Apostle of Jack, Arthur, John, and Paul

Auke Hulst

Artwork by Elephnt

Lowell, Massachusetts, USA, 2013

I had ended up in the wrong cemetery. Lowell, Massachusetts, has several, and two of the largest ones are right next to each other. He should be around here somewhere: Jack Kerouac, the writer who turned literature into jazz improv. But where? I hadn’t counted on a sprawling forest of stone, and I’d expected that there would be signs, or that Jack would simply reveal himself to me. The few other visitors to St. Patrick’s Cemetery drove up in their cars to the grave of their choice, and when I tried to stop them to ask for directions, they would floor it. It was a sunny autumn day—the foliage lit up in fiery colours suggestive of warmth rather than cold, of life rather than death.

There was a liquor store diagonally across from the cemetery, on Gorham Road. This must be where literary pilgrims went to get the booze they would leave behind as an offering to Kerouac or polish off in his presence, a ritual I had read about. Behind the counter stood a Korean man in American uniform: jeans, oversized t-shirt, a Red Sox baseball cap on his head. I walked in and brought up Kerouac. The Korean said, in a heavy accent, “Kewack? No Kewack. Special offer? Johnny Wock. $15.99.”

“Searching for a grave,” Valeria Luiselli writes in Sidewalks, “is, to some extent, like arranging to meet a stranger [ . . . ]: at a given distance, every person could be the one waiting for us; every grave, the one we are searching for. Finding either involves circulating among people or tombs; approaching and scrutinizing their respective features. To locate the grave, the definitive inscription we’re looking for, it’s necessary to examine the veining of the marble closely; for the face of the stranger, we must compare our mental image of the imagined profile with the various noses, chins, and foreheads present. We have to read the eyes of strangers, as an epitaph is read, until we find the exact insignia—the lapidary yes-it’s-me of the person, alive or dead, waiting for us.”



I visit graves, but not only graves. I visit birthplaces too. I walk barefoot across the Abbey Road zebra crossing; I drive through rainy Liverpool and tear up on the field behind a church where a teenaged Paul McCartney first saw the teenaged John Lennon playing in his skiffle band. In Andalusia, I amble through the villages that Sergio Leone had built for his now-classic spaghetti westerns; I walk the circumference of Walden Pond and try to imagine how Thoreau made the woods his home, a place in which to be, in the most physical sense, and to think. “Because I,” as he wrote, “wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

What is it that I am doing in all these places? It’s more than merely honouring the dead (McCartney is alive), and it transcends tourism (or at least that’s what I like to tell myself), the crudest form of travel. Are these journeys secular pilgrimages, satisfying some deep-seated need? And if so, then in what way are my pilgrimages different from the religious variety? Or are they not as far apart as both atheist and believer might like them to be?

The Australian writer Morris West once described man as “a creature who walks in two worlds and traces upon the walls of his cave the wonders and the nightmare experiences of his spiritual pilgrimage.” Hiking, walking, being in transit (driving works too—very well, in fact—as long as there’s a good distance to be covered), crossing borders, both physically and mentally—all this has something to do with it. Many people meditate to attain a certain contemplative, emotional, or even transcendental state, but I’m too restless for that. Put me in a chair for five minutes and my mounting agitation will spread from my brain to my heart to my legs. Time to be on the move again. I can think more clearly (feel more clearly?) if I’m doing something. I think with my hands (writing) and I think with my legs (travelling). There is, as Robert Macfarlane notes in The Old Ways, a powerful link between walking and the imagination. The impressions and hardships we encounter along the way chip away at the carapace we have cultivated; render porous the membrane of the spirit. For things to start moving on the inside, the outside needs to be moving as well.

But moving is not, in and of itself, enough. A pilgrimage requires a specific destination, just as the Hajj ends in Mecca, and the Camino in Santiago de Compostela. According to conservative estimates by the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, around two-hundred million people every year go on pilgrimage, to Lourdes, Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Wailing Wall, Mecca, Karbala, Tirupati, and dozens of other places of major significance to the world religions. Many millions more go to places that have no connection to an official doctrine or a higher power.

