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Take on America, On the Road

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Ever wanted to pack up and hit the highway, beat style? TNS looks at some of the locations to take your own American road trip along the lines of that made by Jack Kerouac’s restless hero Sal Paradise. So get behind a wheel of an automobile, check the fuel gauge and be prepared to rack up some serious mileage on your sojourn to rediscover the unbridled expanses and freedom of America.    

New YorkNew York City

From the gleaming palatial apartments of Manhattan’s Upper East Side to Brooklyn’s warehouse lofts packed with downtrodden artists, the immense New York City seems built to encapsulate the diversity of the bulging continent rolling out from the Atlantic. For Kerouac, NYC was the lofty platform to bolt from; becoming the archetypal traveller with the breadth of America at his feet. And on his many journeys between 1947 and 1950 which inspired On the Road, New York was also his homecoming, as his family and the Beat contingent constantly welcomed him back. The city still glistens with grandeur and brims with vibrancy today, and it’ll be tough to drag yourself away from this imperial metropolis and onto the road. 

Chicago

The skyscrapers reach even higher (and the pizzas deeper) here than in New York, and the hard-boiled attitude of the Windy City’s residents may stem from the fierce draughts cutting between the towers downtown. During the Great Depression, the city’s reputation for jazz climbed as quickly as the skyline did, although when Kerouac stopped by, he claimed the scene there was stagnating before greats like Miles Davis passed through to reinvigorate the genre. With an unerring tough love for their sports (be it when the White Sox, Cubs or Bears are playing), an impassioned music history and vociferous political voices (Obama being the recent alumni of note), you have to admire the punchy nature of Chi-town’s inhabitants.

Memphis

Though Sal Paradise briefly stayed in Memphis during On the Road, it’s the ghosts of the ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ (Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis) who leave their mark on this town. With Graceland conserved as Elvis’ lavish tomb, the Gibson factory carving the next generation of axes, and Sun Studios and Stax Records calling the city home, Memphis is a Mecca for music lovers. And that musical history courses through Beale Street every night, along with debauchery and steaming plates of pulled pork. But a visit to the site of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination and the ensuing sense of his civil rights legacy should be sobering enough the morning after.   

New Orleans

Though old NOLA took a battering when Hurricane Katrina forced her levees to fail in 2005, her dark, seductive soul persists. There is a continuing party atmosphere. The French Quarter, featuring the drag of hedonistic dens on Bourbon Street, went completely unharmed and has so much blues and jazz blasting into the swampy air from the under the Southern facades, it’s like Louis Armstrong never left us. In Sal’s words, each breath of New Orleans is a tropical exhalation.   

The Grand Canyon

In the era of 3D IMAX, few things will start you bleating about your peepers deceiving you. But the Grand Canyon will do just that. It's as if God sat down on the seventh day to reward himself by cutting a slice of divine layered cake straight from the ground of Arizona; the Canyon descends through strata upon strata of dusty crimson rock sheared bare a mile deep by the Colorado river. Most tour buses pull up to the Canyon's South Rim to let overwhelmed tourists cry in amazement at the sight before scooting off to Vegas, so get to the North Rim if possible for a quieter time taking in the Canyon’s enormity. Better still, leave two days to hike to the bottom and find out how deeply God carved his heavenly gorge.

San Francisco

Positioned between giant forests and the azure coastline of Big Sur (where Kerouac tasted his worst ruination), San Francisco sits in the mist of central California, acting as an almost limitless melting pot of goodwill. A rolling bohemian stronghold accessed by the Golden Gate, with diverse districts housing technological entrepreneurs, rainbow flag bearers, relics of drug experimentation and East Bay punks. They’re even nice enough to store their criminals offshore at Alcatraz. Whether you’re behind the kaleidoscopic panes of his watering hole, the Vesuvio, or amongst the shelves lined by dusty Beat classics in the City Lights Bookstore, you won’t feel Jack Kerouac’s unmitigated free spirit anywhere greater than in Frisco.

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