Jack Kerouac Wrote Here, Crisscrossing America Chasing Cool
January 15, 2008
by David Amram
The American West | Since I was brought up on a farm in Feasterville, Pennsylvania during the 1930s, most of my first impressions of the American West were informed by Saturday matinees at the movies. But my Uncle David, a merchant seaman who had driven cross-country many times when not at sea, and my uncle Milton, from Las Vegas, New Mexico, both told me stories of this far away place.
What both of my uncles made clear to me was that there were Indian people who had been there thousands of years before there was a place called America and that California, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming all had distinct histories of their own and that the Indian people were the key to understanding where we were, wherever we were located. "Look at the clouds and the trees and listen to the birds when you go in the woods here at the farm," my Uncle David told me. "They are always talking. See if you can understand what they are saying. Pay attention wherever you are." He had my sister and I make maps of our first trip out west, and when we finally packed up and drove cross country and back in 1944, saving our gas rationing stamps for a year, I was ready to go out West and prepared to pay attention.
The trip from San Francisco on the way back towards Denver seemed to be an endless one in 1944. We had already driven 3000 miles to get to California and now we were going back a different way. There were no interstate highways and much of the country seemed to still be the real wild west of our imaginations, just like the Indian land that my Uncle Milton described to us from his own childhood at the beginning of the Century. As we drove East, towns like Reno and Carson City, Nevada had people on the streets, many of whom seemed more like real cowboys than any of the actors my sister and I has ever seen in the movies. And there were Indians, sad and solemn, seeming to be waiting for us all to leave so that they could have their land and their way of life back.
This was the American West that my friend and collaborator Jack Kerouac wrote about in On The Road. From the 1957 version:
As the truck reached the outskirts of Cheyenne, we saw the high red lights of the local radio station, and suddenly we were bucking through a great crowd of people that poured along both sidewalks ... Big crowds of businessmen, fat business men in boots and ten-gallon hats, with their hefty wives in cowgirl attire, bustled and whoopeed on the wooden sidewalks of old Cheyenne.
Today, this description is a perfect narration of the American West of my memories and my mind.
This blog is bring written by Audrey Sprenger, Ph.D and David Amram during the third and final run of Sprenger's cross-country sociology and documentary-making course "Jack Kerouac Wrote Here, Crisscrossing America Chasing Cool." The next entries by Sprenger and Amram will appear January 11, 15, 19. 23, 27, and 31, along with an "audio ethnography" produced by students participating in this course on February 4. Readers are also to join Sprenger and Amram for a FREE Retrospective of the 50th Anniversary of Jack Kerouac's "On The Road" in New York on Friday, January 11 at 8pm at the Theater For the New City and Sunday, February 24 at 2 pm in the B2 Conference Center of the Denver Public Library. Audrey Sprenger, Ph.D is an ethnographer, audio producer and professor of sociology. The author of the true-life novel/community study Home Goings, she creates artistic and educational programming for the Denver Public Library. David Amram is an internationally acclaimed composer, conductor, multi-instrumentalist and author. His most recent orchestral work, "Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie" made its world premiere in San Jose, California this past September and his third book, Upbeat: Nine Lives of a Musical Cat was published a month later. Today is the first of a seven-day diary they are collaborating on together about the life, times and 50th anniversary of On the Road, Jack Kerouac's second novel.
Ashley Vaughan is a documentary photographer. Currently a journalism student at the University of Denver, she has received several academic grants for her photographic projects including a Fred McDarrah Grant for Young Photojournalists. An assistant archivist for biographer Bill Morgan, she is also the art director for the David Amram Archive and is currently working with Audrey Sprenger on Jack Kerouac's America, 50 Years Old.