Jami Cassady at Secret SLO holding her mother Carolyn’s 1991 painting of Jack Kerouac, based on a 1952 photograph taken shortly before Kerouac’s stay in San Luis Obispo
Jack Kerouac’s original 1951 scroll of On the Road, 120 typewritten feet, mentions San Luis Obispo about 50 feet in. Only the first 40 feet are unrolled in the scroll’s display at the San Luis Obispo Library, alas, and the edited—or bowdlerized—version of On the Road finally published by Viking in 1957 leaves San Luis Obispo out altogether. Penguin has, since 2007, published the scroll version (available at Secret SLO’s gallery, in the historic Sauer-Adams Adobe at 964 Chorro Street; also, if you want to buy it in a less interesting way, online).
In the scroll version of the San Luis Obispo scene, five people are driving through Baltimore. Jack Kerouac (without a driver’s license) is at the wheel, Neal Cassady is drumming a big sag into the Hudson’s dashboard, and Neal’s underage ex-wife Louanne sits next to them. In the back seat is Al Hinkle and a girl named Rhoda who’s planning to stay with him and whom he’s planning to get rid of.
They’ve left New York and are about to pass through Washington, DC on the inauguration day for Harry Truman’s second term, making their way to the house of heroin addict William Burroughs’ and his Benzedrine addict wife Joan outside of New Orleans, where Al’s wife Helen is waiting, and thence to San Francisco. Neal, Louanne, and Jack have just attempted an unsuccessful threesome (with Jack the reluctant partner) in the apartment of the increasingly mystic and preachy Allen Ginsberg, another of Neal’s lovers. Neal’s second and current wife Carolyn is waiting in San Francisco. The air is rife with sexual desire, angst, coupling, and betrayal. As with most of Kerouac’s scenes, it is as complicated as a Renaissance painting with its juxtaposed characters and moralities.
“Oh man what kicks!” yelled Neal. “Now Louanne, listen really honey, you know that I’m capable of doing everything at the same time and I have unlimited energy … now in San Francisco we must go on living together … I know just the place for you … at the end of the SP day run, San Luis Obispo, I’ll be home every night … I’ll be back at Carolyn’s every morning … We can work it, we’ve done it before.” It was alright with Louanne, she was really out for Carolyn’s scalp. The understanding had been that Louanne would switch to me in Frisco but I now began to see they were going to stick and I was going to be left alone on my ass at the other end of the continent. But why think about that when all the golden land’s ahead of you and all kinds of unforeseen events wait lurking to surprise you and make you glad you’re alive to see.
Here San Luis Obispo is the yin to San Francisco’s yang; the conniving nurse in Romeo and Juliet; a plot device; an obscure, maybe exotic sounding piece of verisimilitude to the East Coast reader. But this is what is said in the 1957 edition, where Neal is “Dean Moriarty” and Louanne is “Marylou”:
“Oh man, what kicks!” yelled Dean. “Now Marylou, listen really, honey, you know that I’m hotrock capable of everything at the same time and I have unlimited energy—now in San Francisco we must go on living together. I know just the place for you—at the end of the regular chain-gang run—I’ll be home just a cut-hair less than every two days and for twelve hours at a stretch, and man, you know what we can do in twelve hours, darling. Meanwhile I’ll go right on living at Camille’s like nothin, see, she won’t know. We can work it, we’ve done it before.” It was all right with Marylou, she was really out for Camille’s scalp. The understanding had been that Marylou would switch to me in Frisco, but I now began to see they were going to stick and I was going to be left alone on my butt at the other end of the continent. By why think about that when all the golden land’s ahead of you and all kinds of unforeseen events wait lurking to surprise you and make you glad you’re alive to see?
Punctuation inserted, “ass” changed to “butt,” some verbal flourishes laid on (including “cut-hair,” a placeholder for the Cassadyism “cunthair”), and “regular chain-gang run” replacing “San Luis Obispo.” This last is odd, since chain-gangs refer to irregular freight trains, and anyway the phrase would have been incomprehensible to a reader not employed on the railroad. Rhoda also gets dropped from the 1957 version, as does the complicated way in which she is abandoned at a crossroads bus stop in Virginia in a desolate dawn, as does a complicated detour to a dead end with fairytale overtones outside of Philadelphia, as does a description of Louanne’s incestuous cop father. In other words, the scroll version is a more intricate book, a more intricate read.
The irony of On the Road is that the lonely American Beats in their spiritual quest on the lonely American highway were all employed, at various times, on the railroad, the most corporate and communal form of transportation. Al Hinkle (whose father was, according to Neal Cassady’s youngest daughter Jami, a Southern Pacific executive) got them jobs as brakemen, though Ginsberg had to work as a clerk or “mudhop,” counting and listing cars, because the SP wouldn’t hire Jews as brakemen (Jack’s Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac, pp. 164–65).
Kerouac was either working as a brakeman or had been laid off and was still using his railroad workers’ pass when, in early 1953, he lived at the Colonial Hotel—originally the Call Hotel, now the Establishment—in San Luis Obispo at the corner of Santa Barbara and Leff Streets. He was a poor brakeman, according to Hinkle, afraid he would be pulled under the wheels. Neal Cassady, in contrast, was a natural, fearlessly shaving minutes by leaping on and off moving trains, and (says Jami) working as a brakeman and conductor for the SP for ten years without missing a day.
