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Caitlin Bailey

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From the Classroom to the Road

Posted: 03/13/2012 9:18 am

March 1, 2012 is grey and overcast, not outright raining, but certainly damp and cool. Maybe perfect movie theater weather, but less than ideal conditions for carrying over-stuffed duffel bags and backpacks full of books and boxes of granola bars to a van parked in front of a Lancaster County high school. Huddling in my school's parking lot with my bags and a pounding headache, preparing for a 550-mile drive, seems less than desirable. The headache is a byproduct of not sleeping the night before, and the lack of sleep is a byproduct of extraordinary excitement, so I suppose I can't really complain. But when parents' cameras emerge and our group starts shuffling around for a photo, it hits me: we are really doing this.

Today, nine high school seniors, myself included, an English teacher and an art teacher are packing up a van with almost no trunk space and even less leg room and beginning a road trip from Lancaster, Pennsylvania to San Francisco, California and back over the course of 13 days. Anyone who has ever travelled a significant distance with others knows the importance of cohesion and positivity within the group. Every personality clash is amplified when those personalities are put in a van and commanded to sit tight for nine hours. Assume that said van is just warm enough to be uncomfortable, factor in the amount of passengers, and add the baggage they are carrying -- approximately two bags each for a 13-day road trip. Welcome to The Beats Trip.

The trip is the culmination of an English class offered to seniors at Lancaster Country Day School. Not exactly a traditional high school English course, "My Witness is the Empty Sky: An Introduction to the Beat Poets" has spent an entire year carefully dissecting a generation of American literature that is easily passed over because of the writers' heavy focus on experimentalism -- literary and otherwise. Our classes have been spent reading beat fiction, poetry, and criticism. Combining reading, poetry analysis, demanding in-class discussions, and personal responses, this class truly is an English course unlike any I have ever encountered. To balance out the rigorous course load, we have been drinking tea, writing haikus, and listening to meditative Buddhist podcasts. The class explores not only the writing but the aesthetic of the beat literary movement, one which crossed from New York City to San Francisco, traversing mountains and train tracks and isolated Midwestern cities and towns for the sake of exploring new ways of documenting life.

The largest component of this class is the trip itself. Initially inspired by Jack Kerouac's On the Road -- and due largely to the brilliant conception of our teachers, our guides through the complex worlds of American literature, art, and highway systems -- The Beats Trip slowly became a reality. Wednesday morning class periods throughout the year were dedicated to making lists and aggressively planning; from researching ghost towns to reading Yelp reviews of Motel 6's across America, every detail of the trip had to be developed, essentially from scratch, by our class. We began with Kerouac and the later trips of the Merry Pranksters. However, our trip does not aim to copy the journey of On the Road but rather to create a frame within which we as students can explore our own means of documenting the world in more detail. In doing so there lies the expectation that our eyes will widen, our minds center, and our hands focus purely on what we see; no filter, just the page.

Day One of The Beats Trip will take us from Lancaster, PA to Knoxville, TN, passing through Charlottesville, VA along the way. The reality of the trip has not hit for many of us, certainly not for myself, so this morning was filled with and last-minute list-checking. Before packing the van and leaving the parking lot, we were sent on a 15-minute walk with our sketchbooks and pens, to reflect on our last few minutes alone for the next 13 days. It was a scary thought, this lack of privacy, but also an exciting one.

As for expectations, I have few, and this is how the trip works best. Certainly to make it to San Francisco and back is at the top of that short list; another is to fill up my sketchbook -- a required companion for every member of the trip -- with as much writing and pure observation as possible. As students, it's also important to maintain the level of academic quality we've reached so far this year. I'm expecting that we'll gain a significant amount of knowledge about how relationships change when you spend every hour of every day together; these same types of relationships -- relationships developed while in a state of perpetual travel -- were formative for the entire Beat movement. What better way to learn about these writers than to write how they wrote, travel how they travelled, and see what they saw?

This is not an easy trip. It requires energy (more than seems necessary in order to sit in a van for 10 hours a day), and alertness. It requires vigilance and curiosity and a resistance to leg cramps. It requires patience, with others and yourself. This brings me to my last expectation: a stronger connection to myself as a writer and student, and a closer relationship with my classmates and teachers. Few courses I have encountered in my high school career place so much emphasis on interaction with others. This is essential to the beat movement, and tantamount to the success of our trip. We are what make this trip so valuable. We have read the books, and now on The Trip, we are tasked with using what we have learned to open up to the world. We have one van and 13 days to do so. We're now shoulder to shoulder in the small van. Here we go.