Jack Kerouac’s writing doesn’t mention Boulder as a place he visited in Colorado, yet there’s a school named after him there. Founded in 1974 by Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman it’s Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics.
Kerouac became disembodied in 1969 at the age of 47. Neal Cassady, who inspired Kerouac’s best known novel, “On the Road,” did so a year earlier. Unlike his two friends who lived faster and died younger, Ginsberg almost made it into the new millennium. He died in 1997.
The newly released movie, “Howl,” starring James Franco as Allen Ginsberg, takes place during the Beat era — an era that owes its name to Kerouac.
Who were the Beats? Where does Colorado fit in?
The group of writers who would later be called, the Beats, adopted William S. Burroughs as their mentor. Burroughs, who was fascinated by life’s seamy side, learned the word “beat” from Herbert Huncke, a Chicago junkie. Hunke used the word as a synonym for poor. It was Kerouac who modified its meaning, making “beat” a combination of poor and beatific, “like sleeping in the subways … and yet being illuminated and having illuminated ideas about apocalypse and all that.”
Ginsberg and Kerouac met Cassady in 1946 when brought his wife to New York from Denver to look up his friend, Hal Chase, who also knew Ginsberg and Kerouac. Handsome, exuberant and amoral, Cassady mesmerized Ginsberg and Kerouac.
Cassady’s wife, LuAnne left her negligent husband in January 1947 and returned to Denver. Some months later, Cassady returned as well. The hitchhiking Kerouac was dropped off on Larimer Street in July. Respectable today Larimer Street was Denver’s skid row in 1947. Cassady had spent much of his childhood there.
While staying in Denver, Kerouac visited Central City, where he attended a performance of Fidelio at its opera house. He bathed in the hotel room of one of its performers before repairing to a miner’s shack for an evening of revelry. Today people go to Central City to attend performances at its old opera house and gamble in its newer casinos.
Kerouac’s desire to ranch or farm in Colorado is recorded in his journal. He returned to Denver in May of 1949 after selling his first novel, “The Town and the City.”
He rented a house several days after arriving, and wrote its Westwood, Colorado address in his journal. Today that address is in Lakewood, which incorporated as a city in 1969. The house is west of Sheridan, which forms the border between Lakewood and Denver.
In his journal, Kerouac talks of walking to Morrison Road to buy a notebook. He stopped for beer at a roadhouse. That roadhouse may well have been Hart’s Corner at the intersection of Mississippi and Sheridan. It’s been in business since 1929.
He also wrote that he, “looked out on the fields of golden green and the great mountains,” from his back door. That view is gone now, but the view from Lakewood’s Belmar Park is a good approximation.
While waiting for his family to join him in Colorado, Kerouac’s money and self-esteem diminished, while his impatience and depression increased. He took a boy he befriended to Lakeside Amusement Park where they “rode around a sad little lake in a toy railroad.” The train was pulled by one of two engines which had been used during the 1904 Saint Louis World’s Fair. Lakeside acquired them prior to its opening in 1908. Those engines are still running today.
Kerouac’s family joined him in Colorado, but none of them stayed long. Kerouac, accompanied by his sister and brother-in-law, dropped his mother off at the train station on July 4. Afterward, they attempted to lessen Kerouac’s sadness with a picnic at Berkeley Lake. This lake is to the east of Sheridan Boulevard; Lakeside Amusement Park is west of Sheridan. Both border I-70.
Kerouac traveled to Colorado a final time in 1950 using airfare money provided by his publisher. He took a bus because it was cheaper.
Before Kerouac’s arrival, Cassady broke one of his thumbs jabbing his wife’s forehead. Kerouac and Cassady visited the rundown Windsor Hotel on Larimer and 18th Street where Cassady had lived with his alcoholic father. During the visit, Cassady injured his other thumb by striking the men’s room door repeatedly.