The USA is a big country. And whenever anyone’s tried to
define – be they a Charles Dickens, a Mark Twain or a Stephen Fry – it they’ve
hit the road. So did the Beat Generation, a group of 1940s university students
in New York. They’d skip class to dig jazz and debate their place in Cold War
America. And then they’d hit the road: crisscrossing the country in search of
the new American dream – or just for kicks, music and women.
The Beat bible, if there is one, is On the Road, Jack
Kerouac’s mostly autobiographical novel about a series of aimless road trips
taken from 1947 to 1950. It’s now a Hollywood production: Walter Salles’ film
is out this autumn.
Kerouac appears as the book’s narrator, Sal Paradise. Other key Beats make the novel too, including
the poet Allen Ginsberg and novelist William S Burroughs. The hero is Dean
Moriarty, based on Neal Cassady, a Coloradoan who marks his trips with a ‘wild
yea-saying overburst of American joy’.
Can you travel the road in that same spirit today? Kerouac
tried in 1960, and failed, finding that interstates had come, bypassing many of
the towns that he’d torn through a decade before. But if the Beats can teach us
anything about travel, it’s that every journey presents new opportunities. Here
are five key cities to visit, places that Kerouac knew and that still inspire
the ‘bug’ that drew him across the country more than 60 years ago.
New York: The start
and finish of a Beat Generation trip
New York is the city that never sleeps – and it was particularly awake
after WWII. Wall Street boomed, the United Nations picked a Manhattan spot on
the East River as its base, and developer Robert Moses lit a fuse on city
projects that created the skyline that is so familiar to us today. It was in
this New York that the Beat Generation was born, with students dropping out of
college and experimenting with drugs, music, sex and literature in a quest to
find an alternative to the rampant, materialist lifestyles that they saw
growing around them.
It is also where
Kerouac’s novel begins and ends. In On the Road, it was a place of jazz clubs
and diners, of trips taken on the A-train and long nights spent at dingy
taverns, surrounded by ‘the absolute madness and fantastic hoorair of New York
with its millions and millions hustling forever for a buck among themselves’.
It was in Harlem jazz joints such as Minton’s Playhouse that fast-tempo bebop
developed out of old-school jazz. Kerouac was such a bebop fan that trumpeter
Dizzy Gillespie named a 1941 song after him, and ‘bop’ soon became the soundtrack
for the Beats alongside more traditional jazz.
Though Minton’s is now closed barring the odd jazz festival,
you can still find plenty of vintage variety in late-night joints. Harlem’s Lenox Lounge is a 1939 club where Billie
Holiday played, and Brooklyn’s Barbès
serves up cocktails and bourbon alongside its music performances. But the
essential Beat stop is the time-warp basement venue of the Village Vanguard in Greenwich
Village, open since 1935. Kerouac performed jazz poetry here in the 1960s, not
long after he lamented that ‘jazz is killing itself here’ because of its high
cover prices. It’s hard to complain about the $25 admission fee these days when
you can encounter real bebop survivors like 82-year-old jazz pianist Barry
Harris, who did a two-week stint here last summer.
Kerouac lived just under a mile away at 454 West 20th Street
in the 1950s, banging out the first draft of On the Road in three weeks. His
manuscript consisted of a single paragraph on a continuous 120-foot scroll of
paper; it sold at auction for just under £1.5 million in 2001, and was finally
published in its original form by Penguin in 2007 (£10.99). When not at his
desk, Kerouac hung out with Allen Ginsberg at the 19th-century White Horse
Tavern (567 Hudson Street, 00 1 212 989 3956), made infamous as the site of
Dylan Thomas’s fatal drinking binge in 1953. The pub has since become a West
Village institution, popular now with locals, literary students and curious
On the Road’s own melancholy end comes after a newly married
Sal Paradise decides to settle down in New York, after zigzagging across the
USA in a whirl of mayhem with Dean Moriarty. Sal waves goodbye to the itinerant
Dean from a Cadillac window as he heads up West 20th Street to Penn Station and
the train that will carry him west. Afterwards, Sal sits on an ‘old broken-down
pier’ on the Hudson River and watches the sun set. It’s hard to know which pier
he sat on, but a good proxy is the Hudson
River Park, stretching up the west side of Manhattan and lined with bike
paths, two landscaped piers and the odd café. It’s especially lovely at the end
of the day, so do as Sal did: watch the sun go down in ‘the long, long skies
over New Jersey’ and ‘all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge
bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming
in the immensity of it’.
