Jack’s Thumb

In the summer of 1947, Jack Kerouac left New York City with $50 in his pocket and a dream of exploring America. But Jack didn’t have much of a plan. Anxious to visit friends in Denver before heading to California, he spent half his cash on a bus ticket that took him as far as Chicago. Continuing west, he took another bus to Joliet in order to get through “the impossible complexities of Chicago traffic,” but from there he had to hitchhike the rest of the way.

As I mentioned in the previous post, my buddy Al and I spent three days getting from New York to Chicago. Kerouac made it by bus in 24 hours; but thereafter, almost broke, he was slowed by the need to stick out his thumb. He rarely slept as he hitched ride after ride for another thousand miles to Denver via Cheyenne, WY.

I looked forward to tracing this part of Kerouac’s journey, accompanied by another friend, Lewis Watt. A retired Marine Corps colonel, Lewis and his wife are my mom’s neighbors. We share another thing in common, in that Lewis’s career crossed paths with one of the original Black Sheep Squadron veterans, Col. Ed Harper, a gentleman I’ve known for almost 20 years. An avid outdoorsman and traveler, Lewis had been eagerly anticipating the trip ever since I shared my initial idea with him years ago.

I met Lewis in Chicago on Thursday, September 20, after an outstanding event at the Pritzker Military Library. Joined by Aaron Rosell, the Zenith Press publicist for the Sweet Chariot Tour, we dallied over dinner and drinks at the Palmer House Hilton. Lewis and I stayed overnight before starting our trek to Denver the next morning.

With the aid of a GPS (Kerouac would have been astounded), we found the Chicago traffic uncomplicated but terribly slow as we headed out of the city. Finally, at Naperville, we ducked south to pick up US 34 for a two-lane cruise through the Illinois countryside. Although the terrain is mostly flat, we were treated to a great ride through America’s breadbasket. One of the most unusual sights along the roadside was a farmhouse lawn filled with zombies. The Halloween display featured dozens of cleverly displayed mannequins in a life-sized Fright Farm!

After crossing the Mississippi at Davenport, Iowa—one of Kerouac’s notable stops—we followed US 6 again most of the way to West Des Moines, where I had a scheduled event at a huge, two-story Barnes & Noble bookstore.

Saturday morning was clear but chilly as we headed out of West Des Moines. We did not slavishly follow Kerouac’s route, which took him through the small town of Adel, but soon rejoined his track on US 6, based on clues found in On the Road. Hunger pangs prompted us to search for an authentic small-town breakfast, which we found in The Farmer’s Kitchen, in Atlantic, Iowa. The décor could have been from Kerouac’s time, and the food was delicious.

The day’s big adventure occurred while we cruised through Nebraska on US 30, the Lincoln highway, which parallels Interstate 80. Traffic on the old two-lane was almost nonexistent, so we cruised along at 5 mph above the posted speed limit of 60 mph. One local cop ignored us, but a half-hour later a Nebraska state trooper passed us in his blue-gray Crown Vic going in the opposite direction, and immediately spun around to get on my tail. I pulled over when his roof lights came on, and he approached my window with the usual “license and registration” request. He said little other than informing me that I had exceeded the speed limit, and went back to his cruiser to run my data. Upon returning, he handed me a warning and sent us on our way. Lewis and I just shook our heads. Really? Five over? We chalked it up to boredom on the trooper’s part.

Lewis proceeded to commemorate the excitement with one of his patented rhymes:

Red Pony
22 September, 2012
Damn, we are havin’ fun!
Feelin’ this Red Pony run.
Life can’t be wrong,
As we rocket along,
Don’t want this trip to be done.
Yup, This Pony will go.
Stopped, it is an instant show.
The gear-heads are staring,
It’s fun to be sharing.
Folks don’t know what they don’t know.
But Smokey was not impressed,
As our pace he grimly addressed.
Just over by five?
Well, sakes alive!
Just a warning? Okay, we confess.
We’re on the Pony Express trail.
This Pony ain’t carryin’ mail.
No Indians chasing,
As westward we’re racin’
Piecing together our tale.


That afternoon, after a brief stop in Gothenburg, Nebraska for a photo op—our red “Pony” next to an original Pony Express station—we pulled into Ogallala for the night. Dinner at The Golden Spur, attached to the town’s Best Western motel, was every bit as excellent as our meal two nights earlier in Chicago—but a far cry cheaper.

From Ogallala, Kerouac’s route took him to Cheyenne, Wyoming before he headed south to stay with friends in Denver. Lewis had a flight to catch on Sunday morning, so I took him directly to the Denver airport, then proceeded to the Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum for a scheduled event.

After the hard push from Chicago, I was looking forward to a day of sightseeing with my brother Larry, who lives in Estes Park.  Unfortunately, a new adventure with the Mustang would dictate other plans—but that’s for the next post.


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