Jack Kerouac is the type of author who inspires pilgrimages. People don’t just read his novels. They endeavor to live his novels. And because much of Kerouac’s work is based on actual places, it’s easy for fans to track down not just his birth home and the bars he wrote in but the very places he describes in his books. J. Haeske did just that. He traveled around the country, visiting places that Kerouac visited, photographing places Kerouac described with words. He records these literary landmarks on his blog, Retracing Jack Kerouac. Each blog entry offers a photograph and some background information to situate the reader. Haeske is currently writing a book based on the material from the blog, entitled Anywhere Road. Below is my exclusive interview with Haeske, which is interesting for those who are fans of the Beat Generation writers, those with wanderlust, and writers interested in going from blog to book.
Photo via J. Haeske
How did you first become interested in Jack Kerouac?
I believe it was a friend recommending On the Road (what else?) to me about 20 years ago. The main attraction in the beginning I suppose was the description of travel and seeing the US, its landscapes, cities and people, that made the book so fascinating to me. I come from Europe, so an US road trip is appealing as it is so different landscape- and place-wise from what we are used to over here, and of course all the films, songs and books you see, hear and read. The notion of traveling somewhat apart from the usual tourist routes and in a unsual kind of way as portrayed in the book held a special appeal to me, as I guess it held and still holds to most people that care about the book.
What made you decide to physically go on the road and retrace Kerouac’s steps?
As I said in the previous question, a road trip through the US seemed a fascinating idea for a long time, but it took me until 2009 (you know how life is) to decide to finally undertake the trip. The catalyst was actually the record One Fast Move Or I’m Gone (as part of the DVD/CD project by the same name from Kerouac Films) by Jay Farrar and Benjamin Gibbard. When I first listened to the song “California Zephyr,” describing the train journey from New York to San Francisco, it clicked. I knew that the time was ripe to do it, and I set about planning the trip I did take in October of 2010. So you could say it was 20+ years in the making. I also knew that I had to do something a bit more with the photos I would be taking then just load them up onto Flickr, so I came up with the idea of the blog and book. I also like to see both as my own small contribution to work related to Kerouac, as I haven’t had the chance to gather and add any new and first-hand information to all the information about his life that are out there already (and still appearing in books such as yours).
You began your first trip in 2010. Where did you go, and how long were you on the road for?
I only had 3 weeks for that trip, so I had to leave out a lot of places I ideally would have liked to visit. My first stop was San Francisco and I planned on checking out places I was aware of at that point, such as North Beach, 29 Russell Street and the old Six Gallery. Fortunately I went to the City Lights bookstore on my first day and discovered Bill Morgan’s invaluable guides The Beat Generation in San Francisco and The Beat Generation in New York, so I got to know of many more locations in both cities (not to mention the fantastic time I had in that magic place; it felt overwhelming to sit upstairs in the poetry room reading for a few hours). From San Francisco I took the California Zephyr train to Denver, where I spent a few days, mostly wandering up and down Market, Larimer and Wazee streets in what is now called LoDo. From all I read and saw, I have to say that the area looks much different than what it must have looked like in the 1940s and ’50s, so I didn’t find any of the pool halls and bars Kerouac wrote about in books such as Visions of Cody. Fortunately Union Station apparently looks pretty much the same as the time Kerouac dropped off his mum there when she got on the train back east after his failed 1949 attempt to make a home for them in Denver. I then took another Zephyr train to Omaha, a city which didn’t actually play a big part in Kerouac’s life and is only mentioned a few times in his books, but I went there anyway and found it to be very much (with my limited experience) a typical Midwest city, so it was definitely worth going there. Due to time constraints I took a plane (rather then a train) from Omaha over to Boston and from there a commuter train to Jack’s hometown Lowell, where I also spent a few days. I probably should have stayed longer, and I also wasn’t aware then of quite a few houses he lived in, so another visit to Lowell in the future is due. From Lowell I took another train down to New York where I, again with Bill Morgan’s books’ help, checked out and photographed some more places, such as the area around the Columbia University campus.
Since then, how many other trips have you taken to retrace Kerouac’s travels?
I only undertook one other trip so far, to New York, in March of this year. Although that was a rather short trip, it proved to be very worthwhile, as I got to go to Northport were he spent a number of years in the late 1950s/early 1960s, as usual living with his mum. Compared to the early 1940s he was by that time home much more often and mainly went into New York for business meetings or to go on parties. I found Northport to be very charming and a lovely place, no wonder they stayed there for that long. This being Kerouac, he was of course always planning on moving to various other places, such as cabins in upstate New York or closer to his hometown Lowell, and Florida, where they moved to eventually, after another brief stay in Lowell, when he was married to Stella Sampas.
But there are still quite a few more places I will have to check out at some point: the house he lived in for 3 months in 1949 in Denver and Central City for example, all the places in Florida and North Carolina he and his family lived in, as well the area around San Francisco, such as Bixby Canyon and Marin County and a few others.
How do you think traveling cross country has changed from Kerouac’s time in the 1940s and ’50s to the present day?
Of course most people travel by plane nowadays, which is a shame in my opinion and that’s why I prefer to take trains, simply because it allows you to “read the landscape” as Kerouac loved to do himself. I do not think that it really is a good idea to sleep on the hood of your car in the middle of Mexico nowadays, as Sal, Cody and Marylou did in On the Road. I guess hitchhiking is much more cumbersome nowadays, and I’m not even sure if riding freight trains is even possible anymore nowadays with all the security measures and stuff, but Kerouac has been complaining about this as early as the 1950s.
