John Clellon Holmes once said, “Everywhere the Beat Generation seems occupied with the feverish production of answers—some of them frightening, some of them foolish—to a single question: how are we to live?” Holmes was a kind of wrangler of his wayward band of brothers – Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Cassady. He collected and compiled all holy data equally induced by drugs and existential despair to document and thus immortalize the claudicant enlightenments of his lost thinkers. And that’s what it was all about; the beatniks occupied themselves solely with the single most relevant question of any person’s life: how are we to live?
In this way, we are all beatniks.
No one’s experience or story counts for more than any other, just as no one can forcefully apply their own answers to any other life. For me, a needed escape to the West became revelation in terms of people and place. Separated by place – San Francisco, Eugene, Portland, and Seattle – the following words describe my own answers to that overwhelming, impossible question. Also included is the almost indescribable value of travel in terms of the people we meet. While I haven’t consumed the drugs to make these words frightening or foolish, their legitimacy lies in the fact that a single person (or Robot) produced them; my experience is a small one but it is still an experience. You may wholeheartedly agree with my answers, you may vehemently disagree; for all view points, I care very much and not at all at the same time.
On Solace, Food, and the Little Things
The juice of California plums should be perfume – bottled and sold to those who regard food and its emanations to be one of the best things in life. With its translucent skin and tender meat, it was the first time I considered the sun to be a key ingredient of a piece of fruit.
In San Francisco, we proved gluttony could be a virtue. With every bite of salty pho or crunchy sourdough bread came immense gratitude that such flavors and textures are at all possible. That blueberry scones can achieve their doughy succulence and ice cream can be packed with layers of brown sugar, ginger, and caramel resulting in tastes and dizzy contentment that stay long after the ice cream is gone. That other people believe that a pizza with a thin and charred crust is the most sensational form of a pizza.
All this, and everything else in the entire world, is cause for thankfulness. So how are we to live? Not only with good food under our noses and friends by our side, but with humble recognition of their incredibly fortuitous presence.
Eugene and Your Individual
Eugene is a place for people who drink water out of glass jars and nonchalantly carry corduroy and neon fanny packs for both style and convenience. And they’re definitely cooler than you or me.
My friends Ben and Ike study at the University of Oregon. The last time I saw them was in one of Petersburg’s dimly lit pubs, three months ago.
These kids are as true and unique as they get. Nothing about them seems overly contrived: they just exist as they do, unapologetically, as it should be. This pure state of being feels nonexistent on the East Coast, where people are constantly pressured to conform or justify their person, actions, clothes and thoughts, as if any of these things are illegitimate without explanation. In DC, I must be reminded of my individuality. On the West Coast, it’s a given.
The clean mountain air of Oregon was uplifting.
My friend Ben is the perfect platform for answering Holmes’ question. A thing or two about Ben Stone:
Ben’s unprecedented attention to detail is at the core of his originality. He is easily one of the most contemplative and observant people I’ve ever met. We walked through a park and watched paired up joggers float by; Ben liked their rhythm, their synced motions as one collective exercising together, and he observed a level of intimacy in the act: “That’s just dope. You have to be really comfortable with another person to jog with them.” We then watched a rabbit eating leaves – as he stared, Ben leaned back with one arm folded and the other under his chin – and gazed pensively upon a stream hidden by overgrown grass. “This is something special,” he said.
His innovations continued while walking back to town: “I couldn’t wait to see your shark nose. It’s your best feature.” Every word Ben produces, every sentence he creates, is a construction or idea I’ve never heard before. While I never gave much thought to my nose – and I assumed no one else had, either – here was Ben, schooling me in observation and the apparent attractiveness of my shark nose. His pensiveness, his slow pace, his precision are all habits of a great mind and a prolific future journalist with an unmistakable voice. I regard his essay on slang as one of the best pieces of writing I’ve ever seen. Considering his mastery of conversational writing, no one else could’ve produced this essay, no one except Ben Stone.
On Portland and Belonging
The eccentric homeless folk of Portland’s downtown took the time to welcome me. One older gentleman with crazy eyes growled at me like a frustrated Schnauzer; other younger guys with face tattoos and forehead piercings sniffed me out immediately as a product of the east: “East coast girlfriend is in for it.” I didn’t know what that meant and maybe that’s a good thing.
