One of the undersold benefits to travel is an abundance of free time to catch up on reading. Books seem to occupy a different space in your thoughts when they can’t be crowded out by work worries and family obligations. Ideas stick with you longer, acting as a lens for each new experience and a freshly polished mirror for self-reflection. At the same time, themes sink deeper into your subconscious, emerging with surprising lucidity when the last in a string of dots connects in a moment of epiphany.
Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums was one of the many novels I read during my travels. Though I didn’t fall for the story the way fervent followers of the “beat generation” guarantee, one scene continued to nag at me long after I turned the last page:
Midway through the book, in Chapter 15, Ray Smith, the protagonist and surrogate for Kerouac himself, decides to leave Berkeley, California after his friend’s wife, Rosie, suffers a paranoid break and commits suicide.
In the weeks that followed, try as I might, I couldn’t connect with Ray’s motivation to leave. By his own admission, life in Berkeley was the paradise he had been searching for: a group of true, like-minded friends, intellectual stimulation, physical activity, spiritual expansiveness, and a fulfillment of purpose. After a memorable mountaineering adventure in Chapter 12, Ray writes:
We got in the car and drove back to San Francisco drinking and laughing and telling long stories and Morley really drove beautifully that night and wheeled us silently through the graying dawn streets of Berkeley as Japhy and I slept dead to the world in the seats. At some point or other I woke up like a little child and was told I was home and staggered out of the car and went across the grass into the cottage and opened my blankets and curled up and slept till late the next afternoon a completely dreamless beautiful sleep. When I woke up the next day the veins in my feet were all cleared. I had worked the blood clots right out of existence. I felt very happy.
True, Rosie’s death was tragic, but she was no more than an acquaintance to Ray, the wife of an “…old buddy who’d let me live in his attic in San Francisco years ago…” Rosie is introduced to the plot for only as long as it takes to describe the circumstances of her suicide. For Ray to up and leave Berkeley to escape this tragedy, which in reality probably wouldn’t have torn him up all that much (as painful as it can be to admit that not all deaths stake equal claim on our hearts), created a major motivational disconnect in my mind.
Yet as my own travels evolved, this nagging disconnect began to transform into a profound understanding for what Kerouac had been trying to convey.
At the time of my reading, my brother and I had just arrived in Mui Ne, Vietnam, where we had found our own little slice of paradise. We were physically challenged, kiteboarding and surfing in a tropical paradise every day. Our group of friends, local Vietnamese and expats alike, continued to broaden our horizons culturally, socially, and intellectually. And we even found a sense of all-important fulfillment working for our kiteboarding school where we witnessed our promotional efforts transform into cash for the small business.
But behind the scenes, minor events began to layer themselves into our subconscious. Early in our 40-day stay, we heard stories of corrupt local police stopping foreigners and extorting them for small sums of money. Though considered routine in Vietnam, we passed police frequently, and couldn’t help wondering when it would be our turn to pay the toll. A couple weeks later, we convinced two Canadian girls to rent surfboards, something we did ourselves every day. In a turn of bad luck, one of the girls was forced to end her travels with a broken jaw. Later still, we found ourselves in an altercation with a gang of local motorcycle taxi drivers that easily could have ended in a one-sided fistfight. Luckily we escaped with no more than a stolen helmet. Finally, in the morning hours of Christmas Day, one of our closest friends from France crashed his scooter and was sent to Saigon hospital in critical condition.
After learning of Rosie’s suicide, Ray comments, “And that had done it. The following week I packed up and decided to hit the road and get out of that city…”
For us, the scooter crash that nearly killed a close friend was our, “And that had done it,” moment.
It was right then that a line connecting the final dot in my subconscious pushed a revelation to the surface. It was not, as I had mistakenly assumed, one event – Rosie’s suicide – that had pushed Ray to leave, just as it was not one unlucky night on a scooter that resulted in our departure from Mui Ne.
Rather, a tipping point had been reached, and I felt at that decisive moment as I believe Kerouac intended his readers to feel when Ray abruptly moves on: that the well of purpose in Berkeley had grown shallow, replaced by an ever-so-slight shade of foreboding, and a rift through which the calling of greater purpose could be heard in whispers.
In our case, that calling was to see through the original pan-Asian adventure that had been our impetus for leaving home in the first place. In Ray’s case, it was the fulfillment of his spiritual identity:
Isn’t this the time now to start following what I know to be true?
And that had done it. The following week I packed up and decided to hit the road and get out of that city of ignorance which is the modern city.
Some novels are hard to connect with because they are poorly written or poorly organized. But sometimes novels are hard to connect with because they are outside of our realm of experience. There is a reason you’ll find lists of “books for the road” promoted by many self-respecting publications. If you need further proof, look to the wide eyes of the road racked traveler sitting fireside with a mug of cold beer and extolling the brilliance of a novel he’s just finished. It is the very act of being on the road that allows us to tune into that writing beat.