The Survivor’s Guide to Kerouac CountryKate Lebo
Around midnight in a remote corner of the Pacific Northwest, on the very first night of my very first book tour, a man breaks into our cabin. Jessica, my best friend and my book’s illustrator, opens the front door to tell the person who’s been knocking that we aren’t accepting visitors, but he’s already climbing up to the second floor. Through the dining room’s picture window, we watch his boot, his leg, a flap of fabric in the porch light. We watch it disappear.
“He’s on your balcony,” Jess says. “He’s in your room.”
She’s narrating the sounds I am too deaf and scared to hear. I have upended my beer into the sink so it won’t spill when I smash the bottle over his head and stab him in the heart.
“Hello?” Jess shouts. “Hello?”
Bootprints to the stairs.
“We can hear you up there,” she says. “You’d better come the fuck down.”
“Cassady is the cowboy crashing,” wrote Gary Snyder about the real life inspiration for Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.
That is the only thing about the book I can stand.
I’ve been telling myself a story about the road, being on it, having a body, learning to be a cowboy, or pose like one. Like I’m writing my own song. What I learned from my boyfriends, the professional musicians and professional drunks, is what they learned from Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings: musicians are cowboys and tour is a long party that ends by burning your house down. “Turn out the lights, the party’s over. They say that all good things must end,” Willie sings, contrite but not asking forgiveness. “Low down freedom, you done cost me everything I’ll ever lose,” croons Waylon in the only “travelin’ on” song that makes me believe he wants to stay.
Willie and Waylon’s road songs need a woman in the bed sleeping quietly, never knowing. They need a man who thinks she’s one more thing he’s going to leave behind. I am retelling their story, fitting it to my figure by changing the roles. The book I wrote at my kitchen table is now the vehicle that drives me through the country making friends and crushes and leaving them immediately, spending my small press’s money on steak and gasoline, sharing a bed with no one but Jess, allowing me to think, with the clichés and blessings of old Americana, that distance is a mentor and each new mile can teach me how to be free.
For a week in Austin I wake in twelve-square feet of a room stacked with building materials, cabinets, sinks. I stud these surfaces with earrings, makeup, bras, books, the cowboy hat I “can’t call a cowboy hat” while I wear it in Texas. Coral, cotton, paper, and felt arranged neatly, as if I’ve always lived in plywood. During the day, my hosts chip plaster from walls, peel scrimcloth and strip nails from wood. It’s the nails I hear most, metal unpeeling. Which is also the sound of my hangover.
In Northampton, after obsessively rooting through every apple bin at the co-op (“I’ve never seen anyone get so excited about apples” my host says), we’re driving back home with pie ingredients and dinner and confessing the worst things that have happened to us this past year. We exchange pain and jokes with quick intimacy that makes me think, already, I need to be careful with this guy. Suicides in both our years. We hit a lump on the road. “I think that was an animal,” I say. He looks horrified. He keeps driving. “I think it was already dead,” I say.
In Missoula, I have a cold. Jessica buys medicine from the gas station (“Bring me the kind you can make meth out of,” I plead), plus two tubs of ice cream, a brownie. We layer brownie and mocha almond fudge to the rims of paper hotel cups and watch Footloose. Cheap sugar gives me a sore throat, a too-many-Ho-Hos sort of scratchiness. I text stills of the movie to my crush across the country, substituting Kevin Bacon’s face for what I mean to say, I wish you were here, because I only half mean that. Jess is on the bed next to me, making my longing bearable. Making it fun. She giggles and flirts with her own long distance dude, our texts to these men coded with jokes that say the same thing over and over: I’m here, you’re there, I’m here, you’re there. My crush says he’s watching the movie too, he’s right outside. I text him a photo of our empty hallway. Funny, he writes. I was sure I was there.
In Kerouac’s story, this happened, then that, then this. Points in time connected by the speed with which we move from one sentence to the next, the plot just a pileup of happenings. He writes, “We got to the house where the waitress sisters lived. The one for me was still working; the sister that Dean wanted was in. We sat down on her couch… Bottles rolled on the floor. Three o’clock came. Dean rushed off for his hour of reverie with Camille. He was back on time. The other sister showed up.”
