The Road Trip

Sitting on my desk is a beat-up, browned copy of the first paperback edition of On the Road, published in 1958 by Signet, “Complete and Unabridged,” culled from my parents’ bookshelf. The cover blurb gushes, “This is the bible of the ‘beat generation’—the explosive bestseller that tells all about today’s wild youth and their frenetic search for Experience and Sensation.” On the Road embodied the mythic hero’s journey, a quest that sent thousands of kids scurrying for the highway, in search of an ideal, a concept of freedom with nothing left to lose. Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty were icons worthy of emulation.  On the Road supplied a roadmap for a way of life and of thinking about life. For many, the map showed the way to San Francisco.

Ellis Amburn said,  “Intellectuals had been sneering at California for years. He saw what was out there, and drew people to appreciate it. A consciousness of ecology—everything of any importance has originated from California since Kerouac. Everything was jump-started in California. The Beats brought it from the East, but they left the East and really flourished once they were in California.”

One of the early birds on the golden road to the Golden Gate was Nick Gravenites, legendary Chicago musician, and songwriter for Janis Joplin and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.  He told me, “When Kerouac wrote On the Road, he inspired a lot of young people to get up off their asses and hit the road. A lot of suburban kids, a lot of college kids, a lot of disaffected or adventurous kids, they all went to San Francisco in ‘59. I was one of them. And the whole North Beach was loaded with young people in bars and coffee houses with all kinds of music: jazz, folk music. And the streets were so crowded you couldn’t walk on the sidewalk. To get from spot to spot you finally had to get out in the middle of the street and walk up and down the street.  That’s how many people were there, all of them looking for a party and good times and new people. So that’s why I came, and I became like a beatnik, wherein I carried my acoustic guitar around and played in coffee houses and traveled.”

You might not be anywhere near San Francisco or even the continent of North America to be going to San Francisco in your mind. In England, fifteen year-old Donovan “smoked, sketched, and talked of Jack Kerouac’s book On the Road, dreaming of Zen, of a Beat girl and some pot to smoke with her.” He said, “It was fascinating reading Kerouac and it did influence me and Gypsy Dave to hitchhike away.” Along with his best friend, Donovan slept in fields and on beaches, took odd jobs, played the guitar and felt fully identified as a beatnik. A U.S. newspaper would later describe him,  “. . . he has been through the Kerouac pilgrim phase, tramping around the English industrial countryside in denim.” When Donovan finally got to San Francisco, it was a homecoming. “San Francisco was obviously a power city. . . . San Francisco I consider a spiritual home because it sort of represents so many freedoms. Like the freedom of Paris at the turn of the last century, San Francisco represents the freedom of the twentieth century.”

However, it was not only California as a place but the going there—or just the going. On the Road created a ritual American road trip, both metaphoric and literal. Mythical wanderers of yore were not about roads. What did pavement and speed have to do with the journeys of Odysseus, Gilgamesh, the grail-seekers and various other wanderers? These ancient seekers plodded on foot or slumped weary on horseback along earthen paths, over rocky mountains and uncharted regions in search of enlightenment, an honest man, or an immortality-bestowing talisman, or simply the way back home. But On the Road inspired hundred-miles-per-hour pilgrimages to the Golden Gate, zooming wild and free in cars on the interstate highway system that Eisenhower had created in the 1950s. It spoke of the accelerated age that caused jazz drummer Max Roach to explain the bebop that informed Kerouac’s writing, “We kept reading about rockets and jets and radar, and you can’t play 4/4 music in times like that.”

To the mostly white, middle-class kids attempting to emulate On the Road, the glimpses of the America Kerouac described seemed more real, more authentic than the secure, sanitary environment in which they had grown up.  The road trip ritual did not involve stopping for the night at clean, predictable Holiday Inns. A big moving van full of furniture did not precede you to unload a pile of Colonial-style knotty pine furniture into a waiting split-level in the suburbs. That was not what life was really about. Kerouac wrote of an America populated by gritty characters, in which the soothsayers along the path were fellow Beats, hoboes, tramps, and other detritus of the American Dream.

A Kerouac-inspired road trip was a search for deep roots in one’s soul and into a piece of ground where one’s soul could be free that, paradoxically, could only be discovered by driving very far and very fast. Fifteen years after he wrote his archetypal road trip song, “Born to Run,” Bruce Springsteen mused about its underlying meaning.

