Understanding “On the Road” in Columbia, Missouri

I sat with an old woman at Flatbranch bar last night.

Although not a Royals fan, she flailed her arms and cried at the flatscreen TV hanging above the bar’s glass bottles when Kansas City lost. I struck up a conversation with her asked why she was upset. She told me she couldn’t stand to see a team from Missouri lose.

This was her state after all and she told me stories of her German heritage and of her Catholic upbringing and of a Civil War battle on her property near Jefferson City. She then told me about her college days at the University of Missouri in the 1960s.

“On campus everyone was nicer then,” she said. “Nobody’s nice around campus anymore except, well, you.”

I laughed. That wasn’t true. But it was interesting to me that she felt that way. I had just finished Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” and reflected on what life must have been like back then — Jazz music, drugs, women, cars racing up and down the roads. From the old woman’s perspective and Kerouac’s, people probably did seem nicer or at least more exciting.

Kerouac gives us rich description of his experiences in “On the Road” from the bustle of Times Square to the horn-honking Mexico City where ambulances zipped through traffic without slowing down. Maybe the old woman, too, remembered her days through that exciting beat-lens of happiness and freedom without a care for money.

Despite the rich descriptions of the adventures and people, “On the Road” ends with the main character, Sal Paradise, looking out into a New Jersey river and longing for his pal Dean Moriarty. It’s a sad ending to a book where Sal desperately tries to find his next “kick” for 300 pages but finally realizes the only thing that matters is his relationship with other people. The book ends like Tom Petty’s “American Girl” song, where a woman standing alone looks out into the ocean and thinks about an old lover. “God it’s so painful when something that’s so close is still so far out of reach,” Petty wails.

So, back at Flatbranch bar, the old woman thanked me for being nice to her. I grabbed her number and promised her I’d call. My buddies laughed at me for talking to the old lady as we walked along Broadway back home.

And, as we started to discuss other plans, I thought about Kerouac and how relevant “On the Road” is to people even today. Then, I thought about the old woman at the bar and wondered how she was doing.