Time is measured in sexual plunder, the “hour of reverie” pursued and attained. Time is “Camille” (the woman and moment returned to, recurring), “the other sister” (the discrete point, a woman never met again). Bottles rolled. The depravity of Kerouac’s characters is heroic. They hunt transcendence by moving through the country, extracting its resources—women, booze, gas, drugs, free rooms, hustled food. Like locusts. Fucking around, building nothing, leaving nothing but “empty bottles and broken hearts,” as Gram Parsons might sing it. A lyric where the men, not the women, are the bottles. Where the men have the broken hearts.
I feel closest to understanding why people love On the Road when my friend sidles his pickup to the curb of the house where I’m staying in central Austin. “Oh hello again,” we joke. This has happened every night I am in town, this moment of climbing into his truck and saying hello again, comfortably collapsing the week into a windshield greeting before we drive off to one of ten-thousand rooms in this music-obsessed city where a body can master time with liquor.
We’re on the same team, us two. All we have to do to win is keep the party going. Never turn out the lights.
Later, on a day I’m home, I text my friend that I’m writing this essay and he responds, Make me three inches taller and 20 pounds lighter.
You got it, I text. As if this story wasn’t already a tall tale.
On a well-lit Seattle street the day before my book release party, I park on the curb outside Elliott Bay Book Company and cross the street to get a taco with a friend. When I come back, alone, there is a man inside my car. He’s shoveling through my dresses and food. “Who the fuck are you! Why the fuck are you in my car!” I punch the hatch-back window, pound around to the passenger door that he must have crawled in through, making the biggest noise I can on this suddenly empty street, making my fists huge with it. When he steps to the curb from his kneeling position in the backseat, I grab the bag in his hands.
“That’s my bag,” he says.
It’s his bag. I shove it back to him. On his head, a stocking cap with a snowflake pattern. On his back, a big puffy coat.
The police will ask me if the bag felt heavy, clunky at all. “Like there were weapons in it?”
No. Full of clothes, I think. Wordlessly, the man takes his bag and saunters toward the park. Crowds return to the street. There, in the widow of the bookstore, my book. Do I need help? What would I say? There was a man in my car. He didn’t take anything.
“You know you wouldn’t be able to do what you’re doing if you had these guys,” says my oldest friend. Her sons are three and one. When we have dinner, she keeps the youngest from screaming while her husband keeps the eldest entertained and fed. They look like they’re working, like they haven’t had time to talk to each other today, like this is a normal day. Against their patient ministrations, my talk sounds like chatter. “You’ll have your time for all this,” my friend says. “Get out there while you
Sometimes while you can makes home sound like a disability. Sometimes it sounds like my longing, Why not me? Why not now?
When people ask me where I live, I tell them I am homeless. I use the term lightly. I should use a different term. I’m a nomad, I tell some people. I’m a writer. I lost my house, I say. Gentrification happened to me.
I want sympathy. I want to feel safe. I want to explain why I’m not home in my little Seattle fishing village, which isn’t little anymore, which my friends and I helped make not-little before a new cycle of wealth kicked us out and welcomed people who could afford the new cute neighborhood. What am I trying to say when I explain how, while living in that old Boeing cottage, I couldn’t walk into a grocery store without clucking over a baby plant? That I bought peat pots of lemon verbena instead of clothing or art or shaving cream because growing things made me feel good about living alone? That I loved living alone? That I was miserable. I want to explain how strange it is to walk through a garden without mothering. My home is my body, some poem probably goes. No shit. To feel that way makes the road possible.
In a remote corner of the Pacific Northwest, in the minutes before a man will rig patio furniture into a ladder and climb into our cabin, Wayne’s World blares in the living room. Jess and I have settled in for a VHS night and high gravity beers. Rob Lowe is telling Wayne and Garth about the money he’s going to pay them. Then someone knocks on the front door.
We are in our pajamas, there is no cell reception, and we are drunk. We do not answer.
This isn’t even a discussion. The person who wants to visit our cabin in the remote corner of the Pacific Northwest needs to go away.
He knocks again. We see our spooked reflections in the bare front windows and make the same split-second decision: hide. Jess goes halfway up one staircase, I go halfway up the other.
