Paint the Town Read

He slipped into Denver unannounced, just another traveler on his way to wherever. No fanfare, no welcome party. A man alone, on his way to identity and destiny.

It was a brief stay, just ten days in the summer of 1947, a side note in a journal. But this man wasn't just anyone, and his journal wasn't just anyone's journal. It was Jack Kerouac, crawling through Skid Row, up and down Welton and Larimer and Curtis. Jazzing in the Rossonian, tête-à-têting with Neal Cassady and Allen Ginsberg in the Colburn. All around him, the poetry of the streets, the experience, running through his mind, wouldn't stop, couldn't stop.

It was just ten days, 240 hours, 14,400 minutes, but it forever intertwined the destinies of Kerouac and the Queen City of the Plains. No longer just a cowtown, now an epicenter of the Beat Movement. Something, someplace. Producer of an American original that only a post-war America could embrace. A place to search for identity and meaning. The magnetic pull of 5,280 feet above sea level sucking back the Massachusetts boy in body and mind, covering him with the sense of possibility.

Ten. Again. Ten years after that fateful layover, in 1957, Jack Kerouac finally published the file drawers of his mind, the little black notebooks he always kept with him. On the Road was a smashing success, pointing out what disillusioned youth were feeling but couldn't articulate. Are still feeling. Sex, drugs, jazz, the open road, the future, living and doing for the experience alone, searching out something to give life meaning. A quest. And Denver has a starring role in the existential story.

It took him just three weeks to bang it out. One scroll taped together, 120 feet, no margins, no paragraphs, single-spaced; just a million thoughts and stories running together like one long dispatch from the front. A breakthrough in American Letters. A new style inspired by Denverite Neal Cassady, reflecting the urgency and zest that he felt. That so many felt. The mythic scroll of the prophet. Or so the legend goes.

Kerouac did pound away on his typewriter for three weeks, taping together the twelve-foot sections to create the scroll spilling over with his thoughts. But there's more to it. Kerouac was a fastidious rewriter, and he'd been composing his thinly veiled autobiography in those black notebooks for years. Scratching out and recasting. Perfecting. Self-edited streamofconsciousness. He spent years preparing for the final Benzedrine-fueled burst of creativity that went down in 1951, six years before the tale would go live, before it would find a publisher willing to take a chance on its experimental writing. And even then, Viking Press demanded revisions of its own.

But now the original scroll is in Denver. Back home. Back where "the air was soft, the stars so fine, the promise of every cobbled alley so great, that I thought I was in a dream." But not a dream. The scroll is on display at the Central Denver Public Library, just down the street from the Denver City and County Building that Ginsberg made famous in his poem "Green Automobile," across the street from the State Capitol, where Kerouac watched the bats circle the dome.

Just like Kerouac himself, it's making a short appearance in Denver as part of a larger road trip that started in 2004, three years after Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts, bought the scroll at a Christie's auction for $2.4 million. On the Road is only staying here from January 4 until March 31, but at least we get the love letter to Denver (and other places) in time for its fiftieth anniversary, before it moves on to Kerouac's home town of Lowell, Massachusetts, and the New York Public Library, where the scroll had resided, unseen, for so long before being sold by the Kerouac estate.

But the scroll is not meant to be out of sight, out of mind. No. In September, a second version of On the Road will be published by Viking, leaving in everything from the original mammoth document except what was crossed off by Kerouac himself. And befitting Denver's place in the Kerouac pantheon, one of the four editors preparing the manuscript for publication is based right here in the Golden Triangle. Joshua Kupetz has been in Denver for only seven months -- he transferred in from Dickinson College -- but we'll lay claim to the University of Colorado instructor and Beat scholar. "The On the Road scroll is one of the most significant artifacts in contemporary American literature," says Kupetz. "More mythic than real -- and hopefully, with the publication of it, we'll establish it as reality."

But first, some local reality: In honor of On the Road's fiftieth, we've assembled a >Literary Map of Denver, featuring sightings from Kerouac's classic as well as other novels that name-check our city, which has long drawn authors on their own Kerouacian quest. We had a few rules for inclusion -- fiction only, not memoirs (except for Cassady); Denver proper, not Boulder, not the mountains -- and even within these city limitations, found a larger trove of titles than we would have imagined. From Whitman to Twain, Michener to Cussler, Proulx to Didion. Historic novels, romance, Westerns, sci-fi and even some poetry. And the mysteries! Denver is a hotbed of mystery writers -- and attorneys who write mysteries. Living here are John Dunning, Michael Stone, Robert Greer and Stephanie Kane, and several dozen more, including James Crumley and Sarah Andrews, drop by. How they all came to be here is another mystery.