Arts & Culture

Jack Kerouac originally wrote ‘On the Road’ on a 120-foot scroll — and it’s coming to SLO

Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” and its working manuscript, the extraordinary 120-foot scroll he would unfurl before startled publishers, sits on display at the American Writers Museum in Chicago.
Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” and its working manuscript, the extraordinary 120-foot scroll he would unfurl before startled publishers, sits on display at the American Writers Museum in Chicago. AP

The late literary icon Jack Kerouac — who lived briefly in San Luis Obispo — is known for having written his classic “On the Road” on a 120-foot-long scroll while on a coffee and Benzedrine-fueled binge over the course of three weeks.

That famous sheet of tracing paper that Kerouac taped together — so he could more easily and quickly hammer out his prose — will come to San Luis Obispo next month and be on display to the public.

For about two months starting Sept. 21, the second floor of the San Luis Obispo Library at 995 Palm St. will house the scroll of “On the Road.”

Kerouac, a key member of the Beat literary movement, is believed to have pulled from his various drafts of the novel in the 1950s to compose his book in an energetic burst over 20 days.

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The story, loosely based on his own experiences, relates the adventures of free-spirited and hard-partying friends who drive cross country and to Mexico.

A digital reading device will allow library patrons to scan the text of the scroll, as Kerouac presented it, as well as see it in its original form, according to exhibit organizers.

The exhibition will be part of the county’s inaugural Coastal Awakening festival in September and October, a celebration of Central Coast-inspired artistic culture from Ojai to Santa Cruz with more than a dozen events showcasing creative art and literature, readings, walking tours, talks and films related to the arts.

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This 1962 file photo shows Beat Generation writer Jack Kerouac. AP

In a famous line in “On the Road,” Kerouac writes, “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding.”

Kerouac was known to be able to type 100 words per minute and used the taped-together scroll so as not to interrupt his flow by having to place new sheets of paper in the typewriter.

The Shanbrom Family Foundation helped bring the scroll to San Luis Obispo, paying for half of the $7,500 cost while the library covered the other half.

“Kerouac was a great guidepost for what we are accomplishing — the articulation of a cultural identity for the Central Coast, a rallying point for true community,” said Bob Shanbrom, a Coastal Awakening organizer. “It’s strange how you throw something loving out into the universe and it sprouts wings.”

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Kerouac lived in San Luis Obispo in the spring of 1953 to earn money while working as a railroad brakeman, before “On the Road” catapulted him into stardom after its publication in 1957.

Kerouac once described the San Luis Obispo landscape as mountains of hope “where stars of the night are holy.”

The scroll is owned by Indianapolos Colts owner Jim Irsay and has traveled around the world since 2004. Irsay bought it for $2.43 million at an auction.

Dawn Janke, director of Cal Poly’s Writing & Rhetoric Center, learned about the scroll through her years of studying Beat writers, including the Beat women of that literary group.

Janke said she met Jim Canary, who manages the scroll’s keeping, at a Beat-related festival and years later as part of her efforts with the Coastal Awakening festival, Janke helped coordinate its delivery to San Luis Obispo.

Jack Kerouac 1967_1
The Establishment cooperative on Santa Barbara Avenue in San Luis Obispo. In 1953, Jack Kerouac lived in the building when it was a hotel and paid $6 a week in rent. David Middlecamp

The document, which will be secured and well-protected at the library, is coming directly from its current exhibit in Ft Meyers, Florida, Shanbrom said.

James Papp, another festival organizer who co-owns the heritage tourism business Secret SLO, said Kerouac was among a long list of writers, poets, philosophers, publishers and artists who lived on the Central Coast.

Those included Aldous Huxley, the Dunites in Oceano, Henry Miller, the healers and writers at Esalen, Krishnamurti and his disciples in Ojai Valley and William Randolph Hearst.

“There was a sense of going somewhere remote and strange and on the edge that attracted them to this area,” Papp said.

Established this winter, the Coastal Awakening community group previously hosted the Beat Film Series to sold-out audiences in March at the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival.

Robert “Larry” Inchausti, who offered a three-part course on Central Coast authors and the literature of personal development through Cal Poly’s Extended Education program, said the Central Coast represents a place where the westward-bound travels of artists and writers ended.

Here they would turn “inward” in deep reflection, he said.

Coastal Awakening also awards individual and group micro-grants to Central Coast writers, artists, musicians and “creatives of varied disciplines.”

Some of the events sponsored or celebrated by Coastal Awakening include:

The Wild and Scenic Film Festival, Sept. 27-29, in Grover Beach, SLO and Los Osos.

Philip Glass Days and Nights arts festival, Sept. 30, Henry Miller Memorial Library, 3728 The Barnyard, Suite G-23, Carmel-By-The-Sea.

Special Concert by SLO Vocal Arts Ensemble, Oct. 11, 1645 Trilogy Parkway, Nipomo.

To learn more about the events and Coastal Awakening, go to, and

Nick Wilson: 805-781-7922, @NickWilsonTrib

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