I think, We should be together on this, so I army-crawl to her, keeping low, trying not to be seen. We creep up a back staircase to a room full of bedding and bath towels. The only possible weapon is a laundry rack. If he breaks in, I can swing it at his head. If he breaks in, I can smother him with linen.
“What are we doing?” Jess says. “We’re in a weak position. Let’s just answer the door.”
She walks to the front door, opens it. No one’s there. On the TV, Wayne is confessing his love to Tia Carrere. I turn it off. When I look back at Jess, I see a black boot in the front window behind her, climbing. Then silence. Footsteps. The floor above us creaks with him.
“We can hear you up there,” Jess yells. I grab my beer bottle, my weapon.
We hear him coming down the stairs.
We’d met him earlier that evening, this man who decided to climb the front of our house, open my balcony door, and walk in when we didn’t answer his knock. He’s got his hands up. We’re saying get out, get the fuck out. He’s saying sorry sorry sorry.
“I was ready to kill,” Jess says after we slam the door on him. “My mother made sure I knew how.”
My mother taught me to find safety in refusal: refuse to acknowledge, refuse to engage. Don’t speak to that man. Don’t answer the knock. “Girl training” is what I call it when we talk about it now.
Our would-be rapist/Romeo was in an anarchist band whose songs enjoyed heavy rotation on alternative radio when I was in middle school. Today they’re regarded as a one-hit wonder. “He probably thought it would be punk, climbing into someone’s house like that,” Jess says. “He probably thought we would be flattered.”
On future tour stops I go on YouTube to tell the story, load his band’s song, point him out in the ensemble and laugh my fear away. Can you imagine that guy climbing our house? Can you imagine that guy breaking in? “You should sell the story to Spin,” someone says, when they hear the band’s name. “You weren’t asking for it,” someone says when they hear the anxiety beneath the joke, the exhale of no harm done. Except this harm: he gave face to our fear. Our bodies are our homes and our homes can be broken into.
When I first read Kerouac at 15, I wasn’t embarrassed. The classics were my inheritance, a kind of money I could spend in private while waiting for life to begin. At 31, back home in Portland, I hide the soft sea-foam spine between two used Auden books as I walk them to the front of the Powell’s Bookstore line, as if I’m buying tampons or porn for the first time, ashamed of this object and what it indicates about what I need. Even at 15, I knew the story wasn’t for me. I was a pious white girl and these characters sounded like the losers my friends kept losing their virginity to. Older boys who still lived with their parents, worked fast food or movie theaters or tried to become DJs, which seemed to me like a way of not working. A funny judgment now, when most mornings I wake late to the badly matched wallpaper of my childhood room.
Kerouac drafted On the Road over and over, unable to find a way into his story. Finally he tried writing absolutely everything down as he remembered it in the order it happened, as if he was telling it to the wife he’d leave as soon as he finished writing. In three weeks, he composed the first draft on a 120-foot roll of taped-together tracing paper.
The book’s immediate popularity is a sign of how well Kerouac’s story fed a particular longing in 1950s America. To be a “beat” was to have freedom from the responsibilities that accompany the privileges of being a white male, to pursue an “exalted exhaustion” that was, for Kerouac, related to a Catholic mysticism that gave the soul direct connection with God in heaven. To be a beat was to mainline everything that mattered (philosophy, sex, conversation, friendship) like a drug, with the assistance of drugs. To get drunk and laid and all worked up, to party yourself into wisdom, to laugh and cry and sleep in fits—to be, yourself, a fit—to resemble, on your best days, a demented child, a charming bum, a junkie professor, a high priest.
Kerouac’s story endures as an American classic. This, to me, is a sign that when we say freedom in this country we also mean we’ll fiercely protect the right to go where we please, to pass unimpeded across borders, to be ourselves an impassable border, the car a country unto itself, the road trip a kind of pirate’s journey or explorer’s quest. Photos and tweets and Facebook updates become a way of marking out private property within a landscape we conquer simply by passing through with a focused lens. Kerouac taught me that the road trip and the tour are a kind of conquering. That a traveller is a kind of king.
