How to Road Trip Like Kerouac (and Stay Out of Trouble)
How To: If you want to hit the road like Jack Kerouac and live to tell about it, you'll want to choose your inspiration from "On the Road" carefully. Jim Benning offers tips.
09.06.07 | 3:07 PM ET
The situation: You’ve had enough of cubicle life, or your tiny hometown, or the claustrophobia of the big city. You’ve read “On the Road,” dug the spirit of it, the restless quality of Sal and Dean’s adventures. You resolve to hit the road, and take inspiration from the novel and its author. But you don’t want to drive into a ditch, or risk getting thrown in the slammer, or worse.
Do: Proclaim your wanderlust in the boldest terms. Try on Dean’s attitude: “I just wanta ride, man! I gotta go!”
Don’t: Be forced to ride just because you once stole 500 cars, as Dean confesses, and you’re afraid you’ll be busted if you don’t skip town. Go for the sake of going.
Score some proper wheels: That’s a must.
Do: Deliver a car cross-country for its owner. That’s how Sal and Dean wound up in a sweet ‘47 Cadillac limousine for their road trip from Denver to Chicago.
Don’t: Deliver the Caddy to its owner in such a state, as they do, as to render it unrecognizable. You’ll never get the keys to such a car again.
Stock up on food: You’ll work up an appetite on the road. Pick up a loaf of bread and some cheese from a mom-and-pop grocery store to sustain yourself.
Do: Pay for the bread and cheese.
Don’t: Steal it, slipping out the door, as Sal does, while the owners look the other way. These days, thanks to closed-circuit TV cameras, his sorry mug would wind up on the local 10 p.m. news.
Make tracks: One you’re in the car, gun it, putting some serious miles between you and your point of departure.
Do: Maintain control of your vehicle.
Don’t: Drive so fast, as Dean does, that you break the speedometer, then miss a turn and wind up careening into a ditch in the middle of a wild prairie, crushing the fender, and losing two hours of perfectly good travel time as your pal hikes to a farmhouse to convince the farmer to pull you out of the ditch with his tractor—even if the farmer does have a fantastically beautiful daughter with the “modesty and quickness of a wild antelope.”
Stop and smell the roses:
Do: Order everyone out of the car to savor a particularly picturesque view. Try something not unlike Dean’s rhapsodic command by the mighty Mississippi River: “Now we must all get out and dig the river and the people and smell the world.” If you’re in fact gazing at the Mississippi, note the “great brown father of waters rolling down from mid-America like the torrent of broken souls.”
Don’t: Jump out of the car stark naked, as Dean does when he examines an Indian ruin in Texas. Sal and Marylou, who had just applied cold cream to themselves for kicks, had it right when they put on overcoats.
When you arrive at your final destination: Reserve some energy so you can enjoy the place.
Do: Gulp some coffee if you need a pick-me-up.
Don’t: As Marylou does in New Orleans, take “everything in the books”: “tea, goofballs, benny, liquor,” etc.
Heading home: Savor the last leg of the trip.
Do: Roar along the mad highway with your hair flying. And when you finally return, find yourself a good place to sit as the sun goes down and take in the view. Be sure to “sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge” across the country, “and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it.” Savor all that. Soak it in. Dig it. And while you’re at it, think of Dean Moriarty. And Sal Paradise. And think of good old Jack Kerouac, too.