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Travel Journals

America 1960, California 1961, Mexico 1982


[clock] 20-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Summer 2015

Illustration by Lawrence Ferlinghetti Lawrence Ferlinghetti is well known as a poet and artist, publisher of fellow Beat writers, and cofounder of City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. But his extensive notebooks in the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, cast new light on the man behind the persona. In fall 2015, Ferlinghetti’s Writing Across the Landscape: Travel Journals 1960–2010 will be published by Liveright. “I wrote these peripatetic pages for myself,” Ferlinghetti explains in the introduction, “never thinking to publish them.” His journals were selected and edited by Giada Diano and Matthew Gleeson, who recommended their publication to the author. At more than 500 pages and spanning fifty years, Writing Across the Landscape is sweeping in its scope; VQR has excerpted entries that are singular in focus yet representative of the whole. To best reflect the historical record, the original spelling and punctuation have been retained. 

Though he is known as an outspoken writer and activist, Ferlinghetti’s unguarded frankness in the following entries comes as a revelation at many turns, from brotherly words about his friend Jack Kerouac to off-putting complaints about the “defunct men” and “ugly girls” on cross-country trains, from the embrace of nature and meditation at his Big Sur cabin to a surrealistic castration tale written in Mexico. He records his travels in words and drawings with a raw openness that is uncommon in our age of polished sound bites. To understand the history of modern American literature, one must read the Beats. And, to understand the Beats, one must read Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

—VQR  


America! America!
March–November 1960

Train to Burlington, Vermont—Wednesday morning, March 30—forty-one yrs old and in my right wrong mind… . And the Boston & Maine with conductors that look like Calvin Coolidge. Springfield, Northampton, Greenfield, East Northfield, and on, into Vermont. White River Junction & a hundred Dartmouth students get off. On, through the wet snowhills & melting rivers, spring coming, through the long dark afternoon, the whole white landscape melting into black. Dusk descending over Vermont mountains, and night upon us as the diesel twocar train rocks silent into Essex Junction… . 
My poetry reading here at the Vermont Conference, and my topic “Love and Death.” What do I know of the mystery of either? The conference also addressed by a spokesman for Dr. Teller, an atomic physicist—Mr. Christofilos (Christ & filosopher), who spoke the opposite of what Christ would have said—a militarist… . Boom boom.
Question by serious student before huge crowd at University of Vermont conference: “Sir, how do you stand as to fornication?”
Answer: “As for fornication, I very seldom stand; I lie down.”
Second question: “Do you really think Christ is dead?”
Answer: “The way the world acts today, you would think so. He’s not here tonight, is he? I don’t see him.”
Voice from back of auditorium: “Here I am.”

New York, N.Y., April 1

With Jack Kerouac at midnight we stumble down East 2nd Street, and suddenly out from a broken tenement front rushes a whole living room upside down with dark Puerto Ricans carrying sofas tables and armchairs on their heads upside down, growling at us as they run past and around the corner.
And what am I doing with him here anyway, sometime in eternity? Yeah, well, it’s a long story, as everything is. I am not my brother’s keeper but I do feel a kind of older brother empathy with him… . Well, Jack has nothing to do with Beat or beatnik except in the minds of thousands who read On the Road thinking he’s some sort of crazy wild rebel whereas really he’s just a “home boy” from little ol’ Lowell and certainly no rebel. And I keep telling him to stop wandering around the planet and go back home to Lowell Mass. and stay there, even though it would probably not work out, with him staggering around bars and not finding any “home” … and old friends all changed, etc… . All the while remembering Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, one of our favorite books.
Spent night with him, ending up at his girl’s house in the West Seventies. Woke at ten a.m. Sunny and warm. I leave with ms. of Kerouac’s Book of Dreams for City Lights to publish, and that alone worth the trip … a clutch of wild beautiful dreams uncensored and not for Freudians to dissect… . 

April 7

Left N.Y. under a cloud—still hungover—Had vision of evil on the half shell—in flight jet to Chicago.

