Of Kerouac and Monkeys

Twenty years ago, I had just read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road for like the one billionth time (yes, I’m that groovy) and was again pondering the fact that you really could just hop in a car and drive practically all the way to South America if you wanted to. Roads go everywhere. I would look at maps and get all angst-ridden, because there I was in 1989, working in a bank in San Francisco and seriously not loving it (the bank, not SF) and wearing sensible shoes and saying scary things like, “the money market yield is comparable to the 5-year CD,” when what I really wanted to be doing was driving someplace so far away from everything familiar that it would scare the crap out of me. Like Jack.

What is the feeling when you’re driving away from people, and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? -it’s the too huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies. 

I wanted the huge world to vault me. It was the winter of ’89 and by the spring of ’89 I wanted to be seeing the specks of people dispersing. I had enough money saved to get someplace, but maybe not enough to get back. That being satisfyingly frightening, I looked at my maps again. It occurred to me that if I was going to wind up broke in some remote place, I might want to be able to speak the language so that I could, you know, earn some money or something.

So, I decided to go north instead of south.  Highway 1, the Alaska/Canada highway, wound through desolate and eerie-sounding places in the Yukon—Destruction Bay, Snag, Burwash, Icefields. The description of the road itself was a hair-raiser: shoulderless two-lane with long stretches of gravel, axle-breaking frost heaves, and potholes for days. Past travelers bragged about how many flat tires they had had and spoke merrily of the monstrous logging trucks that barreled through, forcing all other vehicles off the road in a shower of rocks and terror.

Let’s go!

Most everyone I knew thought this was a BAD idea. Or so they said.  But there was always that silent moment of wow right before the hurling of laundry lists of all the wretched things that could happen to a young woman traveling alone for 7,000 miles in a Datsun pickup truck with a sad old camper shell. A veritable pawn shop of guns was offered to me, and when I noted that I’d be traveling gun-free, some people were so outraged that I feared being shot.

(A note on traveling without guns: When I crossed into Canada, the customs chick asked if I had any firearms and I said no, and she said okay then missy, and I said thanks, and she waved me on through. When I returned to the U.S., the very severe customs chick asked me three (THREE) times about guns while boring her I-know-you’re-lying eyeballs into my skull. Then I was ordered into a tiny room with no windows while old Bore Eyes ransacked my entire vehicle looking for the guns I didn’t have.  Sheesh.)

I planned to drive to Valdez, Alaska, where the massive cleanup from the Exxon Valdez oil spill was underway. I had heard that they needed literally hundreds of workers to spray water on the rocks around the bay for 12 hours a day or something like that. And the sooner I got there the better. I’ll admit it—I was scared. But it was that wonderful kind of fear that mostly you only vaguely recall from childhood. High dives, ghost stories, shaky branches on tall trees.

So, I was on the road by early May. By the time I got to the Icefields in the Yukon, everything was massive rushing rivers from all the melting ice. Still, there were blue glaciers, towering rock and ice mountains with wind shrieking around them at 18,000 feet. Snow was piled by the dinky two-lane road and sometimes even right in it. I had to slam on the brakes once to give a grizzly and her 2 cubs the right of way. She stood on her hind legs and turned my way to threaten me as I put the truck in reverse. Some time later at a lone gas pump in Jake’s Corner, Yukon (population 22), the old attendant listened blandly to my bear story and just said, “Moose is more dangerous.”  Yukonites are not all that chatty.

Some days later, I rolled into Valdez on a dying tire, dusty, exhausted, seriously wanting a cocktail, and in possession of exactly $22.00. No problem. Oil spill cleanup jobs abounded, right? Wrong. Only the day before, the local government had agreed that cleanup jobs should go only to residents of Alaska. Uh oh. I drove down to the docks, stared blindly at the fabulous scenery, and thought, “WTF?”

I realize that at this juncture in this tale, many of you are thinking, “Hello. Isn’t this a running blog? Not seeing the connection to running. Bored. Don’t care about your little jaunt to the North Pole or whatever.”

