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Zigzag Bugs And 'A Sea Like God': Kerouac's Big Sur

In 1960, Jack Kerouac boarded a train and headed west. He was "on the road" again, this time to poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti's isolated cabin in Bixby Canyon, Calif., where he would spend six weeks — an experience he captured in his novel Big Sur.

Now, nearly 50 years after that novel's release, a new documentary brings Kerouac's words to the big screen.

Curt Worden, who directed One Fast Move or I'm Gone: Kerouac's Big Sur, uses various artists, including Tom Waits, John Ventimiglia and Patti Smith, to voice Kerouac's prose. As he tells Renee Montagne, it was important to allow the audience to connect with the author's words.

"For this film to be successful, we had to hear Jack," he says. "We had to hear what he wrote. ... By listening, you really get the sense of the beauty and wonder and texture of how Jack wrote."

Kerouac, who had struggled with fame and alcohol addiction since the success of On the Road, ventured to Big Sur seeking solitude and a place to dry out. He found it a magical place, writing:

You see one single flower nodding on a cliff side far across the canyon, or a huge knot in a redwood tree looking like Zeus' face, or some of God's little crazy creations goofing around in creek pools (zigzag bugs), or a sign on a lonely fence saying 'M.P. Passey, No Trespassing', or terraces of fern in the dripping redwood shade, and you think "A long way from the beat generation, in this rain forest."

But despite his attraction to the beautiful scenery, Kerouac felt isolated in the cabin, says Joyce Johnson, a Kerouac biographer and former girlfriend.

"He was always safest when he was in transit. When he actually got someplace, it would all fall apart for him very quickly," Johnson says.

Worden adds: "He always had this vision of himself as a kind of guy living in a hut on a mountain all by himself in seclusion, and whenever he tried it, it didn't work for him."

Ultimately, Kerouac left Big Sur, writing:

The sea seems to yell at me, GO TO YOUR DESIRE AND DON'T HANG AROUND HERE; for after all, the sea must be like God. God isn't asking us to mope and suffer and sit by the sea in the cold of midnight for the sake of writing down useless sounds. He gave us the tools of self-reliance after all to make it straight through bad life mortality to paradise maybe. I hope.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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