Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Not Anymore

In Kerouac's first major description of travel in On the Road, Sal is attempting to hitchhike his way to Denver in order to meet up with some old friends. Many aspects of this section stood out to me, but particularly how the passing of time since Kerouac was writing changes the way we view the travel detailed in this book.

First of all, to a modern reader, the whole idea of hitchhiking across the country seems dangerous and rather absurd. The concept of hitchhiking as a legitimate means of travel appears quite outdated and really unnecessary now when every American household owns at least two cars. The major problem with hitchhiking today, however, would probably be the risk involved. You don't know who you are picking up from the side of the road, and the rider really has no control over who will pick him or her up. In On the Road, however, Sal's aunt "even didn't complain when I told her I'd have to hitchhike some" (9). Sal manages to hitchhike all the way from New York to Denver with no real mishaps. At one point, Sal does say, "one of the biggest troubles is having to talk to innumerable people, make them feel that they didn't make a mistake picking you up, even entertain them almost..." (14). Here, he points out the key contemporary problem with hitchhiking, but he doesn't really consider the uncertainty of who you will meet on the road an actual problem; for him, it is more of an inconvenience. He says that all the talking has made his soul tired, and that it "is a great strain when you're going all the way and don't plan to sleep in hotels" (14).

Something else that struck me about Sal's travels was the loneliness and independence necessary to succeed. Perhaps this will sound obvious and trivial, but in 1947, the year of Sal's cross-country hitchhike, there were no cell phones. When you went out into the world, you went alone. When you hitchhiked, there was no emergency phone-a-friend easily accessible in your pocket. Multiple times, Sal is stuck in small towns and on the side of under-traveled roads. The day Sal sets out, he is dropped off at Bear Mountain Bridge. Unfortunately, "it began to rain in torrents when I was let off there [...] not only was there no traffic but the rain came down in buckets and I had no shelter." He is forced to find "an abandoned cute English-style filling station" and wait for someone to eventually stop there. Because of the rain, he "looked like a maniac, of course, with my hair all wet, my shoes sopping" (10). He was very lucky that anyone took him in at all; I believe that even in the 1940s, such a person would have a hard time convincing someone for a ride. In addition, a cell phone would have been very handy upon his arrival in Denver, when there was no word from, or about, his friend Dean, whom he had been intending to meet, for a number of days.

Thinking about the differences half a century of passing time makes should force us to wonder about how easiy we really do have it today. We don't need to hitchhike, we never have to be really alone, and honestly, someone needing to get from New York to Denver today would simply fly and be there in a matter of hours, at which point the cell phone would come out to arrange a ride and accommodations instantly. But I suppose that would not make for a very good novel...

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