When the ordinary is epic

Jack Kerouac thrived on odysseys to fuel his writing. “On the Road” sounds an awful lot like my husband’s past 24 hours … complications and surprises and a lot of spontaneous events.

With “The Dharma Bums,” Kerouac talks about a hiking trip he took with two buddies … and the mishaps that nearly grounded them, but also the sublimity of finally reaching the mountain summit after what they went through.

I find it nearly impossible to live through these epics. I certainly don’t sign on for them. Yet when I hear about them, a part of me wishes I could.

Yesterday Greg and I woke at 5 a.m. so he could finish packing for a five-day hiking trip, while I finished a magazine article I was working on.

My husband, who packs fast and is always ready early, was set by 8 a.m.

By 8:30 a.m., he had taken his friend to pick up a part for a car repair that in theory was to wrap up by 11:30 a.m. The mechanic found another problem: a broken water pump. It would take more than three hours to fix.

Soon it was nearly 3 p.m. His friend, meanwhile, was helping the mechanic repair his car to speed things up.

At last, his friend arrived but since he had been repairing his car for hours, they had a few details to take care of before leaving Greenville about an hour later.

Complicated? Maybe. But that was only the beginning. In Raleigh, they hit mad Friday night traffic and inched along I-40.

Near Hickory, the final straw: A tire blew out. By then it was 9 p.m. and freezing. They stood on the side of I-40 to install the spare. When the Highway Patrol officer arrived, they realized they weren’t going to reach the Gorges. No ticket, but the trooper recommended a service station to check the pressure in the spare.

By now, our friend’s parents were worried. They called his younger sister, who attends college in Boone, to meet my husband and friend in Hickory. Turns out, she wanted to go hiking with them anyway.

They all took a room in a shabby motel for the night, sneaking in our friend’s golden retriever. The walls had holes and pictures that threatened to decapitate them as they slept. They fell asleep to cable TV.

The wake-up call came at 6 a.m. and they left by 6:07, took coffee at a drive-through and the cashier recommended “Tire Kingdom.” It was the Emerald City, at last!!

I just spoke to Greg, and they were at last headed for Asheville and on to Gorges State Park, where they will hike and camp. All three of them. There are only two tents, but they’ll figure it out.

Meanwhile, I am safe, warm and well fed as I sit at my desk. I listen to their stories and I hear an epic tale. I wish I were with them, but I’m not. And really, I couldn’t have gone through it.

It is the complicated, the unexpected and the dire that in the end makes the best stories. Greg and I still laugh till our sides split about getting caught in a brier patch that went on for a half-mile or more in the woods. We never thought we’d get out.

I once heard a writer comment that tragedy makes the best writing. No one wants to write about, as he put it “What good times we had, how happy we were, what good food we ate.”

No, a writer must be brave enough to take stories and stretch and pull them, to harass characters and compel them to live. To put them through sad, horrible things if necessary to give the reader more hope and understanding about his or her own life.

I have to remember that in my own writing … and also for my own life. When I find myself in a thicket, I have to remember that the brier patches make life worth living … and worth writing about.

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