THERE I AM, standing at the bar with a tattooed, bearded man, beer in hand; and yeah, I’m sort of into him. We talk about traveling, what we’d been doing since college. Then he says it: “Have you read On The Road?”
“Uh, yes. In college. Why?” I answer hesitantly. In my experience, this can only go one way. People with this guy’s distinctive body odor (patchouli and cigarettes) don’t bring up On The Road without having something really positive to say about it.
And then he pulls it out, word for word, the ubiquitous clipping from the novel, right off the top of his head: “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”
“Yeah. Rings a bell,” I reply.
“And you don’t think there’s just something absolutely… incendiary about that?” he says, positively awash in wanderlust. And in that moment, he becomes someone I would never sleep with.
I will probably never write a timeless, generation-defining chronicle of mid-century restlessness myself. And it’s not untrue that you could read me excerpts from On The Road and I’d agree on their artistic merit and literary significance. But a dude who claims On The Road as his all-time favorite book and/or predicates his entire life philosophy on said favorite book is a dude who’s not sticking his dick in me.
I understand that it’s romantic — this notion of endless wanderlust, searching high and low for the beauty and wonder in new life experience. But it’s like that line in “Psycho Killer:” “You’re talking a lot, but you’re not saying anything.” Sal, Dean, and the gang don’t speak with people, but rather, past them. They do not understand the nature of experience, only the idea of experience. There’s a lack of connection, a neglect of any deeper side to humanity than what you can get on a road trip.
So it’s not surprising that all of the men I’ve met who identify as On The Road fanatics are self-mythologizing commitment-phobes. They don’t believe in fidelity, but fall in love fast, and often. They’re bleeding hearts, but need to drop that blood on every inch of the earth. What a Kerouac zealot makes for is an unreliable, somewhat egotistical boyfriend, the kind that lets you know he “just fell out of love with you, babe” when you see him out with another woman. When I see a person searching for new territory constantly, it makes me scared that they have no interest in treading the territory within themselves.
A lot of these Kerouac die-hards seem to dwell in self-imposed poverty. They couch-surf; they consider part-time music-video production a career. In the novel, Sal fears he is missing out on the suffering and “real living” that he believes would lead him to happiness. He writes of, “Wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night.” Let me stress this once and for all: borrowing others’ experiences does not make a person emotionally rich. Fetishizing oppression seemed immature then, in a time when black people were getting the shit kicked out of them for demanding basic human rights, and it seems immature now.
An old high-school pal recently visited while he was in town. He’d planned to stay for the night, and while we drank whiskey, I started to entertain the idea of letting him sleep in my bed and seeing where things went. We were in my bedroom, and he was thumbing through my Ginsberg and Brautigan books, when he said, “You got a lot of Beats, but where’s your Kerouac?”
“I actually own On The Road, but… I don’t know. I don’t really expect to read it again,” I replied. This floored him, and he went on to lecture me about what exactly I was missing out on by leaving On The Road in the dust.
“That book ignited some flare in me to never live a tepid life, to constantly explore and advance myself. Even if sometimes that means degrading myself. I think it may be the reason I’m never going to get married and have children.”
I winced. Really? A book written by an alcoholic is why you don’t want a wife and kids?
He continued, “I want to experience as much as I can in uncomfortable places, or at least places outside of my comfort zone.”
I silently wondered if my humble bedroom was one of those uncomfortable zones. “I actually have part of a quote from On The Road tattooed on me,” he said, pulling up his pant leg.
I stopped reading at “The only people,” and he and his tattoo slept on the couch.
So, maybe I’m not a fabulous yellow roman candle burning quickly across the heavens. But, you know what else burn burn burns fast? Chlamydia, like the kind you get from worldly travelers without insurance policies. Same with the romance of transience, or a junkie’s need for purely novel experiences. It gets old, because there’s no depth to wandering. For true experience, or value in really anything, you’ve got to put in the time, not just breeze through and write a run-on sentence about it.
I understand vacations, a need for soul-searching, and Thoreauvian respites, but I don’t understand a twenty-eight-year-old with Peter Pan syndrome hitchhiking to Burning Man and texting me on his mom’s family plan. I’ve dated enough men to know I’m better off listening to men’s actions and not their words. If a place can’t hold their fascination, how could I? Soon enough, I’ll just be another dot in the rearview mirror as they search for other towns. Not even “better” towns, just… other ones.
I want a man to hold me every night, to have concrete desires, and to hold expectations for my accountability. I don’t want a man running around looking for a pearl to be handed to him in every new place, by every new girl. There’s something childish about hanging on to a dissatisfaction with stability. Like Catcher in the Rye, like Jane Eyre, there should an expiration date on not our appreciation of, but our direct identification with a great bildungsroman.
Maybe I can’t tolerate masculine idealism or the writer as American myth (though, hey, I do love me some Walt Whitman). But isn’t there something shallow about a romantic partner constantly searching for external stimulation from life? I want a man who is confident enough in himself to make his own satisfaction with life, and not believe fairy tales of a better life just over the horizon. I want a guy on his own road and one who’s ready to make his own footprints, not walk through someone else’s.
This article originally appeared at Nerve and is republished here with permission. Read more: Meet the Couple Who Has Photographed over 140 People Having Sex