Christopher McCune November 11, 2010
Travel Literature Blog: On the Road
The Wandering Man
Jack Kerouac's novel On the Road tells the unique story of two young men, the narrator Sal and his crazed friend Dean, as they restlessly crisscross America in a desperate search for the "ragged promised land." Set in the 1950's, this novel epitomizes the beat generation, as Sal and Dean befriend, live with, and discard a rapidly revolving door of wives, buddies, and girlfriends. The only thing that these characters cannot seem to shake is their constant desire to be on the move, as Sal and Dean quickly and repeatedly grow bored, tired, and disillusioned with each new place they stay.
Kerouac sums up the restless nature of Sal and his friends brilliantly in a brief conversation that Sal has with a local girl while he is hitchhiking through Colorado. Stopping in Cheyenne, a small town on the way to Denver, Sal feels that he has finally arrived "out West," and feels liberated and free from his life in New York City. However, the Western girl feels just the opposite, complaining that, "I want to go to New York. I'm sick and tired of this. Ain't no place to go but Cheyenne and ain't nothin in Cheyenne." Sadly, Sal replies, "Ain't nothin in New York," a statement which she angrily shoots back with, "Hell there ain't." This interaction perfectly illustrates the problem that plagues Sal and Dean throughout the novel. Every new state, city, or town that they trek to, always on little to no funds, offers only a temporary respite for their wandering souls. Once the characters are forced to struggle for money and the newness of the city wears off, the desire to hit the road, always in search of something better, immediately kicks in again in a vicious cycle.
As they search for meaning on their aimless wanderings, Sal and Dean hook up with, have sex with, and struggle to establish relationships with girls in each and every town. The desire to keep moving is often in direct conflict with Sal's increasing wish to have a stable relationship in his life. He tries to settle down with Terry, a sweet, poor Mexican girl with a son, and also with Lucille, a girl in Virginia whom Sal thinks he may have strong feelings about, but in the end, with Dean and the road both calling, Sal chooses to leave both behind, favoring his transient, free lifestyle instead.
This desire to travel, to experience the world, and the idea that the grass is always greener somewhere else, are concepts both familiar and alluring to young men and women of all generations. Kerouac, however, shows us that constant travel, while fun, eye-opening, and entertaining, does not hold all the answers we seek.