Book one of the six characterful rooms at the Sankofa Aban b&b, located in a
four-storey brownstone building in Brooklyn and dating back to the 1880s. It
hosts jazz concerts on Friday nights (from £95).
Chicago: The Beats
meet the Mob in the Windy City
Chicago ‘glowed red’ when Sal and Dean pull into the city in On the Road.
Kerouac describes it as a ‘semi-Eastern, semi- Western’ city – and it’s that
midway location that transformed it in the late 1800s as America’s railroad
hub, a position it would hold for 100 years. The two protagonists arrive not by
train but in a borrowed Cadillac that they proceed to smash up as they zip
madly from club to club, bar to bar, in search of good times and girls.
They divide their time between the historic Loop district, on
the edge of Lake Michigan, and Uptown, further north. In On the Road, the Loop
was all ‘screeching trolleys, newsboys, gals cutting by, the smell of fried
food and beer in the air, neons winking’. While its Theater District has retained
the neon, the Loop has changed immeasurably since the mid-20th century. The
area is now home to Chicago’s financial district as well as museums, galleries
and Millennium Park,
with artworks including Anish Kapoor’s Bean, and free summer concerts. There is
little of Kerouac to find here, though, considering his brief stint with the US
Navy, you could get your 21st-century kicks at popular Navy Pier, a distracting bevvy of fast-food
restaurants and high-tech amusement rides. There are free firework displays
from the pier on summer evenings.
Musically, Chicago is
best known for its blues, but Sal and Dean came to ‘see the hootchy-kootchy
joints and hear the bop’. They spend the night following musicians into unnamed
saloons and drinking beer until nine the following morning. You’ll get kicked
out at 4am but, to re-create some of the spirit of their night, head over to Green Mill. It has been the place to
go for drinks and jazz in Uptown Chicago for over a century, and was one of Al
Capone’s favourite clubs. In its 1920s heyday, it filled a block-long complex
that included theatres and restaurants. It still retains its original feel –
past the entrance with its sparkling lights lies a true cocktail lounge, with
curved leather booths and bar tenders’ colourful tales about the mobsters who
owned shares in the place. A trapdoor behind the bar leads to tunnels where
they hid their bootlegged booze. When singer Joe E Lewis refused to play the
Green Mill, he got his throat slashed. He survived the attack, then agreed to
play. Today, jazz is played nightly, and willingly – afterwards, stagger out
‘into the great roar of Chicago... to sleep until the wild bop night again’.
Recover from your revelry in a smart room at the Wyndham Blake Chicago, housed in the old
customs building in the Loop (from £145).
