A few years ago, when Willie Nelson sang a song that kept repeating itself, like a hiccup--"On the road again . . . on the road again"--it was in a movie highly qualified to be forgotten. Nelson's echo of Jack Kerouac's novelistic confession of the '50s, "On the Road," was chanted from within a country-and-Western star's mobile home, equipped with what looked like carpets, a TV and a full kitchen--everything but a sauna and a Ping-Pong table--as it barreled down the great American all-purpose movie highway.
That is not what being on the road meant for the countless adventurers through history who have taken off with staffs and sandals, or with backpacks, thumbs extended and little machinery except the devices of hope, desire and expectation of adventure. Those wanderers down the roads of the past make a motley collection: St. Augustine, Goethe, Wordsworth, Diogenes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and millions more.
Going on the road has almost always been a part of the process of growing up--of leaving family, leaving home, exploring the limits, doubting and questing, searching for the Grail or the lost princess or buried treasure or the Truth or simply the Unknown. Some wanderers sought things as practical as better food, more fertile soil, a friendlier climate. Some sought visions.
Even today's organized cruises and guaranteed hotel tours hark back to the old impulse. Its shadow lives in the pickup truck with a shingled mini-cottage stapled onto the flatbed, a single person or a couple seeking to pull off the highway in a different place every night.
When I ran away from home at 17--to go on the road--I didn't think of it as running from but as running toward. My friends had finished high school and were either getting jobs or going to college; those were the expected options for a kid from suburban Cleveland. But I wanted to find the meaning of life, and I was pretty sure that it didn't lie along Clifton Boulevard in Lakewood, Ohio.
I said goodby to my parents. My mother shed an angry tear or two; my father looked bewildered and morose. I promised to send post cards. I walked awhile with my paper suitcase and then stood at a street corner, hoping to find a ride toward the distant, pinnacled city of Pittsburgh. I got there, found a 50-cents-a-night hotel and began to sense the contours of The Road: loneliness, fantasy, dreaminess, laziness, a little fear, a little hope, a lot of expectations of miracles on the morrow.
A day or two in Pittsburgh persuaded me to move on to Manhattan, where Real Life was even more real for an adolescent: jobs as dishwasher and messenger boy, hours with hands cupped around giant chipped mugs of Bowery coffee and doughnuts. That was before the hippies, even before the time of the beatniks; I was in a tradition that combined the runaway child and the more elevated Wanderjahr (year of wandering) of Germans, French, English and Italians hiking over the landscape of Europe to discover forests and sun, love and poetry, the Self.
I wanted a piece of Strange, and I was finding Depressed and Sordid, but I loved it because it was strange. I was getting into myself by getting out of myself. Perhaps, sometimes, I mumbled, because for days I might have been the only person I talked to. Yet, I wasn't crazed: I wrote in my journal; I wrote those post cards home; I planned to go to college when my year was up. Surely I was a little pretentious, a little young . As a father myself now, I can see it was an agony to my parents.
After a few weeks in the stony winter of Manhattan, as a veteran dishwasher in a Lower East Side restaurant and as a Mercury messenger boy who couldn't find his way around Midtown despite the wings on his uniform, I fled the weather, hitchhiking south. Oh, that first palm tree, past Jacksonville on Route 1!
Off Key Largo, on a tumble of rocks called Pelican's Roost, a kindly gangster offered me a job in his gambling shack. I was discovering my ability to take risks, peek around the rules, be alone and survive. I was surely a peculiar, pale, four-eyed kid, scribbling in a spiral notebook. What I found in it later was poetry, worries about my next bed and meal and solutions to all the issues of life. Despite this foolishness I also began to discover-- on the road --who I was.
That's what the Wanderjahr is about. And the history of being on the road continues, sometimes with tamer variations: the junior year abroad, the post-retirement cruise, the domestic ruckus (I'm-going-for-a-trip, won't-tell-you-where, wish-me-luck). Jack Kerouac, discovering the pleasures of California Zen and cooking Jell-O over an open fire with his buddies, made on the road popular and led thousands of young to follow him. For me, a herd of independent minds led by a pied piper is not exactly what the impulse should be.