The phrase "on the road" has several literal connotations. Jack Kerouac's novel, Willie Nelson's song. Beyond these familiar titles, the phrase has a place in the American consciousness. It signifies freedom, exploration, and discovery.
I read On the Road a few times in college for class assignments, and honestly (and perhaps, blasphemously to other millennials)- I didn't get much out of it. I was frustrated by the wild, rambling prose and put off by the debauchery, the antics.
As a sophomore at UVM, I took a class called "Individualism & Its Dangers." One of our assignments was to write a paper comparing and contrasting Kerouac's vision of "the good life," based on On the Road, with Thoreau's vision, based on Walden. They both believed in individualism and non-conformity, but their approaches to such a lifestyle were hardly in sync.
A few weeks ago, I was cleaning out and organizing old computer files. I found that essay and read it over. While I didn't care for either of those books at the time— perhaps it had something to do with Thoreau's obnoxious self-aggrandizement, the fact that he didn't really live as isolated as he claimed, or his obsession with cataloging every row of beans he planted at Walden and every dime he spent— parts of it stuck when reading it with fresh, twenty-five year old eyes. I started thinking about these well-known and well-worn works, considered to be two of the "Books That Shaped America" by the Library of Congress.
Kerouac championed a carefree, pleasure-filled existence, often through the twin pillars of drugs and sex. Kerouac's vision of "the good life" is external. It is achieved through adventure and constant movement from town to town, brothel to bar.
Thoreau pretty much lived in opposition to Kerouac's wild ways. Thoreau emphasized internal reflection, discipline, and purity. He urged people to abandon their daily cares and the frantic rituals of urban living, and instead, to seek stillness in nature. Where Thoreau extolled the virtues of moderation, Kerouac abhorred the middle-of-the-road approach.
Thoreau believed in creating an individual niche, in achieving total self-actualization through contemplation and soul-searching. Kerouac was more concerned with rebelling against the general mold of 1950s society and eschewing conformity through radical acts of pleasure-seeking.
After stumbling across that essay, I've been reevaluating these two works. I still think On the Road has problems, and I doubt I'll ever read Walden again (having read it five, yes, five full times, I think I've had enough of ole' Henry David Thoreau.) I'm nowhere near as extreme as Kerouac (I can appreciate a healthy dose of punctuation) and I think Walden is over-analyzed in high-school English classrooms.
But the themes in these books are ones that I return to again and again in my own life. What does it mean to live an individual, but not a selfish, life? How can we seek adventure without disregard for others, or the land we travel on?
All of this is a long-winded way of saying: I will be soon on the road myself. I'm packing my bags and heading west for the summer. I'm doing a two month (May & June) writing residency at Elsewhere Studios in Paonia, Colorado. After that, I hit the road on a National Parks loop.
Paonia is a tiny town in the western part of the state, in the North Fork Valley. It has a population of 1,400 and zero stoplights. It looks like the quintessential Colorado mountain town, with sweeping views and all the things you need in a small town- a pizza place, a bar, a trading post, a cafe, a movie theater, nearby state and national parks and forests... plus all the charm you can handle.
Soon, I will be on "Mountain Time," which feels appropriate. I'll be posting along the way about my experience, but I'll largely be off-internet.
I leave tomorrow with a one-way ticket. I fly to Denver, stay two nights, and then hop a train (the famed California Zephyr) to Glenwood Springs. Though Paonia is about an hour and a half away, it's the closest station, and I have to be picked up by someone from Elsewhere. There ain't no public transit in those parts. Time to ramble on...
What am I bringing?
- All the Wild That Remains- David Gessner- An examination of Wallace Stegner & Edward Abbey's approaches to conservation, environmentalism, and travel. Like Keroauc and Thoreau, these two famous writers couldn't be more different. Yet, both are canonical in the literature of the West.
- The Names- N. Scott Nomady- Autobiography/memoir by the Pulitzer Prize winning Native American author. It's about his childhood growing up in Oklahoma and the Southwest.
- Best American Science & Nature Writing 2015- I've read some of these yearly anthologies, mostly the Travel Writing ones. I thought I'd turn to the nature & science writing this time.
- In Southern Light: Trekking Through Zaire and the Amazon- Alex Shoumatoff- The title is pretty self explanatory. Shoumatoff is a famed adventurer and literary journalist.
- Crow Fair- Thomas McGuare- Short stories set in Montana, Big Sky country.
- Eureka Mill, and Waking- Ron Rash: two volumes of poetry by North Carolina poet Ron Rash. Rash is known as an "Appalachian" writer who brought this area of the country to broader recognition. He's also a winning novelist and short-story writer.
- Girl in a Band- Kim Gordon: this one is an outlier from the travel/outdoor/landscape theme, but I'm still jazzed to read it. The rise and fall of a rock and roll love story and the trajectory of one of the extraordinary bands of our time.
Paonia has a town library, so I'm hoping to pick up some things there as well, including Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey. Hoping to see Arches National Park and to consult Abbey's seminal work about his experience as a ranger at the park.
- hiking shoes
- cowboy boots (naturally)
- long & short athletic leggings
- athletic shorts
- trusty jean shorts
- long & short-sleeve athletic shirts
- a few regular shirts & tank tops
- a sundress (ya never know)
- flannel shirt (miss you, Vermont)
- denim shirt
- athletic fleece zip-up
- light sweater
- rain jacket
- pair o' jeans
- baseball hat
- sun hat (looking at you, pale skin)
- bathing suit
- short & mid-height wool socks
- large Osprey hiking backpack
- small REI daypack
- sleeping bag
- sleeping pad
- backpacking stove
- cookware & utensils
- headlamp & flashlight
- camelbak & water bottle
- travel toiletries
- first aid kit
- flask (never a dull, or dry, moment)
- 35 mm film camera & film
- Instax polaroid camera & film
- National Geographic road atlas
- deck o' cards
- the golden ticket- America the Beautiful pass
Finally, here's a playlist to get in the road trip mood. A little old school country, a little classic rock, some modern tracks, and a few tunes from my Vermont honky-tonk friends: Reverend Ben Donovan and the Congregation. The last song is even about Colorado...