I only bring this old adventure up, because only a few weeks ago I was once again staring blindly at fabulous scenery and thinking, “WTF?” It was time for the Monkey. (For those of you unfamiliar with this event [as if], simply Google the words “trent monkey” and click on the first thing that comes up. Really.) I was on my last long run in the park, and, as they do every year before this race, serious doubts and fears and images of friends barking, “This is a BAD idea. BAD!” stomped through my head.

One of my favorite Kerouac lines from On the Road is, “Offer them what they secretly want and they of course immediately become panic-stricken.”  I thought of this line around mile 15 of that last long run, and wondered about it. Had people forced guns on me when I wanted to travel alone, warned me that running would ultimately cause my uterus to fall out, and shook their heads at my Monkey love because, secretly, they wanted to do the same things?

Of course. Nothing is a better, more exhilarating, and more normal reminder of being alive than being scared shitless.

As I sat at that dock 20 years ago, I clearly remember calming myself down by thinking, “Okay. What’s the worst that can happen? One way or the other, I’ll make it back home.”  So, that’s pretty much the way I decided to look at the Monkey.

As for Alaska, I ended up working in a salmon cannery, chopping off salmon heads for up to 12 hours a day and having the most memorable summer of my life. I ran on abandoned mining trails back in the valleys and to edges of glaciers near the mountains, once running head on into a group of dreaded moose who, thankfully, just glared at me, snorted, and sauntered away. I rode with friends overnight in the midnight sun to hike Denali. We watched flocks of eagles fishing when the salmon ran in the Copper River, and we got slammed in the crappy dock bars on 50-cent beer and Yukon Jack (*sigh*).

And the Monkey this year? It was the best one yet. Big Fat Monstrous Fear has been replaced by Big Fat Wonderful Fear. The worst never happens, and I always get back home. Between fearing the worst and getting home, a race always transpires that, like that summer of ’89, is literally moment to moment memorable. To me, it’s the Northern Lights of races. Eerie, spectacular, scary, indescribable, unforgettable.

There’s a lot of talk among those running the Monkey that we’re all “idiots” and “crazy,” and so on, but, in reality, we’re monumentally more sane than if we lived dully day after day without any self-induced terror. (Apologies to anyone who is actually proud of thinking of him- or herself as idiotic.) True crackpottedness comes from endless indifference, complacency, and wrinkle-free normalcy.

Still, most people will continue to see those who drive 7000 miles for laughs and run 26.2 miles of hills for fun as mental. We’re the mad ones.

I’ll admit that when I read On the Road these days, at nearly 50, I sometimes think, “For crissakes, Jack. Sober up! Get a freaking job, and stop worrying your poor mother.” But, mostly, I still agree with Jack Kerouac’s concluding sentiment:  The only people for me are the mad ones. The ones who are mad to love, mad to talk, mad to be saved… the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn like fabulous yellow Roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.


9 thoughts on “Of Kerouac and Monkeys

  1. Ugh. This is not what I needed to read in my antsy, angsty, alexander supertrampy state of mind. (or… maybe it is!). That sounds amazing! (One day, Amy, one day.)

    Maybe I should re-read On the Road… I was always more into Dharma Bums for whatever reason.

    Seriously though, awesome post. I LOVE this… “Nothing is a better, more exhilarating, and more normal reminder of being alive than being scared shitless.” So GD true!

  2. Nice writing. My parents travelled a lot when I was growing up. I can relate to your experience thru them… They drove from CT to Alaska 50 yrs ago, dirt roads most of the way. They walked across the US for their honeymoon with their boxer dog. I was the last of 7 kids and we travelled all over the world, sometimes on a whim, most times on a shoestring. I don’t travel much since, I am content with the memories. Your post stirred up some of those memories. Thanks.

  3. Please write more…your writing is superb. I check your blog every so often hoping you’ve written another entry.

    Plus you write about monkeys.

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