- Tony Forder
A Pilgrimage to the Grave of Jack Kerouac
Updated: Apr 2, 2021
By Tony Forder
Upstate, the leaves were already beginning to turn when my West Coast buddies, George, Ben and Alex flew into town.
I’d moved east a decade earlier, uprooted from California by wife and family. I’d been back several times of course, for infusions of West Coast boogiein’ spirit to sustain me; finally, my erstwhile brothers were returning the favor. I’d cooked up this caper with George one night on the phone. New England in the fall — all the New England states, a quick sprint over to Montreal to visit new-found friends of mine, to extend the circle, and back through New York State, pilgrimages to the grave of Jack Kerouac and the Baseball Hall of Fame included. It was ever thus with us — the road and anything to do with it came easily. The soft sadness of fall, nature’s sighing into winter was Kerouac’s favorite time of year; it was George's too. It was the time when we had all come together three decades ago — in 1973 at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
That year I had popped out of high school in my native England, 18 years old, idealistic, and primed for the road. My father’s legacy was not the college he wanted me to go to, but the travel he bequeathed through his job as an airline pilot. My fate had already been sealed. At age 16, in introspective teenager, I had a voracious appetite for books. I read a lot of the modern classics: Sartre, Hesse, Camus, Kafka. Once, at my small local library, I found a book called On the Road in my hand. It had a plain hard cover with the title and the author’s name, Jack Kerouac. I read it and returned it. I never discussed it with anyone, never knew anything about Beat Generation or anything like that. It sat in my belly on a slow ferment for a couple of years.
Hitchhiking in the States blew my mind. Where I came from you could only go a few hundred miles in any direction before you hit water. Here the road was virtually endless. I remember first seeing the Rocky Mountains from a distance, and driving all day long toward that wave of frozen rock breaking over the prairies. I hitched with an American friend from Buffalo, NY to Seattle in six days.
A fateful meeting at the bottom of the Grand Canyon
Following my thumb down the West Coast I eventually arrived at the Grand Canyon and hiked down to the bottom — to a different world. There, the characters from that book, On The Road, jumped to life. Truman, the ringleader of a rasty-looking group of outlaws, was a dead ringer for my mind’s eye Dean Moriarty, the book's main character, Neal Cassidy in real life .
The gang, which included George and Ben swept me up in their whirlwind of boogie and hoisted me aboard their wheels, The Cardboarhog, a 4-ton, UPS-size, delivery truck. The name, stenciled on the truck’s side, was camouflage for the practice of cardboard recycling, which to these guys meant stealing bales of cardboard from behind supermarkets and cashing them in at the local recycler. It was this activity that had financed their little caper to the Grand Canyon, a 4-day trip that turned into almost three months. Three months careening around the Colorado plateau, camping out in the canyons, the tourists all gone, new adventures every day, cracking brains, making friends, never passing up a hitchhiker, a traveling circus…all underwritten by the 100 hits of acid hidden in the truck's steering wheel. If this was the American dream, I was happy to be dreaming.
We drove at night when the roads were empty. Someone would take the wheel, anyone. Passing a jug of wine around, or maybe sipping a little stolen whiskey, five or six of us would be crammed into the truck’s cabin watching the ’boarhog barrel down the hiway, eating the white line, moonlit rocks waving us on, saying “Go, Go.” Us all glued, synched, psyched, totally in the moment with only the sound of the wind in our ears, and the snarling and wheezing of The Cardboarhog’s engine. This was the freedom of the road, the freedom Kerouac and Cassidy lived for.
We developed an immunity to the rules of normal life, living off the fat of the land — dining and dashing restaurants, minor shoplifting, spare-fooding campers in the parks, an odd job here and there. In Denver, we ate at the missions on Larimer Street where On The Road hero Neal Cassidy grew up. Our rasty crew stayed on the eighth floor of a girls dorm at University of Colorado during a rape scare. We gave blood to buy tires for the truck.
In November, we scampered over the canyons of Utah — Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce, Zion – living on apples we collected from a neglected orchard. Descending from there, we rolled reeking of campfires into the crazed dreamworld of Las Vegas. By December, the trucked limped over Donner Pass during a snowstorm —Truman had to steal some chains to get us through — and down into California, back to the coast and the Santa Cruz mountains. I hung there for the winter... and in the spring went home to England...because, well, I just thought I should. But it was too late, I was changed forever, thoroughly recycled and infected with the road dust of America. It took me a while but I eventually made it back to the US.
Reunited, on the road again
The guys didn’t want to hang around in New Jersey. After flying cross country they were ready to hit the road that night, whatever the hour. After some brief hellos and packing at my house we began the trip at an out of the way bar in North Jersey called The Shepherd & The Knucklehead. My friends immediately hit it off with the owner Chris who is just as big a fan of Kerouac as George & Co. In fact, he’s turned his bar into kind of a Kerouac shrine – it’s a bar “devoted to restlessness” according to the inscription – and he has personally met many of the Kerouac crew including Alan Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and others. When George told him he had named his son Cody after one of Neal Cassidy’s pseudonyms, Cody Pomeray, he put his hand over his heart and shook his hand. Jazz began to play making everything even more Kerouacian, but it was time to go — the road awaited.
