On the Road
I bought my copy at Bear Pond Books in Montpelier, Vermont, but I began to read it on the road in New Hampshire. My new boyfriend and I were driving across the country in my old white Mazda hatchback, a car that would take me across the country 5 times before giving up the ghost. He stopped to take a tour of some college social justice program, which was his hobby. I stayed in the front seat to begin the book. I can remember what I was wearing: a polka dot dress I had bought off a college dormmate for $8 and my clunky work boots. Remember that look? Dresses and clunky black boots? It was the fall of 1995. Even the girls on 90210 were wearing that look. It was my uniform for awhile. In it, I felt pretty and tough.
I had just graduated from a small college in Vermont, but the boyfriend and I had gotten together in California that summer and that’s where we were headed. I was used to insta-commitments: I’d get together with someone, fall instantly in love, and plan our life together. While still in California, the boyfriend excitedly agreed to drive across the country with me, but then when he got to Vermont a few weeks later, he shocked me by announcing that he hadn’t committed to anything. It turned out he was GAME for almost anything, except for COMMITMENT. He was still trying to “figure things out,” and would through the next year and a half, which included shacking up, another drive across the country, and a move to Boston.
The weird part was that despite the on and off again fights over “what love meant” and whether we were “together,” we had an amazing time. We camped the whole way through the campgrounds of Connecticut through Oregon. We stayed in the Badlands and along the sides of roads of Wyoming. When we drove into the gates of Yellowstone Park, there were antelope fleeing across the golden grasses. We bought groceries at the Co-Op in Missoula, Montana before heading out to Seattle. We were a great traveling team, if a terrible romantic match. I still think of that trip as one of the great voyages of my life.
I read On the Road before sleep in all the tents we pitched from New Hampshire to Chicago, but I can’t remember what I read after that. It was a writer’s book and a road trip book, two things that were important for me to identify with. I loved it until Dean and Sal used their girlfriends’ money and car to get across the country, but dumped the women midway, when their cash ran out. I felt betrayed and jilted for the girls still waiting for them in the restaurant, still waiting for that taste of life on the adventurous road, while the boys snuck out back. The fact that I was with a boy who was kind of like that, did not cross my mind, but I thought that these boys–the boys in the book that I desperately wanted to go with–had ditched me somehow. I chalked it up to anti-feminism, finished the book, and tossed it in the back with big herumph.
When the boyfriend and I got to California we had two very distinctly separate reactions. He was overjoyed at the sight of the red Golden Gate bridge. I was horrified, realizing I didn’t want to be there at all. I wanted to be back on the road, getting there, without ever really getting there. The boyfriend and I broke up, got back together, broke up, and so on for awhile longer. We broke up for good when we moved back east to Boston.
This fall, I reread On the Road and realized it wasn’t the book I remembered it as. Yes, it was a writer’s book, but it was more of a searcher’s book. Sal never wanted to get anywhere–it was the journey he was interested in, not the destination. In that way, I suddenly realized that the girl I was back then wasn’t like the girls they dump mid-country. I was like Sal and Dean. Like them I rushed out the door dazzled by all the pretty horizons I went searching and searching for, but really hoped never to find. There is still a little bit of that left in me. Thankfully, not enough to make me unhappy when I reach the doorway of my home. Thankfully, I take off my coat, and am happy.