At Land’s End with Jack Kerouac
By Jim Provencher
After all that road-going, coasting into Frisco was always an arrival of respite and relief for Jack Kerouac, shaking off desert dust, bathing in thick ocean fogs, luxuriating in the warm, boisterous scenes of Chinatown, North Beach, Berkeley and Russian Hill. A convivial place where he could rendezvous with like-minded friends, find quiet refuge, a place to compose himself and transpose his nickel-notebook road journals into saga quests and post-war American survival manuals.
There he lived off and on for creatively productive periods, taking spontaneous word-journeys further, edging ever deeper into a personally manifested destiny. He wrote Visions of Cody in Neal and Carolyn Cassady’s attic on 29 Russell Street, Russian Hill. One night, taking a mind-clearing walk, he came upon a noir film-shoot of Sudden Fear that handed him his cinematic prose take on Joan Crawford: “Joan Rawshanks in the Fog.’” After his affair with Carolyn led to argument, he retreated to a 3rd Street flophouse hotel, to be closer to the railyards where he worked as a brakeman for a spell on the San Luis Obispo freight run. “October in the Railroad Earth,” one of his best ambles into spontaneous composition, organically grew out of that testy time.
A few years later he lived in Berkeley with Allen Ginsberg in his little rose-covered cottage in the backyard of a bigger house on Milvia Street. Here began his novel Dharma Bums, hitch-hiking on the momentum of the just-published and popular instant classic, On the Road. As a naturally retiring, watchful observer, Kerouac often used engaging characters to center his autobiographical fictions. The Dharma Bum of this book is Gary Snyder, an astute student of Zen Buddhism, on his way to study more esoterically in Kyoto. He went on to live with this new-found brother—Japhy Ryder in the novel—north of the city in Mill Valley. During this period, Kerouac also experimented with composing American-styled haiku and wrote Old Angel Midnight. Snyder coaxed him to compose his Buddhist sutra, “The Scripture of the Golden Eternity.” During this period, at the request of friends, he also compiled “Belief & Technique for Modern Prose: List of Essentials.”
Before leaving for Japan, Snyder found Kerouac a fire-lookout job in Washington’s North Cascades. There, atop Mt. Desolation, Kerouac began composing the powerful opening of his two-part novel, Desolation Angels. His description of coming down from the mountain and returning to San Francisco dramatically conveys the throes of a changed man and his freed spirit colliding with the jangled rhythms of his old San Francisco stomping grounds. The cool grey city of love opens its arms and soon embraces him and all his contradictions.
Struggling with the weight and demands of fame, for fans mistakenly took him for the hero-quester of his books, when he was actually an imaginative but more passive recorder of the exploits of others, Kerouac fell more deeply into the dark well of alcoholism, perhaps a protective, escapist retreat. He became more alone, less a clear-eyed, open-eared observer, more a monologuist. Not hitching, not bussing, he returned again to San Francisco via train when Lawrence Ferlinghetti offered Jack the use of his Bixby Canyon cabin at Big Sur. Ferlinghetti was hoping to help Jack in a needful time, but by then Kerouac was beyond anyone’s help. Still, out of this terrible breakdown, the painfully personal novel, Big Sur, emerged, a dark journey into loneliness and despair, told with utter honesty in evocative prose. There was no ‘fraternal fictional partner’ to drive the story: Kerouac was on his own behind the wheel and alone in his plight and his art. Farewell, Frisco, goodbye Golden Gate, and Jack retreats back East to live with his mother, marry the sister of his brother-in-love, Sammy Sampas, and die a classic alcoholic’s death in St. Petersburg, Florida, at age 47.
So Kerouac’s creative road-going life ends in San Francisco in more ways than one. He literally hit land’s end, like the great Mother Road Route 66 which abruptly ceases at the Santa Monica Pier, or better at Land’s End itself, Ocean Beach, a straight shot west from Frisco’s Union Square and the Tenderloin. There, under a little cut of cirrus cloud coming in north from Marin, you can stand on the high overlook cliff’s edge and see only sea, all the way to Hawaii, the Pacific’s end of land gladness, end of land sadness. Where arrival is both a celebration and a mournful close, a bounding life-journey, the song of the open road, swallowed in fog, drowned in cold Japanese Currents.
