Coke Newell on his autobiographical novel ‘On the Road to Heaven’

By now most AMV readers have heard of Coke Newell’s “On the Road to Heaven.” Reviews and news releases are good, but I’m pleased to post something that may convince you to give it a try — an essay on the novel by the author. Newell is a former PR flack so the thing has some salesmanship going on, but I liked it because it captures much of the humor and tone and uniqueness of the work itself. “On the Road to Heaven” is available, of course, from Zarahemla Books.

A Bohemian Rhapsody from the New Mormon Trail: Some thoughts on “On the Road to Heaven”

by Coke Newell

This is a love story, about a girl and a guy and their search for heaven. The guy is me, and the story is mine. The risks of telling it are great.

You see, where I go with this story is right into the middle of the modern Mormon experience, the intimate realities of a journey into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, one of the world’s fastest growing and most morally conservative faiths. But the course the story follows will surely make a number of people nervous, for I am a convert to the faith and this is a story of change.

You have to understand that most stories that end up on purpose in Salt Lake City, Utah–world headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints–have been stories written by insiders for insiders; stories that started somewhere out in the bad, bad world, where a perpetual path of full-blown faith and honorable enterprise led men and women of perfect virtue to sacrifice home and homeland, status and stability, family and friends in their striving to live worthy of the Kingdom of God.

Well, mine’s kind of like that, except that it starts out in a canvas tipi and wanders through the Panama Red realities of the Colorado hippie heyday and the wooded wonders of Yasgur’s farm on its way to faith and faithfulness. This is not the kind of story that will be found in great quantity in the public annals of Mormonism. Nor in small quantity. Stories like this one “just aren’t talked about” among the Old Guard.

Or are they?

When I discovered, investigated, and then came into the Mormon faith as an eighteen-year-old flower child wearing hand-stitched denim moccasins and a weasel-skull necklace, I was walking wounded and worried. I’d been around the block, so to speak. Not that I had intended to go around the block, I just hadn’t known where else to go.

I was raised in a very literary home, if not a religious one, and books became my road map and my salvation. Along the way I discovered a few characters in literature who mirrored how I felt, what I was doing, and why; the first two were Sal Paradise and Ray Smith. These were the pseudonymous characterizations of author Jack Kerouac, who once described his real-life ramblings as those of “goodhearted kids in pain of soul doing wild things out of desperation.”1 The specific details of Kerouac’s life would become known to me through his “autobiographical novels”–especially On the Road and The Dharma Bums, the former published the year before I was born and the latter published the same year I was born. When I discovered them, these books had long since inadvertently launched an entire cultural phenomenon, a societal tidal wave known as the beatnik generation, a generation and a culture that would scare the bejeebers out of everyone in America who was never a part of it.

Yet while Kerouac’s friend John Clellon Holmes would years later admit that Kerouac and his closest associates “seemed to trespass most boundaries, legal and moral,” he would also say that “it was only in the hope of finding a belief on the other side.” And then make this claim: “The specific object of their quest was spiritual.”2

That’s a claim, frankly, that even many devoted Kerouac readers have ignored and the great majority of Kerouac nonreaders have outright rejected. Which is only to say, after all, that they simply haven’t walked that road.

After finding Kerouac, I found others, among them Saul of Tarsus in the Bible and, late in the game, two young men in the Book of Mormon, one named Alma and one named Lamoni. Young men who had made big mistakes, taken improbable, perhaps even impeachable roads to honor, and then found a God who was willing and able to make his own judgments regarding the merits of their case.

I met each of them in turn and said, “Thank God for God.”

There are Latter-day Saints who can count five, seven, even nine generations in the church. Most are very fond of telling the story of great-great granddad, who heard Mormon missionaries preach on a street corner in St. Louis in 1837, accepted their message, and got his house burned and his milk cow shot for doing so. And who then continued to get plundered and driven all over the Midwest with another 20,000 Latter-day Saints for the next ten years until those who were still alive said, “To hell with the Land of the Free” and headed west, walking 1,300 miles in their socks to Mexican territory, the Rocky Mountain Great Basin, where they established Great Salt Lake City and finally found some semblance of refuge.

And those are great stories. Amazing stories.

But they’re not really theirs, and they’re certainly not mine.

Of the twelve-and-a-half-million Latter-day Saints alive in the year 2007, 71 percent of us are first-generation converts. We honor those early Mormon pioneers, and we like those stories from the historic Mormon Trail. Nay, we love those stories–we read them again and again, we read them to our second-generation Mormon kids during family home evening, we recite them from memory and cry every time.

But they’re not our story, and our story has value. To our kids. To ourselves. To other seekers of faith and meaning. Maybe even to the church we love, although I have to admit not a small amount of reticence at being one of the few to ever test that particular premise in national publication. Few, at least, since Alma and Lamoni.

And what is that value? That God can be found, and that personal faith can make for a better life. A satisfying life. A meaningful life. Which is just my point: some of us didn’t start out perfect. Those who want to read about people who were wrapped in silk and platinum right out of the box will just have to buy a different book.

So what’s the setup of this story?

It’s wooded, thankfully.

I grew up with no religious faith and no religious heritage. I grew up with mountains and lodgepole pine sap running through my veins. My parents’ home at 10,000 feet elevation in central Colorado gave me all the heritage and inspiration I needed. For a while.

Lonely walks when no cars were in sight up the winding dirt road that climbed from the nearest paved highway to my house–seven miles–gave me plenty of time to think and plenty of clean air to do it with. But somewhere along the way, I wanted more; I wanted answers. Was life meaningful? Did I have a purpose? Was there anything beyond the rigors of my sojourn here? And I wanted to do good. I became a vegetarian when I was fourteen. I collected aluminum cans along the highways to finance my shoestring journeys by thumb around the back roads of America during my mid-teen years. Ratty-haired, Lynyrd Skynyrd wannabe that I was, I helped little old ladies across the street and contemplated no shame greater than embarrassing my mom in front of one of her friends.

