to my mother and family and old friends.

And yet, unlike Kerouac, who died in his mother’s house at forty-seven from a massive abdominal hemorrhage brought on by booze, I’m now seventy-three, relatively healthy, and sober. In part, I’m sure the reason is that just as I was never really a hipster, I was never a full-blown raging alcoholic like Kerouac (or even my grandfather, for that matter).

But as I look over across the aisle of the airplane at the woman who endured much of my inebriated nastiness, I know there’s more to my story. Phillip Cousineau writes, in The Art of the Pilgrimage, “The story that we bring back [from our pilgrimage]…is the gift of grace that was passed to us in the heart of the journey.” I don’t know any other way to explain why, in the aftermath of Laurie’s death, I decided to leave that den, why Mary Lee and I have stayed married for thirty years, how I continue to find joy in my life, except through grace.

I certainly haven’t earned it.

And it’s this recognition that I take back with me from California, as well as a continuing sense of gratitude for Jack Kerouac. From him, I learned that contempt for conventional thinking is both necessary and healthy, and that life needs to be lived with passion. Learned this twice, in fact. But his life also teaches me that nonconformity is healthy only if it is grounded in faith in a higher power and free from solipsism and self-delusion. I’m no expert on Kerouac, but I think those weaknesses comprise his tragedy.

They’re certainly what keep me going on these pilgrimages.


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