This kind of journey starts with years of conditioning and preparation: reading, listening, mapping out routes, becoming suffused with the plan and the place. This is followed by a journey, which preferably involves setbacks, a prerequisite for the kind of hard-won triumphs that open the door to emotional surrender. It’s an activity that is rife with paradoxes. I recall the travel writer Colin Thubron, who completed the kora—a circumambulation of Mount Kailash, a mountain that has never been climbed and that is sacred to Hindus and Buddhists—that some literally crawl around on all fours in order to touch every metre of soil. In To a Mountain in Tibet he writes—with restraint—about the death of his parents and his sister, suggesting that it was their passing that prompted the pilgrimage. “You are left with the desire only that things not be as they are. So you choose somewhere meaningful on the earth’s surface, as if planning a secular pilgrimage. [ . . . ] Then you go on a journey (it’s my profession, after all), walking to a place beyond your own history.” He’s right about that—but it’s also the exact opposite. Not dissolving and escaping yourself and history, but in fact strengthening your identity—digging deeper into yourself, getting to know yourself better, internalising history. In rituals, you solidify the fact that it is the work of that writer, that band, the teachings of that god or prophet, which are integral to who you are. In doing this, you find an important part of yourself outside yourself.


Lowell—factory town, textile town, working-class town—has effectively been in a slump ever since the Great Depression, with only the occasional temporary upturn thanks to the war economy or a stray Asian businessman. But Lowell is where Kerouac, the child of French-Canadian migrant workers, grew up; it is the place that made him and to which he was eventually to return.

Further on, still on Gorham Road, I found the wrought-iron gate of Edson, a cemetery which, it turned out, was organised according to a veritable street map. Did Jack’s mortal remains reside on Washington and 5th? On 3rd and Lincoln? My State by State Guide to the Beat Generation was unable to answer my question, but the grid layout gave me the opportunity to check off graves systematically, block by block. Kerouac had to be under a flat, small stone, hidden between—possibly beneath—the autumn leaves. I knew I needed to focus my attention on the tomb of the Sampas family next to it, which also houses a childhood friend of Jack’s who died in the war. That tomb stood proudly erect, and should therefore be easier to recognise. And indeed, one hour later, thanks to the Sampas family, I was able to locate the grave.

It was like I had, almost by accident, run into an ex-lover. My heart skipped a beat, there was a moment of recognition, and—though I don’t know why—a jolt of nerves. I edged closer and sat down at Jack’s feet and bones.

During his life, Kerouac had become smaller and smaller: his stream of consciousness dried-up, he bowed down to a belittling god. There he was, the King of the Beats, on his mother’s sofa, bickering, drinking, shrinking. This almost-anonymous grave was the logical final station on the route, as if he had to be doubly buried. Even the name by which everyone knew him had been stripped from him. Not Jack, but “Ti Jean” (Little Johnny) and the bookends: John L. Kerouac. MAR. 12, 1922–OCT. 21, 1969. But it does say: He honored life.

The grave had been decorated by previous visitors—it gratified me to see that there hadn’t been too many, that they had had to make an effort to find the grave, and had, in some sense, earned it. There were empty bottles (Bushmills, Rémy Martin, Guinness), there was an empty pack of Marlboro, half-smoked fag ends, seashells, a postcard with a photo of Jack, a penny, a pen, and a few notes. Jack, thank you for all the joy you brought me. I hope you have eternal peace and comfort. On a dried-up piece of paper, parchment almost, I also found a haiku (albeit one with little regard for the traditional form): Kerouac in Earth-Heaven/ We kiss the/ orange leaves. I copied it into my notebook.



Perhaps at this point I should make mention of a few other potential—and less honourable—reasons for going on a pilgrimage, motives that I, too, am guilty of to an extent. 1) Bragging rights. 2) Alleviating the crushing boredom and moral emptiness of modern life (or being able to tell yourself that that’s what you’re doing). 3) Putting off significant life decisions that little bit longer.

Those last two were inspired by Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful (2012). Lewis-Kraus is a typical creature of the modern age: glibly cultured but bored; a man-child, a serial monogamist, without a steady job, a mortgage, or any real obligations. He moves to Berlin, moves to Berlin, only to find himself in a climate in which irony itself has become more ridiculous than whatever it might be trying to expose. He is enjoying “a nonstop moral holiday,” although it takes a long time before Lewis-Kraus, drunk on his disregard for the serious concerns of life, comes to see this for himself. Once he has become aware of his aimlessness, the writer embarks on a series of renowned pilgrimages, including the Camino de Santiago de Compostela and the eighty-eight temples of Shikoku. “A pilgrimage like this,” he writes, “is an old and corporeal kind of shock therapy, a structure that is maintained and promoted to help inspire an embodied sense of gratitude and wonder at the variety and generosity of the world, a world much bigger than our petty fears and desponds and regrets.”

