On The Road May 13, 2008Posted by The Typist in cryptic envelopment, Dancing Bear, New Orleans, Toulouse Street.
Tags: Blackie, environment, Ghost Dance, Jack Kerouac, New Orleans, NOLA, On The Road, shambala
Somewhere along the line I knew there’d be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me.
— Jack Kerouac, On The Road
So long, brother man.
My best friend since we were four and five (Eric is the eldest) is preparing to leave on his annual pilgrimage to the wilderness places of the west, places in and upon which has built much of his life, escaping not just the summer heat of this place that he cannot stand but so much of the weight that bares down on him right now, that bears down upon on us all.
Eric is one of those characters we all admired from our youth, a figure straight out of Kerouac and thirty or more years later he still lives the life we have all left behind, or perhaps only dreamed of or acted out in little fits and starts. He has had his settled spells, has married and settled down, but mostly he’s wandered and hiked and climbed the most beautiful places imaginable, and as a guide taken others there. Having gutted and rebuilt his mother’s house, and once the penance of a summer here, he is once again free to wander.
Most of the women in my life struggled to understand what the recent slow loss of his dog to cancer meant to him, why he obsessed through her last months and why he is now absolutely devastated. They don’t understand that losing his dog, who died just a few weeks ago, was to him like the loss of a child. Because of his connection to the outdoors, part of his attachment to her was to the one animal he could protect and save on what he sees as a dying planet.
And in the end she was the only companion suited to his peripatetic life, outlasting the wife and stepchildren, and any number of girlfriends. Where my wife and sister see a dependence on the easy, unconditional love of a dog I see, well, a man and his dog: often on the road, frequently in the wilderness, acting out that unique American journey where the search for self isn’t in the beehive hut of an Irish ascetic or beneath a tree on a mountaintop in the far East but is a journey over that next rise and the next and the next until, just maybe, the road leads down into what just might be Shambala.
The secret of that life isn’t a hidden Utopian valley. It is not a destination. It is a journey down a path where possessions are minimal and functional, where the attachments are not to things but to friends scattered across a continent; where the goal isn’t just to top that next hill for its own sake but to see the next hill beyond, and to start toward it; to walk in beauty, stepping lightly upon the earth
We were talking of the loss of his dog and how she represented the one animal spirit he could protect and try to save in a world of dying animal and plants, of how he needed to find a way to live that would keep him close to the wilderness and let him share his love and knowledge of nature. It seemed, he said, that any such effort would be like the Ghost Dance of the Plains natives: a desperate attempt to stop a change in the world that seems unstoppable.
Perhaps, I suggested, the Ghost Dance worked; not in the way its makers and dancers intended, to stop the bullets of the Gatling guns. It worked because we were sitting on my porch a century and more later and talking about the Ghost Dance, about whether is is possible to save the planet from ourselves, because as we spoke of the Ghost Dance we talked through how he might find the way to continue to spend his life trying. What the Lakota hoped to save, a life as old and close to the earth as the hanging branches of our great live oaks, is not lost. It lives on in part in people like Eric.
Perhaps I give you the wrong impression of him. He is no monk, except by his own admission when he walks alone through the forest. As we talked on my porch into the night we littered the table with the finest Belgian ales and spoke of whether a trip to Belgium to drink them should pass through Amsterdam. We considered and dismissed an escape to Frenchman Street and the Jazz Vipers. A fabulous dancer, women gravitate to him like birds around a park popcorn vendor. The road he travels is the true American road, the one Kerouac set out to find: alternating stretches of a vast and thinly peopled native beauty with the bright lights and attractions of each passing town: a cafe with a flirtatious redheaded waitress who would love to see the high wildflower meadows in June or a roadhouse with bad beer and a transcendent juke box.
My wife wonders why he doesn’t stay. I know why, but I can’t explain. Eric says it’s the heat. He can’t stand it. I know that’s not the real reason or the whole reason. I think every man somewhere inside understands if he is truly a man, truly human. There is something about that holy hobo journey that calls to all men but only a few of us answer it. We tie ourselves down with ropes of responsibility out of love of a woman or fear of the commitment that such a lack of attachment actually requires. The life I’ve built won’t let me go down that path, but a little of me will journey with Eric out west, my love of this brother from another mother, and a blessing upon his travels: may he walk in beauty.