Former Kerouac House writer in residence Ciara Shuttleworth takes a sentient cardboard cutout of Jack Kerouac on a roadtrip. The following is excerpted from Shuttleworth’s forthcoming book of gonzo prose, 4500 Miles: Taking Jack Back on the Road.
March 2, 2015, marked the beginning of my three-month residency at the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando. It didn’t take long for Jack Kerouac to become a part of my daily life. At the beginning of the second week, I woke at 3 a.m. certain Jack was standing in the living room by the fireplace, while an ex-girlfriend of his with brunette bangs and stained teeth babbled a mile a minute in the kitchen. By the time I was fully awake, the House was quiet, so I assumed the ex-girlfriend had gone silent, and when I opened my bedroom door, Jack wasn’t in the living room. I walked through the House and found no one.
But Jack was around. Especially at night, I felt him wander through the House. Sometimes he knocked over coffee mugs and moved wine glasses. I’d chastise him when I’d find the backdoor not double-locked the way I’d left it before going to bed, “Jack, when you come back in, you have to redo both the door handle and the deadbolt. You aren’t the only one who lives here, you know.”
By April, we’d have conversations. The morning of April 11, while I was sitting on the porch researching flights to eastern Washington for the end of May, Jack stumbled over from where he’d been sleeping on the lawn. “Road trip it,” he said, and went through the door to spill coffee on the kitchen counter.
I’d never owned a car—had always lived places where a car wasn’t necessary (I now own a Jeep, which I have mixed feelings about—the owning, not the car—because ownership of anything means being tied down…). I looked at Expedia car rentals. Alamo was priced at $10/day! I immediately booked two weeks. The next day I went back online to extend the trip and the prices were around $100/day. Jack sighed, “I could only mess with the Expedia pricing for one day. They look for mistakes after that.”
A few nights before I left, I hosted a final dinner at the Kerouac House, and a poet friend, Danielle Kessinger, suggested I make a “Flat Jack” to take on the road, to take photos of Jack along the way. So I printed out some photos, backed them with 100% cotton drawing paper. I did the final clean and finished packing.
“Why’d you give all the leftover wine to the neighbors?” Jack asked.
“Good question,” I said. We were both jittery and pacing. It was time to get on the road.
I wake as usual when the sun sets the yellow and white walls of the bedroom aglow. It is Friday, May 29. After three months, I have a lively array of friends, and I have enjoyed the warmth of a thriving literary community. I’ve also come to love Jack Kerouac, his spirit, his work, his kindness, so taking Flat Jack on the road with me seems right. Like Jack, I am restless to move on, despite love and good times. I have had my turn and Kerouac House is now someone else’s.
Flat Jack stands by the door as I do one final round of the House. He says, “You’re filled with so much love right now, but also a joy in being the one that is leaving… Let’s go! Let’s go, woman!”
“Flat Jack, if I were to catalog the best times here, it would take a ream of paper the size of a 1980’s Sears holiday catalog. It would take more ink than what’s left in the printer, a bottle of wine, and a box of Kleenex. But I’m ready. I can already see it in the rearview.”
Flat Jack and I hit the road again early Sunday morning and drive by roads with names like Horse Stamp Church Road and Crooked River and Wirebrush. There are armadillos, shells cracked open like eggs, on the sides of the roads. “The Humpty-dumpties of the South,” chuckles Flat Jack. We’re on two-lane highways, so Flat Jack has me turn at a couple of pasture gates to get photos.
“The fog,” he says, “doesn’t it remind you of San Francisco? We should go all the way to San Francisco. People still know me there.”
“Me, too, Flat Jack, but we aren’t going there this trip.”
“If we did go all the way to ‘Frisco, what’s the first thing you’d do?”
“Get a cup of coffee at Java Beach and go sit in the dunes and listen to the waves. And bury you in the sand for calling it ‘Frisco.’ That’s for the tourists.”
“Nah…I probably started that. That’s why the locals hate it—some dirty Beat guy started it. Wanna know what I’d do first?” he asks.
“You’d hit Vesuvio’s and be horrified that they draw designs in the foam of Guinness orders, and so you’d hit City Lights and be horrified that no poets are sitting around talking, that everyone is hushed like it’s a library.”
He gets quiet as if he’s brooding again, but he’s just watching the vultures swing slow circles against a too-blue morning sky as the fog burns off. “Death’s debt collectors,” he murmurs. “I had a dream once about vultures.”
“In Big Sur, right?”
“Yeah, but I actually had the dream. I couldn’t sleep for days because I was afraid I’d fall back into the dream. But I kept seeing them anyway, wherever I went. Too many people look like vultures. My dreams were macabre then, and the one with the Vulture People…they were picking at parts of me, trying to peck out my eyes, fucking frantically when they’d eaten their fill…”
“Horrifying,” I say.
“All these ugly, drug-addled, pasty kids thought I owed them something. All I wanted was some quiet.”
