“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? — it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”
—Jack Kerouac On The Road
Forty five years after his death, there are few writers who have had as much influence on American literary culture as Jack Kerouac. Generations of nomads, vagabonds, and dirtbags found themselves drawn to his works, romanticizing the open roads of the American West. One of them is Brendan Leonard, a writer, climber, and founder of the popular blog, semi-rad. A noted Kerouac fan who once gave a copy of On The Road to woo a date, he set he set off on a journey of his own to search for answers in a trying time, which he documented in his first book, The New American Roadtrip Mixtape. Today, Brendan shares his thoughts on the influence that Kerouac has on the modern road-trip, the authenticity of taking the same trip today, and the philosophies that Kerouac imparted on his travels.
THE CLYMB: What was Jack Kerouac’s goal in his travels?
LEONARD: I think his real goal was experiencing life, and my interpretation of a lot of his writing is that he wanted to see and experience as much as he could. Of course he saw a lot of America in his trips, but it was more about people, culture—and not just the art we think of when we think of the word “culture”—but the different cultures in America. The things you learn from spending time with people you might otherwise never spend time with if you didn’t happen to run into them in the middle of nowhere in Texas, or in a jazz club, or a party you happened to go to because you happened to be in town on the right night.
THE CLYMB: Are roadtrippers, nomads, and dirtbags seen as counter-culture in today’s society?
LEONARD: We have this sense nowadays that we need to be fully employed for our entire lives, which means we’re relegated to only taking time off when we have paid vacation. I think that’s a mistake, and it makes us think that we have to spend basically every week of every year making money. If it’s a Monday, we’re either at work, or we’re taking a paid vacation day (which means we’re still getting paid). Most of us never have the figurative balls to ask a boss for unpaid time off, because we can’t imagine that we’d allow ourselves to be “unproductive” for a week—or be allowed by our employer.
THE CLYMB: What was Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady’s philosophy towards travel and the road trip?
LEONARD: Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady were comfortable letting the next whim take them where it may. Did they ever have any money? Not really. Did they do some things that most of us would never want to do in order to keep their trip going? Definitely. Were they worried about getting back to their next job so they could keep working their way up the corporate ladder? Definitely not. So they were not on a trip, at least one where they tried to pack everything into 10 paid days off. They also both lived very hard and died very young, which of course isn’t something most of us want to emulate—but I think we can learn from their idea of what a road trip was: it was just life, and an “unproductive” part of life, but an incredible part.
THE CLYMB: Why is the road trip, in the spirit of Kerouac and Steinbeck, such a revered part of American culture?
LEONARD: Our roads are perfect for that type of thinking you want to do when you set out on a big road trip—interesting, but not so athletic that you have to devote 100% of your brainpower to staying on the road, like they are in the mountains in Europe. In the U.S., we’ve got mountain roads, but in between, we have long stretches where you can hold onto the steering wheel with one hand and gaze out the window at the scenery and let your thoughts drift a little. I don’t think you can do that in the narrow roads and hairpin turns of the Alps. Plus, the Western United States has a historic reputation of being a place where you can find, or reinvent, yourself, and I think the West has some of the best road tripping terrain in the country. The idea of a road trip is pretty romantic, not in the love story sense of the word, but in the On The Road sense of the word.
THE CLYMB: Does Kerouac and On The Road reflect a bygone era? Is travel in his time more romantic and authentic than to take the same trip in today’s world?
LEONARD: No one’s going to take that same trip, or write the same book On the Road was when it came out (and still is). It was a revelation to many people, and you obviously can’t have that same revelation now. Our trips are also relatively less adventurous—there are few spots in the United States where you can drive more than 100 miles without going by a gas station, and we have cell phones for emergencies, and AAA. Can you still take an authentic and romantic trip today? Of course, authenticity to me is honesty, and if you’re honest about what you’re experiencing, your trip is authentic. And romance is all about being open to experience, and in the moment. A lot of that gets sucked out the window because we’re not present when things are happening, and we’re not open to them. I’ve had romantic moments where I’m driving down the PCH, a great song playing on my van stereo, and the sun setting over the Pacific, and I know it’s a great memory happening right now. But then I’ve had that same moment on that same stretch of road and I’m thinking about work, or checking my social media feeds on my phone, and I’ve totally missed the moment because I’m just not there.
THE CLYMB: Has constant communication through social media changed the modern road trip?
LEONARD: If you’re open to it and are present, a road trip can be a beautiful, amazing thing. If you’re constantly worried about how you’re going to communicate all the daily happenings of your trip on Twitter and Instagram, well, you’re probably going to have a much different experience.
THE CLYMB: Reading and being inspired by On The Road, how did it affect your journeys?
LEONARD: I think Thomas McGuane put it best in an essay I quoted in my book, The New American Road Trip Mixtape: “He trained us in the epic idea that…you didn’t necessarily have to take it in Dipstick, Ohio, forever. …Kerouac set me out there with my own key to the highway.” I think it impressed upon me, when I was a teenager reading it for the first time, the romantic notion of finding answers out on the road.