I was born under a wandrin’ star


I was born under a wandrin’ star

There is something ineffable about drifting as a method to transport body and spirit from a familiar to an unfamiliar environment, writes PIET CROUCAMP.


THE standard question from my friends and acquaintances, year after year in October and November, is “what are you doing over December?"

Johannesburgers mostly choose somewhere in the Southern, Western or Eastern Cape. There are some who claim Egoli is peaceful and soulfully blissful after the hustle and bustle of caravans have crossed the Vaal and Orange rivers.

I'm not sure what to make of travel as a pastime or a form of entertainment. Even as a voyage of discovery, travel is not challenging enough. A well-planned trip has few risks, and with too many certainties the experience is related to vacationing. On the other hand, there is something ineffable about wandering as a method to transport body and spirit from a familiar to an unfamiliar environment.

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Value of a nomadic existence

The former journalist Foeta Krige and I often debate the educational value of travel and literature. We sometimes choose our course with my Jimny or the Land-Rover. The problem is really about what we read. He prefers fiction, I stick to science fiction. About travelling — or wandering — Krige and I are more in agreement. In my youth I was fuelled by the protest of Breyten Breytenbach and in my old age I still read JM Coetzee, but “fiction drowns my reality, because as an art form it preys on dysfunctional people in maladjusted realities".

“Literature is the theorisation of struggle and hardship," I try to convince Krige. However, I can recall that somewhere in one of his lyrics, Koos du Plessis asks: “Who would be the true wanderer, the one who travels, the one who reads?"

Krige's cynicism is visible in his mannerisms. Through his bushy eyebrows and over his empty coffee mug, he protests that I misunderstand the value of stories and man's understanding of reality. He expresses himself harshly and urgently: “Shit, man, man's entire being is a complex interwoven narrative of knowledge and experience conveyed through stories as realities, from the earliest times. Man is the sum language of his stories. The epigenetic transmission of these realities is your legacy to your brood. After you die, only your stories remain."

Foeta Krige.
Foeta Krige.

Krige shares a philosophy about the value of a nomadic existence from Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Battuta: “Travelling — it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller."

Battuta (24 February 1304–1368/69), was a Maghrebi explorer. For 30 years, from 1325 to 1354, he roamed over most of North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, China and the Iberian Peninsula. Finally, he wrote about his travels: A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling, more commonly known as Ibn Battuta's Rihla or The Travels.

It was wanderers like Battuta who encouraged me to hitchhike through Europe and America rather than to use public transport. Well, poverty was probably also a factor, and at the time — in the 1980s — there was a culture of hitchhiking in Europe. Quite often it was as easy as travelling with your own car.

‘Midnight Express’

The movie Midnight Express filled my trip through Turkey with a pervasive sense of paranoia.

But my dream of hitchhiking from New York to San Francisco was infinitely complicated by a 1953 movie, The Hitch-Hiker, an American thriller written and directed by Ida Lupino, starring Edmond O'Brien, William Talman and Frank Lovejoy. The culture of hitchhiking in America takes a hit when two friends are taken hostage by a hitchhiker during a road trip to Mexico.

Incidentally, Midnight Express was a Turkish-American prison thriller directed by Alan Parker and adapted by Oliver Stone from Billy Hayes' 1977 memoir of the same name. The film is about the life experience of Hayes (played by Brad Davis), a young American student, after he ends up in a Turkish prison for trying to smuggle hashish. The film's title is prison slang for his escape attempt. My fear of the Turkish police during my stormy wanderings from Istanbul to Ankara and finally Marmaris was a legacy of Midnight Express.

Magical Mississippi

I no longer want to tell the story about why my life path ran through America for 18 months. But if you're driving from New York to San Francisco, it's likely that you'll cross the Mississippi River at St Louis, Missouri. The city is on the banks of this lake-like river and is known for landmarks such as the Gateway Arch and the Eads Bridge. I was overwhelmed by the almost magical extent of the river.

Early one evening I sat in a bar in St Louis reading Jack Kerouac's On the Road. It's a novel about the spirituality of the Beat Generation and their search for self-discovery. Novelist and essayist John Clellon Holmes coined the term “Beat Generation" in a 1952 article. The story follows Sal Paradise, a young writer, and his charismatic friend Dean Moriarty as they undertake a series of aimless and wandering road trips across America in the late 1940s. The narrative is a blend of fiction and Kerouac's own experiences, depicting the restless quest for meaning and identity in a post-World War 2 society.