On a sunny morning in downtown Omaha, I miss a stop sign, accelerate through an intersection, and hit a silver sedan. There’s a moment just after impact when my feet aren’t my feet and the car idly rolls, brakeless, toward a curb. There’s a moment when I see the woman in the car I’m about to hit—how she’s braking with her whole body, her “shit!” expression—and from her expression I understand what I’m about to do. My head smacks the window with a crack that’s almost pleasant because it doesn’t hurt, not yet, just a tingle of blood above bone. When we come to a stop, we’re blocking the entrance to I-605. Cars zoom toward Des Moines on the freeway above us. My coffee has exploded over the center console, but not on me. We’re fine. We’re both fine. We get out of our cars. “Are you okay?” we ask. We are okay.
When the man broke into our cabin, I thought it was a fluke. Later, when I came back to my car with a man inside it, I thought, This is a pattern. Things come in threes. I could expect to be scared shitless one more time, then let off the hook. I kept my eye out for whatever was coming, but still I missed that stop sign.
In Omaha, I babble to the other woman about this theory, that maybe hitting her was the third thing. As further evidence of my idiocy leaves my mouth, I see her shrink to a character in my story. “It’s okay,” she says. “These things happen.” She’s talking about the accident, but I let her magnanimity expand into a bigger forgiveness, the one I need. I give her a copy of my book to say sorry, but I don’t sign it. That would be ridiculous. “Good luck on the rest of your tour,” she says, before stepping into the tow truck that will take her and her ruined car to the shop.
At the Mill City Museum in Minneapolis, while I wait to enter the Flour Tower, a paean to the flour industry that takes eight floors to complete, I think about my car accident. I can feel the impact glowering in my left hip and shoulder blade. I wonder how the woman I hit feels. If she, like me, is housing a system of pain that’s repaving the byways between her neck, shoulder, waist, and hip. I line the encounters up beside each other, a psychic mugshot of my tour: invaded, burgled, hit. Not asking for it, but the phrase still haunts.
What did I learn?
I am a king. I can protect myself.
The road to freedom is paved with people like me.
Forgive us our trespasses: a line of the Lord’s Prayer that Kerouac and I knew by heart before we could read.
Did that make us think our choices are countries we roam, borders we cross? That we could reject the church by rejecting the idea of trespassing—the fences of received morality, rules of proper place and behavior—and if we did that, we could turn trespassing into claiming?
My body is my home. My territory is wherever I travel. The traveller is a kind of king. But remember, Kate: Only a tyrant crowns herself.
I had expected a third thing but not to be at fault for it.
I did not expect the fault to feel like relief.
For a time, it gives me an illusion of being in control—I did this, my fault, forgive me—even though it proves the opposite. “The road to hell is paved with people like you,” my religion teacher used to say. A joke to get our attention.
“You’re tired,” a friend says on one of my weeks back home. “Of course you are. Going on tour is like going on first dates for 60 days.”
On the road I cultivate my body the way I cultivated my yard, as protective ritual and fertility spell. This time with eyeshadow and jewels and clothing, with perfume and lotions, clouds of hair products. The custom of applying liquid blush to each cheekbone in two red stripes makes me feel like a warrior, painted, rubbing the blood back in. Supposedly, this blush was invented for strippers to pinch onto their nipples, to keep them pink. This thought is also part of my ritual. “Are you shopping for armor today?” my friend asks when he knows I’m on the hunt for a dress. The cowboy hat that I can’t call cowboy hat and a camel-colored coat with a pop-collar—walking in them down the street in San Francisco, in Manhattan, in Decorah, in Spokane, I feel armed. This is my body. Where will I put it? On a futon, in a seam of couch.
All tour I add to a notebook that starts with a quote from Kate Zambreno’s Heroines, where she’s writing about the birth of the Great Male Author. “He was milked and fed and cultivated and allowed. He was encouraged, and enabled, to become... That is how one writes. Slowness. Wait. And in the isolation of that room, a belief in oneself that could be construed as monstrous.” She’s writing about Flaubert, but this could just as easily describe Kerouac. Like Flaubert, he lived with his mother for a time. She worked a factory job while he stayed home writing. Becoming Kerouac.
I live with my mother too. While I’m allowed to write and tour and call that a job, I grow monstrous, sucking up all the air in the room, taking the attention, the resources. At every reading, in every town, wanting love love love.
