In October 1969, celebrated author Jack Kerouac passed away at the age of 47, 50 years ago this month. He electrified and helped define what became known as the Beat Generation. As part of Kerouac’s work, his travels west—which included Flagstaff, northern Arizona and Route 66—helped define the author’s inspirations and anchored his seminal work, the 1957 novel On the Road. With the anniversary of his passing, it becomes an ideal time to reflect on the Kerouac connection. This entry is the first in a two-part series.
The American West has long drawn people in search of themselves and their destiny. Wanderlust-fueled road trips have often led to the Route 66 corridor, with its passage through Flagstaff and its sister northern Arizona towns. The highway designated from Chicago to Los Angeles for years brought weary and wild wanderers through the high desert landscape, a scenery that expands the scope of America and heightens its mythic nature.
Of all the ramblers to head west for a pilgrimage of self-discovery, few are as well-known as author-poet Jack Kerouac, who passed away in October 1969. His celebrated novel On the Road galvanized the American road journey as an epic undertaking. Although the novel only mentions Flagstaff and Route 66 briefly, it joins journal entries and accounts that place Kerouac in this mountain town and on the highway, which becomes enfolded with his greater vision.
“At dawn my bus was zooming across the Arizona desert—Indio, Blythe, Salome (where she danced); the great dry stretches leading to Mexican mountains in the south,” Kerouac wrote in the opening lines of Chapter 14 in Part One of On the Road. “Then we swung north into the Arizona mountains, Flagstaff, clifftowns. I had a book with me I stole from a Hollywood stall, ‘Le Grand Meaulnes’ by Alain-Fournier, but I preferred reading the American landscape as we went along. Every bump, rise, and stretch in it mystified my longing.”
This excerpt that charts the protagonist Sal Paradise—the character who represents Kerouac in On the Road—through Arizona merges into the cerebral and ethereal weave of Kerouac. It ties into it his greater efforts to capture the way cross-country travel feeds the spirit. Within a few sentences, he attaches Salome, Arizona, to the biblical story of Salome and the Dance of the Seven Veils, has dismissed a great work of literature in Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes in favor of the “American landscape” and has equated an on-the-ground connection to the bumps, rises and stretches of the road as delivering a mystifying experience.
It becomes no great wonder that Kerouac and On the Road carry a psychic link to this region, the lanes of Route 66 that ran through it and the greater notion of rambling into the American West as part of a larger life journey. As Paradise observes in the novel, “I was halfway across America, at the dividing line between the East of my youth and the West of my future.”
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A literary name that appears on a short list of influential authors of the 20th Century, Kerouac stands as one of the most defining figures of the the Beat Generation that rose to prominence in the 1950s. Along with Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, Kerouac joined his contemporaries in rejecting common literary standards, embarking on divine quests, discarding desires for materialism and engaging in drug and sexual exploration. He also helped coin the term “Beat,” both a connection to the musicality of the work and allusions to jazz and a nod to the “beat down” people on the edges of society.
Of all the elements of the Beat Movement, the notion of travel to gain insights interwove with an increased freedom and mobility. This was brought on by the development of the highway system and the culture of the automobile. In On the Road, the character Dean Moriarty drives a 1949 Hudson as he and Paradise barrel across the nation’s expanding roadmap. The Hudson of the novel has become one of many symbols of this freedom—along with the ease at which Paradise hitchhikes and buses to crisscross the expanse of America.
Within his expeditions to greater awareness, Kerouac’s journals show his time in this part of northern Arizona brought a stirring revelry. In a missive captured in the book Windblown World: The Journals of Jack Kerouac, 1947-1954, the Beat author writes of his affinities of Arizona in particular. “Some notions: in Wickenburg, in 1947, tho it was a hot desert day, dry & sunny, I saw a man and his wife and kids in a small buckboard dragging trees from their yard, in the shade of many trees: it was a kind of joyous Arizona suddenly.”
He continues, as his journeys and observations move north: “This was all later confirmed when I traveled up through Prescott, Oak Creek Canyon, and timbered Flagstaff, where, in high woodsy airs viewing distant desert horizons far off, one feels the particular joys of canyon country, high country, timber country, a kind of mountain gladness (is it not logical that the yodel originated in the mountains?)”
It becomes easy to imagine Kerouac himself taking in the San Francisco Peaks after his long travels across the desert and considering the moment a “kind of mountain gladness.” That he suggests the logic of the yodel originating in the mountains is to consider the author and poet moved to belt out a howl in celebration of the land.