Classic Travel Writing: Jack Kerouac’s ‘Lonesome Traveler’

Jack KerouacWhile blogs take up most of my travel reading these days, every now and then I like to dip into an old classic. So on a recent flight to Washington DC to attend the Gadling bloggers summit, I read “Lonesome Traveler by Jack Kerouac.

This slim volume contains eight stream-of-consciousness essays in the style you’d expect from one of the leaders of the Beat Generation. For example, the author tells a friend:

“Deni the reason I followed the ship all the way 3,200 miles from Staten Island to goddam Pedro is not only because I wanta get on and be seen going around the world and have myself a ball in Port Swettenham and pick up on gangee in Bombay and find the sleepers and the fluteplayers in filthy Karachi and start revolutions of my own in the Cairo Casbah and make it from Marseilles to the other side, but because of you, because, the things we used to do, where, I have a hell of a good time with you Den, there’s no two ways about. . .I never have any money that I admit, I already owe you sixty for the bus fare, but you must admit I try. . .I’m sorry that I don’t have any money ever, but you know I tried with you, that time. . .well gaddam, wa ahoo, shit, I want to get drunk tonight.”

When you have a monologue like that, you know you’re in Kerouac territory. The posts range from his time hanging out with William S. Burroughs in Tangier to his jobs as a fire watcher and on trains and boats.

Sometimes the best travel writing is that which takes you back to a place you love, in my case old New York City before its seedy heart was cleaned up and dulled. Kerouac takes us on a tour of all the crazy Times Square spots where the Beats used to hang out while a cavalcade of oddballs passes by. Through all this blur of activity Kerouac wonders, “Why does Times Square feel like a big room?”

Wow, yeah! Times Square does feel like a big room, even fifty years later when I hung out there. That broad open space enclosed by four walls of skyscrapers with all the people coming and going has a strange homey, interior feel to it. A good travel writer can put into words what you’ve always felt about a place.

And Kerouac is a damned good travel writer. “Lonesome Traveler” is filled with quotable one-liners about booze, sex, solitude, trusting strangers, nature and just about everything else. The one that perhaps best sums up the Beat mentality is actually by Gregory Corso, who in the New York sequence says, “Standing on the street corner waiting for no one is Power.”

Not a bad summary of the attractions of travel.

10 landmarks for lovers of Western literature

shakespeare and company bookstoreAre you an enthusiast of everything Voltaire? Can you not get enough of Shakespeare and James Joyce? If you are a lover of Western literature, add these 10 landmarks to your upcoming travel itineraries.

The Shakespeare and Company Bookstore
Paris, France

It is only right that the first landmark on the list be in Paris, France, as this is where many French writers, such as Voltaire, Proust, Balzac, and Baudelaire spent most of their time. The Shakespeare and Company Bookstore has had some of the most well-known writers of the 20th century as clientele, including James Joyce, who published his famous Ulysses under the stamp of this bookshop. In fact, the founder of Shakespeare and Co., Sylvia Beach, was close friends with many of these writers, including Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, to name a few. What’s also special about this shop is not only do they host literary walking tours around Paris, but you can also sleep there as long as you help out with the chores.erneest hemingway houseErnest Hemingway House
Key West, Florida

Not only is Key West home to beautiful beaches and energetic nightlife, but it’s also a place with a literary history. In fact, Ernest Hemingway himself lived at 907 Whitehead Street for more than ten years. It was at this house that he created some of his best work, including the final draft of A Farewell to Arms, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, and The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. While Hemingway passed away on July 2, 1961, his old home is now a museum that is open to the public.

The Globe Theatre
London, England

According to David Joshua Jennings and John McCarroll at BootsnAll, the Globe Theatre was built in 1599 and hosted some of the most influential verses to date. Even the notorious quote “All the world’s a stage, and the men and women merely players” was uttered by William Shakespeare himself at the Globe. While the original theatre burned down in 1844, it was rebuilt to be almost exactly like the original. Attendees of this theatre should expect to sit on simple wooden benches, just like in the days of Shakespeare.

Walden Pond
Concord, Massachusettes

It was at this site that Henry David Thoreau wrote his novel Walden, which he wrote during his two years living on the pond from 1845 to 1847. His home was a small hut on a piece of land owned by his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson. This area helped to inspire the novel itself and was also influential in the American Romantic movement in literature. Today, the pond has been made into a state park where visitors can hike through trails, explore Walden Woods, or see the replica of Thoreau’s cottage.

Vesuvio Cafe
San Francisco, California

Travelers should love this landmark as it is the stomping grounds of many Beat Generation writers including Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, and Allen Ginsburg. The cafe is also right across the street from the famous City Lights bookstore. According to Stephanie Yoder at BootsnAll, there is a famous story of Kerouac “holing up in the bar, getting incredibly wasted and missing an important meeting with Henry Miller”. If you visit, be sure to order The Jack Kerouac, a mixture of rum, tequila, and orange juice.

