Lonesome Traveler by Jack Kerouac (1960)

I love the palate of a travel journal, not trying to but simply having depth because it means you did it, you left for somewhere on purpose to see something new, good or bad. Tell me anything, your impressions of the train stations and the train station people, the food, what did you eat, what did you do?

Succinct, compact and heavy in a good way, Kerouac is more down to earth  in Lonesome Traveler than his cast of On the Road. The cast here is really just Kerouac, his changing locale and perception thereof; it’s California, it’s Washington, New York, Morocco, France. The realness in how he describes his experiences and insights is what puts you there with him.

In the Pacific Northwest working as a fire scout in wild loneness he is emboldened by his Emerson-like self-reliance saying, “No man should go through life without once experiencing healthy, even bored solitude in the wilderness, finding himself depending solely on himself and thereby learning his true and hidden strength. – Learning, for instance, to eat when he’s hungry and sleep when he’s sleepy” (113). Being alone in the wild can direct your attention to the basic-ness of life, not its simplicity because it’s not simple.

I had to think about the idea of boredom being preferable. I’ve always said that I’ve never been bored, thinking boredom is actually a lack of imagination. In Camus’ The Stranger a similar sentiment is expressed by his narrator, Meursault. After having spent some time in prison, searching for ways to pass the time by recounting scenes from his free life, he says, “I realized that a man who had lived only one day could easily live for a hundred years in prison. He would have enough memories to keep him from being bored” (Camus 79). Boredom can be a space for forgotten memories or unexplored thoughts to surface. I see now, that boredom is a treat of implied leisure like in childhood and should be cherished as any other state of mind not harmful.

Kerouac comes to rethink the merits of this sought out solitude,

“Thinking of the stars night after night I begin to realize ‘The stars are words’ and all the innumerable worlds are words, and so is this world too. And I realize that no matter where I am, whether in a little room full of thought, or in this endless universe of stars and mountains, it’s all in my mind. There’s no need for solitude. So love life for what it is, and form no preconceptions whatever in your mind” (115).

I must admit to a sharp inhale when Kerouac mentioned my shoestring California hometown in passing and it felt like he saw me for a minute. Embarrassing and awesome. That the hills, trees and sea, the definition of familiar to me, could be chartered back decades before my birth and printed on a page I read far from them in Europe, is startling. It shows how places belong to everyone in every time and that they can possess more storied characters than people. “It’s all in California, it’s all a sea, I swim out of it in afternoons of sun hot meditation in my jeans with head on handkerchief on brakeman’s lantern or (if not working) on books, I look up at blue sky of perfect lostpurity and feel the warp of wood of old America beneath me” (40).

He went to France for the first time, following back his family thread. Upon approaching his ‘eagered-for Paris,’ Kerouac writes, “—How old my life in France, my long old Frenchness, seemed – all those names of the shops, épicerie, boucherie, the early-morning little stores like those of my French-Canadian home, like Lowell Massachusetts on a Sunday. – Quel différence? I was very happy suddenly” (132). There are places you visit for the first time and it feels like coming home. I felt this way in France and in Spain. Mainly travel reminds you how far away you are from home, but sometimes you find yourself in a culture made for you miles, continents or even ages away from where you were born.

“I discovered Monmartre. – Now I knew where I would live if I ever came back to Paris”

Finally in Paris, he writes, “I stopped at a café, ordered Cinzano, and realized the racket of going-to-work was the same here as in Houston or in Boston and no better – but I felt a vast promise, endless streets, streets, girls, places, meanings, and I could understand why Americans stayed here, some for lifetimes” (136).

I’m glad I read On the Road before Lonesome Traveler because it is good to already get Kerouac’s flow, somewhat have his number. In the best self-written author introduction ever, Kerouac says that the book’s ‘scope and purpose’ is “simply poetry, or, natural description” (10). This he could not have done better.


What I underlined:

All that Americanness that in my youth had me get wild to be in it and leave my home and go off be big hero in the American romance-me-jazz night (22)

Deni is meanwhile very busy tellin me what a mess I’ve made of my life but I’ve heard that from everybody coast to coast and I dont care generally and I dont care tonight and this is my way of doing and saying things (25)

It was the fantastic drowse and drum hum of lum mum afternoon nathin’ to do, ole Frisco with end of land sadness – the people – the alley full of trucks and cars of businesses nearabouts and nobody knew or far from cared who I was all my life three thousand five hundred miles from birth-O opened up and at last belonged to me in Great America (41)

Why does Times Square feel like a big room? (99)

America’s always rememberable in exile (127)

Paris is a woman and London is an independent man puffing his pipe in a pub (145)


Edition: Penguin Classics 2000

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