“I don’t think that’s entirely true. You’d get some quiet and then you’d want to be out drinking and having a party again.”
“Nah. Everyone’s got their Jack story. Everyone wanted a piece of me. But you count up the days I was by myself and you count up the days when I was out, and most of it was quiet. Nobody wants to talk about the quiet days.”
Flat Jack stares out the window for a long time. I turn off my iPod, flip through radio stations, seeing if I can find something local and country.
The dirt is redder the farther west we drive. We listen to the radio until 100.9 goes to static. They are having a “Don Williams Weekend,” the “Gentle Giant’s” songs and other old country hits like “Sleeping Single in a Double Bed” and Charlie Pride’s “I Don’t Think She’s in Love Anymore.” Flat Jack hums along.
“This is better than most of the shit you’ve been making me listen to,” he says. He’s already expressed disappointment that I don’t have any good jazz on my iPod. “It’s got poetry.”
Georgia drivers go 10-20 mph over the posted speed limits and zigzag in and out of lanes. “Dangerous,” I note.
“Just do what they do,” says Flat Jack.
“You’ve never driven, Flat Jack, so how about you be in charge of sightseeing, and I’ll take care of driving?” I consistently set the cruise control no more than 10% over the speed limit. That seems a good compromise.
We stop at Lane Southern Orchards to grab peaches and sandwiches for down the road, and Flat Jack poses with the giant peach and tractors. He wants to take a tractor ride. “But we’ve still got four hours of driving today, and who knows what traffic will be like through Birmingham,” I tell him.
Later I say, “I think I might know a singer you’ll like.” I put on Lana Del Rey’s not-yet-out “Honeymoon,” that a friend has sent me. She starts, “We both know that it’s not fashionable to love me,” and he’s hooked, I can see it in how he leans forward. I put on “Blue Jeans” next.
“Yah, this girl’s got it!” he says.
“She’s loved and hated as much as you,” I say.
“I’m not saying she’s one of the tragic ‘Kerouacs’ of my generation, but she definitely has that love/hate thing. I’ll play you “Video Games” next, the song the feminist community said is ‘anti-feminist.’”
He sits there listening then sings along, “I will love you ‘til the end of time. Probably a million years,” and then he laughs. “Can we change the James Dean reference to my name? And if I go out every night will you be by my side because you’re my ride or die?”
I laugh, too. “Sure, Flat Jack. I’m your ride or die. Whether you fail or fly. At least on this trip.”
Flat Jack and I drive through O’Neill, “Nebraska’s Irish Capital,” past an abandoned schoolhouse at the edge of Bassett, over Bone Creek outside Ainsworth—which is roughly where we hit the 2,000-mile mark of the road trip. Johnstown is a middle-of-nowhere town with a few old pioneer wagons by the exit, a bank and a dry goods store, both of which look long-closed, and an open and active saloon, even though it is before noon. The landscape is changing…more firs, more pines, but fewer trees in general, and not nearly as green. Entering Cherry County, a sign brags, “God’s Own Cow Country.”
Jack smiles. “That’s why I have to have both the Catholic God and Buddha. God thinks He owns all, while Buddha says he owns nothing but holds the entire world, walking it at his leisure, really enjoying it because Buddha knows he doesn’t need it. Buddha is out there walking around and God sits on His throne saying, ‘That’s mine, all of it,’ but he never touches any of it, never gets to know or enjoy the feel of the ground dipping down and swooping up beneath Him.”
“So why do you need both?” I ask.
“Because I am both. I sit here looking out thinking it’s all mine, and yet I still have Nebraska clay beneath my fingernails and in the treads of my shoes. I want to wake up someplace every morning and walk out into a yard and look around knowing it is all mine. But I also want to be hopping a train or walking down a highway with my thumb out, seeing what isn’t mine or what could be mine. God says we are made in his image, even Buddha, and Buddha doesn’t care. He’s too busy enjoying the moment. But here’s the twist: Jesus was the first Buddha and God found out and killed him.” He chuckles.
Roughly 4,500 miles over fifteen days are behind us. As we hit eastern Washington, Flat Jack tells me, “It’s been a good time, but I gotta hitch my way back to the House. A new writer’s there and she’s writing fresh versions of Buddha’s adventures—I definitely want to be around for that!”
I pull over by a set of train tracks he says run east. “I’ve never been the ‘meet the parents’ type,” he chuckles, “so this is goodbye…for now.”
I pop the trunk and he grabs his suitcase. “Want me to stick around until a train comes by?”
“Nah. It’s always best to hop a train solo. I’ll wait until the engine is by a ways and then run up from the brush and take hold.”
We hug and he holds me out at arms length. “Keep after it, kid. I will love you ‘til the end of time,” he tells me.
“Probably a million years,” I say as I get back in the car. I watch him in the rearview, a lonely figure looking out over the scablands, until I round a curve and there is nothing mirrored but sky, buttes, and sagebrush.