“Hit the Road Jack” by Betsy Woods-McGuire

Please welcome our newest contributor, Betsy Woods-McGuire, a long-time columnist for the Town Crier newspaper in Tewksbury. Her column, “Betsy’s Best Bets”, covers the hidden treasures, the tried and true, and the tucked-away gems — interwoven with humor and her unique social commentary. The following piece was originally published in the Town Crier in July 2007 and reappears here in connection with Kerouac’s 90th birthday on March 12.

Talent alone cannot make a writer. There must be a man behind the book. (Emerson)

Recently not a week goes by without an article or mention of Jack Kerouac and the 50th anniversary of the publication of “On the Road.” At the Boott Cotton Museum in Lowell, Kerouac’s original “scroll” manuscript and exhibit opened on June 15th and will run through September 14th.

As the story goes, Kerouac taped sheets of paper together so they would run through his manual typewriter uninterrupted, helping to keep his “writer’s flow.” In an explosion of creativity, fueled by coffee and drugs, in only three weeks, Kerouac completed the entire book on a 120-foot continuous roll of paper. After publication the scroll was more or less forgotten until 2001 when an eccentric and wealthy collector bought it at auction from the Kerouac estate for two million! Fittingly the new owner, James Irsay, decided to take the scroll “on the road.” What better place to see the “On the Road” exhibit than the City of Lowell, Kerouac’s home town. Being a Jack Kerouac follower myself, I plan to see the exhibit sometime soon, maybe more than once.

Standing in front of my ceiling-to-floor bookcase, I counted four books written by Jack Kerouac and six books about Kerouac. Hanging on the wall next to the bookcase, along with pictures of my favorite writers, is a beautifully framed, good-sized sketch of Jack Kerouac. I’ve read “On the Road” twice. The first time was as a teenager, a hardcover, 1st edition, that I owned. God knows where that book went – probably borrowed and never returned. Didn’t seem to matter back then. Now I hate to think of what that book would be worth today!

It’s hard to say what effect, subconsciously, that book had on me as an impressionable teenager, but I think there’s a good chance “On the Road” triggered that itch for the road. My reasons were different – Sal Paradise, Kerouac’s alter ego, was searching for meaning. I wanted adventure, escape, excitement. None of my road trips was planned or mapped out – we packed very few things and drove off. Yes, WE. I had a friend who was just as foolhardy as me, neither of us giving a second thought to the possibility of danger. But I will admit we had some hairy moments along the way. How about finding ourselves on an endless, empty highway across Texas, in the middle of the night, running low on gas. Or the time we broke down in Appalachia, in a small town where everyone looked like characters out of the movie “Deliverance.” And the time we drove all night, fear and adrenalin keeping us awake, looking for somewhere safe to stay along the creepy Florida Everglades coast.

Let’s see, here are some of my road trip routes: From Boston, straight across the country to the Colorado and Wyoming area, several times, varying the routes with side trips and secondary roads. From Boston, south, hugging the coast all the way to Key West to find the one-mile marker on Route 1. From Boston, west, then south, zigzagging, taking in the states that were not on the coast, and eventually ending up in New Orleans and Port Arthur, Texas. Detroit to see the auto industry.

To this day there are places embedded in my memory, like Chugwater, Wyoming, population 36, and Holly Beach, Louisiana Bayou, an off-season looking, eerie, empty, spooky little tract sitting on the shore of the Gulf of Mexico. And I can still picture the moss hanging off the trees, over a ditch that ran all along a desolate rural back road in Georgia. A scene right out of a Tennessee Williams story.

There are only a few states that I haven’t set foot in. I confess to going two hundred miles off course just to drive through a small corner of Missouri so I could say, “Yes, I’ve been to Missouri.” Now it’s been years since I’ve been “on the road” but all of this talk of Kerouac has stirred up the urge for going – those “few states” have been nagging at me.

Jack Kerouac had it all – good looks, brains, talent. He lived fast and died young but he must have packed a hundred years into those dynamic forty-seven years. The City of Lowell has changed since then but the ghost of Jack Kerouac is everywhere. The Merrimac River, the mills, the magic spell that molded the man who defined the Beat Generation lives on.

Lowell is a gritty city, it’s a college town, it’s a diverse melting pot of cultures. After you visit the Kerouac exhibit, visit Lowell’s other museums, walk around downtown. Great restaurants and coffee shops, cafes and diners are all around. Cobblestone side streets are lined with small family-owned businesses and galleries and specialty shops.

And that’s good and that‘s now and that’s today. Nonetheless, to ponder Lowell’s favorite son you must find his grave in Edson Cemetery, kneel down, feel the Zen, feel the pen, the when, the somewhere again, the five, the ten, the yen, amen, to go. And think about Dean Moriarty, think about Dean Moriarty/