Part two of my interview with Beatdom editor David S. Wills saw me asking about the more personal side of pursuing the Beat lifestyle. As well as writing extensively about the Beats, Wills has experienced it firsthand and seen much of the world on his travels. The Beat lifestyle has been romanticised heavily, whether Kerouac wanted that or not, and many following the same route do not realise the sacrifices one must make in order to fully invest in that way of life. Then again, the definition of sacrifice changes with each individual. For some, the open road and the hidden treasures that lie ahead are the best way of living. More than just the side effects of embodying Beatdom, Wills helped me explore both the personal sacrifice and self-discovery in embarking on your own Kerouac-esque journey on the open road. The article that was born from the many interviews I completed both celebrated Kerouac’s seminal piece and the dangers of re-enacting it.
When you were out on the road, what challenges did you face day-to-day? Were there any unexpected challenges?
I think the challenges of life on the road remain fairly constant. The most obvious one is money. Reading Ginsberg’s journals, it was something that he always faced and always overcame. It’s sort of the test of a traveller – what can you do to keep yourself going? There’s loneliness, too, I think, though I’ve never personally felt it, and same for homesickness. Then you have stuff like dangerous people or animals or environments. I’ve encountered all of that before on many, many occasions. Also governments and police and corruption.
Could you describe the darker aspects of a lifestyle on the road? The day-to-day activities and jobs that aren’t really centred upon. I think some accounts romanticize this idea of the spontaneous road lifestyle without much focus on the potential problems you could encounter.
I guess that comes under the above answers to some extent. Well, I’ve been “on the road” in some capacity since 2007. First I worked on farms in California to support myself, then I moved into teaching and writing. I bought a bar/hotel a few years ago in Cambodia and ran that. I currently lecture and edit. So that’s what I do to financially support myself. The darker side? Well, every place is different. Korea is the most racist place on earth. Cambodia is incredibly violent. China… Well, you can imagine. Pollution, censorship, bad driving, etc. You meet some dark people, people who’re on the road because they’re too fucked up to settle anywhere, and just caused mayhem wherever they go.
Were there any sacrifices that you had to make in adopting the on the road lifestyle? Such as permanently severing ties with aspects of your life in mainstream society. I imagine that most people nowadays couldn’t take a road journey across America without sacrificing something. Are there any that you didn’t expect to make? Do you think that some people ever follow this route without considering the full ramifications?
Well, I have no pension, no credit score, no mortgage, no property, etc etc. No children or pets right now. I personally wouldn’t consider these sacrifices because you trade some things for freedom, I suppose. I’ve seen a lot of the world but with any material ties to any place I’d be stuck and it would be harder to travel. In terms of loss, yeah I’ve lost things. I don’t particularly want to talk about that though. Any you’re right about it being tough for people these days to go on the road. There’s too much pressure to stay on the straight and narrow. People are stuck in the mindset of getting a career and family, but realistically those things can wait. No one stays in a job all their life anymore, and people get married late.
In hindsight of Kerouac’s tragic and premature demise, do you feel that the pressure of this legacy that exploded out of On The Road was even too much for him to handle? Do you think that is a little indicative of the direction the legacy of Beat culture was going to follow?
Yeah, I fully believe that Kerouac’s fame caused his demise. I don’t think the same is true of the Beat Generation, though. It just came to its own end. It sort of faded yet transitioned into the hippie movement.
Do you think the idea of ‘Manifest Destiny’ is problematic when combined with the spontaneity of the road journey lifestyles, street lifestyles and nomadism? Or do you think that notion has its positives and negatives, and if so, could you discuss them?
Well, Manifest Destiny was fundamentally about settling. It was about finding a new place and staying there. I think that’s very much at odds with a road lifestyle where you simply never settle, and in some ways it is the antithesis of nomadism.
In this day and age, what do you think people can gain from adopting the lifestyle? Do you think it is massively different from what people would gain in the 1950s when Kerouac’s legacy was gaining strength?
I think that people can of course learn a lot from travel. I wouldn’t really recommend a modern nomadic lifestyle as it’s perhaps too fraught with problems, but I think that taking a year or two or three is valuable. It lets people see the world and learn from it, while developing as people. After that you can settle down if you wish… In the 50s it was less acceptable to do that sort of thing, and of course travel was much harder, but I think people would stand to gain the same benefits from doing it.