I just came across a picture of Jack on Tumblr this evening, and it reminded me of a time in my life worthy of a quick sojourn into the memory of Alaska, when I was 21, and the world opened up to me.
Later in life, while living in Oakland and trying awkwardly to meet strangers at the bar by the bookstore on Grand Avenue, I remember talking about the Beats, and what they meant to me when I discovered "On the Road". The guy I was talking to listened with a glimmer in his eye as I described my travels a few years prior, taking a summer away from college, and flying into Bristol Bay aboard a 12-seat airplane...
We landed at low tide, the massive exposure of an Alaskan summer beach our runway. The camp was made for processing, and I got very little sleep when the sun dipped down momentarily below the mountains on the horizon. Working 16 hour days I found myself bulking up from the steady diet of steak and salmon (all I could eat twice a day), and the steady workout of breaking frozen fish off of steel racks that averaged about 150 pounds each. My routine was one of deep, meditative thought, accuracy, stamina, and of course the few hours off to kill the time and kick around the camp. And it was early on one of those dusky midnights that I wandered over to the mess tent to discover a cardboard box of old paperback books lying on the ground. Rummaging through it I pulled out a twisted copy of Kerouac's most famous work, and knowing only that it was something I had heard of, I brought it back to my bunk and dug in for the night. Only hours later, at the sound of the morning bell signaling a return to the line, I knew that my life was about to change.
On the Road got under my skin, and I took advantage of the burst of life.
I left that camp and decided that I would hitchhike to the next town where I might be able to find work. I had been offered a job on a boat when I landed on a connection in Anchorage, and I was open to the idea. I buddied up with one of the girls I met at the camp, and we thumbed our way through the moose-tempered forests of the biggest state in the Union, wondering, laughing, and looking out for each other. When, at the request of one of our drivers, she was mistaken for a prostitute and I for her pimp, I knew that eventually we would have to land, and I did just that...finding new work, still about the fish, and making new friends along the way.
Unlike most of Jack's travels, that one was a sober journey for me, having needed a break from the bottle before heading back to finish out one more year of school in San Diego. And were it not for that sobriety, I likely would have stayed on the road, possibly never getting my degree...making enough money for the life I loved, and who knows what else...my dad heard the tone in my voice when after a couple of months I checked in on the phone. And he talked some sense into me.
But I will never forget how that book appeared out of nowhere to take me where I needed to go that summer.
Sitting at the bar next to the bookstore and explaining this to this stranger I had met, I was corrected when he said "That's the way the Beats work...you don't find them, they find you!" As he said this to me, he stood up, passed a brown paper bag over to me and turned and left. I opened it up to reveal what he had just purchased in the bookstore: a first run copy of another Beat book...The Abortion. It was a real find, and for some reason, I guess he figured, it was meant for me.
I'm glad I ran into Jack tonight. There are travels in the near future for me. I needed to be reminded that it's about the journey, the experience, the fun and the fury and the madness that comes along when we least expect it and most need it.
It's about the burn.