Fifty years ago this month, the Beat Generation writer's novel "On the Road" hit bookstores, its story told in breathless, jazz-inflected cadences, its plot lifted from the author's life. The plot follows two friends and their assorted pals on four cross-country road trips, their adventures packed with enough fast chatter to make Aaron Sorkin's head spin, enough drink and drugs and casual sex to satisfy a platoon of rock stars, enough discovery and enthusiasm and motion and exclamation points and careening overloaded sentences to give any reader a pang of wanderlust.
But have you looked at those pages lately? If you do and you're over 30, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty (Kerouac's names for himself and his mercurial friend Neal Cassady) may seem more desperate and doomed than you remember. And the North America they're exploring may seem far away indeed. (For details, consult the blog www.littourature.blogspot.com.)
As you check this 21st century charting of Sal's travels, remember that it was 1948 and 1949 when Kerouac and Cassady made the trips that dominate "On the Road," 1951 when Kerouac wrote the bulk of the book and 1957 when Viking published it. Cassady died at 41 in 1968, Kerouac at 47 in 1969. In both deaths, alcohol was implicated.
As for the road then and the road now:
* In 1957, Greyhound ruled the roads, and the interstate highway system was in its infancy. There were 40 McDonald's restaurants, fewer than 75 Holiday Inns, and there was one San Francisco bookshop called City Lights, run by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
Now, Greyhound and its parent company have been through bankruptcy twice in the last 20 years. The interstate highway system has grown to more than 45,000 miles, allowing for faster trips and less local color. There are more than 30,000 McDonald's locations and 1,384 Holiday Inns worldwide. There's still one City Lights, now 54 years old, on Columbus Avenue, still run by Ferlinghetti.
* In the book, Moriarty takes a girlfriend to Hector's, a cafeteria near 50th Street in Manhattan's Times Square, for "beautiful big glazed cakes and cream puffs," and Paradise adds that Hector's "has always been a big symbol of New York for Dean." Later, Sal and Dean dig the jazz at Birdland, a club on Broadway near 52nd Street. Later still, Sal and Dean eat franks and beans in a Riker's coffee shop on Seventh Avenue.
Now, Hector's is no more. Birdland closed in 1965 (although another club with that name does business now on West 44th Street). Riker's is gone too. (But the company behind that chain, Restaurant Associates Corp., has endured and evolved.)
* In the book, Sal Paradise takes a bus to Chicago and gets a room at the Y.
Now, the Chicago YMCA doesn't accept short-term overnight guests and hasn't for at least a decade, a spokeswoman says. The YMCA's Lawson House, which goes back to 1931 in central Chicago, houses about 600 residents, most of them working poor, formerly homeless and the mentally ill, who pay $375 a month and up.
* In the book, Sal reaches Cheyenne, Wyo., during Wild West Week, is appalled by the sight of fat businessmen in boots and 10-gallon hats, their wives outfitted as cowgirls. "In my first shot at the West I was seeing to what absurd devices it had fallen to keep its proud tradition," he says. He winds up sleeping in the bus station.
Now, Cheyenne still throws its annual party. But for 111 years it has been called Frontier Days. This year's bill in July included a rodeo, art and air shows, pancake breakfasts, a carnival and concerts by Bon Jovi and Reba McEntire. The old bus station has been leveled, and the old train depot next door is a museum.
* In the book, Sal stays with friends in Denver, decides not to take a job hauling produce at the Camargo market and gets cornered into attending an opera (Beethoven's "Fidelio") in nearby Central City. The rest of the time, he knocks around bars and pool halls on Larimer Street and Lower Downtown, including the Windsor Hotel, "once Denver's great Gold Rush hotel," says Sal; it's said to have historic bullet holes in the walls.
Now, Larimer and LoDo have been renovated. The Denargo Market, a 29-acre area north of downtown, has been proposed for redevelopment. In Central City, the 1878 opera house is up to four productions every summer. The Windsor was leveled in 1959. Meanwhile, a Denver developer has put up Jack Kerouac Lofts (60 units on Huron Street near Union Station, most priced at $300,000 to $400,000).
* In the book, Sal and his Bay Area friend Remi spend an outlandish $50 on a disastrous dinner for five at "a swank restaurant" called Alfred's in San Francisco's North Beach. Now, Alfred's has moved a few blocks from Broadway to 659 Merchant St. A 30-ounce porterhouse costs $40.
* In the book, Sausalito is a "little fishing village." Now, just try to find a room on a Saturday night for less than $150.
* In the book, Sal and his girlfriend, Terry, meet on the way to Los Angeles and eat "in a cafeteria downtown which was decorated to look like a grotto, with metal tits spurting everywhere and great impersonal stone buttockses belonging to deities and soapy Neptune. People ate lugubrious meals around the waterfalls, their faces green with marine sorrow."
Now, one Clifton's Cafeteria remains, the Brookdale at 648 S. Broadway, and it did have a 20-foot waterfall, along with a faux redwood forest and chapel that are still there. But Sal was probably talking about another Clifton's -- the late, lamented Pacific Seas at 618 S. Olive St., which had 12 waterfalls and all manner of Polynesian flourishes. It closed in June 1960.
* In the book, Sal and Dean wander Mexico City "in a frenzy and a dream. We ate beautiful steaks for forty-eight cents in a strange tiled Mexican cafeteria with generations of marimba musicians."
Sal never mentions a name for that eatery, but it sounds a lot like Sanborns' La Casa de los Azulejos, a city landmark (and cafeteria and department store) that dates to the 16th century. Famed for its tile work and murals, the building has included a restaurant since about 1919.
* In 1957, "On the Road" (hardcover edition, $3.95) was released in the first week of September to a rapturous review from the New York Times. That same week, Ford rolled out the Edsel, priced at about $2,500 and up. No rapture.
Now, Kerouac's original 120-foot-long typescript scroll for the book is on tour, having sold at auction in 2001 for $2.4 million. Lately, rare-book dealers have been offering first-edition copies of "On the Road" for as much as $8,000. You sometimes can buy an Edsel for less.