Saturday, 21 April 2012

In Search Of Sal Paradise

The people you meet during your formative years often leave an impression that stays with you for the rest of your life. On the cusp of moving on from childhood, they change you slightly, shape you into the adult you're about to become.

It was during the long summer of 1985, the months between finishing school and departing for University, that I met two people for the first time.

Jack Kerouac. William Wharton.

It was Paul, my best friend in those long gone days, that introduced us. Me and Our Kid would call off at the seaside shop he worked at whilst biking home from our summer jobs on the caravan site. We'd hang out for half an hour, talk rubbish. We'd chat about things that were important back then - Pop Art, David Bowie, clothes, girls we'd fallen in love with but daren't talk to, and books we'd read. It was on one of these visits that Paul produced a couple of tatty paperbacks from his holdall: 'On The Road' by Jack Kerouac, and 'Birdy' by William Wharton.

Both books slayed me. For the rest of that summer, I was obsessed. 'Birdy' had the most immediate impact. It was the catalyst for a series of consequences that made my life a nightmare for much of the seven years that followed. Maybe I'll write about that one day, but I probably won't. However, it's 'On The Road' that's stayed with me the longest.

As an 18 year old, 'On The Road' is impossibly romantic. It's a blueprint for a life that deserves to be lived. Of course, on first reading, you don't know that Jack Kerouac died a morose alcoholic, and Neal Cassady paid heavy prices for his spontaneous explosions of 'just being' and was found lifeless on a New Mexico railway line at the age of 42. No, on first reading 'On The Road', you want to live that life. You want to express that freedom, the abandon that the novel encapsulates. You want to be their alter-egos, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriaty.

On looking back, my days of searching for Sal Paradise were naive, stupid, the best of times, the worst of times. For every love, there was a heartbreak. For every moment of drunken euphoria, a morning of desolate hangover. For every high, a catastrophic low. For every glimpse of God, a realisation that life is meaningless and that one day we'll all die.

I'm older now. I'm happier. I've found people to be with, and a way of life that nurtures and fulfills me, but is lived on a level, without the need for the swings between extremes. I'm glad I lived those days - they helped me get here and I like the way things are now. In spite of this, there's the odd time when that feeling returns. It comes out of nowhere, and when it does, I know it will be dumb to say 'no'. I have to go and search for Sal again.

I'd set the date a while back. Sunday 15th April. I'd meet up with the lads in Wasdale and we'd have a blast up to the summit of Scafell Pike, England's highest peak, as a pre-amble to doing the National 3 Peaks challenge at the end of May. It hadn't clicked when I'd pencilled in the calendar some months back that the Viking Way Ultra was the previous weekend, and I'd thought we could all make a weekend of it, enjoy some time away. As the back end of the week rolled round, however, I was still done in. My legs were operational, but only just. The tiredness that had smothered me since the end of the race had lifted slightly, but there was no way I could do more than the bare minimum. I'd thought of backing out, but I hate letting anyone down. No - I'd go up on the Saturday afternoon, stay the night and drive round to Wasdale on the Sunday morning. I'd leave Tam and the superheroes at home, but be back for Sunday evening. A bit of time by myself might do me good, Tam said, shake me out of the post-race doldrums I'd found myself in. I could book a room for the Saturday night - Travelodge or a B and B - enjoy a bit of comfort. Somehow, however, the whole idea didn't appeal. Then 'On The Road' came to mind, as it does sometimes. The search for Sal Paradise. Straight away, I knew a much better option.

It's 8pm, Saturday evening. I turn off the A592 at Gosforth and start driving down the narrow lanes that lead to Wasdale Head. The sun's about to set.

Three miles down and the road leads to the shore of Wast Water, the most isolated and magical of  the Lake District's waters. The perfect spot is right there. I pull the fell-wagon onto a rectangle of shale on the water's edge. As a home for the night, I can think of nowhere better. I turn off the engine, grab my camera and down jacket, and stroll down to the shore. I listen to the silence, smell the impossibly fresh air and take a few photos. I stip-step across large boulders to a tiny island down the way, sit myself down and take it in. I'm alone. The world is beautiful. I think of Jack Kerouac's trips to Big Sur, his summer in seclusion as a forset ranger, looking for fire. I'm a writer, an artist, a lover, a father, a runner. I'm alive.

After an hour, as the light disappears, I head back to the wagon. There's already too many miles on the clock, but I've no doubt that it's going to be part of the family for many more years yet. The sales guy had been suprised when I didn't want to know the in's and out's of performance. 0 to 60 and miles per gallon weren't all that important. Was it reliable? Will it get us from here to there? That was quite important. But not as crucial as the most important question - 'Is there enough room for me to be able to sleep in the back?' It was. So we bought it.

Inside, I blank out the windows with silver sun shields. I enjoy a snack I bought from home, slip into my sleeping bag, read a book by headtorch for a while, and sleep the best sleep I've slept for a week.

I'm woken by the dawn's light and the trickling of water upon pebbles. I take a while to come to and decide on a few more minutes inside my warm bag before bracing myself for the freezing temperature outside.

Half an hour later, I've washed in the Lake, I'm swigging a hot mug of sweet tea and the kettles boiling again on the portable stove with water for my porridge. All the summits are clear - it's a wonderful day. The view from the tops will be awesome.

It's not long before the lads arrive. We drive round to the carpark at Brakenclose and take the tourist path to the summit cairn and back. It's still early - not yet 11 - and the lads decide on a return trip to the top, this time by the Mickledore path. I know I'm up for no more and make my excuses - last week's race is still weighing heavy on me. The lads get off and I brew another cuppa. I make a sandwich, change into clean clothes, and then I'm on the road, heading home.

There's a bit of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriaty in all of us. There's times when you need to dance all night, get blind drunk, run uncontrollably down stupidly steep mountain tracks. There's times when you need to wake up the neighbours, throw yourself from a break-water into an icy sea, or just spend a night in the wilderness, by yourself, sleeping in the back of a van.

It's important to search for Sal Paradise sometimes. We all need to do it. It reminds us of the things we've got and the things we've let slip by. It reminds us how it feels to be alive.

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