Train—Zephyr—Chicago to San Francisco, April 8

West from Chicago, contemplating the landscape. Yellow barns, yellow houses, purple hills, lavender trees, gold cornfields in late sunlight, windmills, silos, mows, white houses with green roofs, telephone lines, brown banks of earth, creosoted railroad ties, all the animals already put away for the night, dusk falling, white fences, more corn, more trees, white bones of trees by a river, filigree against the sky, standing in water up to their knees, branches like bones of arms reflected, gray sky now, brick houses, brown leaves, gray unpainted barns, day going now, now one lone bird, blown away… . Red ball of sun thrown down.
Crossed the Mississippi at Burlington, Iowa—Last light still in sky—glints in far windows, neons coming on, fillingstations lighted, dingdong red train light suspended & swinging at crossing … in center of wooded city… . The sad unalterable loneliness of houses on hillsides lost among trees, lights white in them… . Cemeteries going by, lonely too … somehow not so lonely as the living… . Black trees now, on small hills … night, night. Dark ponds and pools.
Later, nothing but night, under the Vista Dome, alone, peering out… . Nothing but moon, stars, night flashing by gooking with suitcases along Charles Sheeler platforms—no sound through the glass—walking, sacks and satchels in hand, lost in night of America… . Thomas Wolfe’s, Whitman’s, Kerouac’s, yours, Ferlinghetti’s America… . Indian land I hitchhiked through a long time ago… . The whole of the ancient Indian continent now occupied by “Americans.”

April 28

Heard Thelonious Monk at Blackhawk in San Francisco last night. He played nonobjective funeral dirges. Later, at intermission, saw him walking very fast down a dark street and around a corner, as if he had to get somewhere fast to make a connection, and get back to the Hawk for the next set—Reminded me of how I escaped from funeral of foster father in mourning clothes and went flying away on a bicycle, down free spring lanes… . 

* * * * *

November 10—Southern Pacific Coach

White dawn bursts across plains, islands of land in the distance, mesas, tablelands, all flat, all laid away, great glory sun; wood bridge over water. In still light we rock onward. ONWARD?
Back and forth across the continent, bang bang, by any wheel, by rail, by car, by buggy, by stagecoach, walking, riding the Great Plains, prairie schooners into the night. Forever. All that day, rolling thru Wyoming, snow on steppes and plains, mining towns, once roaring, now shrunk to the railhead, streetlights drunk with loneliness. Huge spaces of indomitable still new land—horizons of mesas—like Don Quixote country, with sharp eroded towers of bluffs like windmills, abandoned and propellerless. Great long rectangular stone islands sticking up on far plains like forts, like immense empty cargo ships, becalmed and rudderless, stranded… . Finally one small half-ass town followed by solitary pumping stations, each with a tank, a car, a hut, a dog, no people anywhere. Must be a cowboy someplace. Lone church sticks up, “out of Nowhere.” This must be Interzone between Heaven and Brooklyn. Do they have a classified section like in phone books in the back of the Bibles here?—Otherwise they’d never find anything… . Try Instant Zen.
Later again, wagon-lits, bed wagons, human bodies nested in them, inscrutable, hurtling horizontal thru night… . 
Huge snow fields, on and on and on, still no one anywhere… . Indians all gone to Florida. Or Cuba! Birds flap from fences, trestles… . Sunset and strange clouds like udders, rayed, from below, with light. Some God’s hand sticks through. Black trees stand out. The world is a winter farm… . Much later, one brakeman’s face in night, in high peaked cloth cap, gray-striped; swings a railroad lantern, as our window whizzes past, his figure flashed upon it, slanted, very tall, muezzin-like, in darkness, disappearing… . Who killed America?