The fall in New England is softer than out West, where the seasons change with hardly a ripple. It was a mood that suited some nostalgia. We were hitting the colors just right. Riding up through Connecticut, we sidestepped into a corner of Rhode Island and sipped beer by the side of a lake that reflected the orange, yellow and red hues of the turning trees. George cracked open a bottle of whisky from his bag – Glenlivet, single malt, a little better than the rotgut of yore. Back then it was cheap wine for the most part, often electrified. I remember trying to figure out if these guys were hippies or beatniks. Eventually one of them elucidated, “Hippies believe in something better…Beats just take things as they are.” OK they were Beat.
We pulled into Lowell around dusk in what seemed like the wrong end of the spread out town. Stopping at a restaurant, we asked a guy if he knew the cemetery. He didn’t but then a small, pretty woman behind him stepped up and asked if we were looking for… there was that flash of recognition. “Yeah,” said George, “We’re looking for Jack Kerouac’s grave.” We talked a bit. Her name was Ruth and her family had known Kerouac. As a kid she had even been on a trip to Florida with him. She clued us into a couple of bars including one owned by Kerouac’s in-laws. Of course we invited her, but being a Sunday…. well, she wasn’t sure. We took a photo with her and split.
It was dark with a heavy mist falling when we climbed the cemetery railings. It felt a bit weird to be poking around a graveyard with flashlights, but we had Brother Glen to lend us solidarity – the bottle of Glenlivet — and besides, we thought, our efforts would meet with Jack’s approval. We hunted around; we knew it was a gravestone sunk in the ground, not upright. Was it lonely, forgotten? Or would there be flowers of remembrance? George recognized the family name of Kerouac’s in-laws, but no Kerouac. If we can’t find him, maybe he can find us…I contemplated for a while, breathing in the dampness of the peaceful cemetery. I figured that he really should be with his relatives. So I went back….sure enough there he was, Ti Jean…I don’t know how we had missed it the first time. I alerted the others. John L. Kerouac, Mar. 12, 1922 – Oct. 21, 1969, “He honored life” and Stella, his wife Nov. 14, 1918 – Feb 10, 1990.
We stood around the gravestone which was adorned with several bunches of chrysanthemums. We passed the bottle and toasted. It was not a disappointment. Here in the warm, wet evening, with the leaves falling around us, Kerouac’s spirit seemed very close…maybe it was the feeling we brought. I thought about the sadness of the moment, the sadness of Kerouac, throughout his books and in his life, the sadness of recent events in America, the September 11 tragedies. The sadness in all our lives, the very sadness in our bones. I was glad not to be there alone and I felt a tremendous rush of the comradeship that turns sadness into chuckles. “Do you think he can feel us, brothers,” I thought aloud. “Oh yeah,” someone replied.
Autumn hued graveyard
Tawny toast of whisky
The in-laws’ bar was closed so we went to the Irish bar Ruth had told us about. Things were fairly quiet, although there was a band playing and playoff baseball was on the TV. Alex, Ben and myself were starting to think that a relatively early night might be in the offing. We had been up until about 3 a.m. driving late the night before.
A Lowell tour by night
George had other ideas. He seemed inspired to be in Lowell. He was talking to a couple of women over by the bar, one who appeared to be attached to a guy wearing a thick sweater. Pretty soon the guy, Patrick, and the woman, Michelle, were offering to take us on a tour of Kerouac’s Lowell.
“We’ll take you to Kerouac’s favorite bar,” they said, but first the Park. We piled into Patrick’s Cadillac – me, Ben and Alex in the back, Patrick, Michelle and George in the front. No one was surprised…this was how we had always operated. Engage the locals and see what happens... Patrick seemed like a character; he was talking earnestly about running “alternative” Kerouac tours in Lowell, small groups in his Cadillac. He was off to a good start.
At Jack Kerouac Park, Patrick handed out cans of Miller Lite from his trunk. Rather than drinking them, the time was right for the ritual of the Ram. Otherwise known as the shotgun, this was a Californian tradition that had never quite died among my brethren. For the uninitiated, a hole is cut in the side of the can at the bottom, the mouth is positioned over the hole, the top is popped and the contents sucked down aided by gravity – primitive, yes, sophomoric, sure…but a meaningful ritual nonetheless, at least for this group. We cut the holes; surrounded by the monoliths carrying Jack’s words, we tilted the cans to the sky. George said something in dedication. Then I said wait, and said my piece…I had been so focused on my friends’ pilgrimage that I had almost forgotten that my connection to Kerouac preceded our friendship…may indeed have been what caused it. I briefly described my initiation into On the Road. Then we rammed.