Having just completed the journey from San Miguel de Allende, in Central Mexico, to St. Petersburg, I am again reminded of a rather morbid connection between the two communities and their association with two fascinating fellows from modern American literature.
In 1957 Jack Kerouac’s timeless novel On the Road was published. Heavily autobiographical, it is the tale of a young man’s journey, the people he meets and the friendships he makes. It is a timeless adventure of awakening that explores the diversity of American culture and is certainly one of the most significant pieces of literature to have been produced by the Beat Generation. The two main characters are Sal Paradise, based on Kerouac, and Dean Moriarty, based on his close friend Neal Cassady.
Like a great many individuals of my generation, I was introduced to On the Road as an undergraduate in college. It was during the middle of the 1960’s. I had been reading the novel and commented to one of my roommates about it being a great book. The roommate looked at me with a sort of comical expression and said, “The guy who wrote it hangs out in the Blue Room,” a now defunct St. Pete bar we frequented back then. That’s where I met Kerouac, not that there was much to the meeting. Although a famous author, Kerouac was by then very much a loner who drank heavily and seemed to be lost in his own world, at least that’s the impression he gave me.
About this same time Neal Cassady was adding to his literary fame as one of the drivers of “Furthur”, Ken Kesey’s psychedelic bus that took the “Merry Band of Pranksters” from San Francisco to New York, a journey celebrated in Tom Wolfe’s 1968 novel The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
Kerouac and Cassady were unique individuals who lived their lives on the edge, perhaps too close to the edge, because both lives were about to be cut short.
In early 1968, Cassady went to San Miguel for a wedding, where such celebrations are often wild and crazy. Church bells ring, participants parade through the streets, accompanied by musical groups, giant dancing puppets and fireworks. There is lots of tequila and wedding parties are often noted for the massive quantity of alcohol they consume. On the first day of our recent visit we saw or heard six different wedding celebrations, each more clamorous than the previous.
There are conflicting stories about what happened to Cassady after the wedding he attended. Ultimately he began walking the railroad tracks to the neighboring town of Dolores Hidago. He was found on the tracks in a coma, suffering from exposure, and rushed to a local hospital where he died. The actual cause of his death is still not fully understood, although drugs and alcohol were certainly important factors. Cassady was not quite 42 years old.
The following year, in late 1969, Kerouac’s alcohol abuse caught up with him. Coughing up blood, he was rushed to the emergency room at St. Anthony’s Hospital in St. Petersburg. He died there a few hours later, less than two years after Cassady. Kerouac was just 47.
Back then, St. Petersburg was known more as a retirement community than a party town. In the 1950’s Ian Fleming explained in his novel Live and Let Die, how in downtown St. Pete the “Oldsters” would “just sit in the sun and gossip and doze. It’s a terrifying sight, all these old people with their spectacles and hearing-aids and clicking false teeth.” Certainly not the dynamic St. Pete of today.
It is now almost half a century since the passing of the Kerouac and Cassady, lives shortened by the drugs and alcohol that helped to make their experiences in On the Road so fascinating. Unlike most of their contemporaries, they will not be forgotten. They still live on together, crisscrossing the county in Kerouac’s famous novel – Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty – young adventurers, certainly two of the more fascinating characters in American literature.
© 2016 David Lee McMullen