“I guess when I wrote this song I thought I was writing about a guy and a girl that wanted to run and keep on running—never come back. And that was a nice, romantic idea. But I realized, that after I put all those people in all those cars, I was going to have to figure out someplace for them to go. And I realized that in the end, that individual freedom, when it’s not connected to some sort of community, or friends or the outside world ends up feeling pretty meaningless. So I guess that guy and that girl out there were looking for connection. . . .So this is a song about two people trying to find their way home.”

On other road trips your thumb might lounge on the wheel of a car. Or sometimes you sat in the back seat and your thumb strummed a guitar. The car might be borrowed, stolen or maybe, just maybe the Department of Motor Vehicles pink slip stating who owned the car had your name on it. Volkswagen beetles and vans were classy wheels that ran pretty well. They were great canvases for painting slogans, peace signs and multi-colored swirls. The most legendary of all Sixties vehicles painted with psychedelic imagery  had Neil Cassady at the wheel, and this time not with a pseudonym: Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters traveled across America in the bus christened Furthur (sometimes re-painted as Further) with Cassady zonked and flooring it and talking out of his head. On the road again.

“For a lot of us it started when we first read On the Road,” Kesey said of the trip. “That’s why it’s so beautiful that we have Cassady driving.”

Half of the mystique of the open road was the breakdowns, blow-outs, thrown rods and anything else a crappy car could possibly throw at you, leaving you stranded in some particularly colorful American version of heaven or hell. Such a search could also be had without a car, by sticking out your thumb and living chapter after chapter of your novel as you entered the universes of the characters who picked you up. Sometimes the driver might let you out at a good spot to catch the next ride, and sometimes you’d get stranded in the middle of the wilderness where you’d be lucky to see a car in an hour’s time and even luckier if it would stop. You’d sleep wherever, eat whatever. You’d meet other hitchhikers and swap road stories and tips. Dangers? You were young, immortal, indestructible. Cars did not crash. No one you met had bad intentions, and if they did, you could always find a way to squeak out of a bad scene and have a really great story—or song— to tell about it.

Janis Joplin is deeply connected with hitchhiking road trips to California, both in life and in song. She too drew inspiration from Kerouac. Ellis Amburn recalled to me, “On her first trip to the Coast, hitchhiking with Chet Helms, Chet told me that she put On the Road in her knapsack. It was one of the few things she was traveling with as they hitchhiked together.” She later immortalized the song, Me and Bobby McGee by Kris Kristofferson (on an album issued posthumously), about a hitchhiking trip that ended in California.

The second time Janis traveled from Texas to San Francisco was to audition for Big Brother and the Holding Company. Chet Helms asked Travis Rivers, a flame of Janis’s to go to Texas and bring her back to San Francisco.  As we sat in a restaurant in North Beach, Rivers spun out a great yarn of a classic mid-sixties road trip, falling in and out of exaggerated accents to mimic the various characters he and Janis encountered on the road.

“I was living in Big Sur,” he began.  “I found out that Margaret Mead had a house in Big Sur that she didn’t use any more. I sent a postcard to ‘Dr. Margaret Mead, Museum of Natural History, New York.’ And she answered me, and said yeah, I could rent it. About eight months later I hitchhiked up to San Francisco. I plodded around town to see if I couldn’t borrow a car. You could still borrow a car in those days. I finally found somebody with a 1953 two-door Bel Air coupe, beige and brown, I think, that was starting to get tickets off it that he let me use. I heard while I was looking for a car that Chet was auditioning singers for Big Brother.”

Rivers found Janis and insisted that she talk to her parents before going back to San Francisco. Whether or not she did and whether or not they agreed he isn’t certain, she was determined to hit the road with Rivers. I asked him about the legend that Janis said she came back with him because he was so good in bed.

“Janis and I were close friends. And we liked each other a lot. We talked about her personality and how difficult that could be.” Rivers quickly changed lanes to a different subject.

“It took us a long time to get back because we kept having flat tires. I didn’t have enough money to buy a new set of tires. I was always buying used tires. So we’d probably go a hundred miles or so and we would blow another one. We couldn’t afford motels. We slept in a bar, slept near the Rio Grande. We went on the old highway from Austin to Fredericksburg, the place that becomes Route 66 eventually. …We went to Powell’s parents’ place [singer-songwriter Powell St. John, who was later a member of Mother Earth] and picked up some tunes, including “Bye Bye Baby,” that Janis sang on Big Brother and the Holding Company’s debut album..

“So I was going up the eastern slope of the Sangre de Cristos and we had a blowout. And there was a teeny little ghost town down at the bottom. So I said, ‘I’ll bring the tire down to the city and I’ll be back.’ I jacked the car up, took the tire off and rolled it away. And when I got down there it wasn’t actually a gas station, just a gas pump. There was an old man out front….He said he thought that he could fix it. But he didn’t have any used tires.

