From Chapter 2:
Here’s how I imagined it: a loosely planned 5000-mile road trip, beginning in Chicago, heading to Denver, San Francisco, L.A., Santa Fe, back to Denver and then home to Chicago. And we would travel through some of the places and on the roads Kerouac wrote about. We wouldn’t necessarily use On the Roadlike a map, there was no plan to go to New York or Mexico, but I did hope to travel on part of Route 6, a main westward artery when Kerouac took to the road. I considered heading out on this trip by myself, something I believed might be more meaningful alone, but I also knew the emotional and even philosophical musings that sparked the idea were not unique. My friend Brad was just a few years younger than me, but very much in the same emotional place. Like me, he too had lost his dad. I had been through a change in careers – journalist to college professor. Brad had sold his restaurant business – a frozen custard shop – and was searching for a new direction. I recently had been divorced, so had Brad, and both of us were ready, especially at midlife, for a little self-discovery and the redemptive power of a road trip. And ironically, Brad lived in Denver, like Dean Moriarty.
But before taking to the highway, I wanted Brad to understand what this trip meant to me and how the spirit of a dead author and a more than 50-year old book helped fuel the idea. I told him about how the story had once inspired me. I told him about the old photograph I found, my uncertainties about how I was handling fatherhood, and how Kerouac seemed to me to be a good prescription for what I needed.
Brad, though, brought a completely different sensitivity.
“Jack, who?” he asked.
For Brad, this trip had little to do with the author and much to do with a middle-age adventure.
“Jack, Mac, Larry, Ed? Doesn’t matter to me. I’m in.”
Certainly the trip had deeper meaning for me, but in either case, On the Road was doing exactly what it had done to generations far younger – it was putting us behind the wheel.
In many ways this was a selfish endeavor. I was allowing myself, and now my friend, the time and space to make this three-week journey. Blocking out everything else in my life. Still, as a father of two teenage boys, I struggled with the thought of doing this without them. Giving up my time for theirs had always been part of the parental job description, so how could I take on what had the potential to be a memorable experience without sharing it with my sons? How could I not allow my younger son, 13-year old Graham, to experience the beauty of such a trip – the camaraderie, the bonding? And how could I not allow 15-year old Casey the chance to capture this journey through the lens of his camera? From the time he was six years old he was hooked on images, starting with 35mm disposable drug store brands and progressing to a high-end digital Canon and a high-definition Sony video camera. He thrived on telling visual stories. It was what he wanted to do with his life, and was already eyeing colleges with photography and film programs. How could a responsible father dismiss an opportunity to expose his sons to such an adventure?
Casey and Graham heard me talk about the details of the trip, about my purpose for taking on the challenge of it, and an itinerary based on the travels written about in Kerouac’s book. Although neither had heard much of anything about Kerouac, and neither was truly listening much to what they undoubtedly saw as Dad’s self-absorbed enthusiasm for this writer and his book, they were willing to consider how there could be some teenage fun in these travels. I wanted them to feel every inch of the book’s rebellious spirit, to understand that “Woodstock rises from its pages” as William S. Burroughs wrote, and to know how this book will forever resonate with road trips everywhere.
Still, there was one very important question, and Casey got straight to the point.
“What would we be driving?” he asked.
I wasn’t sure I wanted to tell him and the others what I had in mind. It was not exactly the romantic vision of the quintessential vehicle for a Kerouac inspired journey across the country.
I thought our best bet was to do it in a thirty-foot RV.
“Little lame, don’t you think, Dad?” Graham said. I had taken all three of my fellow travelers to the RV rental office and allowed them to get a close-up look at the big box of a vehicle, walk around it, look inside it, and sit in the driver seat. Graham would rather we motored the roads in a $200,000 Lamborghini. Reading Motor Trend magazine produced high standards.
If I wanted to be true to the Kerouac spirit we would have found a vintage Cadillac or planned for highway hitchhiking and hopping trains, but none of that was a realistic alternative. Considering the logistics of this kind of travel, the RV made sense to me even if it wasn’t quite like Jack.
“Graham, it’s not about what we are journeying in, “ I said, resorting to a cliché, hoping the simplicity of it would resonate with a young teenager. “It’s about the journey itself.”
All of my fellow travelers needed some level of convincing.
“The choice of vehicle doesn’t matter,” I told Brad, who had come to Chicago for a summer visit and a look at the RV. “The book is our vehicle.”
“I guess I have to read it now, huh?” Brad said, laughing.
“On the Road,” I told them all, “is as cool as a 1965 Mustang convertible, a Porsche Roadster, or a brand new Harley.”
Casey had his video camera with him and was pointing the lens inside and outside the RV. Although he didn’t say a word while panning and zooming, I was happy about what he was doing. I told myself, even in his silence, capturing the RV through his lens seemed a level of acceptance.
“Maybe it’s not very, Kerouacian,” I said to Casey, trying to justify the use of one of the tackiest vehicles ever designed for travel. “But it could be cool?”
I knew I was desperately reaching, attempting to find a word, a phrase, or a thought that I believed would convince Casey.
“Dad, sorry,” he said, hitting the pause button and pulling the camera down by his side. “This is a big tin can. It’s not cool.”
I rented one anyway.
After another half-hour looking over the RV, I signed all the documents, wrote a deposit check for $500, and made plans to return in less than a month to drive that big-ass vehicle off the gravel lot and onto a westward highway.
David Berner is an award-winning journalist, broadcaster, author, and teacher. He has more than forty years experience in broadcast journalism as a reporter, anchor, news director, and program director. He regularly contributes to the CBS Radio Network and has contributed to public radio stations around the country, including NPR’s Weekend edition.
David’s first book, ACCIDENTAL LESSONS (Strategic) was awarded the Royal Dragonfly Grand Prize for Literature. In 2011, David was awarded the position of Writer-in-Residence at the Jack Kerouac Project in Orlando, Florida and his memoir – ANY ROAD WILL TAKE YOU THERE: A Journey of Fathers and Sons (Dream of Thing Publishing) – is a product of the three-months spent at Kerouac’s former home. The book won the Chicago Writers Association “Book of the Year” award in 2013. In 2015, he was award the Writer-in-Residence honor by the Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park and his collection of essays, THERE’S A HAMSTER IN THE DASHBOARD (Dream of Things Publishing) was named a 2015 “Best Book” by the Chicago Book Review. He has also performed live literature at 2nd Story, Essay Fiesta, and Sunday Salon.