I spent the day wandering about and getting my fill of Portland’s dark roasts. Despite the excess energy and bathroom breaks, it was uneventful and relaxing and I people-watched from behind a painted coffee-shop window. It seemed like everyone in Portland knew each other. There was always some classroom-sized group happily reuniting on a street corner, unconventionally dressed friends meeting up for food and drink (it was likely only unconventional to me, but very much the norm there), or flyers and banners inviting passers-by for “Indie-jazz-electric-folk” shows and “Know Your Vagina” info sessions. It all made for one weird but all-inclusive collective. I was alone but I didn’t feel lonely; just by being in Portland, I felt part of something bigger.
I met up with my friends, David and Tadhg (pronounced like tiger minus the er). I also first collided with them in Petersburg. These guys are hilarious, intelligent, and easy to talk to. Tadhg is an economist and David is a musician.
I greeted a shirtless Tadhg and a giddy David, we ate poutine and brisket in one Portland’s outdoor food tents in Hawthorne, and they took me to the Jade Lounge, a tiny bar with leather sofas and live performances. The beer was cheap, the green lanterns gave off soft light, and everyone packed into this tiny space knew each other. As a collective, it seemed, Portland flocks to booze and music.
I only knew two people in that tiny bar. But I felt at home. I was just so happy to see them again, and, as their accordion-player friend belted out some serious high notes, so privileged that they were giving me a glimpse into their impossibly cool Portland lives.
But I blinked for a second, and my twelve happy hours with them were up. I hopped on a 7 am bus wishing to stay and needing to go.
Portland, with its collectivity and subcultures and communities, is as cool as they say. And everyone is invited.
So by all means, be your own person. But our lives mean nothing without others in them.
A Soul in Seattle
You travel and you meet people. Because of the temporary nature of travel and place, they are fast friends in terms of quickness of connection and quickness of presence. Then you leave each other, and they are crystallized forever in your memory as fundamentally great people. You never get to know them for their mistakes, flaws or shortcomings. No. With travel friends, you talk philosophy, dreams and futures. You share stories of success and failure, joy and heartbreak, and they nod solemnly in joint recognition of the world’s injustices over your diluted foreign beer. You feel more comfortable revealing personal information to them than you do with friends back home.
You’re travelers and you can choose to leave. In fact, you’re experts in leaving. But you don’t. You stay for one more or five more beers. And that’s why you become such good friends. It’s so wonderfully voluntary, knowing them, that when you do choose to stay you know it’s for real.
They see you as a person traveling the world and nothing more. You are them and they are you. You trade quick back-and-forth tag lines of immense wisdom, then think to yourself: “I’m so lucky I met this person.” But the truth is, you’d be thinking that of any kind, decent person in your presence who you randomly decided to get dinner with in Moscow or Bucharest or Santiago or Cape Town. It’s dumb chance that brought you together. But we feel lucky anyway, as we should. Because it’s lucky that such a good-feeling connection is at all possible.
Some of these travel friends you’ll never see again, and you’re okay with that. You have to be. But some will transcend the fickleness of long-distance communication as time goes on. With these people, there are going to be shared memories down the road. You just know it.
I went to Seattle with one of those people in mind. I met Amy Leah in a cramped hostel bedroom in Petersburg, one with a veritable maze in between bunk beds and lockers and hanging socks and garments hitting you from every foreseeable angle. Her group and my group became fast friends. We’ve kept in touch, each deciding that the other person is so awesome that we have to get together again and discuss travel over beer and food. And that’s what we did.
How are we to live? We are to travel. We are to make time for those few people who make us feel good and rid of those who don’t. I’d rather have a good friend far away in Seattle than a shitty friend right next to me.
Given the alarming advent of technology – Internet, social media, texting, etc, etc – people are lost in ways Kerouac could never have imagined. But it’s possible the question posed by Holmes is above the vacillations of a fast-paced global dynamic. Feeling connected – that’s all most people want. Beyond basic human needs, it’s all people ever wanted. And on some level, that’s all that travel is. Feverishly seeking connection to the world and all its Kingdoms. To feel part of the joy and misery, the strangeness and tedium, to feel part of it all. To traverse the globe unapologetically with answers and self-education and people in mind, to revel in the fact that we may feel alone but we never truly are.
Travel makes the innate desire for connection tangible and intense. Particularly when visiting people you once knew in what seems like another life. Because you’re with people you don’t see often, and after one hour and one laugh you’re reminded why you’re even friends, why you’re even there. No one forced to you to cross the country. The fact is if you didn’t want it with your whole heart, you wouldn’t have gone.
It’s the new beat. I ran to California in a bit of a broken state. Then I walked away from Seattle, whole.