On the Road is “a novel whose background is the recurrence of the pioneering instinct in American life and its expression in the migration of the present generation,” Kerouac wrote. He wanted readers to adore his sentences and ideas. They adored Dean Moriarty instead. Wanted Kerouac to be Dean, despite protests that Sal Paradise was his true avatar. The book’s literary ambitions were, like Sal, spun around by Dean’s version of freedom: desire answered by immediate movement. “He’ll leave you out in the cold any time it’s in his interest,” says girlfriend Marylou as she watches Dean drive off again.
Readers made the author and his character into surrogates for their own longing. That’s not why On the Road has an audience. That’s why it has a huge audience. Kerouac spent the first part of his career struggling to write his classic. He spent the rest struggling to live it down.
In the paved wasteland that lies between my childhood home and the Columbia River, there’s a muffler shop with a bikini espresso bar in the parking lot. I go there when I finally drive a hole into my muffler. While I wait to be repaired, I watch coffee traffic. Inside the windowed hut a woman makes iced lattes in a pale bikini, her bandeau top a flash of white-on-tan that flickers with practiced movement. Cars crawl counter-clockwise around her, idling, waiting their turn. When she opens her window to take an order, I catch the spill of her cleavage from her swimsuit top and the high thin harmonica of Willie’s Nelson’s “On the Road Again.” She catches me watching, looks quickly away. Slips back into the darkness of her booth. I can barely see her. She’s barely there.
In a picture on the wall by the bar, the owner of this Austin honky tonk smiles with Dolly Parton. Her makeup is a Dolly mask, a face that’s equal parts image and skin. I see her bright eyes and ripe lips overdrawn on faces all around me on this night. They look great in photos, on the dark dance floor. A thin blond woman spinning in a vinyl dress, smokin’ hot, not like a movie star, but like a woman who’s used to twirling while you watch her. When we meet by accident later over the ladies’ room sink, she dazzles me with a smile. I can see foundation sink into expression lines that fan around her blue eyes. Eyeliner and blush and boobs that say, “Fuck time.”
“How ‘bout them cowgirls? Boys ain’t they somethin’? Sure are some proud girls,” sings George Straight. There’s a cardboard cutout of him leaning against the wall next to the band, where he can watch us all night while we dance. George gets it. To love Dolly Parton is to love her face and her facelifts.
Country songs tell me a woman’s body—my body—is a home. That’s why cowboys sing the blues. Why, as Jack Clement wrote, they like to “get hurt and all that bit. Let their hearts hang out so they can write you all a hit.”
“So ladies,” Waylon Jennings sings, “if they ask you, don’t refuse.”
Their road is a performance that’s equal parts presence and absence. It’s a promise they make for someone else to fulfill.
Monstrous. That’s what I called myself a minute ago because I took Dean Moriarty’s share; his bread and love, my portion under the sun. I trespassed in Kerouac Country and was punished. I trespassed in Kerouac Country and got away.
Jack Kerouac drank himself to death in 1969. When I went on the road he was too dead to stop me, not dead enough to let me pass unscathed, and so he gave me a frame for this story: invaded, burgled, hit. Risks I took because in 2013 they were the price of being a woman on tour, and I thought it was my turn to answer desire with movement, my turn to try and write everything down—if not as it happened, then as it started to make sense, a pattern of migration that let me fuck around beyond the borders of my previous life, on the road, unprotected and alive.
The day after we meet a man at our first author reception, and that evening meet him again when he breaks into our cabin, Jessica and I rock our first reading. He is at the festival, possibly watching from the crowd.
I wonder if his choices last night were part of a longer-running performance, one where artists forgive themselves their trespasses so they might make something happen—a pattern, a plot twist, an idea-bearing image, a chance to assert aesthetic and test power. I wonder if the meaning we make or find or steal from our trespassing can become a request for forgiveness, or a reason to forgive. If so, then art is a church where we engage the fraught encounter ecstatically, worshipfully, as if it can reshape us into higher beings, people with loud tongues, wild gestures, and a pulse the whole world can feel.
Later, the man pulls us aside to apologize again.
He is a writer. It is quite likely that we have friends in common, that we will see him again.
We call what happened a misunderstanding. It ends the conversation with a distribution of blame.
To Jess and me, the word misunderstanding comes naturally. It is not a just answer or a correct one, but it gives us a quick escape.
The next day, he requests our friendship on Facebook.
The next day, we get back on the road.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Three.