What did you learn about travel from Kerouac?
I have to admit that my method of traveling is rather boring compared to the trips described in On the Road: no long drives from North Carolina to New York in one go with a wild gang and all that. That said, I will be trying out riding a Greyhound bus on my next US trip, just to find out what that is like, although I can’t imagine I will be enyoing that very much. I also try to be more open-minded when traveling, (I am a bit of a control-freak and tend to plan my travels rather thoroughly). And I try to speak to people I meet more nowadays, which is a something of a challenge for me, as I am rather shy and introverted – so I guess you could say the last two things I mentioned are what Kerouac has told me about travel. Perhaps most importantly though is the urge to actually want to go and see the world as much as I can. Kerouac definitely infected me with the travel bug. I also have to add that the aspect of “reading the landscape” and getting to know places I see has always been the most fascinating aspect of his works On the Road and Lonesome Traveler. I’ve never been all that much into all the drugs and “wild” times Kerouac, Cassady, Ginsberg and Huncke had, as colorful and intriguing that is to read about, it’s just a bit too destructive for me. I guess I’m too normal/boring for that.
What were some of your own memorable experiences from your time on the road?
There are so many I can think of–the whole trip has definitely been the best one I ever undertook so far in my life. The train journey from San Francisco to Denver especially was the most overwhelming travel experience yet, so this is not easy to answer. But If I have to choose one it would be the lucky break I had in Lowell. I was standing in front and taking photographs of his birthplace on Lupine Road, when this pickup drove up and these two guys got out asking me if I was a Kerouac fan. When I told them yes, they asked if I wanted to come inside and have a look around. One of them was the current owner and they were in the process of renovating the apartment before renting it out again, so I had the chance to stand in the room he was apparently born in and check out all the other rooms too – the apartment looked pretty old-fashioned so it is possible (although not very likely, so it’s probably just wishful thinking) that bits in it were there when he was born there in 1922 (maybe the chandelier in the main room, that looked very old). Unfortunately, I was too shy to ask if I could take some photographs from the inside of the apartment, which is my biggest regret about the trip.
The other outstanding experience was my visit to the Kerouac archive at the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library in March this year. Browsing through some of his old family photographs, his correspondence and the travel maps he used was fascinating. I especially loved the hand-drawn map of the US on which he marked the places and cities that were playing a part in On the Road and a short snippet of a draft of the opening paragraph on the back.
The book you’re working on will contain the photographs you’ve taken while visiting places Kerouac has been. Will it be a photography book or are photos just a portion of your book?
It will to a very large part be comprised of photographs with only a short introduction and an index listing places and/or explaining the reasons for including the photographs I chose, just to give a bit of context. I don’t really feel comfortable enough as a writer to include more text and describing my experiences, so yes it will mainly be a photography book.
What do you think of the Beat photography—for example, work by Fred McDarrah, Robert Frank, and of course Allen Ginsberg—that exists?
I have to admit that I so far only had the chance to get Allen Ginsberg’s Beat Memories. I am still trying to get hold a copy of Robert Frank’s The Americans and don’t really know much of Fred McDarrah’s work, so I can’t really comment about those two in detail, especially the latter. However, I like Ginsberg’s photography work a lot. Of course it’s a whole different aesthetic to the photos I take, and he was mainly photographing people, which I don’t really do, but I like the grainy black-and-white style of those photos a great deal. But incidentally my favorite Kerouac photograph is the one taken by Allen Ginsberg on the fire escape of his partment at 206 East 7th Street in the East Village. He also took the saddest one of Kerouac in 1964 in Ginsberg’s apartment at 704 East 5th Street, in which Kerouac at 42 looks about 65 years old, slumped in a chair and marked by his alcoholism – heartbreaking.
What are the top 3 places fans of Kerouac should visit?
- One can’t really do without Lowell. I especially enjoyed the Centralville part of the town, as I believe it is probably the area that has changed the least since then, whereas, as far as I can tell, the Pawtucketville area has been transformed quite considerably, mainly by all the UMASS buildings.
- San Francisco, simply because it is such a great city with all that lovely architecture and gorgeous landscape around it. As much as I felt a bit freaked out wandering down Market Street and the rest of the Tenderloin, the image of the (now sadly gone) “redbrick area behind the SP (Southern Pacific) station” and the bum hanging around there is still one of the most memorable images in my mind when it comes to Kerouac’s work.
- In and around New York: The Columbia University campus, mainly because it played such an important role in his life and brought together the Beat Generation main players. Also the houses in various parts of Queens, such as the one on Cross Bay Blvd in Ozone Park, where the family lived for a few years and in which his dad died. Also the three houses in Northport – as I mentioned before, it’s a lovely little town and the houses he lived in there look very nice and New England-ish, and as such hard for me to understand why he wanted to leave it for a place like Florida, especially considering he couldn’t stand the heat (much as I can’t). I know it was mainly for wanting to escape all the attention in and around New York he’s been getting after the publication of On the Road, but as it turned out, the move didn’t actually prevent his unfortunate and sad early decline.
For more on Retracing Jack Kerouac and Anywhere Road, visit J. Haeske’s blog.