On the eve of my journey to the western US, the coincidence was noteworthy. The next day, it was my turn to cross the mighty Mississippi into unknown territories. In his own westward journey, the crossing of the Mississippi River becomes a symbolic moment for Kerouac. The river manifests as both a geographical and metaphorical landmark, a transition and passage to the epic expression “Go west, young man". The essence of wandering is the open road and the freedom that comes with it. Crossing the Mississippi becomes, for Kerouac and ultimately for me, a moment of fulfilment, an exploration and self-discovery with timeless significance.

Left: Kerouac and Ginsberg © Burt Glinn. | Top right: Kerouac reads for an audience at the Seven Arts Cafe in 1959. | Bottom right: William Burroughs and Kerouac in New York in 1953, photographed by Allen Ginsberg.
Left: Kerouac and Ginsberg © Burt Glinn. | Top right: Kerouac reads for an audience at the Seven Arts Cafe in 1959. | Bottom right: William Burroughs and Kerouac in New York in 1953, photographed by Allen Ginsberg.

Beat philosophy

In On the Road, Paradise and Moriarty's journey is characterised by a desire for freedom, experiences with jazz, drugs and relationships, and a rejection of the prevailing normative assumptions. The novel reflects the Beat philosophy of a spontaneous and unbound life, which advocates an understanding that is unhindered by the limitations of universal norms.

The characters meet a variety of people in strange places. Kerouac's writing style is characterised by his stream-of-consciousness narrative, which reflects the frenetic pace of the characters' lives. The book is a celebration of the open road, the pursuit of the American dream and the exciting but often tumultuous journey to self-realisation.

In the small hours I set up tent in a remote part of a park in St Louis on the banks of the Mississippi. There will always be Americans who warn you of the dangers lurking on late nights in big parks, but in the context of an east-west road trip across America, this was a less physical threat.

Hitchhiking on America's highways is prohibited, and with first light I begged a lift with a truck driver at a gas station and crossed the Mississippi. Deep in my mind I heard Charley Pride sing: “Roll on Mississippi / Big river roll / You're the childhood dream I grew up on / Roll on Mississippi / Carry me home / Now I can see I've been away too long / Roll on Mississippi, roll on."

By the time I made it to San Francisco, my American visa had expired, as well as my flight ticket back to Africa. I last earned a day's wage on a construction site in Omaha, Nebraska, and I set up my two-person tent in the middle of the city where a hundred or more HIV/Aids activists were camped out in protest against the shortcomings in state funding for their cause.

The soup kitchen came around three times a day; life was good and the company was great. In the afternoons I walked to the Golden Gate Park's sports fields in the hope of seeing rugby players somewhere; I was looking for work, food and a place to stay. After two weeks I met a bunch of Irishmen who played rugby for Marin County. A week later I had a place to live, a construction job, and we played our first game against a touring team from Samoa.

My desire to further explore the lives of Kerouac and my favourite poet, Allen Ginsberg, extended through a Bob Dylan concert and the remnants of the Beat Generation in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district.

Ginsberg (1926–1997) was an American poet and author. As a student at Columbia University in the 1940s, he began friendships with Lucien Carr, William S Burroughs and Kerouac, who formed the core of the Beat Generation. Dylan and Ginsberg were close friends from the mid-1960s through the 1970s. Dylan acknowledged that Ginsberg was an influence on his early electric albums. The lyrical style of John Wesley Harding is probably the most visible manifestation of their friendship.

The Beats gathered in San Francisco's North Beach neighbourhood from the late 1950s. Many who could not find accommodation there moved to the trendy and relatively cheap Haight-Ashbury, which in time gained notoriety as the heartland of the hippie movement. The Summer of Love (1967) and much of the counterculture of the 1960s was synonymous with San Francisco and Haight-Ashbury.

On one euphoric evening, in Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights Bookstore — once the gathering place of the Beatniks — Ginsberg read his poems. Ginsberg was a fellow Beat poet and travelling companion of Kerouac. Burroughs' legend is intertwined with the Beat Generation. His most famous work, Naked Lunch, embodied the movement.

Ginsberg recited his poems on a small palm-sized platform. His most famous poem, Howl, defined the Beat Generation. The occasion was humble enough for everyone to exchange words with the legendary poet. He had never heard of Namibia.

The long way back to SA

Eventually my path would led through the deep south of America and back up the east coast to New York; then back to Africa, the Western Cape, Stellenbosch.

Perhaps Krige is right and literature and stories — and wandering — fabricate reality. But it only works if you put your cynicism aside.

♦ VWB ♦

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