I ran out of money in Chicago.
I had a reserve of eighty-something bucks through PayPal1 that I set to transfer to my bank account, knowing it would take three days. I left Chicago on Wednesday, the fifth day of September. I spent the day driving through Illinois and Missouri on my way to Kansas City to visit my best friend.
I mention the date because it is significant to me and to this series of essays I’ve been writing about travel.
This was the 55th anniversary of the publication of On the Road by Jack Kerouac. I am unashamed to embrace my pretension on this point: I love On the Road. It was one of the three most formative reading experiences of my life.2 The books I’ve loved most have always been about travel, ever since I was a child.
On the Road, on the off chance you’ve never bothered to read it, is a semi-autobiographical story of a young man who craves newness, novelty. He craves meaning. Kerouac disguises himself in the character of Sal Paradise who makes the wild friendship of another young man, an artist and writer named Dean Moriarty (a thinly veiled version of Neal Cassady, a writer who died in Mexico after passing out drunk near train tracks... not with a bang but a whimper). They undertake an amphetamine-fueled trip cross-country and back. And back again.
The plot of On the Road isn’t what’s important- or really even all that interesting- about the book. On the Road is about a road trip in the same way that Moby Dick is a book about a whale. The plot is there to distract you from noticing that you’re learning about the way people act, the way people change.
I read On the Road in the summer between high school and college. I then spent the next few years3 thinking about leaving whatever thing I was doing and grabbing a crazy person to go on a long trip and take a lot of drugs.
I see myself in these characters. For good reasons and bad reasons, self-effacing and self-deprecating. I am much like the sharks that terrify me so. It would seem I need constant motion.
I commented recently to my dear friend Brad that travel is in all of my stories. I realized that the book I’m writing is a road story.4 I told Brad that when I think about it a lot of my songs are about travel. Brad wisely said, “That’s largely your personal narrative. You’re always moving somewhere.”
Brad’s right. He’s identified a pattern that I overlooked in my own life. I’m always coming from somewhere and on my way somewhere. The act of settling seems to be a burden to me.
Like Salvatore Paradise in On the Road, I am ever dissatisfied. And it isn’t mere restlessness. It is darker than that. When I arrive at whichever destination I discover that what I was looking for has moved on. My friends may still be there but they’re busy with lives that they’ve been building while I was away, burning through my options.
Before I left Chicago on Wednesday I cleaned the car of the empty water bottles and sunflower seed packages and other detritus attendant with a road trip. I was fortunate to discover a CD wedged beneath the driver’s seat. “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” by Kanye West was a happily received Christmas gift from my wife several years ago. I blasted that music from Springfield to the Mississippi River. One song in particular fascinated me on this drive. “Runaway” describes a man who loves deeply but self-sabotages routinely. The song seems to come from the perfect median between id and superego, without the mitigation of the pesky ego.5
1 I’m not really sure why it takes 3 days for PayPal to transfer money to my bank account. I guess this fancy online payment service has to use terrestrial couriers to bring the cash from their online accounts to my brick and mortar bank location. Oddly, when somebody buys music from me online the money comes out of their account IMMEDIATELY. Not so with getting that money to my account. PayPal frequently has fourteen American dollars that belong to me tied up in super-important high-risk investments, I have to assume. Do I complain to PayPal? No. They have been known to temporarily suspend the account of whiners. By simple fiat. They have the temperament of a petulant child. As do I. But they have the power in this relationship. Who else would I use? They have my money, so they win this contest. ↩
2 The other two are also stories of traveling. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig and Melville’s Moby Dick. ↩
3 By “the next few years” I simply mean “all of the years since”. ↩
4 This was unplanned. I had an idea for a story about a man and looking back over the almost finished story I see that each chapter has a different tale of traveling. Many things about this project have lined up by happy accident. It will make me seem so much smarter than I am. ↩
5 Wouldn’t it be awesome if Freud and Kanye were contemporaries?! Oh, the possibilities! ↩
6 Does not exist. ↩
7 SUPER tempted to try to make a case for some weird linear reincarnation thing right here. Clemens died in 1910, Kerouac was born in 1922. Kerouac died in 1969, West was born in ’77. Each created prolifically and each was embraced and rejected by their fans. Each created a persona to shield them from their own creative work. I love each of them. There’s a lot at work here. ↩