Whenever I come to San Francisco, Jack Kerouac is always there waiting for me in the very air, the pellucid light, the hilly footpath bustle, the Vesuvio or Tosca pub din. In the past, I have spent visits tracing other lines of inquiry, like finding and viewing Hitchcock’s Vertigo film locations, photographing Italianate and Victorian mansions in Pacific Heights, shooting street photos around the Tenderloin. Every trip has its focus, but no matter, I always make time for pilgrimages to Kerouackian sacred sites. Usually I stay in small, reasonably-priced hotels on the southern slope of Nob Hill, bordering the too rapidly gentrifying(for my taste) Tenderloin: The York Hotel(now The Vertigo, no longer reasonable!) on Sutter, The Mithila (next door), The Winsor, The Boston, but the most common port of call nowadays is The Cable Car Hotel on the corner of California and Hyde, a short stroll to the Russell Street Cassady digs.
About half the guests there are actually residents on city rent assistance. I try to score an east-facing bay window room, very generous in size, sink, built-in closet, flat-screen, fridge, new firm queen bed. Right on the trolley line, with an early wake-up tingling bell. Downstairs, a sports pub and across the way a Trader-Joe’s. Easy walk to my favorite café for breakfast, Hahn’s next door to the Vertigo Hotel. Afternoons, after a day of shooting photos, wandering around, following my nose, drinks at the little Korean pub on Geary in the Tenderloin, the Han-Ri. Sometimes I splurge and eat dinner at Rue Le Pic, a wonderful traditional French bistro on Nob Hill.
I like the Cable Car Hotel and its unpretentious ambiance. I become friendly with the night clerk who is also an art photographer. Next door to my room resides the absolute Matriarch of the neighborhood. An older grandmotherly black woman of regal presence and noble bearing, Eunice holds court from her huge bed like the Queen she is, welcoming a constant stream of visitors who revere her wisdom. Once she knocked on my door and said: I need to tell you, Sir, you are a gentleman. I like you, you keep to yourself. You’re quiet, respectful. You and I both know Joseph! My other hallmate is an aging Vietnam veteran, rather like myself, except he has a grandiose gun collection he likes to show off. He likes dusting off a few war stories too. Invites me in for a beer of an evening. The Cable Car Hotel is run by a Frenchman, and many of the resident-hotel-employees are French. You hear lots of French spoken there. They like it that I am French-Canadian and can make corridor small-talk, ragots et papotage. Spanish is the other lingua franca. All the maids are Latinos. Some might find this place a little edgy, sketchy. But I like it that way, and it makes me think of Jack, chez lui in his usual Frisco digs. Booked in for a month, $50 a night.
Ding! Ding! Ding! 5:30 a.m., right on time, the California/Hyde Street Trolley rumbling past wakes me. Soon the sunrise will be emblazoning my bay windows. An early riser, I flip on the news, brew up a microwaved instant skim latte. By 7:00, my cameras charged, backpack packed, I set off for Hahn’s Café, pick up The New York Times, order eggs over easy on wheat toast with bacon, hash browns and OJ, sufficient ballast for the day. I’m in no hurry and java refills are gratis, allowing me the pleasure of perusing others’ troubles in the Times. An expat, living in Sydney, Australia, when I travel in the States, The Times with an ample American breakfast are real treats to be savored.
I study my bus route and city maps. Today I’m heading out to Land’s End, where I’m sure Jack will be waiting. It’s a straight shot along Geary Street, about three blocks down from the café in the theatre district, bordering the Tenderloin. The 48 Geary Rapid’s right on time and the destination scroll promises an ultimate arrival: LAND’S END. Quite a literal leap, the end of the line stop. Quite a literalist myself, I love symbolic excursions, on so many levels. Once when asked why I was crossing into Mexico at some obscure, desolate customs entry, I said I’m doing symbolic crossings. The body-armored border guard holding an AR-15 burst into snorting laughter: Hey, he yelled to his also-armed buddy, get a load of this, this guy’s doing symbolic crossings! Listen, Senor, how long did it take you to make that one up? You better come up with something better than that! Still, symbolic or not, I’m heading west, bring on Land’s End, and I hop on the Rapid bus.
