The Road to Rocky Mount

September 23, 2007 

Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" has never gone out of print since it was published Sept 5, 1957. It still sells 100,000 copies a year. Young people, as well as those young at heart look toward this book as a must-read.

Kerouac described America once as one big backyard, one he loved to wander in, from yard to yard, just seeing what everyone was doing, and to join the party that was going on. And the wild, sad, mystical book describing Kerouac and Neal Cassady -- a cowboy and a football player -- in an automobile cruising the highways, cities and towns of America in search of "it" actually started in Eastern North Carolina, in Rocky Mount.

"On the Road" became the bible of the Beat Generation and Kerouac its spokesman, a job he never asked for and one he certainly wasn't ready or capable to do. The wild child and voice of the Beat movement, Kerouac, with friends Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, didn't set out to change American literature -- they only wanted to publish their writing.

Legend tells that "On the Road" was written by a benny-crazed Kerouac in three weeks. Kerouac did write a version of the book in three weeks, but fueled by coffee not Benzedrine. He put a long roll of taped-together paper into his typewriter and started pounding away in an apartment loft on 21st Street, off Seventh Avenue in New York City, in 1951. But this was years after he started the epic many times. Starting as early as 1948, he filled notebooks with word sketches, character descriptions and never stopped or gave up. Kerouac had written the novel in about as many variations as Cassady had stolen cars. But it was the three-week typing session manuscript that caught the editor's eye.

Kerouac roared into Rocky Mount on a roadway of words -- by train, bus or a ride that he bummed along the way. During the late 1940s until 1956, Kerouac made extensive visits to Rocky Mount.

Kerouac visited North Carolina in June 1948 for the birth of his nephew, Paul Blake Jr. He joined his family during Christmas 1948, in a little white house on Tarboro Street, at the end of a dirt road in Edgecombe County, right across the Nash County line, the railroad tracks that separate the town. The city streets weren't paved in those days and Kerouac describes the muddy new Hudson pulling into his brother-in-law's front yard. In "On the Road," Kerouac calls Rocky Mount "Testament, Va."-- the only time he used a fictitious name for a town in any of his books.

Cassady and crew pulled up on a snowy Christmas Eve 1948. Neal played jazz records and jumped around and had Kerouac's relatives concerned. But it was all straightened out and Jack and Neal left for their first venture on the road together, taking Kerouac's mother's load of furniture up to Paterson, N.J. Then they came straight back for her and the rest of the gang, Marylou and Ed.

Kerouac's sister moved from their home on Tarboro Street to the crossroads community of Big Easonburg Woods, five miles outside of Rocky Mount. The community is called West Mount now and hasn't changed much from when Kerouac started visiting in 1952. He arrived from Mexico City during the summer of 1952, just having written "Dr. Sax" in Williams S. Burroughs' tiled bathroom.

Kerouac describes his life and times in Big Easonburg Woods in his novel "The Dharma Bums," written after the publishers told him that they wanted another "On the Road" type of book. "The Dharma Bums" explores Kerouac's leap into Buddhism; his West Coast mountain climbing with Japhy (Gary Snyder); and poetry adventures with Allen Ginsberg and "HOWL." In it, he devotes five or six chapters to describing his life in Big Easonburg. Kerouac's sister and brother-in-law rented a little cottage that Kerouac used for his retreat. He'd come there from places North, South, East and West and usually walked the three miles to his sister's house after being left off at the intersection of Little Easonburg and Halifax roads. He details this lonely walk, observing the farmhouses and tobacco fields covered in snow. Kerouac would live and sleep out on the back porch. This was his room. He would stay up late writing, either on his back porch or in the little kitchen. He wrote "Visions of Gerard" there, beginning right after Christmas 1955, taking over the little kitchen and writing all night long. He finished up during the first weeks of January 1956.

Kerouac describes his love of going out into the pine woods behind the house. He describes walking the cotton fields and tobacco fields in the moonlight, his brother-in-law's hunting dog, Sandy, at his side. He loved his back porch and room at the back of the little house with the six little windows that looked out toward the piney woods, he called Twin Tree Grove. The piney woods still exist. And the little creek that Kerouac called "Buddha Creek" still whispers.

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