Saturday, September 18, 2010

"On the Road" with Jack Kerouac and The Cemetery Traveler

Its fitting that The Cemetery Traveler would visit the grave of Jack Kerouac, pop culture's most famous traveler. I was driving through New England a few years back and made it a point to stop to see his grave, at the Edson City Cemetery in Lowell, Massachusetts.

Known mainly for his epic travel adventure, "On the Road," Kerouac epitomized wanderlust for an entire generation. He continues to do so now, years after his death. You simply cannot read "On the Road" without wanting to just drive recklessly off into the sunset in search of Meaning. I read it, and bought a convertible. 

So why would I want to visit his grave? Why would anyone want to visit a celebrity's grave? Some of us do this because it enables us to get closer to the person than we could possibly have gotten in real life. For me, I think it was to get closer to the spirit of Kerouac's writing (which was a maddening stream of consciousness style further popularized a decade later by Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). Kerouac isn't exactly a role model for me, its just that his writing touched a nerve: "Somewhere along the line I knew there'd be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me."

I think I was driving back from a ski trip in New Hampshire, when I decided to stop in Lowell. Lowell is a mill town, the nation's textile epicenter during the American Industrial Revolution. A workingman's town, and Kerouac's hometown. He was born there in 1922--Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac. He was French-Canadian, his parents had immigrated from Quebec, Canada. You'll notice the stone says "Jean," not Jack.

Edson City Cemetery is a relatively large, yet flat and plain looking cemetery. The woman at the gatehouse is happily prepared to give you a map showing how to get to the grave (it is arguably Lowell's most popular tourist attraction). Otherwise it would be rather difficult to find as the grave marker is flush with the ground. Let me rephrase that - its actually easy to find if you just take note of the several cars lined up waiting near the grave. This was the oddest thing! No one would bother you as you paid your respects, lit your candle, or left your token offering. As you drove away, the next car would drive up almost religiously, people would get out, walk to the grave, and spend some quiet moments. What were they reflecting on, I wondered? And why such reverence?

I've visited the grave sites of dozens of celebrities (in their own right) and have never encountered another live visitor! Not that I really expected anyone to be hanging out near mathematician Kurt Godel's grave in Princeton (yeah, I'm a fan), but wouldn't you expect to see at least a few people at Rudolph Valentino's grave in Hollywood? I mean, even given the fact that the Hollywood Grave Line Tours will not allow people to get out and walk around...

Statue near Kerouac's grave
So these people still line up to visit Kerouac's grave, decades after his death. Why? Are they, like On the Road's characters Sal and Dean, actually on a spiritual quest? Why such reverence? Kerouac's friend Jim Holmes said,"though the characters rushed back and forth across the country at the slightest pretext, gathering kicks along the way, their real journey was inward; and if they seemed to trespass most boundaries, legal and moral, it was only in the hope of finding a belief on the other side."

Maybe that's part of the reason I tear off at the drop of a hat in search of new cemeteries to photograph. The creative process of photography has always helped me deal with the world, with personal issues, and even to judge myself (in retrospect, psychiatry would've been cheaper). However, I believe that spending time in cemeteries has helped me search for, and sometimes find, meaning in an otherwise entropic world. Seeing others find meaning in my work has been an unexpected gift. 

Read about Hollywood's bizarre Grave Line Tours
Visit Lowell, Massachusetts

Purchase On the Road and change your life for a mere ten bucks!