Land’s End is about ten miles, not too long a trip since I am going against the grain of the downtown commuter flow. We pass through the Tenderloin, homeless street people waking, dazed and blinking, emerging from their makeshift footpath tents. We pass by Robert Frost’s birthplace, the alleys where he played as a child, a frisky street kid with gold dust blowing in his hair, so he says in his poem, ‘A Peck of Gold.’ Sanitation department trucks are washing down the pavements, washing away trace evidence, not many about. Keep going through Japantown, the Western Addition, the Eastern Subtraction, Inner Richmond, endless two-story Victorian flats, Richmond proper, Outer Richmond. Hey, there’s Richard Brautigan’s street, his old place where he tapped out those droll, abbreviated, tender releases. The early spring sun bathes everything in daylong golden hour saturated light. If he were still here winnowing with us, Brautigan would be heading into North Beach for his morning double-shot espressos, jotting a few poignant ditties from his al fresco perch, enjoying the passing fare.
The Geary Rapid keeps picking up speed, picking up no one, hurtling headlong to the sea, the end of all misery, beyond the dooms and glooms of dank rooming house rooms. The bus bleeds out and it’s just me and the driver the last five miles. I feel I’m on some kind of existential errand, going all the way to the edge to seal my fate at Seal Rock below Cliff House. I know Jack will be there.
Okay, Buddy, end of the line, get off here. Drowsy, slipped into bus-sleep, I‘m startled awake, and discover I’m deeply entombed in a thick, wet blanket of fog, which promptly swallows me whole the moment I alight.
Where? What? But the bus is groaning away, a black Rothko smudge, fuzzed, shimmering, gone. Compass-less, I am careful to gauge the brighter skypatch of fog where the sun is trying to burn through—that’s east-northeast. Keeping that light on my right, I tunnel into the murk toward what I hope will turn out to be Ocean Beach. Writhing skeletal cypresses loom, ghostly eucalypts appear and disappear. I follow the hollow crunch of my gravel-path footsteps, aiming for Land’s End, ears perked for tell-tale sounds of surf. I think of Jack’s own end of the road in Mexico, the floating dream sequence, the magical white horse, his perfect Mexican denouement amid yawning mountain fogs and verdant jungle steams. I’ve lost all orientation, I’m dead-reckoning on instinct, feeling the last way. You have to proceed with blind faith at the end. Nothing’s clear, nearing the unknown, coming to the end of the road.
All the way across a continent, all the road-going roil, signs and insights, epiphanies popping up without warning, the odd tete-a-tete, the casual phrase, the sudden shift in the wind or weather, everything fraught with enigmatic significance. Ironically beginning with a quest for clarities, unveilings, revelations and then, ultimately, arriving only to be shrouded by more ambiguity and mist.
But this fog, there’s no end to it. I feel I could stumble right over the Ocean Beach precipice, and not even know it. Keep moving, Jack whispers. Pay no mind to road demons, nay-sayers, self-anointed saints. This ain’t no day-job, The Road. Drop the burden of doubt, don’t stagger through the world. We must not tarry. Never anchor in a fog. No bat-eyed priests can save us. This isn’t a walk in the park. Well, it is a coastal park. It’s not far now, is it?
This is all a much of a muchness, what a to-do about nothing. Still, no turning back. Here, Jack says, take my hand. I’ll stick with you. Hard passage is all in the mind. And so it is, for there’s the faint shush-shush of distant waves lapping 300 feet below. Thick prickly hedge rims the cliff edge. And the fog is slowly lifting, like scales falling from my eyes. Myself, sea, fog, sky, land—shapes emerge. There’s Seal Rock, and there are seals, basking on it, feeling the roughness to all their length. The sun torches through, burning away blindness. Cliff House gleams, a brilliant starch-white. Ocean Beach stretches away, forever south, flat and deserted except for a few beach combing silhouettes.
At the cliff edge, the ground is loamy, slick and muddy, ready to give way. No sure footing anywhere. Slowly I work my way around the point and down the embankment to Sutro Baths where the water lies flat, still, reflective. Once a privileged place of frolic, now a field of sleepy pools and ubiquitous graffiti. All abandoned, gone. It burned more than half a century ago. Land’s End, slowly being swallowed by sea-surge and time. At Land’s End you enter another element, liquid and flowing. You stop grasping for certainties, let go, and float toward another shore.