November 12

The only people that ride the cross-country trains now are old women & babies & defunct men and servicemen—and ugly girls—carloads of them… . And Gad those vast empty expanses of northern Wyoming, and toward the Great Divide—and the sad monstrosities they erected and still call “towns”— To be condemned to live here forever would be murder—the Siberia of America… . 
Nebraska, Iowa—the woods are more poetic here—more intimate, closer in, smaller and nearer than in Wyoming, where they stood away on horizons at enormous distances, tenantless. Here the farms are smaller, people can be seen in the houses—more “poetic” because more human. The Pathetic Fallacy again… .
But these fall woods—bare trees—swamps full of leaves—long brown grasses—fields of yellow-brown cornstubble—are Eastern—it’s the nostalgia of what I once knew—Chicago finally, at noon, I stroll out into it, with raincoat, small satchel, books, carrying my pencils with me. Later, at night, street lamps lit with leftover sun they drank too much of during the day… . Walked across town from Union Station, north on Dearborn from the Loop, past Gate of Horn where I’ll read poetry tomorrow afternoon, on toward Paul Carroll’s where I’ll stay the night, probably. Came to beautiful park in front of a stone church & Newberry Library in middle afternoon, sat down, wrote this… . Pigeons, of course, fall leaves on the ground, of course. Pigeons make soft crowing, mooning sound. The trees bare, of course, black branches against black-gray stone of library, old men in felt hats sitting about on wood benches, of course. Blue-white sky, other birds in it, they wheel, make squeaky songs, circular small stone center fountain, dry, of course, has pigeons perched on it all facing inward, a stone merrygoround that will never turn, of course. A squirrel comes down from a big tree that still has leaves, disappears while I look down to write this.

November 13

Arrive in Greensboro, North Carolina—what a bring-down, from great time in Chi—gooky Carolina in the night—Southern jitney to town & King Cotton Hotel. In the middle of the night I hear a sudden howling way below in the street—sounds like a man is dying down there—I go to the window and look down—It’s midnight & there’s a car stalled in the middle of the street in front of the hotel—with the door on the driver’s side wide open. The man must have run off up another street, howling as he went—flipped in the Southern Night. Ten minutes later, a police car arrives. The cops don’t get out but question someone standing there—No one seems to know what happened.

November 14

Next morning, awakened by sound of electric drill-hammers tearing up a street below, eternal machine chewing up world’s street everywhere… . But it’s clear & bright outside! I see the land for the first time—autumn trees—rust red everywhere (whereas all was black & white, uninteresting in night, now all’s color). Sweet, peaceful fall comes in Southern Window… . 
Noon: The twin birds of faucets above the hotel bathtub take on a curious aspect—their shadows flying off together, while they remain apart, self-contained. One whispers—“Let’s Turn On—I’m Hot.” But the other is Cold to the idea… . 

November 16

Enormous live audience at N.C. State Raleigh. Really turned it on.

November 17

Return to Chapel Hill, my old alma mater, after fifteen years, the same trees, the same streets, the same buildings among them, same main street, same people (but more “cosmopolitan” now, and shops more cosmopolitan-looking), and the air the same, the same slow sweet air. All forgotten, not out of memory, but forgotten, stoned in time.
Had another huge mob at Chapel Hill reading… . 


Big Sur Journal
September 1961

Above Bixby Canyon, September 12

I am up here in the golden fields at the top of Big Sur, on one of the highest hills, over the ocean, the long wheat grass is gold-yellow up here, its tares blow in the wind, I sit cross-legged, naked under the hot sun.
Homer the Dog has made himself some shade under a bush, he is full of tares and burrs, and the flies bother him, he’s panting… . It’s early afternoon—a high noon—way down below, westward, the blue-gray sea fading into a vague horizon of clouds; a car creeps like an ant on the highway. I think I could wander this way the rest of my life—a small knapsack, sneakers, an old Navy CPO shirt, khaki pants, a small knife, a bottle opener, a nail clipper, a pencil & pad, a book, all I have… . So to India one day.
The wind blows thru me, over the hills.

September 14

I sit in the lotus position, naked, and contemplate one stalk of long gold grass. It has maybe two dozen barbed tares on it, all pointing & leaning in the same direction, from the direction of the wind they grew in. Yet when I turn it against the wind, the tares turn with it, now point into the wind: the habit of a lifetime is easily broken, once the thing it stems from is forgotten, once one is freed from it. Revolt and you shall live?

