Excerpted from Unstuck—a nonfiction work-in-progress about spiritual road tripping.
If there is a recurring sub-theme in this text it is Mark Twain, spiritual mentor of the Clubhouse on Wheels and my road trip journeys.
My first road trip in the COW was to Angels Camp in the Sierra Nevada mountains where a young Sam Clemens went “slinking” to escape humiliation after a newspaper story went wrong and in a bar mined a story about a jumping frog that put him on the map.
And then driving with my friend Curt through the American heartland we rolled into Hannibal, Missouri where Clemens was born.
And now here I am at the gothic castle Sam built in Hartford when that city teemed not with insurance managers (worse than used car salesmen) but with writers and publishers, gawking up a hill at the house where Clemens spent his happiest days but ultimately caused him heartbreak when his favorite daughter Susy died right here from spinal meningitis at the tender age of twenty-four.
Sam was in Britain at the time after a worldwide lecture tour he had undertaken to buy himself out of bankruptcy and that’s where he learned that losing all your money is not the worst thing that can happen in life.
On this dank New England day I seat myself on a porch bench among ethereal traces of Sam and his family, a gloomy estate encapsulated by a soulless city of actuaries and underwriters, before wandering around a museum gift shop with all the usual trinkets and trash, nothing I need and nothing I want.
Onward we roll across the Massachusetts border and spill into Lowell, the birthplace of Jack Kerouac whose 1957 book On the Road was my early inspiration.
I had wandered Larimer Street in Denver five years earlier with Van Stein looking for Jack’s ghost...
...and a week after that the artist and I ventured to San Francisco’s North Beach to visit City Lights Bookstore where Kerouac and the beats congregated, mostly the adjacent Vesusio, a landmark bar where they drank.
And now here I am in Jack’s hometown (“a Lowell point,” wits Huckleberry Howard gawking glumly at the grim city streets), known these days for boarded-up diners, tattoo parlors and addiction problems—like just about everywhere else in smalltown USA nearly twenty years into the twenty-first century.
Lowell is also where Kerouac’s bones rest eternal beneath a simple gravestone in Edson Cemetery on Lincoln between Seventh and Eight, littered with items left by pilgrims: a Jack Daniel’s miniature, a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon, a shot glass emblazoned with Jesus, a lot of pens. I leave a wooden nickel good for a free beer at the bar I once owned but is now, like Kerouac himself, a ghost.
A more recent memorial wall is nearby has this inscription: “The Road is Life.”
We all are on the road and it is only our journey that counts because everyone has the same destination.
Dusk further darkens this grey drizzly day as we scoot north to Portsmouth, New Hampshire and land at sucky Sheraton after twelve hours on the road.