Jack Kerouac Lied to Me: My Experience of Being On the Road

by: Calhoun Kersten 

Note: This is the first part of a two-part piece. The second installment will be published next week.

In July of 1987, I was born. The youngest of four and the son of two doctors, I was raised in Wyoming, OH, an affluent suburb of Cincinnati. I was afflicted with what we call “Anywhere But Here” syndrome. As many products of the suburbs will tell you, it’s a very serious disease that doesn’t get the attention that it deserves. Symptoms include, but are not limited to: feelings of restlessness, an imagined superiority to your peers, a desire to travel and an unquenchable thirst for something more than what suburban life has to offer. With ABHS, no matter how big or small your town may be, the feelings of claustrophobia set in almost immediately. It was then that I began to plan my escape.

Being that I was only a child, my means of transportation were limited to the school bus or however far my Schwinn could take me. So, I began to search for solace in other places.

The first place I found it was at my local library. It was there that I made the acquaintance of the likes of Holden Caulfield and Jay Gatsby. Like Holden, I saw the world around me as full of phonies. Like Gatsby, I longed for the emerald light that lingered in the distance.
However, it wasn’t until high school that I met the man who changed my life forever, Dean Moriarty. I know everyone says that Jack Kerouac’s On the Road changed their life, but unfortunately, I can’t say the same. It made me want to change my life. What right did I have to complain about the stifling conformity of small town life when other people were traveling the winding roads of America and actually doing something with theirs?

I didn’t.

It was then and there that I decided that, no matter what, I would one day escape the Midwest and make my way towards the Pacific Ocean. Flash forward several years, I had made my way over to Chicago, slowly inching my way towards Manifest Destiny.

Time had not been kind to me. Six years in school and several failed relationships later, I began to question what ties I still had to the Midwest. The answer? None. So I began to plot my trip across the country.

After acquiring the necessities (a car to drive, a place to sleep, etc.) my carsick dog, Karl, and I began our travels. Now, before we got too far, it’s important to recognize what we’re dealing with here. While change has always been welcome in my life, it’s accompanied by some conflicting emotions. Of course, there was the sadness of saying goodbye to the friends that I love and the life that I had built for myself over the years, but it was more than that. There’s a sort of soul-crushing something that comes with packing up your entire existence and finding that it fits into a hatchback. For those of you wondering, yes, that includes all of my Boba Fett paraphernalia, every article of clothing I own, and the trinkets and tchotchkes I had collected over the years, which only served as reminders of the life I once led. The trade-off was that this came at the expense of any rear window visibility and a good deal of comfort as I jammed my seat forward to accommodate it all.

So, after unceremoniously saying our goodbyes, Karl and I crept out of the city of Chicago early on that Wednesday morning. Next stop? Tulsa.

For any of you that have made that tedious trek from Chicago to Tulsa, you’re already well aware of the horrors that I encountered on that highway. What I found was long stretches of nothingness, punctuated by the occasional cow or pro-life billboard. Nothing more and nothing less.

Occasionally, I would find myself stopping off to get gas or grab a bite to eat. These brief intervals were filled with pleasantries: insincere how are you doings and phony platitudes about some weather we’re havin’, huh? On the rare occasion that I would offer something genuine to the clerk who was ringing me up, my efforts at conversation were often met with blank stares which hid the thoughts of they don’t pay me enough to deal with this shit that undoubtedly danced around in the clerk’s head.

And so on my first day out into the world, I resigned myself to a journey of self-discovery. While Kerouac’s story was filled with meaningful exchanges and interesting characters, mine was full of nothing more than a cramped Honda Insight, a carsick dog, and enough alone time to drive even the most introverted man mad.

The hours crawled by as I rode the waves of the Midwestern landscape. As time wore on, I would find myself struggling to keep my eyes open as the very hills I was driving seemed to rock me to sleep. With no Dean Moriarty or Sal Paradise by my side, and none of the fervor for life or charming small-town experiences, it was then that I realized Jack Kerouac may have lied to me.

Calhoun Kersten was born and raised in upper-middle class, predominantly white suburbia (aka. Wyoming, Ohio. After escaping the shackles of privilege, he made the monumental decision to move to Chicago and go to art school. After getting his undergrad degree in Film and Video at Columbia College, he found himself overeducated and unemployed, leading to the decision to pursue his Masters in Media and Cinema Studies at DePaul University. He is currently finishing up his thesis on narrative elements and economic influence in long-running horror franchises, before moving to LA where he will probably be the most overqualified barback in the Los Angeles area.

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One response to “Jack Kerouac Lied to Me: My Experience of Being On the Road

  1. I, too, suffered from ABH. I know about it first hand having also grown up in Wyoming, Ohio. I even babysat for you and your siblings all the time when you were very young (you were SUCH a cute little boy). I enjoy your blog and am glad to know you are finding new adventures and a better-fitting life. Good for you. I escaped years ago and now happily live a very different existence in rural Vermont.
    Best wishes to you and the rest of the fam

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