September 16

… stars out tonight, enormous, myriad traceries! Webs! Sad mute histories! Wheeling by. All these suns gone down already, at midnight, the universe itself not there anymore, nothing up there, out there anymore, all burned up millions of light-years ago, nothing left but the light of it now reaching me, in sleeping bag, staring up—at Nothing. I like small constellations best, like the Pleiades and Delphinus—they wheel by, hours apart but in the same plane, both passing thru the same frame of the open overhang of my lean-to. And I dream I am making a book cover for a book of the story of my life, and dream the square open frame of stars as the cover, first with Delphinus in it, then the Pleiades, then a still more distant, and colder, smaller & stiller constellation I don’t recognize. But, bang, now comes great Orion over the dark trees, waving his great spangled belt—Flashing lightbulbs in it!

I see dark things rushing across the country.

September 17

Alone with myself climbing by Pico Blanco, found no mescal on Mescal Ridge, walking over the high open mesas, high meadowlands, the sun beating down, no shade anywhere on the high ridges, then descending into little canyons full of scrub oak, manzanita, willows, small firs, the dirt road full of deer tracks & horseshoe prints, Homer the Dog chasing deer up the steep banks barking, always frustrated… . Coveys of quail flush out thru the trees, a hawk sails high over. Farther on, in a dark redwood gulch, a bad blue jay scolds, a sign by a rancher’s gate says: No Trespassing—Survivors Will Be Prosecuted. It’s the sixties.
While I was walking from Bixby Canyon to Point Sur, a plane flew from New York to San Francisco, a satellite circled the Soviet Union, another with a man in it shot into the cosmos and circled the earth and came back to report there was no God up there, as we had suspected.


Through the Labyrinth Into the Sun
August 1982

Mexico City: sunny Sunday morning. A woman in a red sweatshirt and running shoes is clipping her poodle pup on a stone bench on the Paseo de la Reforma. She finishes and puts the poodle down on the ground where the pup’s legs start going like a mechanical toy, but she holds it, and then seems to crank its tail as if to wind it up. Then the little white dog scampers away under the little trees with their trunks painted white—aspens and birches maybe five years old. A short bald man in dark glasses comes over from where he was lying down with a newspaper over his face on the grass and engages her in conversation about the dog. It seems he is extremely interested in this dog, the like of which he has never seen before on earth. The dog wants to be picked up, not the woman who holds the clipping scissors in her hand and slowly opens and closes them as she looks at the man. After a while she reaches up and scissors a hole in his crotch. His nuts drop and roll away on the grass like balls in a pinball machine. They careen against a curb and ricochet down the Avenida de la Reforma, bowling over the late morning traffic. Each time a ball hits a car a red signal lights up. After a few seconds the balls fall back down the Avenida and come to rest in the little dog’s kennel. The woman picks them up and plants them in the lawn under the trees. After a while another tree with a white trunk springs up from each nut. The dog scampers about under them and pees on their white trunks. The lady is about to mount her white horse and ride away but she cannot catch the dog. The dog keeps circling the trees in a figure eight, barking like mad. The trees grow up, the dog and the lady grow old, the sun and the moon rise and set a million times over the ancient lake of Tenochtitlán. When the lady is an old crone on the bench and the dog lies under a tree like a heap of uncombed wool, another man approaches from under the newspaper where he has been lying. The scene begins again in macho Mexico, and the lady is the eternal curandera who will cure modern man with her powerful spells.

August 15

At a late afternoon tertulia, I meet Octavio Paz. I tell him that in his laberinto de soledad, he’s not much interested in psilocybin mushrooms as a way I suggest to getout of the labyrinth… . He gives me a strange look … backing away … I’m a real imbecile.

