Jack Kerouac’s US road trip
On his second trip to Denver, Sal Paradise watches a game of softball played under floodlights on Welton Street, a ‘great eager crowd’ roaring at every play. These days, equally excitable crowds gather a few blocks away at gleaming Coors Field, home to the Colorado Rockies baseball team. Games cost from £38, or tour the stadium for £4.50.
Original Beatnik haunts do survive in the city. Kerouac used to visit the tiny, timeless El Chapultepec, a no-thrills jazz legend with red chequered floors and a stage that’s hosted Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. Local jazz bands now take the stage nightly. Armed with a great old neon sign and beaten-up vinyl booths, Don’s Club Tavern is another relic of the Beats’ time, an old-school dive bar that opened in 1947, and was allegedly another of Kerouac’s drinking holes.
Before leaving town on the last leg of your trip, it’s worth checking out the ’50s-era signs scattered along Colfax Ave. Stretching east as US 40, it’s one of the country’s earliest cross-country routes. Sal and his Beat mates spend a lot of time on this road, living in an apartment there and drinking in its bars. When Dean Moriarty finally leaves Denver, he does so by roaring ‘east along Colfax and out to the Kansas plains’.
The Brown Palace is one of America’s great historic hotels. It opened in 1892 after its owner had been refused entry to the Windsor Hotel because of his cowboy get-up (from £160).
San Francisco: Books, Beat and rolling fogs at the end of America
No city in America holds on to its past or regards anything resembling a national chain with as much suspicion as does San Francisco, or ‘Frisco’ as Kerouac dared to call it (locals hate the monicker). It’s a city of the individual, of rebels and romantics, and where inhibitions are frowned upon.
This spirit emerged in the same period that the Beats settled in, along with poets and artists, followed a couple of decades later by hippies and gay-rights activists. After WWII, when soldiers returning from the Pacific boosted the population, the city looked much as it does now. There are still 1940s-era streetcars running along Market Street and the fog still comes ‘streaming though Golden Gate to shroud the romantic city in white’ as it did in On the Road.
Sal arrives in San Francisco for his second visit after a wild cross-country ride with Dean, who yells, ‘“We can’t go any further ’cause there ain’t no more land.”’ The Beats’ activity in the city centered around North Beach, an Italian neighbourhood just north of Chinatown. The area is watched over by Art Deco Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill – take the lift to the top for panoramic views over the whole bay and the ‘eleven teeming hills’ that surround it.
The Beat Museum is a short stroll south. At this shrine to all things Beat Generation, you can see old film footage about the era’s leading writers, artists and musicians, trawl through first editions of Beat literature, and perhaps pick up a Kerouac bobble-head doll for your dashboard. Further south, Jack Kerouac Alley is a shortcut between North Beach and Chinatown, and a monument to the writer. Look out for the inscription from On the Road: ‘The air was soft, the stars so fine, the promise of every cobbled alley so great.’
The alley leads to City Lights bookstore, opened in 1953 by poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Poetic justice has been served here since 1957, when Ferlinghetti won a landmark freespeech ruling when he was pulled up on an obscenity charge for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s incendiary Howl. Head upstairs to the Beat section if you want a copy of it, or of the original scroll version of On the Road.