For me, these “official” pilgrimages don’t work. I completed part of the eighty-eight temples of Shikoku, but my religious scepticism was constantly dogging my heels. A theologian once noted that visiting a “truly” sacred place can do good as well as harm, but that visiting an “unreal” place neither helps nor harms you—it’s only a placebo. Disregarding the fact that placebos can, in fact, have a beneficial effect, for an atheist ultimately all places are “unreal.”

On the outskirts of Matsuyama, on the site of one of the most important temples, I talked to an older Japanese gentleman who had almost been driven mad by loneliness, and who had, on several occasions, doubted the use of his pilgrimage on foot, for which he had taken a long sabbatical from his demanding office job. Some way off, there was a Norwegian boy who had not only dispensed with all his facial hair—including his eyebrows—but who seemed to have sloughed off his entire identity. He didn’t even remember how old he was anymore. I ended up getting on a bike, and a train, and only visiting a handful of the temples. Another bloody tourist . . .

What makes a destination sacred? It’s a question that transcends the suffocating religious discourse on the matter. What can be considered sacred is everything that is so essential to your identity that you’d never be willing or able to renounce it. In the absence of faith in a higher power, I have declared the achievements of people sacred to me: literature, music, science, space travel (to perhaps go out on a limb for a moment). I have declared things within myself sacred: from strong preferences to the wounds that, for better or for worse, make me who I am. Atheists mould their own secular doctrine, their own rules to live by, their own idea of what is important and represents lasting value. That sounds like something private, but it also encompasses the desire—using all those things—to relate to other people, to the dead (and sometimes, the still alive) who have enriched your life, and to the living who share your feelings. But here, too, there is a certain ambivalence: I like to be part of a select, preferably expert, group of people. If the path is less well-trodden, the impact seems to be greater. I want to relate to something, and at the same time, I want to be unique.

I sat by Jack’s grave for quite some time; under one of the bottles, I anchored a note written to him that was being plucked at by the wind, swept the leaves off the flat tombstone, hummed to myself for a spell. The impatience that usually comes over me after only a few minutes did not appear. All this time, the only other person I saw was a hunched-over figure with a little dog, a few plots over.

Although Kerouac didn’t bow to his mother’s vengeful God, the religious undertone of his own travels was never far away. In Kerouac’s words, the companion in his travels, Neal Cassady, had “the tremendous energy of a new kind of American saint.” And so Kerouac followed him on the American road, a veritable apostle, only for Kerouac himself to become holy to a new generation of apostles. The fact that On the Road was written on a roll of telex paper may have had a practical rationale—the ability to keep typing without having to change the paper—but the association with sacred texts is unmistakeable. In addition, the 120-foot manuscript evokes the suggestion of a road in itself, a Camino of paper.

In On the Road, literature and travel are explicitly linked, but that connection is part of every book in some way. Writing and reading are travelling in silence. To evoke Cyril Connolly, every literary text is a periplus, an intellectual voyage. The writer navigates, not always wholly aware of the course; the reader is the passenger, although they partly determine the appearance of the landscape that they encounter, or at any rate, the significance of the landscape. The desire to arrive at insight—or self-knowledge—through a text, as well as a connection with others, makes many novels not only a journey, but a pilgrimage in disguise. Especially those novels that challenge you, that require effort and only give up their secrets reluctantly.

As I walked away from the grave, I was beset by the same feeling I had experienced earlier: a strange combination of satisfaction and disappointment. Ultimately, you’re always reaching for something that at times you can get a grip on, but that more often than not eludes your grasp. Maybe that’s why I keep going on these secular pilgrimages. Next stop: Rockville, Maryland, the grave of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

translated from the Dutch by Emma Rault

From Buitenwereld, Binnenzee: De reis als verhaal, het verhaal als reis (“Outside World, Inner Sea: Journeys as Stories, Stories as Journeys,”) 2014, Ambo|Anthos, Amsterdam.