Go West! The Spirits Are With You
In On the Road (1950), Jack Kerouac describes a journey filled with adventures for Sal Paradise, the protagonist. This New Yorker heads West to Denver, eventually meeting up with his friend Dean Moriarty. Together they travel on to San Francisco, where they decide to go “on the road” further in search of adventure. Sal and Dean differ from the notorious Thelma and Louise of movie fame, who headed for California when thwarted from a weekend-trip due to Thelma and Louise’s unfortunate involvement in a series of mishaps. But, similar to Sal and Dean, Thelma and Louise were hoping to kick-start their otherwise routine lives. The theme of traveling west, voluntarily or not, is commonly used in American literature and cinema; the fuel of choice is usually alcohol.
Kerouac tells of Sal’s drinking beer and whisky to counter periods of loneliness when he hitchhiked his way to Denver on the first leg of the journey. He also used alcohol to keep himself warm during cold, damp nights. When he finally reached Denver and met up with Dean and other old buddies, they partied round-the-clock for days.
Thelma and Louise’s escapades also included alcohol. Their misadventure began at a honky-tonk shortly after they started their trip. Thelma got drunk and spent most of the night dancing with one of the regular barflies. When she began to sicken from all the hard drinking, the barfly escorted Thelma outside for “fresh air.” Taking advantage of Thelma’s inebriated state, he attempted to rape her. Louise came upon the assault and shot the would-be rapist, mortally wounding him. The action heated up thereafter as Thelma and Louise attempted to outrun the law. The two imbibed their way through the remainder of the movie. The unforgettable ending depicts Thelma and Louise taking one last slug of whisky before driving their car over a cliff and into the Grand Canyon.
In both On The Road and Thelma and Louise, the main characters all drink, as opposed to the characters in The Last Picture Show (1971) and “Bride Comes to Yellow Sky (1898),” where the consumption of alcohol is presented but only in a limited way. In all instances; however, alcohol was present during the hero or anti-hero’s fall.
Storytellers often include alcohol in their narratives no matter what the medium. Whether they intentionally showcase the use of alcohol to convey to the audience a sense of “normality” of the characters is not known, but alcohol does distort reality, thus, it creates a world of make-believe for the characters. Similarly, the “Going West” theme creates a fantasy-like feeling especially for those attempting to begin life anew. In either case, alcohol-induced euphoria or “Going West” dreams do not solve old problems in people’s lives. On the Road and Thelma and Louise exemplify that only fool’s gold is in ”them thar hills” in California, with or without “spirits.” ¡Salud!