Chelsea Hotel
New York, NY

There are few hotels in existence that could rival the clientele of Chelsea Hotel, which includes Titanic survivors, Bob Dylan, Jean-Paul Sartre, Thomas Wolfe, and many other famous actors, writers, musicians, celebrities, and directors. Madonna’s Sex book was even photographed in room 822. The hotel is a cultural hub of art and literature, and visitors interested in learning about the hotel’s literary past can book a public tour.

james joyce dublinJames Joyce’s Dublin
Dublin, Ireland

While this technically isn’t a landmark but a series of related landmarks in one area, it is definitely worth adding to the list. James Joyce, Ireland’s most famous author, used Dublin as an influence for much of his work. In fact, a fun activity for visitors of Dublin is to trace the different sites that are mentioned in his writing. For the full James Joyce experience, start at the James Joyce Center, where you can see a recreation of the writer’s bedroom, then head over to the James Joyce Tower and Museum. Another noteworthy landmark is the House of the Dead, a small museum created in the house where Joyce spent his Christmases and is the setting in his novel Dead.

Mark Twain Museum
Hannibal, Missouri

Mark Twain, according to Michelle Fabio at BootsnAll, was born Samuel Clemens in 1835 in Hannibal, Missouri, the town that inspired his famous Adventures of Tom Sawyer novels. To honor Twain’s memory, the town has created the Mark Twain Museum, which is comprised of eight buildings that all played an important part in Twain’s youth. If you want to see the house where Twain grew up, visit 208 Hill Street, where you will find recreations of what the home looked like when it was still being inhabited by the author himself.

The Brontë Parsonage Museum
Haworth, England

Come to England and you can visit the home of three of the most famous 19th century British authors, Charlotte, Emily, and Ann Brontë (although their pen names were Currier, Ellis, and Acton Bell). These three were responsible for works such as Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. At the museum, you will see the dining table where these authors brought their ideas to life, as well as old photographs, original furniture, letters, and manuscipts.

The Eagle and Child Pub
Oxford, England

According to Stephanie Yoder of BootsnAll, not only is this a nice place to relax with a cold beer, it’s also the home to creative thinking. One infamous writing group, who dubbed themselves the Inklings, would meet here once a week to have a drink and compare manuscripts. Some names you may have heard of include CS Lewis, the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, and JRR Tolkien who created The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Have a seat at their old table and take in the moments, sketches, and photos of these famous writers.

10 travel read suggestions for the road

Ben Groundwater points out in his Sydney Morning Herald post “Travel Reads for the Road” that a good book is a wonderful companion to have while traveling. Not only can reading help fill up down time in a satisfactory way, a good book can enhance travel experiences.

In his post Groundwater lists ten perfect for travel books that range from serious to humorous and fiction to non-fiction. These are the best books he’s read this year. The neat thing about his list is that he pairs several books with locations where their settings will seem most poignant.

For example, if traveling in Africa, read Swahili for the Brokenhearted by Peter Moore and Blood River by Tim Butcher.

His pick for Thailand travel is The Beach by Alex Garland– and for Russia, particularly St. Petersburg, Groundwater suggests A City of Thieves by David Benioff.

If France strikes your interest, check out A Year in the Merde by Stephen Clarke and Almost French by Sarah Turnbull.

For travel in general, Groundwater recommends Holidays in Hell by P.J. O’Rourke, Rule No. 5: No Sex on the Bus by Brian Thacker, A Cook’s Tour by Anthony Bourdain and On the Road by Jack Kerouac.

The last travel related book I read was Step Back From the Baggage Claim. A review is coming your way soon. In the meantime, each of Groundwater’s suggestions are appealing. I’m particularly interested in picking up Rule No 5: No Sex on the Bus and Swahili for the Brokenhearted. The titles alone are intriguing. Thacker’s book is not new, but it sounds hilarious and Moore’s book has a similar theme to Franz Wisner’s book Honeymoon with my Brother where travel and self discovery go hand in hand.

Tracing the Steps of On the Road

Literary pilgrimages, in which one shadows the adventures of a fictional character, is some of the most rewarding travel around if you are a bibliophile.

Certainly the most famous example of such travel is Bloomsday, a national holiday where intoxicated fans of James Joyce’s Ulysses reenact a 24-hour jaunt through Dublin.

While there are many other literary journeys across the globe, the American version of disturbed, lost souls wandering about can be found within the classic, On the Road.

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s seminal work, journalist Christopher Reynolds thoughtfully updated and modernized the journey of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty as they gallivanted from coast to coast.

Revisiting sites from ‘On the Road’ is the perfect guide for such a journey. Reynolds breaks down the article into sections titled “In the book” in which he describes the places Sal and Dean visited. He then follows up with a “Now” section in which he directs the reader to these same places today. Naturally, a few have disappeared. There are, however, a surprising number of restaurants and hotels which are still standing and awaiting the Kerouac faithful.