For wannabe hipsters of long ago, Jack Kerouac's novel On the Road gave permission to swipe a knapsack and hitchhike across the country in search of jumpin' jazz joints, pliant bohemian chicks and The Meaning of Life. Today's young readers perhaps dream of strangling their American lit prof with an iPod cord. Such is the litmus-test nature of this book, which was published 50 years ago and still reportedly sells 100,000 copies a year.
Kerouac's semi-autobiographical, stream-of-consciousness prose, spontaneously written during a three-week binge, is said to have energized the Beat Generation subculture and laid intellectual groundwork for the social upheavals of the '60s. The work is less a travelogue than a pulsating tale of searchers living on the edge, but it inspired a passion for carefree, bare-bones travel. And it rose to popularity just as the interstate highway system (and before The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) came into being.
USA TODAY's Jerry Shriver reread the book during a 1,727-mile journey trip through America's midsection. His goals: to See What's Out There and give armchair Kerouac fans an update on the state of roadside culture. (Owing to his middle age and hopeless entrenchment in the establishment, pliant bohemian chicks were off-limits.)
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