Jack Kerouac Slept Here
In 2017, my family and I moved to Nash County, NC, home of the Town of Nashville and City of Rocky Mount. I soon learned that things were not all they seemed in this part of the state. For starters, there is no mount, rocky or otherwise, in Rocky Mount; it was named after the large rocks and ridges near the falls in the Tar River (“Rocky Mound” doesn’t quite have the same panache). Speaking of, the Tar River has no actual tar in it and is disappointingly only water. Lastly, while boasting to be “The Original” Nashville, it has a population of 5200 and the only night life consists of four legged critters running across the road less than two feet in front of your headlights, leaving you with a metallic taste in your mouth and the need to change your underwear.
Can you imagine the anticipation of a bridal getaway weekend to Nashville, only to learn, too late, that it was in the original version?
Like so many Southern cities, Rocky Mount has experienced the loss of major industry and has struggled to establish a new identity. Driving through downtown, the buildings alternate between boarded-up reminders and crumbling facades of what once was, and new life pushing up and out through the brick and concrete in an attempt to revitalize the area. Signs of decay are evidenced in the closed businesses, some for what appears to be decades; yet new beginnings are taking hold: a former bank now hosts a coffee shop; a clothing store is reborn as a Caribbean restaurant; a hardware store has become an art gallery.
Given its proximity to the Tar River – still only water – it should be no surprise that textiles were instrumental to the initial growth of the city. A large brick mill was built next to those middling rocks and ridges, and a mill village of shotgun-style, factory-owned houses soon followed. Other businesses and neighborhoods were birthed and the city expanded.
Textiles may have been the backbone of the city but they were not the soul. There is a rich connection to jazz and gospel music in the area. Alberta Gay (mother to Marvin and Frankie), Mae Mercer, Thelonious Monk, and Harold Vick are some of the musicians and singers who have roots in the city. Writers, too. Allan Gurganus, Etaf Rum, and Vann R. Newkirk, II, are just a few writers who have Wikipedia entries. (They happen to be connected to Rocky Mount, for what it is worth.) But they all, musician and writer alike, achieved recognition either after leaving Rocky Mount, or before arriving, or by writing about someplace else. It seems to me that while Rocky Mount could be considered art-adjacent, the city never served as the destination of the art itself. Or so I thought.
One day I ran across the following quote while surfing the internet:
Then I was ready for the three-thousand-mile hitchhike to Rocky Mount North Carolina, where my mother was waiting, probably washing dishes in her dear pitiful kitchen.
Unbelievable. Right in front of me, illuminated by the sepia glow of a blue-light filter, was proof that someone actually wanted to go to Rocky Mount so badly that they hitchhiked 3000 miles to get there. And survived. Seeing the city mentioned in this way – a destination to travel to, not a place to run from – would make sense in a self-published memoir, but that’s not the source of the quote; those words were written in “Dharma Bums,” a 1958 novel by Jack Kerouac. Yes, THE Jack Kerouac, the author of “On the Road” and one of the fathers of the Beat Generation.
My interest? Consider it piqued. Why did Kerouac write about Rocky Mount? It turns out that both his mother and his sister (and her family) lived here for many years, and he spent significant time in the city and surrounding area. Not only did he mention it several times in “Dharma Bums,” but he set a scene in “On the Road” in the city (renamed Testament, VA). I wanted to learn more; specifically, where did Kerouac stay while he was in Rocky Mount, sometimes for months at a time?
You can learn a lot of things after a little sleuthing. For starters, I learned that Rocky Mount is host to the Twin County Museum and Hall of Fame, which largely consists of a room of colorized milk carton photos, into which Kerouac was inducted in 2012. According to the entry, Kerouac is … deceased. Since he died in 1969, I am not sure why this was written in bold font, but maybe there are some people who believe that Kerouac faked his death to start a new life. As silly as it sounds, some people don’t want to believe their heroes are human and can die. Just because Elvis and Michael Jackson faked their deaths doesn’t mean every celebrity does it.
His entry in the room of fame mentioned that his family first lived on Tarboro Street in the Edgecombe County part of the city and then moved out to Big Easonburg Woods. Big Easonburg Woods no longer exists as such, so I was afraid I had hit a roadblock. But a few more clicks on Google gave me all the information I wanted to know: there are a couple of blogs dedicated to Kerouac’s time in Rocky Mount, and a man named John J Dorfner even wrote a book about it titled “Kerouac: Visions of Rocky Mount.” I believe it is currently out of print.
I soon discovered that the house in the area formerly known as Big Easonburg Woods is on a street named West Mount Drive and is less than 12 miles from my own. What is more, it is practically around the corner from the school my youngest two attend. I decided, then and there, that a road trip was in order. And not just any road trip, but one I could take on my way to work after dropping my children off at school, following a route I drive practically every single day. If a less intrusive pilgrimage exists, then let me know! I may be a fan of his work, but I also don’t like to be inconvenienced.
So, one day I did it – I found the house off West Mount Drive that featured in “Dharma Bums.” It is not very large; according to Zillow, it was built in 1950, has three bedrooms and one bath, and is less than 1200 sq ft. Some of what I read stated that when Kerouac stayed there, he would sleep and write on the back porch. The heavily wooded lot it sits on, however, is just shy of 3 acres and is much larger than its neighbors. I don’t know if the lot size has changed since Kerouac’s sister sold the property, but Kerouac was known to explore the woods and creek that runs further behind the house and eventually dumps into the Tar River.
From the “Dharma Bums”:
When I’d go to the country store to buy bread and milk the old boys there sitting around among bamboo poles and molasses barrels’d say, ‘What you do in those woods?
It is interesting to consider that a man who was known for traveling across the country and writing about it, from NYC to San Francisco and back – practically inventing the travel narrative – would come to Rocky Mount, NC, to get some peace and quiet. His mother and sister were here, and he had the freedom to wander through the woods, exploring the little creek at the back of the property, and to be alone with his thoughts and words. The little house on West Mount Drive was just the place for it.
I started off by mentioning that things are not all that they seem in this part of the state, with its Original Nashville and rocky mounds. Due to a serendipitous comment on a random internet page, I discovered that Jack Kerouac would come to Rocky Mount for months at a time, and that the house he stayed in, and wrote about, still exists. Learning that a nationally famous author used to come to Rocky Mount when he wanted a home cooked-meal or some time to concentrate on his writing fits right in with everything else I’ve discovered since moving to Nash County nearly five years ago.
After all: the Tar River is still only water, and; Jack Kerouac slept here.