Yet Neal wrote a letter to Jack in 1950 describing how, on his first railroad trip, another brakeman he knew well was killed next to him by an overwide boxcar, the back of his head crushed from ear to ear, while Neal “extended my nerves & put all my effort into facing the wide car & turning my body sidewise” and only had his nose grazed (Neal Cassady, The First Third, 194–95). He wrote this to Jack about eight months before Jack started his twenty days of writing On the Road.
Like Kerouac, Neal Cassady probably stayed in the Colonial Hotel for his day runs to San Luis. Tourists and travelers stayed in town, railroad workers close to the station. Cassady’s ten years working for the SP was a rare period of stability in his life. Neal and Carolyn bought a house and brought up their three kids in Los Gatos, where Jack camped in the backyard.
Hinkle, in Jack’s Book, says that Ginsberg lasted only a week or ten days at the SP, but, like a good poet, he milked that cow to full advantage throughout Howl and Other Poems, published in 1956. In Howl, the “angelheaded hipsters burning for ancient heavenly connection … wandered around and around at midnight in the railroad yard wondering where to go, and went, leaving no broken hearts.” (You can listen to Ginsberg read it here.) Sunflower Sutra takes place with Jack Kerouac “under the huge shade of a Southern Pacific locomotive”: “it was my first sunflower, memories of Blake … You were never no locomotive, Sunflower, you were a sunflower! … spied on by our eyes under the shadow of the mad locomotive riverbank sunset Frisco hilly tincan evening sitdown vision.” The last poem in the little volume begins, “In back of the real / railroad yard in San Jose / I wandered desolate,” prelude to another Wordsworthian meditation on flowers in unlikely places.
San Luis Obispo may have had only a walk-on part On the Road—and not even as a stop on the road, only as a work reference, the halfway point between Frisco and LA, the terminus of the day trains. Yet San Luis sets up a crucial symbol, the woman at each end of the track, with American spiritual and intellectual energy spent running between them. The earthy, lusty Louanne is juxtaposed to the ethereal beauty of the artistic Carolyn and both to America’s corporate artery of hard steel rails, like Ginsberg’s visions of a “flower of industry, tough spiky ugly flower, flower nonetheless” redeeming “the real / railroad yard … in front of a tank factory … near the switchman’s shack.”
In Visions of Cody, written during early revisions of On the Road, Kerouac contrasts San Luis with Hollywood: “some of the families I dug 1947 who drive from the Zorro night to Hollywood and Vine to see stars filtered in here now (I saw the Pacific feathering the night shore south of Obispo, wow).” He presents it as a counterpoint to San Francisco: “the long arrowing deserted Folsom Street which, as I hadn’t remembered in my back East reveries runs straight into the far lights of the Mission or Richmond or whatever district, all glitters in the indigo distance of the night, to make you think of trucks and long hauls to Paso Robles, bleak Obispo or Monterrey, or Fresno in the mist of highways, the last highways, the California up and down coast highways, the ones with an end which is water.” Finally, Kerouac balances all America between coast and coast: “the red sun sinking blood red in the world and the United States of America from Portuguese French-Canadian tenements of Cape Cod to the outskirts of heather in San Luis Obispo.”
Kerouac’s first book written after the success of On the Road (“Well, how do you like fame?” “It’s like old newspapers blowing down Bleecker Street”) was The Dharma Bums. It opens with San Luis Obispo—now familiar to Kerouac after his 1953 stay here—a familiar lover, the local girl, with glamorous San Francisco as its rival.
Hopping a freight out of Los Angeles at high noon one day in late September 1955 I got on a gondola and lay down with my duffel bag under my head and my knees crossed and contemplated the clouds as we rolled north to Santa Barbara. It was a local and I intended to sleep on the beach at Santa Barbara that night and catch either another local to San Luis Obispo the next morning or the firstclass freight all the way to San Francisco at seven p.m.
Ultimately, Ray Smith (Kerouac’s first-person stand-in) does neither: he hitchhikes the rest of the way to San Francisco “in one long zipping ride given me, as though anybody’ll believe this, by a beautiful darling young blonde in a snow-white strapless bathing suit and barefooted with a gold bracelet on her ankle, driving a next year’s cinnamon-red Lincoln Mercury, who wanted benzedrine so she could drive all the way to the City and when I said I had some in my duffel bag yelled ‘Crazy!’” Through San Luis Obispo they would have zipped through two and a half brand new miles of four-lane divided freeway, completed the year before.
A year later, the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 introduced the Interstate Highway System, and the Southern Pacific switched from steam to diesel in 1956, obviating the hours needed to fire up the engines and the days needed for steam engine maintenance. Overnight, San Luis Obispo’s largest employer went from being the SP to Cal Poly, and now we were connected by sleek freeway instead of lonely highway to Los Angeles and San Francisco. Alex Madonna, who built 101 (if you’re from Northern California) or the 101 (if you’re from Southern California) between Buellton and Salinas, also put up the first part of his super motel, the Madonna Inn, in 1957. You could pull off the freeway, pull into Swiss-Ranch-Rustic comfort, put your feet up on the bed, crack open that year’s critical and popular hit On the Road, and read about a world already vanishing.