Agosto 16 (Lunes)

To Oaxaca. On the way to the International Poetry Festival, I join the poets’ tour of the Aztec temple ruins found under the Zócalo. In the mud below the torn-up paving stones, the poor indio workers are digging, with spade and wheelbarrow. The guide tells me they get three dollars a day for eight hours. Down in the ruins of one temple ruin, an old campesino is heating his tortilla on an electrical hot-plate… . They are brushing the ancient stones with ammonia, the acrid aroma hitting the nose like the exhalation of a hundred Aztec corpses with wet bloodred burning crotches.
In the temple ruins discovered in 1978 in another part of the Zócalo they have uncovered a huge goddess, three yards wide, with head and breasts cut off, buried in the Hill of Serpents. At another place in the ruins, the omnivorous obsidian head of a huge serpent has been uncovered. His mouth is half-open and between the widely spaced blunt teeth a tongue can be seen, about to flick out, petrified in time. His obsidian eyes glare up at the Anglo women tourists. A low hissing may be heard under the sound of noonday traffic and the tolling of great bells in the tower of the cathedral. It is as if some great underground labyrinthine beast were trying to open its jaws to swallow us all in one gulp. They are digging to free its jaw so that we will be all consumed.

Oaxaca: Five p.m. and I’m sitting in the Oaxaca Zócalo, on the plaza, al centro, drinking a cerveza on the café terrace. Wanderer! How many times wandered into a plaza, sack over shoulder, looking for a cheap hotel, how many times the pigeons on the paving stones and the iron bell tolling in its stone tower, France or Italy or Spain or Mexico. A character out of Nicanor Parra comes by—dark glasses, a cane, a paper bag, gray beard. “Speak English? Spanish?” He tries to sell me a single piece of sandpaper! It is a new piece of sandpaper. There is a fly walking around on his old necktie, as in the poem by Parra… . Since I can’t bring myself to buy the sandpaper, he passes on to the next table and a young couple, perhaps Anglo, where he sits down. He is talking to them, very serious. I wish I could hear what he is saying. Perhaps it is a meditation on sandpaper in Oaxaca. A meditation on mescal would be better. There is a worm at the bottom of the bottle, un gusano de magüey. After two drinks the worm turns into a butterfly and flutters away to dry in yellow sun… . 

6 p.m. The late sun powders the plaza… . Loneliness is still a curse. Still the people that singly wanted to come on this trip with me must understand: I have to be alone on a trip like this. Or else they are not trips like this.

A break in the weather of loneliness. The clouds part and in the open spaces I glimpse bodies floating by, each like a boat of flesh. They borrow each other’s bodies for the night. In the morning they cast off the moorings and drift away again, each to his own unknown unfathomable end. All night long the heavy bell clangs in the cathedral next door to the hotel I’m in. Every quarter hour all night long. It is as if some demented Quasimodo is in the tower, venting his frustration with existence. The plaza at three a.m. is absolutely deserted, the white trunks of the huge tule trees stand about in the total silence like De Chirico ghosts.

Somewhere close by someone starts playing a lonely lovely ecstatic trumpet, freeform slow jazz, improvised out of light in the night. It is as if it were a lantern playing on a dark wall in the night. Rising and falling, it blows on the wind, fading away in the dawn… . 
Second Day in Oaxaca: One gets very jaded sitting around café terraces by oneself, overhearing polyglot conversations. Everything one hears seeming to be a cliché. I have been there before—an “old Mexican hand” at the next table knows all about exchange rates, los turistas, casas de huéspedes, and who killed Trotsky and even which hotel Trotsky stayed in the night before his murder (Hotel Montejo, Paseo de la Reforma, DF)—many times have I passed alone through Mexico like this. I have passed through San Miguel de Allende, bullfights at Carretera (the most critical aficionados in Mexico), Pátzcuaro, Morelia, San Blas, Vaca Cuerna, Mexico City, Oaxaca; stood in endless buslines in broken down stations waiting for third-class tickets and broken-down buses, drunk mescal in dark dusty cantinas in mountain villages, imagining I was the Consul in Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano; I have become the Consul, staggering hallucinating down blind alleys… . as if one had to live out the literary myths, from Hemingway to Kerouac… .  

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