Kerouac has a yearning and passion to travel west, to be on the road, to live a life of transience. I love this about him. I completely empathize with where he’s coming from. Being from the east as well and having tremendously itchy feet, I often yearn for the same: to be able to travel west and experience the freedom of the wide open plains, to see the majesty of purple mountains, and to hear the roar of the Pacific. The west possesses this immense and powerful draw, almost a kind of magnetism. There really is a pining to discover the Spirit of America and it’s not hard to be swayed by the belief that that spirit exists out west somewhere. I think along with the desire to discover that spirit is also the desire to discover one’s self. Maybe that’s the importance that comes from going out west. In spite of this, one of the most poignant passages in my reading of On the Road so far was one in which Kerouac is travelling back east, coming home from his first road trip.
On his return voyage, he meets the Ghost of the Susquehanna. This character has been one of the deepest and most intriguing of the whole novel. His appearance lasts no more than three pages but his importance speaks to much greater volumes. The Ghost is just a world war one veteran bum who lives his life travelling up and down the east coast. As opposed to finding the essence of America out west, here we have an old frail man who finds the same American Spirit in the east. It exists in the forests of the Susquehanna, on the roads in Maryland and Virginia, even in “Canady.” This speaks volumes to me, the idea that the heart of America beats even in the east. The grand mystery that exists in the wide open spaces out there can be found on the banks of the rivers of the east and in its forests and on its roads. That’s the idea that I believe Kerouac was trying to convey in his introduction of the ghost.
This passage also expresses Kerouac’s reverence for the bum. In his eyes, the bum is a saint of the road. His home is the wilderness and his treasures are the food he eats, a discarded hat, and the kindness of strangers. The bum is simple and pure. But he is also the epitome of sadness. The bum represents the dregs of society to most and is not uncommonly dejected. Kerouac juxtaposes this well when he describes the ghost as a “poor forlorn man, poor lost sometimes-boy now broken ghost of the penniless wilds” (209). In spite of the ghost’s saintly likeness as a man of the road, in spite of his boy-like simplicity, ultimately he is broken and his existence is a sad one. He really has nobody, and what value is there in a life of adventure on the road without the companionship of people you love?