“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.” ~ Jack Kerouac
After my junior year of college, I rewarded myself with my first tattoo:
Up until that year, I had been getting a facial piercing for every semester I finished (yes, that’s right, I had piercings), but when a job working in a kitchen required that I take them out, I rejiggered my system. Hence, ‘the Road is Life’ printed in old-fashioned typewriter font across my left tit.
One of my brothers (Steve or Fonz) had bought me Jack Kerouac’s seminal On The Road as a birthday/high school graduation gift, and like so many teenagers before me, I devoured it like a holy text. Even in high school, I knew I wanted to get out, get free. In those days, my entire focus was on escaping to New York City, the mecca that would redeem my inert existence up until that point. When those plans fell through, my vision for my future began evolving.
Kerouac’s words festered in my head throughout college. I read more of his works* and longed for the road while sequestered on a tiny bunk bed in a 10×10 dorm bedroom, harshly lit and impossibly crowded. The desire to travel broke out of me in sudden bursts of angsts, and on particularly lonely nights I would jump into my little 2-door Ford Escort and drive. For miles.
One night, hours after midnight, filled with self-pity (as I so often was in those days), I climbed into my car and drove off, aimlessly. 45 minutes after I started, I was in Kansas City. I kept going. I didn’t have a destination, but by the time the sun came up, I was in St. Louis. I hate St. Louis.** I circled around the Arch, flitted in and out of the weekend traffic and then turned around and drove back through Missouri towards Lawrence.
I had a far more eventful road trip later on during Spring Break. But I’ll save that full story for another post.
These excursions mostly took place in my sophomore year of college. That year was important because it was the year I stopped hanging out with my church friends and wholeheartedly invested in my college life, specifically my hallmates and associated friends. It was also the year my slide into atheism firmly took hold (the story of my deconversion). I was changing and I yearned for my world to change with me. Stubbornly, it did not.
The next year, I entered into a relationship, which grounded me for a time, as they so often do. My homeless wishes and vagabond dreams were buried beneath visions of a traditional romantic life.
Yeah, that was doomed.
The girl and I lived in Washington D.C. the summer after my junior year (not coincidentally the same summer I got the tattoo), the first time I had ever lived outside of Lawrence.
The wanderlust roared back up. Though we stayed together another year and moved to Charlotte together, our dissolution was inevitable. Charlotte is, of course, where 10 Cities /10 Years began (in practice, if not in spirit).
Change Is Life
While ‘the road is life’ has resonance with me in Kerouac’s original, poetic intent, it also has a more prosaic meaning for me.
Life does not exist in stasis. In fact, life without change is a contradiction in terms. There would be no biological life on earth if were not for evolution, the ability to adapt and fit into nature’s uncaring molds.
Similarily, I feel like a life well-lived is a life that embraces the chaotic nature of existence and, instead of battening down, unfurls the sails.
Change is hard for me. Just like it has been for 100% of the human beings that has ever existed. People tell me all the time, “I could never do what you do.” Yeah they could. Yeah you could. A million individual events and biological predispositions had to fall into place to set me on my path, but make no mistake, the only character trait that suits me for this life is a willingness to embrace change even as every fiber of my being screams against it.
I love what I do. I’m happier now than I have been at any point in my life (as a statistical average, at least).
That doesn’t mean it’s easy for me, or that packing up what I own, leaving good friends and moving to a strange city with no job and little money is fun.
Sure, it’s rewarding, but it’s also hard as hell. Life would certainly be easier for me if I stuck it out in one city and settled into a routine. There are days when the thought tempts me.
But no matter, change is life.
*Interestingly (at least, to me), I’ve never reread On The Road, unlike, say, The Great Gatsby, which I’ve read more than 10 times. I don’t plan to reread the book until I’ve finished the 10 Cities Project. I’m interested in how I perceive it on the other end of my own beatific travels.
** Sorry Saint Louians. No disrespect towards what I’m sure is a lovely city, but other than a Radiohead concert, I never enjoyed my visits to the city in my youth. Maybe I’d like it better now. Guess we’ll never know.