In Jack Kerouac’s iconic novel, On the Road, the narrator Sal Paradise sets off on a cross-country journey, twice. He hitchhikes from New to California and back again, taking different routes each time. Sal says that he wants to travel in order to gain experiences, “I was a young writer and I wanted to take off…I knew there’s be girls, visions, everything…” (Kerouac 8). A lot of Sal’s motivation for traveling revolves around his eccentric circle of friends, in particular Dean Moriarity, and this almost utopian vision that he has of the West. Throughout his journey West, Sal talks himself through the tough times by remarking that everything will be great once he gets to Chicago, then Denver, then San Francisco, and so on. Sal’s destinations end up being less important than his actual time on the road. If anything, the destinations end up being somewhat of a disappointment. As a result of his travels, Sal comes to realize what he values about his home. He had to escape the reality of his home in order to realize what he values most about it.
Early in the novel, Sal refers to his “dreams of going West to see the country” (1). Almost immediately, he realizes that his trip is not as romantic and glamorous as he imagined it to be: “I began crying and swearing and socking myself on the head for being such a damn fool. I was forty miles north of New York…I was only moving north instead of the so-longed-for west” (10). His expectations for the trip were flawed, and this affects his experience at first. He thought he could cross the country “on one great red line across America” and found this to be very unrealistic. Even in Chicago, which he so desperately wanted to reach, Sal is a bit lost: “I didn’t know who I was—I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I’d never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside…and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds” (15). Once everything he knows is left behind him, Sal is prepared to undergo a transformation. He seems to let go of his self, his New York self, and start to embrace his journey. Interestingly, it is his New York self that he seems to end up missing at crucial moments.
Once in Denver, readers get more hints that each of Sal’s subsequent destinations will only lead him to more questions, and sometimes more of missing his home. Denver is a whirlwind. While he is whisked around by all of his friends and introduced to their lifestyle, which somehow mixes intellectualism with something reminiscent of college students partying, Sal seems a bit lost. His first question is “But where was Dean?” (39). At this point, Sal looks to Dean for guidance and answers. Later, Sal repeatedly asks, “Well, what the hell are we doing in Denver?” (44). He finds no answers, only a new destination in San Francisco.
Los Angeles is the city that makes Sal most nostalgic for home. Ironically, it is the city that people quite often associate with success and opportunity. It is described much differently in On the Road: “LA is the loneliest and most brutal of American cities; New York gets god-awful cold in the winter but there’s a feeling of wacky comradeship somewhere in the streets. LA is a jungle” (86). Kerouac also describes New York as “brown and holy” and California as “white and emptyheaded” (79). Once he has reached the westernmost points of his trip, Sal realizes his live for the east coast, and New York City in particular. It is a simple case of always wanting what we don’t have. It also relates to the cliché, “distance makes the heart grow fonder.” Sometimes we need to be removed from the places or situations with which we are most familiar in order to truly appreciate them. This is made explicitly clear once Sal returns to New York,
"Suddenly I found myself on Times Square. I had traveled eight thousand miles around the continent and I was back on Times Square; and right in the middle of rush hour, too, seeing with my innocent road eyes the absolute madness and fantastic hoorair of New York (107)".
Only after he has left and then returned does home seem “fantastic” to Sal. He left because his journey was a sort of vacation, or an escape from reality. Sal’s travels have in fact exposed him to different realities, and made it quite clear that home is a reality that he really does value.