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Greg Veis takes to the road

You don’t know how badly I wanted to be Dean Moriarty over Fall Break.
The noun “whirlwind” is the one that I most often see associated with this reckless character from Jack Kerouac’s 1957 novel On The Road. Dean traveled by hitch or by bus to Denver or San Fran or Timbuk-fricking-tu with no discernible worries. Without a base, physically or emotionally, Dean allowed himself the freedom to travel through America devoid of any potential source of connection that could tangle up his personal desires. He was lovable, vile and completely irresistible all at once.
His youthful passion for life, so blistering and untamed, as sporadic as it may have been, had a staggeringly infectious quality to it because his internal fire was what made him so damn attractive in the first place.

Never has anyone used a word such as whirlwind, that denotes such carelessness and emotional liberty, to encapsulate my personality, yet I still hit the open highways of America with three of my best friends, a couple pairs of boxers, a toothbrush and a handle of booze in an attempt to lead this blithe lifestyle, if for only a few days.

After an excruciating month in which both the normal Duke fare and the distress resulting from the attacks and their aftermath weighed heavily upon me, I found myself completely enamored with this romantic vision of the road and Dean Moriarty.

However, right before departure, I called home, and the official request was to bring a cell phone along with me on account of “these weird times.”
Let me get this straight right now: I hate cell phones.

Even more, I’m from Los Angeles—where people way too important for their own good champ away on their Ericssons ceaselessly as if Billy Clint were on the other end—and I resisted the temptation for nineteen full years. Now, whenever I turn on my tumor-tastic device, the first words that flash across the screen read “Sell Out,” a phrase I typed in as a constant reminder of my disappointment for having succumbed to powers obviously much greater than I can handle alone.

Also, for the trip’s purposes, very little would be less in the spirit of my whirlwind of a role model. I wanted to escape any outside connection, any sense of attachment to school or CNN, and the sole purpose of a cell phone is to retain this no matter the locale.

Nevertheless, begrudgingly, I brought it out of respect for my folks on the condition that they would only call if tragedy did in fact strike. I would banish it to the outer recesses of my duffel so that it would never even get so much as a first glance, but I’d bring it all right.

So, we headed west on Interstate 40 to Boone, North Carolina Friday night, and despite the miserable campus scene at Appalachian State, we managed to scrape up just enough trouble—fraternity boy confrontations and restaurant altercations—to make it an enjoyable evening.
The next morning though, I woke up panicked. Despite my immense desire to brush my fears aside for a mere four days, the first thought that popped in my mind dealt with all of the warnings that the government had issued in relation to terrorist retaliatory measures for our bombing raids. Thus began the morning ritual of turning our half-asleep, half-hungover, bleary eyes to CNN as soon as one of us rattled exhaustion enough to snag the remote.

Two mornings and much silent anxiety later, it was my turn to drive.
Coasting from Knoxville to Nashville, as the other three dolts slept off the previous night’s activities, I found myself perched atop an incline on Interstate 40. Framing the thoroughfare, the trees covering the undulating hills were brown and yellow, but mostly red, and the morning sunlight gave the scene a sense of vibrancy and life. Then, in one of those odd, long-drive daydreams, I imagined a plane emerging from the right side of the sky blocking the rays of the sun as it plummeted into the side of one of the undulations. In my mind the countryside, once so brilliant, had transformed into a fiery cemetery of rotting trees and exhaust fumes.

As soon as we reached our destination, I reached deep into my bag to procure my previously despised cell phone to check if any disaster had befallen my family. I knew the chances were minuscule, but who’s to say that the impossible—anthrax—would skip over my loved ones? A friend of mine wasn’t so lucky after all, and now she doesn’t even have a father to be worried about.
Fortunately and somewhat obviously, they were healthy, and as much as I knew that my fears were logically irrational, it did not diminish the reality of my anxiety in the slightest.

This same feeling of unspoken dread resurfaced the next evening when upon our check-in at an Asheville, NC hotel, the receptionist alerted us to the anthrax scare that the establishment’s bar had received that afternoon. “The maid left the cleaning powder out,” she assured us, but the mere reality that we could have jeopardized our health by checking into the wrong hotel in America didn’t do much in the way of forcing myself to believe that my fears were unreasonable.

For much of the trip though, I lived in my whirlwind escapist fantasy: meeting all sorts of southern folks, parading through country music clubs, telling old war stories over a few beers, abandoning one of my heavily inebriated travel partners (wearing only his boxers and a visor reading “I’m a good kid…sometimes!”) at a deserted gas station in the boonies of Tennessee on his 21st birthday, wreaking havoc on a defenseless beauty products convention.
Hell, Dean would’ve been proud of me.

Given the dull, quiet, yet biting anguish Americans are presently being forced into, I don’t even think the fantastic Dean Moriarty would think himself immune from the potential of the cell phone actually ringing.

© Greg Veis November 2001


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