Sunday, August 7, 2011

Further Along On The Road

Road Trip 1978, copyright by Kevin Scanlon, all rights reserved

Road trips make great stories, summer the perfect setting. This summer brings back two famous journeys, one by Jack Kerouac and one by Ken Kesey, in new formats – a book app for On The Road, and the documentary “Magic Trip” using restored film footage of Kesey’s 1964 cross-country trip with the Merry Pranksters. The beat and hippie generations, two eras colliding for Kesey, and with Neal Cassady serving as the legendary wheel man in both stories. Born too close to the end of the baby boomer generation, I missed out on much of the great stuff – at least that’s the way it always seemed growing up. But, I was just old enough to fully embrace the ‘70s with my art school friends, and we have a few road stories of our own.

The picture above was snapped by Kevin as he was about to set off on a cross-country trip with his best buddy KT in the summer of 1978. KT is the shadowy figure in the driver’s seat. Shortly after Kevin took this photo, the two departed Pittsburgh for what was to be a summer’s long road trip to British Columbia and then down the west coast. Riding along in spirit were friends who’d painted their names on the blue VW beast, and that big thing on the passenger’s door was supposed to be a hawk (KT was a big fan of The Band, known early on as The Hawks when they were the backup band for Ronnie Hawkins). I’d moved to Los Angeles a month or so earlier, and one of those boxes on the roof rack contained some of my favorite books which they were kindly transporting west for me.

Kevin and KT made it as far as the Ohio border before the blue beast developed serious engine trouble. They sputtered back to Pittsburgh, managed to borrow a car from KT’s dad, transferred their gear and my books to the loaner car (a Pinto, Ford’s legendary fiery deathtrap of a ride), and set out on the road again later that same day.

The year before graduation and this road trip west, Kevin and I both happened to be reading On The Road for the first time – the 25th anniversary paperback edition, the one with the bright orange sunset on the cover. That book brought us together, connected us. Most couples have a song they call theirs, we have our book. We return to it again and again. I’ve reread it many times over the years, and Kevin keeps adding new editions of it to our bookshelves, the latest being a new hardback version he came home with a few weeks ago, this one with a new version of the yellow and orange sun on the jacket. It’s likely that my first copy of On The Road was in that box strapped to the roof rack.

It’s also likely that my copy of Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest hitched a ride to Los Angeles with Kevin and KT. Last Wednesday I happened to catch Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood’s “Magic Trip” on cable. It must’ve been a preview prior to its official release last Friday in theaters and on pay-per-view. You can read a review by Charles McGrath for The NY Times here. Filmmakers Gibney and Ellwood managed to salvage forty hours of footage shot by Ken Kesey and the Pranksters during their 1964 cross-country trip in the psychedelic bus, Further (and the New York City World’s Fair) their destination. My favorite scenes included glimpses of novelists Larry McMurtry and Robert Stone, and of Kerouac, who seemed to be having no fun at a prankster party. Kesey, who’d already published Sometimes A Great Notion and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, appears incredibly young in the film.

Just as with all good stories, there were complications and unexpected twists in Kevin and KT’s road trip of ’78. KT ended up having to drive all the way back across the country alone for the final leg of his journey. Kevin decided to stay in California and start a different journey, and convinced me to join him in San Francisco. I’m a sucker for happy endings. KT remains Kevin’s best buddy after all these years. And after all this distance, all this way further along the road, it turns out the road trip of ’78 was really just the beginning.

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Edd Fuller said...

Dory, nice piece. By happenstance, earlier today I read "On the Road to Florida." This is Kerouac's account of a road trip from New York to Florida with Robert Frank in 1958, the year after the publication of On The Road. It appeared in Evergreen Review 74 (January 1970). You may be familiar with this but if not, it is worth seeking out. (I came across it in a book called Literature and Photography edited by Jane Rabb, University of New Mexico Press 1995.)

Kerouac says "A lesson for any writer ... to follow a photographer and look at what he shoots ... I mean a great photographer ... an artist ... and how he does it."

Dory Adams said...

That's a great Kerouac quote, Edd. Thanks for pointing out that Kerouac piece from The Evergreen Review. It's one I haven't read (how did I miss that?) and I'll be sure to track it down.