Sunday, October 14, 2012

Jack Kerouac's On the Road + Tribute

I just finished Jack Kerouac’s generation-defining On the Road. As I progressed through the pages, the story developed an undeniable, un-coincidental association with my uncle Don, who passed away this year. The novel tells the tale of a cross-country road trip and the quest for “IT” – meaning, experience, belonging.

Don was a Mayo med school-educated physician living and working in Phoenix. I didn’t know much of his life beyond his occupation, but I knew I considered him my “favorite” uncle because of the zest he exuded and spread contagiously, and the way he included we kids in adult conversations, laughing appreciatively at our stories just as he did his brothers’.

Strangely, my fondest and most vivid memory of Don is of dinner at a fancy restaurant when my family visited him and the Grand Canyon one spring. I can still see the pale pink linens draped over the tables. Don, hair sprouting in all directions as it usually was, nonchalantly cut a chunk of butter off the slab and ate it from his knife, thinking it was cheese. My sisters and I erupted in giggles at his mistake (and poor manners), but he barely shrugged, moving on to his salad, and just laughed with us.  

Whatever he lacked in fashion and etiquette, he more than made up for in good humor and a humble intelligence I respected with the utmost admiration.

In 1972, Don rode his bike from the small, unremarkable town of Chatfield, Minnesota to the Californian coast. I never asked his motivation in embarking on the journey, but have to believe it had something to do with adventure and exploration – the same things Kerouac’s characters are after.

I highlighted impactful passages as I read, and upon reflection realized they could all be tied to Don, the things he lived for and the qualities that defined him: fierce independence, a high-pitched, heart-warming, one-of-a-kind laugh, and a commitment to helping others he made his life’s work – and is now his legacy.

As life drives on, becomes busier and more complex, I’ll hold these quotations close to my heart and remember that the most rewarding chapters of life are found in the simplest places – in soft air, fine stars and the open road.

Dr. Donald Spelhaug, 10.11.1953 -- 3.1.2012

“And though Remi was having worklife problems and bad lovelife with a sharp-tongued woman, he at least had learned to laugh almost better than anyone in the world, and I saw all the fun we were going to have in Frisco.”

“We started off with a few extra-size beers. There was a player piano. Beyond the back door was a view of mountainsides in the moonlight. I let out a yahoo. The night was on.” 

"The only people for me are the mad ones .. mad to live, mad to talk .. desirous of everything at the same time."

“The air was soft, the stars so fine, the promise of every cobbled alley so great, that I thought I was in a dream.”

“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing?—it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-by. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.” 

“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.” 

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