On the Road by Jack Kerouac
For some inexplicable reason I had never come across the Beat movement before I went to uni. In our first year we had several lectures on the movement from 1950s America. I was completely fascinated by their care free attitude and desire to travel. They were liberated both sexually and mentally and rejected materialism and capitalism. So much was my fascination I wrote a 2000 word essay about Allen Ginsberg’s Howl during the course of my first year at uni.
Since then I had been dying to read On the Road by Jack Kerouac, one of the core books from the Beat movement.
The narrative centres on Sal, a twenty something guy from New York who has a complete obsession with his friend and hero Dean Mority. Wherever Dean goes Sal follows. They travel across America without a care in the world; no concern for any of the status quo, their only desire is to capture the culture and people of the places they visit. And that is the essence of the book, it’s a travel narrative of their adventures from east coast to west coast and back again (several times). As soon as Sal is back in New York for too long he is scared of becoming a slave to society and off he goes again to find Dean and travel.
Sal and Dean meet various acquaintances in almost every place they visit. Sal has more of a moral compass than his hero Dean. Dean is such a complex character – he jumps from woman to woman and abandons his poor wife to run have numerous affairs. In one such case this causes Sal to return home as his relationship with his best friend becomes fractured due to Dean’s responsibilities to his wife and children.
Their agenda and thoughts are so far removed from my own I sometimes found the novel hard to comprehend. They travel across America without a care in the world and little money – the ever practical me wondered what were they going to do if they couldn’t get home, how were they going to get any money if Sal’s aunt didn’t send them any. Where were Sal and his lover Terry going to stay when they didn’t have enough money for a room? But for Sal and Dean etc that was part of the fun.
For me it wasn’t as good a read as I thought it would be. I struggled with the lack of anything substantial happening in the plot and perhaps the fact that I couldn’t relate or comprehend the lack of responsibility Sal and Dean had. Or maybe I’m just jealous of their carefree ways.
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
I cannot think of any other book which has had me in tears after the first 20 pages. Needless to say Wild by Cheryl Strayed is a complete tearjerker from begin to end.
Cheryl Strayed is not your average American gal. Growing up in Minnesota with her mother, sister, brother and step-father in a shack which has no electricity or running water, Cheryl has an idyllic childhood. Her bond with her mother is seemingly unbreakable and they both enrol at university together. However part way through their education her mother is diagnosed with cancer. While the rest of Cheryl’s family shy away from their mother’s rapid decline Cheryl spends every minute she can with her.
Her mother’s quick and sudden death haunts her for the years to come and leaves a mark on everything subsequent thing she does. Unable to now finish her degree, she drifts apart from her family who are all wrapped up in their own grief. Her marriage then breaks down after she has a string of meaningless affairs and she goes from one city and waitressing job to another. Her wakeup call comes when she starts taking heroin with a jobless layabout boyfriend.
She decides that she needs to do something for herself to find out who she is. So she decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from the Tehachapi Pass to the Bridge of Gods in Oregon. On the morning of her hike she begins to doubt herself as she struggles to even lift her rucksack who she later names ‘The Beast’. Her first few days are sheer hell as she struggles to keep pace and to carry ‘The Beast’. But as time goes on she becomes an expert hiker covering miles each day and getting rid of the belongings she doesn’t need. She lives for her boxes that she sends to herself at stop, each holding money that she uses to have a decent meal and to sleep in various hostels. She meets so many wonderful and inspirational people along the way all of whom have their own wonderful reasons to hiking the PCT.
It’s not all plain sailing and you really feel for her when her boots rub her feet and every step becomes pain staking. On her next stop she asks for boots to be mailed to her next break. In between the stops she loses one of her boots off a cliff and walks the remaining miles in her sandals. She also runs out of water on one of the hottest points of the PCT and almost becomes victim to some creepy men but she makes the finish line in one piece and with a sense of purpose and clarity.
What I loved about Wild was Cheryl’s writing. She has the wonderful ability to have you on the edge of your seat and then in the next paragraph you’re shedding tears of sadness. The descriptions she uses makes you feel as though you are there on the PCT with her every step of the way.
A book about trekking over a thousand miles on your own with little family support and your world collapsing around you could have left readers feeling cold but the book felt so comforting because she wears her heart on her sleeve and isn’t scared to show her emotions.
Wild is a rollercoaster – I was crying tears of sadness at the beginning for the loss of Cheryl’s mother and by the end I was crying with happiness at Cheryl’s achievements. It really is a life affirming read – it will definitely put things in perspective for you and it’s a book I will be returning to whenever I need a bit of a pick me up.