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Celebrating 50 years of "On the Road" with Jack Kerouac

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Veteran hitchhiker Morgan 'Sal'man Strub read Jack Kerouac's novel On the Road while trekking from San Francisco to Portland when he was 19 years old. He identified so much with Kerouac's alter-ego in the book, Sal Paradise, that he adopted 'Sal' as a nickname and founded a hitchhiking website, www.digihitch.com. (Courtesy of Morgan Strub, www.digihitch.com)

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Beat poet-writer Jack Kerouac is buried in Lowell, Mass. Born on March 12, 1922, Kerouac would have been 85 years old this year. (Courtesy of Steve Edington, Lowell Celebrates Kerouac!)

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The original 119-foot-long scroll manuscript of Beat author Jack Kerouac's acclaimed novel On the Road is currently on tour across the country. (Courtesy of Steve Edington, Lowell Celebrates Kerouac!)

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Beats Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg used to frequent the West End tavern in New York during their time at Columbia University in the early 1940s. The bar recently reopened as Havana Central at the West End. New Owner Jeremy Merrin (left) and former owner/bartender Sid Roberts (right) vow to keep the Beats' memories alive. (Christopher Twarowski/CNS)

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Beats Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg used to frequent the West End tavern in New York during their time at Columbia University in the early 1940s. The bar recently reopened as Havana Central at the West End. New owner Jeremy Merrin (left) and former owner/bartender Sid Roberts vow to keep the Beats' memories alive. (Christopher Twarowski/CNS)

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Beat poet-writer Jack Kerouac's birth house in Lowell, Mass. Kerouac was born on March 12, 1922. He would have been 85 years old this year. (Courtesy of Steve Edington, Lowell Celebrates Kerouac!)

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Large stone monuments etched with excerpts from Kerouac's works commemorate the writer's life at Kerouac Park in Lowell, Mass. (Courtesy of Steve Edington, Lowell Celebrates Kerouac!)

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Beats Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, among others, used to frequent the West End tavern in New York. The bar-restaurant was recently reopened and hosts many Beat-orientated events. (Christopher Twarowski/CNS)

The breakup of his parents’ marriage hit Morgan Strub hard. Then 16 and severely distraught, he chose to run away. Packing up a duffel bag, he hopped a plane to Albuquerque, then hitchhiked to Gallup, N.M., where he learned how to cop spare change on the street to survive.

Survive he did, but three years later Strub took to the road again, this time with a traveling companion: "On the Road" by Jack Kerouac. The novel spoke to him in a way that no one else did, or could. Strub found inspiration. He found an identity. He was no longer alone.

“I had thought I was the only one,” said Strub, now 33. “The book and the culture was for me finding a sense of how I tap in.”

Generations have had a similar awakening upon their first reading of "On the Road." The story, which chronicles Kerouac’s and companion Neal Cassady’s mad wanderings across North America, still resonates with readers 50 years after it was first published in 1957. To mark its anniversary, groups across the country are planning to commemorate the book and the Beat culture that inspired the work.

Viking Press, the novel’s original publisher, says it still sells about 100,000 copies of the book each year.

“It seems to provide some type of blueprint for outsiderness that each new generation picks up and revises to suit its own ends,” said Penny Vlagopoulos, a doctoral candidate in English and comparative literature at Columbia University. “There’s some element of freedom, of striking outside of the boundaries of convention that I think people continue to identify with.”

John Sampas, executor of Kerouac’s literary estate and brother of Stella Sampas, the writer’s third wife, says the two main characters resonate with each generation because “they’re looking for that lost ‘it’ that all young people are looking for."

Kerouac, born in 1922 in Lowell, Mass., coined the term Beat Generation to describe his friends--poet Allen Ginsberg and writer William Burroughs--and the growing counterculture of alienated youth in the 1950s. Kerouac died in 1969 at age 47 from complications related to alcoholism; he would have turned 85 on March 12.

To mark the anniversary, Kerouac’s original scroll manuscript has gone on tour across the United States. Currently on display in Denver, the scroll will make its way through Santa Fe, then Lowell and finally finish the year at the New York Public Library.

Typed single-spaced on taped-together tracing paper over the course of three weeks in 1951, the 119-foot-long scroll is written in a free-flowing, stream-of-consciousness style known as spontaneous prose. It has no page breaks or paragraphs. Admirers say the writing combines the rhythm of jazz, the madness of drug addiction and the emptiness of post-World War II America. Legend says the author was high on Benzedrine and coffee during its composition.

Jim Kroll, a manager at the Denver Public Library, describes viewers’ reactions to the scroll as “phenomenal.” The exhibit has drawn a continuous flow of people, and thousands have left messages in a sign-in book. Some simply write, "Thank you, Jack." Others are more personal: "Dear Jack, I have your lit [sic] in my backpack. If only I had you in a sack. Much love, Momma P."

“It’s one of those novels that people read and they read themselves into it,” Kroll said.

Lowell will be the host for a “Summer of Kerouac” to coincide with the manuscript’s arrival. There will be live jazz, poetry readings, tours of Kerouac's haunts around the city, a film festival and museum exhibits.

“It’s a classic coming-of-age novel that anybody of a certain age can relate to,” said Steve Edington, project manager of the Lowell scroll exhibit.

Viking is releasing a commemorative uncensored version of the book at the end of the year. According to Paul Slovak, the publisher of Viking, the text will be exactly as it appears on the scroll, except for edits that Kerouac later penciled in. The scroll version is longer, with “a heightened linguistic virtuosity,” Slovak said, and “a more sexually frenetic tone.” And the new version will include the real names of Kerouac's friends.

Viking will also publish an anniversary edition of the edited 1957 version as well as a book titled "Why Kerouac Matters: The Lessons of 'On the Road.'"

Plenty of other Kerouac-related events will be popping up across the country. A Manhattan bar-restaurant where the Beat Generation used to hang out in the 1940s, the West End, recently reopened as Havana Central at the West End in January. The new owner, Jeremy Merrin, is determined to keep the memory of the Beats alive. Photographs of Kerouac and his crew adorn the walls and menus. The first event he held in January was a reading of Ginsberg’s poem "Howl." Merrin says he’ll have more Kerouac-inspired events planned for this year.

Merrin has preserved the original bar where the Beats used to drink.

“Decent people,” said 86-year-old Sid Roberts, who met the Beat authors when his father ran the place during the 1930s and 1940s. Roberts said he used to feed the Beats for free when they were broke. “They’d drink and discuss literature,” he said.

Little did Roberts know back then just how dramatic an impact the small group of starry-eyed writers drinking at the bar would have on so many others, so far down the road.

Now, Strub (whose is nicknamed “Salman” after Sal Paradise, Kerouac’s alter ego in "On the Road") is the editor and Webmaster of Digihitch.com, a Web site that has become a hub for hitchhikers all over the world. He founded it in 2001, with Kerouac and "On the Road" in mind. Strub says he’s hitchhiked about 30,000 miles since that first trip to Gallup, and credits the book with having a profound effect on his life.

“Hitchhiking is spontaneous prose,” Strub said. “It’s a form of winging it and just knowing that you’re going to meet the person or you’re going to find the junction up ahead where it all makes sense. And it doesn’t make sense right now, but that’s all right, just keep on moving.”

E-mail: cjt2117@columbia.edu