• Image about On The Road

No one has ever topped Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, a freewheeling travelogue that still inspires. By Zac Crain

Like most of Jack Kerouac’s other novels, On the Road, first published in 1957, is more or less autobiographical, a barely veiled account of his own adventures, ahem, on the road in America. While all of Kerouac’s other books are, at the very least, worthwhile, and some are even better than that (I’m partial to The Dharma Bums, even though it’s something of a retelling of On the Road with Buddhism thrown into the mix), On the Road is the one that’s always stuck to my bones since I first picked it up in college, over a decade ago. Of course, I’m not exactly in the minority with that opinion; being a fan of On the Road is like being a fan of water.

Why? Even though its prose is clearly a product of the time — Kerouac was a card-carrying member of the Beat Generation, so things like punctuation are in short supply — On the Road is one of the few travelogues that actually capture the freewheeling spirit of a road trip in every word, sentence, and paragraph, sweeping readers along in a rhythmic, breathless rush. Legend has it that Kerouac wrote the entire thing in a three-week-long marathon and on one ream of connected paper, and even if that is apocryphal, it certainly feels true. His words stream out in such a hurry they practically bump into one another.

But Kerouac’s words aren’t the only draw. The simple yet ambitious story — Sal Paradise (Kerouac’s stand-in) journeys back and forth across the country via car, bus, feet, and thumb, with his hoodlum hero, Dean Moriarty — is a window to a time when cross-country travel was still in its infancy. Like Cars, the 2006 Pixar film, On the Road harks back to a time when the highways and byways of this country still held a sense of romance and adventure — and, yes, I know very well how strange it is to compare On the Road to an animated kiddie flick starring Owen Wilson, but it’s true, just the same. In On the Road’s world, every road map is a treasure map, and the streets of America are littered with endless possibilities instead of beer cans and discarded Happy Meals.

In a way, it’s like a long conversation with that one friend everyone seems to have who’s more than a little irresponsible, who bounces from job to job and tends to always have a shaky living arrangement — and yet you feel yourself envying him for all of it. I’m referring to the kind of guy who calls you out of the blue — and probably in the middle of the night — after a six-month absence, wanting to meet for a cup of coffee. When you finally sit down with him, he has countless stories about his escapades in the interim, but they’re all just part of one really long story. You can’t get a word in edgewise and don’t even really want to. You just hang back, mouth agape, and when you finally pay the check and split, you feel like you’ve been wasting your life. That’s what reading On the Road is like. While maybe you don’t want to experience everything included between the covers, you sort of wish you were the kind of person who might experience that type of thing.

The thing is, you could be that kind of person, and you could experience that sort of thing. The landscape of America has changed, surely, but you can still conjure up a bit of that rebellious spirit if you try (though I wouldn’t recommend picking up hitchhikers). I found it when my wife and I went by aliases gleaned from signs we passed on the road during a barnstorming tour of the Southeast, and again when, covered in red dust from the Grand Canyon, we checked in to a fancy L.A. hotel. When you read On the Road, again or for the first time, you’ll definitely want to try to find it too.