And I said, ‘Really?’ And I said, ‘Well what do you think it’ll cost?’

And he said, “Oh, I don’t know. Three bucks.’

I said, ‘Cool. About the same price as a used car.’ I said. ‘Well look, well, let’s get crackin’.’

He said, ‘I have to go into Albuquerque.’

Albuquereque is like forty–fifty miles away. ‘So what are you going to charge me to install it?

‘Three bucks.’

I said, ‘You’re going to drive to Albuquerque and buy a boot and put it in here and charge me three bucks?’

He said, ‘Aw, well I’ve got to go to town anyway.’ And so I said, ‘Where shall I stay?’

He says, ‘Hell, boy, it’s a ghost town! Pick a building!’  So Janis and I stayed in the old hotel.”

“That was a good fix,” he said. We made it all the way to Tuscon on that one.” They eventually rolled into San Francisco, and the rest is history.

During the Sixties, The American road trip eventually became somewhat institutionalized, especially as the gap between straights and longhairs widened. Instead of searching for authenticity in wide-ranging, spontaneous experiences, a pilgrimage route formed, with vortices of safety where like-minded people could band together rather than taking chances on who might be harboring hostility towards hippies. In addition to enclaves in the big cities there were hip university towns such as Ann Arbor, Madison, Cambridge, Ithaca and Berkeley. A smattering of communes also became way stations, with travelers trading the names and locations of hospitable places much in the manner that hoboes used to scrawl code marks on the houses of people who might offer handouts. In 1973 when I spent a summer at home in Berkeley. To the dismay of my parents a bedraggled girl knocked on the door late one night. A friend’s friend of a friend had given her our address in a gas station in New Mexico. She thought she was turning on the kid to a Berkeley crash pad. My horrified mother, envisioning a flood of such supplicants but unable in good conscience to turn a young girl away in the wee hours, offered her a bed for the night. The equally mortified girl slipped away in the early morning.

When San Francisco Sixties rock bands first landed some out-of-town gigs or tried their luck in other cities, these were initially scattershot propositions with concerts that might or might not happen, transportation improvised from whatever wheels were cheap and available at the moment, cheap lousy food, cheap lousy crash pads and a plenty of high spirits. The Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service played games of cowboys and Indians on the tour they dubbed “The Quick and the Dead.”

Filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker found his way to On the Road and its main characters, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, by observing Bob Dylan and his friend, Bobby Neuwirth on tour. Pennebaker was filming Dylan’s concert tour for his film, Don’t Look Back. He had been commissioned to make a movie of On the Road and was puzzling about how to portray the Kerouac and Cassady characters.

He said, “I knew there had to be some way to translate Kerouac’s particular angst, his fidgety enthusiasm and love of things around him, people around him, into film terms. From watching Dylan’s absolute compulsion to somehow evolve from Kerouac I began to understand how to approach the film. Kerouac and Neal Cassady lived at a hundred-mile-an-hour clip; Dylan and Neuwirth enjoyed their own fantastic life-style, and in a way, their essences were intertwined.”

By the 1970s, fans of the Grateful Dead began making a ritual of following tours, creating a subculture of Deadheads who supported themselves selling goods in the concert venue parking lots. This enabled them to buy tickets to the shows and enough food and gas to get to the next concert, which was usually several hundred miles away. Deadheads teamed up to share the driving, gas and food as they roared down the freeway, covering the hundreds of miles between gigs in a night, emulating the long-distance speed hauls of Moriarty and Paradise.

Jerry Garcia characterized the phenomenon, “Well, if you want to have a nice little Jack Kerouac adventure, you can go on the road and see the Grateful Dead.”

For those following the Grateful Dead concert tours, Sal Paradise’s and Dean Moriarty’s spontaneous, free-form road trips had morphed into a tribal ritual, complete with a tight schedule and set itinerary.  Still, Deadheads enthused about the freedom, the gypsy life in which material goods didn’t take on the same importance as they did in the mainstream.  One parking lot seller explained, “The money was for living on the road.” The road trip was, as one Deadhead enthused, “to see new places and meet new people. To have no ties to a job or to a television or a phone. . .just to be free for a period and leave all that behind.” Another explained it as a spiritual phenomenon, “You lose any kind of materialism in your personality.”

Not all concert venues allowed parking lot bazaars, and getting around the security guards, often a group project with vendors signaling each other at the approach of a guard, added a frisson of flipping off the Establishment. Sociologists studied the Deadheads as an American subculture with its own food, clothing, unwritten laws, ethics and rituals.