The Beat of Orlando: Follow Kerouac’s Footsteps to Find Your MuseBy David K. Gibson
You can get a feel for Jack Kerouac’s Orlando at De Leon Springs State Park. (Photo: Erik E. Cardona/Shutterstock.com)
“I used to read that he came to Florida to die, but nothing could be further from the truth, especially here in Orlando,” says Bob Kealing, author of “Kerouac in Florida: Where the Road Ends.” In fact, Jack Kerouac had one of his most productive writing periods in a then-suburban neighborhood of Orlando called College Park.
Kerouac’s years in Orlando, roughly 1956 to 1962 — while eventful — weren’t filled with excitement. Though it was here that he first became known as the voice of the Beat Generation, he devoted more time to art and family than to feeding his legendary restlessness. For a time, money and relationships were relatively stable, and he wrote fiercely.
But, says Kealing, “It was kind of a love-hate thing. He could get back to nature, be with family, and he had time to meditate, but then he’d get bored. So that would send him back into the substance abuse, or he’d make some impulsive move.”
Interpreted one way, Orlando’s low-key living can do wonders for the creative spirit. Read another way, Orlando can drive you to drink. Explore a few of Kerouac’s old haunts, and see how the muse treats you.
Find the Beginnings of Beat
Kerouac spent his first trip to Orlando, a visit to his sister’s house in College Park, editing the manuscript for “On the Road.”
The publisher Viking was taking a chance on what would become the iconic American road novel, and Kerouac edited it for 12 days straight, almost half the time it took to write it.
Later, in a house around the corner at 1418½ Clouser Avenue, he wrote “The Dharma Bums” at the same frenetic pace, completing it in just 11 days. In his time in Orlando, he wrote countless letters, a play, and still had time to take off to New York to read at the Village Vanguard.
The back porch where he did all of that writing is now memorialized, not behind glass, but as a living part of American Literary History. The Jack Kerouac House, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is a non-profit that offers rent-free accommodation to aspiring writers for three-month residencies.
Find Inspiration in a Cocktail (or a Coffee Cup)
By all accounts (mostly his own, and there are quite a few accounts), Kerouac did most of his copious drinking at home, and even if he did venture out, those bars would have long since closed.
But if it had been around back then, we’re sure Jack would have enjoyed an evening at The Caboose on N. Orange Avenue, a dozen blocks east of his home. It’s unpretentious and inexpensive, and sits right by the railroad tracks, which would have tinged his cocktails with nostalgia.
Outside of alcohol, benzedrine was Kerouac’s other drug of choice. But Orlando has a new, more socially acceptable and highly favored stimulant: coffee.
Today’s Beats (and tech workers) indulge at College Park’s Downtown CREDO, a pay-what-you-think-it’s-worth coffee café that encourages hanging out (and also “cultivating networks of meaning, impact and community,” so who knows what Kerouac would have made out of that).
Find Your Beat Outdoors
Kerouac seemed to have his most productive writing periods when he was away from New York, away from his friends. Though he rarely ventured out onto the street during the day, he always found time for family, for shooting hoops with his nephew around Edgewater High School, and for enjoying the wildness of Florida.
After he’d left Orlando for good, he did his best to come back, designing a family compound that was to be built in Sanlando Springs, an idyllic little tourist attraction next to some natural springs. He loved the big trees, the clear water and the untouched forests.
The plans fell through, and those springs are now behind the wall of a gated community (Kerouac’s plot beneath Interstate 4), you can still get a feel of Old Florida at sites like De Leon Springs State Park, where the water is just as cold and clear, but development has been held at bay.
And if you get bored of Orlando, you can always do what Kerouac did: Throw a duffel bag over your shoulder, walk to the Orange Blossom Trail, and hitchhike to Mexico City.
And when that doesn’t work out, there will always be someone in Orlando to welcome you back.