As an avid reader, a college graduate with a degree in literature, and someone who considers travel a part of the foundation of the life I am building for myself, I figured that it was time to read On the Road by Jack Kerouac.
Supposedly one of the great road trip novels of all time—with a genius perspective of what it means to set across the country on an adventure with no plan and little money—it seemed crazy that I had made it this long without reading it. In addition, the initial clutches of the dreadful, wet and dark days of the Chilean winter have begun. With only eight hours of sunlight daily, and with mould beginning to grow on the walls, my shoes and the windows of the cars, this seemed like the time to take another classic book off of my never-ending must-read list.
In general, I hated it. I was disheartened by Kerouac’s drunken meanders and backseat position to a road trip that is at the top of my bucket list. But whether others agree or disagree with my sentiments, I have already finished my degree in English and thrown my cap; I am not trying to start a debate or incite emotions with my opinions and I have moved on from writing literature analysis (or at least for now—once an English major always an English major at heart I’m pretty sure). The purpose of this article is not to pick apart Kerouac’s intentions or non-intentions, his choice of wording or the structural techniques. But there was one page, one idea of Kerouac’s that stuck with me, that turned around in my mind and challenged the thoughts that I have about my own personal travels.
In that moment I understood exactly the sentiment that Jack Kerouac was speaking of...who was this girl that I had become?
“...and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all,” Kerouac wrote from the latest motel room. “...when I didn’t know who I was—I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I’d never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger...”
As I read this, lying on a mattress on the floor of a room in a tiny house near the border between Argentina and Chile, the rain was not only pinging off of the roof but also dripping into the cracks around the windows and hissing off of the wood stove made out of an old rusted gas tank with the top sawed off and a homemade chimney attached.
The people in the next room were speaking the kind of fast-paced Spanish that they try to tone down when I’m around, and I could only understand words or fragments of the mumbles floating through the wall. In my stomach sat the heavy mass of tuna lasagna that we had for dinner—an idea that I found repulsive until I tried it and was forced to admit that it worked. Around me was a whole array of wet kayaking gear that was hanging more on principal than for function—it would probably still be wet when we headed to scout and run a nearby waterfall in the morning. And in that moment I understood exactly the sentiment that Jack Kerouac was speaking of...who was this girl that I had become?
One year ago I was in the United States, I had never been to South America and I was studying basic Italian. I lived with three girls, we had a large house with a central heating system and I easily paid my rent with my part-time bartending job. I was single, I had a decent savings account, and I didn’t even know what white-water kayaking was. Now here I am, living with two white-water kayakers in the bottom of the world, working on a volcano and no longer single.
Where I used to eat principally fruits, vegetables and fish, I have learned to exist on mostly bread and more bread since produce is hard to get in the winter in this small pueblo. I feel grateful to be able to afford a small gas tank for our camping stove and a hot shower, but with the discrepancy between salary and cost of living, the question of how to open a savings account has never become relevant.
Beyond the obvious, physical differences, there are mental changes that develop, shift and evolve on the road as well. These changes can be as simple as finding beauty in something that once seemed elementary and undeveloped. Not only adapting, but also appreciating customs that originally seem silly or irritating takes time and a shift in perspective. What might seem like suffering or sacrificing at the start someday becomes a content routine and another aspect of life. Interactions at all levels must adjust when they are conducted in another language. And with all of these transformations taking place, it is sometimes hard to remember or understand the traveller who originally set out, touched down and set foot.
As we drive, the yellow lines on the side of the road flash by, becoming one, long uniform streak that indicates a journey in progress; it is only when we pause that the traveler can see the individual hash marks and understand the openings and divergences. This is the idea that Jack Kerouac demonstrated to me—the out-of-body feeling that if we met our past selves we would no longer recognize each other. And that at any moment in time, a stop sign can surface, allowing us to realize that the person who started this journey is not the same one sitting at the intersection, ready to step on the gas again.Add this article to your reading list