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Dharma thumbs

Step shuffle slide: the pack-weighted man walk-limps by the roadside. Thunkety-plunk go the feet as he shifts on the upbeat of a dead-Beat mellow day. Shish-boom-bah scats the sea below, while the cars hiss by and the sea lions bark the redwoods above in reply.

He’s left the cabin at nine that morning, to hitch them fourteen miles, and hitching must be easy ’cause he is who he is and is why he is after all. But nobody knows or stops and the day wears on: long hot August summer’s day, no sea fog this time, and the seals rejoice in the light and call from below and they spur him on, and the cars hiss by and keep passing. No trucks now, no commerce, just tourist coast highway stalked by station wagons desperate to find somewhere they’ve never been and snap the shutter to say it’s seen.

Step shuffle slide, says Charlie Parker to them feet; thunkety plunk says Thelonius in reply; shish boom bah urges the sea, and he hears and keeps be-bop walking through the blisters, pushing through the pain for the promise of the alcohol and oblivion to come.

Seacoast highway, ebb and flow, tide and wrack, the dark-haired man drinks the Spanish corsair coast and his gridiron legs will him on as the cars ignore that extended thumb. He pauses to dress the blistered feet, bleeding now; midday is gone and still no-one stops. The touring couples have eyes only for each other and the road: world seen through mutual dark glasses brightly, lone trudging figure lost in the glare.

The be-hatted be-wived and be-childrened family drivers righteously refuse, their be-longings cluttering their seats and brains; no room nor welcome for hitchhikers here buddy: piss in the gutter and swim. The boomers are in the back seat squabbling - more ice-cream, rest stops and swap sides: who says because you never yes I did no way alright oh yeah says who (the future of all debate right there). And as they pass him dad cusses hobo ’cause he’s pissed at mom really who’s pissed at him too but they’re in the car on vacation so they’re pissed at the world instead, and the kids turn to scope that rambly roadster and imbibe that crucial lesson – whatever to be taken down and held whenever against whomever. Roads my friend are a means and not an end: drive on daddy, oh drive on.

His be-attitude is faltering now and he stops at seven miles and despairs. Fortieth birthday looming, can’t do this anymore. Then perhaps he never could, which is why he’s there now. But he dresses his blisters and puts back on his sockiboos and his thin-soled desert boots that slap the tar and thinks of his mom and his (dead unbeknownst to him) cat Tyke and walks on, trusting in his feet and his faith both Catholic and in the Road. The features once chiselled and matinee-handsome are blurring now and eroding, a strange blend of rude health and dissipation - the body’s slow reluctance to let the sick but brilliant mind bow it to its will. Descent, apotheosis, redemption and destruction: they jostle each other jazzily and wait for him at the end of the road.

But nobody wants to take him there. No vacation-station wagon stops - nine miles now and each step is agony, until faith is amazingly restored: the little truck stops and the dog barks happy: hitchhikers are fine by him, and they share the broad bench seat the remaining miles into town. Buy you a beer he says, and the driver looks at the otherly being through which alcohol is creeping like a blight and says thanks no. And at the bus station he gets cleaned up and prepares to turn back toward Gomorrah. Happy trails…

August 1961, and who of the thousands of idle wagoners driving single-mindedly to Monterey that day could have known that the shuffling jazzy hiker was Jack Kerouac, heading for the bus to Frisco and another heroic binge, on the verge of the mental meltdown that became Big Sur. He never blamed them, though.

Forty years on and those same backseat kids are now driving the world and thinking they yearn for the life (if only except) of the guy their parents passed by. But in this linear new deal peripheries are shadowy fearful places, no dharma bums only real ones walk the roadsides and no-one halts for fear of stopping. The highways ferry nascent novelists past hermetic lives; some dream perhaps of breaking down and finding experience some little lost where, but there are many kinds of breakdowns and pulling over is easier than getting back on. So no-one ever stops and the whole touristal accident rolls on lone and hikerless; its narrative is success and its conversation dry bones honeycombed through with scripted sitcom repartee.

Step shuffle slide, breathes Bird. Thunkety plunk, sloops Monk. (You know, I never even saw the best minds of my generation…) Shish still calls the sea - nobody’s told it yet the joint stopped jumping. Boom it cries, but finds no answering beat. Bah it laments... There’s no dancing anymore, just running to stand still…

August 2003.

© V. Stevenson