There's this funny moment when Jack Kerouac appears on the Dean Martin show and Martin asks him about writing "On the Road."
"So how long were you on the road, Jack?" Martin asks.
"Seven years," Kerouac slurs.
"And how long did it take you to write about it?"
"About three weeks," Kerouac answers.
It's not true where the truest sense of truth is concerned, but the "wrote it in three weeks on a big scroll of paper" is the myth of "On the Road."
Back to the interview: Martin, upon hearing Kerouac's answer, quips, "I once spent three weeks on the road, and it took me seven years to write about it."
Which is kind of my deal. I spent about a month on the road in 1999, and 16 years later I'm still writing about it.
In a way, I started writing the novel about the trip across country AS I was in the car with my buddy, Jimmy. I was literally keeping a journal as he drove, not to mention every night in my tent, and every morning either at a picnic table, or in the grass, or in the car again as we moved. And when I was driving, I kept the narrative going.
At the time, if you had used the phrase "find yourself" in relation to anything I was doing, I may have spit at you. Or at least I would have thought about spitting at you (back then, I was more about the thinking than the doing, which comes with the territory of not knowing who you are). But out here in the land of my late 30s (the latest of 30s, as it stands), I have no trouble peeling back the curtain to this earlier time and seeing it for what it was: a young guy with lots of ideas and no practical knowledge of what it means to be alive in this world.
Which sort of brings me to the prompt behind this piece, which comes from an old friend, Eric Walker, someone I visited during that same mythologized summer road trip. His prompt:
When I first received the prompt, I thought about when I was eight-years-old and knocked over a display in a department store, then went running to my mom. But I don't remember all that much about the moment, only that I'd been acting like a spaz just before I knocked the display over, and that my mom had warned me that if I didn't chill out, I was probably going to hurt myself.
Then I moved forward along the timeline and landed on myself as a college freshman (when Walker and I were classmates at Marietta College, both trying to make the fabled baseball team). When you're a college freshman, you have no way of knowing you're still a kid. In fact, the last thing I wanted to hear from anyone when I was 18 was that I was still a kid.
Moving forward again, I landed on the summer of 1999, a particularly ripe moment of questioning and questing and doubting everything about myself. I'd been out of college for seven months, toting around my English degree like a sack of dead weight. I had a full-time job mopping floors, and three bonafide "clips" to my "portfolio." I was ungrounded, unmotivated, and scared. And I was also convinced that I needed to do something worth writing about--hence, my Kerouac moment.
The problem is that I didn't actually experience the trip across country as much as I found myself again and again trying to formulate a narrative around what was happening. The night in Cody, Wyoming, for instance, was the big drunk heartbreak. The race to see the sunset beyond the Pacific Ocean on the longest day of the year was...shit, I don't know what that was about. Some sort of romantic ideal that was supposed to MEAN something...or was at least supposed to REVEAL SOME GREAT MEANING to me that I could then write about.
So when the cops came and started to write me up, I was less than compliant (spaz). And when they told me I needed to dump all 23 bottles of beer that remained, I got about half-way through slow-dumping the second (see photo) second before they got tired of my act, wheeled the cooler to an empty spot, and proceeded to smash the rest. About a half-hour later I found Courtney (then-girlfriend, now-wife) wandering the grounds looking for me. I looked at her and said, "Let's go home"--the same thing I said to my mom that day in the department store, still a child unable to face the world as it came.