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Know the West

Off the road again


Jack Kerouac wrote his entire novel "On the Road" in just three weeks. He used a continuous roll of teletype paper, as if pausing to put in a new sheet of paper would have caused a pile-up on his imagination's highway. Lawrence Ferlinghetti said that Kerouac provided us with "a vision of America seen from a speeding car." When Kerouac's novel first appeared in 1957, I was just a tyke on a trike. The only Beats I knew about were vegetables.

Now that I'm down the road, so to speak -- a retired schoolteacher living without a lesson plan -- I realize Kerouac's vision of living fast and dying young is not my choice, and certainly not the road I want to see carved by our energy specialists through our public lands in the West. Perhaps it's time for a new novel.

If Kerouac's highway survives, we'll need some sort of measuring stick to judge how far we've strayed from America's true freedom. Not that romantic, century-old affair with the open road, but our commitment to open land that breathes oxygen into our lives.

My novel will be titled "Off the Road." My main character's quest will take him on a quest, seeking wilderness on the East Coast. He'll get lucky, and a hydrogen-powered runabout will pick him up. He'll take this free ride all the way to Missouri, and then find a mass transportation connection to complete his journey. All the while he'll fiddle with his Golden Age Parks Pass, promising himself that he'll visit every remaining piece of public land on his way back West -- on his way back home. The complication in the novel, of course, will be in getting him to these destinations, having lost both his wheels and his wiles.

But that's where I always run out of literary gas. Surely, the disenfranchised, the down and out, the beat, will always be with us, reconstituted along the lines of Kerouac's generation of beatniks. My generation will likely end up chronicled as a culture of debtniks, of maxed-out credit card consumers foreclosed out of their homes, living with their mothers in their childhood homes -- just like Kerouac.

Still, I'd start my novel with hope, by preaching the sermon of the wilderness, a beatific vision of our heritage still vibrant in a futuristic world. Public lands are the closest companions we have with Kerouac's boxcars, beaches and open highways. "Off the Road" will speak for a constituency of backcountry dreamers, disengaged from the current culture's obsession with ATVs, snowmobiles, dirt bikes, rock crawlers and SUVs. It will be a place where the free spirit of America and the West can be passed around like a bottle of cheap wine.

Maybe Willie Nelson will rewrite his song for my novel's debut: "Back off the road again." Maybe in another half-century Americans will become reacquainted with their feet, will choose to walk again, to find a trailhead and celebrate the absence of pavement. Maybe I'll have my character backpacking defunct motel furniture into the parks and lighting campfires fueled by Chinese particle-board night stands. With over half of the world's population already living in cities, seeing actual starlight might be as mind-blowing as hearing Allen Ginsberg first read his poem "Howl" at the City Lights book store in San Francisco.

Naturally, the natural world will play a big part in my off-the-road version of America. We may be running out of oil, running out of space, running out of money and running out of patience, but if we ever lose our public lands, we will be so much more impoverished, even to the point of having lost our vision.

As for my main character, whatever his name will be, he'll be left with his impossible dream, much like Don Quixote. Every nuclear power plant's cooling tower, coal-fired smoke stack or huge solar-power array and nest of power lines will make him think he's standing beside Yellowstone's Old Faithful. Every high-rise will induce him to imagine staring down into an arroyo from the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. Every airliner leaving a vapor trail will remind him of condors, gliding majestically across the milky white cataracts of his skies.

David Feela is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives and dreams in Dolores, Colorado.