Chicago is 20 hours from New York by train (from £65); 13.5
hours (800 miles) by car; or a 90-minute flight
New Orleans: Ferry
rides and good times in the Deep South
New Orleans ‘burned in our brains’, writes Kerouac, as Sal and Dean are
drawn south by the promise of the ‘greeneries and river smells’ of the city
that’s regarded as the birthplace of jazz. Driving down the Gulf Coast, they
click on a local Chicken Jazz’n Gumbo radio show (WWOZ
is a nice proxy), Dean yelling out of the car window, ‘“Now we're going to get
Yet, instead of jumping into the fray, they catch the ferry
to Algiers, a sleepy neighbourhood across the Mississippi. Algiers felt like a
deserted island in the 1940s. It’s still pretty removed, with quiet blocks of
century-old shotgun shacks. But you should at least ride the ferry across Ol’ Man River, which has run here
since 1827. It’s free for pedestrians, and can be at its most atmospheric at
night, the time when Sal watches the ‘mystic wraith of fog over the brown
Sal and Dean stay in Algiers with Beat writer William S
Burroughs (Old Bull Lee in the book), who lives with his family and seven cats
in a ‘dilapidated old heap with sagging porches’. He doesn’t much like New
Orleans – the one night they hit the French
Quarter, Old Bull purposely takes them to dull bars. The district deserves
more consideration; while Bourbon Street gets all the attention for its
touristy nightlife, you're never far from quiet streets full of 19th-century
townhouses, housing art galleries and Creole restaurants. For bigger kicks,
Kerouac would have enjoyed Frenchmen Street, steps east from the French
Quarter. Just walk up it and listen out for the music you want to hear, diving
in and out of local bars and cafés. A stand-out, and frequently dubbed the best
jazz venue in the city, is the intimate Snug
Harbor, a brick-wall venue in a converted townhouse. Sal’s lingering memory
of New Orleans is the sweet smell of its air, its river, its people and its
mud; add the smell of meat loaf, BBQ and po’boys to the mix at Elizabeth’s. One of New
Orlean’s favourite down-home restaurants, it’s situated on the levee near
Frenchmen Street, overlooking the Mississippi.
Stay at the Frenchmen,
a cluster of 1850s houses surrounding a courtyard with pool; some rooms have
balconies (from £60).
New Orleans is 19.5 hours from Chicago by train (from £75); 15 hours (930 miles) by
car; or just over 2 hours by plane
Denver: From baseball
games to old-school bars in the West
On the Road is driven by the allure of the West, and in particular Denver,
Neal Cassady’s hometown and a Beat hub in the 1940s and ’50s. Kerouac came to
the Colorado capital every time he travelled, lured by Denver ‘looming ahead of
me like the Promised Land, way out there beneath the stars, across the prairie
of Iowa and the plains of Nebraska’.
Built as a frontier mining town in the 19th century, Denver
was booming in the ’40s. The characters from On the Road convene in the Windsor
Hotel on Larimer Street, built during the Gold Rush and once Denver’s most
luxurious lodgings. By the time the Beats made it their meeting place, it was a
flophouse with bullet holes in the walls. The hotel was demolished in 1959.
The area has come full circle today. Larimer Street, the
heart of skid row in On the Road, is now Lower Downtown, or LoDo, a hip area of
restaurants, loft apartments and microbreweries created from century-old
warehouses. The Great Divide
Brewing Co is a first-rate example of new Denver, crafting excellent
seasonal and year-round beers and selling them in its tap room.
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
Denver is 19 hours by train
from New Orleans (from £160); 22 hours (1,370 miles) by car; or a 3-hour flight (from £75).
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
Nearby Vesuvio Cafe is a
Beat-era remnant, with Tiffany lamps and old photos. Kerouac once skipped a
meeting with author Henry Miller to drink himself silly here – though not with
the tequila, rum and OJ cocktail now dubbed the ‘Kerouac’.
Before leaving town, Sal fulfils his own promise to climb
‘that mountain’. On a beautiful day, surrounded by California cottonwood trees,
he looks over the Pacific, back to the city where he imagines ‘beautiful women
standing in white doorways’, then east towards the ‘great raw bulge and bulk of
my American continent’. That mountain, north of the city, is Mount Tamalpais. Find your own Sal Paradise
moment on Mount Tamalpais State Park’s 50 miles of hiking and biking trails,
which include a half-mile trip up East Peak. Perhaps at the top, ‘at the end of
America’, you’ll find, like Sal, that there’s ‘nowhere to go but back’.
Boutique Hotel Bohème,
in North Beach, looks to the Beats for its inspiration, with retro fabrics and
’50s photos (from £125).
San Francisco is 34 hours from Denver by train (from £100); 20 hours (1,300 miles)
by car; or a 2.5-hour flight
The article 'Jack Kerouac’s US road trip' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Traveller.