I set my course by the Tao Te Ching, Black Elk, and Ram Dass. Along the way I began piecing together my own personal image of a very puzzling god with chunks of Taoism and Buddhism and Christian Science and Native American thought. Committing myself to a tee-totaling Dharma Bum existence, I rejected keggers with friends in the city for a quiet night alone in the old nine-by-fourteen log cabin two friends and I had discovered and then restored on the ridge leading up to Black Mountain (called Mount Kolob in my novel). The three of us called ourselves, after a popular underground comic of the day, the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. There we would read, and walk the woods, and wonder.

And then there was The Girl.

Ahhh, the girl. She came in from the snow, and she went out with the cold west wind.

But together, in the meantime, we were bona-fide mountain people. And mountain people, I have learned through experience, need explaining.

Mountain people are not your typical country folk. Mountain folk spend a lot more time laying in wood for the winter–felling, dragging, chopping, and stacking–than they do stretching their barbed wire or branding their beasts. In fact, mountain people like to cut barbed wire, uproot the fence posts, and let the coyotes have at it. Mountain people don’t have lawns or streetlights. Or streets.

Colorado mountain youth in the 1970s single-handedly put Celestial Seasonings teas, Mountain High ice cream, and Barbara’s Fruit and Nut Muffins on the cultural and economic map. Those who could were usually bearded. We wore a lot of flowery cloth patches on our overalls. Real mountain people let the wilderness dictate the shape of their house (our roof had a 6/12 pitch to shed the 400 inches of annual snow, for instance), the lay of their potato patch (ours went around the aspen trees, which we never disturbed), the size of their dog (poodles and Pomeranians being bedtime snacks for bears).

people let the land lead, the weather prescribe, the wind entertain. Some, certainly not all, chose to live weeks at a time alone in an old, abandoned USDA beekeeping station at 10,000 feet elevation, just to see if we could. We’d line a rock crevice with pine boughs and spend a couple of nights just to see how it went. We’d put on 85-pound packs and cross-country ski across the Continental Divide at 13,000 feet against a wind chill factor of minus 130 (according to the national ski patrolman who first saw us coming out of the woods on the upper slopes of Winter Park), primarily because the view was so good from that elevation. We’d free climb the 170 vertical feet of Colorado’s Ship Rock bare-footed because that was most likely the way some Native American once did it. (One. Once. Maybe.)

just part of the culture, part of the breed, to choose things like solitude.

Altitude.

Religion.

In a two-week whirlwind Pentecost during the spring of 1976, one of the “brothers” returned to his Christian Science roots, the other took up residence, spiritually and physically, in a twelve-foot tipi of his own crafting, and I became a Mormon, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The naive vigor of youth freshly reborn eventually cost me both friendships.

And The Girl. Ahhh, the girl.

The traditional story of Mormonism, the one in which an estimated 7,000 men, women, and children lost their lives in the driving, the plundering, and on the long Mormon Trail to their remote Zion in the Salt Lake Valley of Utah, is an incredible story, a valuable story, an indelible drama seemingly without parallel or precedent in American history or literature. Yet a parallel exists. It is the contiguous story of the Mormon convert experience, two journeys to the same end.

Different trails, same reasons.I’ve only been down one of them, after all. This is the story of the trail I walked.

Notes:

1. Letter written January 1958, cited in The Atlantic Monthly, Nov. 1998, p. 60.
2. Cited on p. XXIX of the Introduction to On the Road by Ann Charters

18 thoughts on “Coke Newell on his autobiographical novel ‘On the Road to Heaven’”

  1. Wow, Coke. Fun! As a convert myself, raised in rural VA where I spent most of my formative years playing in the woods and fields with all the lovely critters, I found the Rocky Mountain high part of your novel especially engaging.

    It’s really bugged me at times that the convert narrative has been largely overlooked or missing in LDS lit. I find _On the Road to Heaven_ a respectable leap toward rectifying that problem.

    For AMV’s readers, here’s the blurb I wrote after reading Coke Newell’s _On the Road to Heaven_ pre-production:

    Finally, a candid novel that breaks the narrative trail for the other pioneers in LDS history–first generation converts to the church–people who have often crossed their own social and spiritual Great Plains questing for the meaning of life. Coke Newell’s engaging and enjoyable autobiography _On the Road to Heaven_ opens the discussion with passion and commitment, even if it doesn’t always make for the holiest company in the “spiritually uplifting” category of Mormon lit. Converts of the world, who came to the church from colorful and outrageous pasts, rejoice! Here is somebody who’s tellin’ it like it was, without apology and without regrets. On the Road to Heaven is a tale of spiritual adventure, sacrifice, and change-the-world energy to rival any turned out by the BIC crowd.

  2. Is it possible to mail correspondence to Mr. Newell? I am in need of his assistance, if possible. I have a simple 2 page letter explaining an anthropological/archeological discovery with potential to significantly effect the written history of ancient man in America. Please help. Thank you.

  3. Justin:

    I don’t have contact info for Coke Newell. And even if I did, AMV is not in the business of facilitating non-literary-related communication — which, judging by your comment, is what you’ve got. I suggest that if you want to publicize your discoveries, you go the standard route of trying to publish with one of the credible journals in the field. And if that fails, set up your own Web site to publish your fidnings.

    ~Wm

  4. .

    In Six Billion Years, Coke claimed the pioneer story as his own; here he claims no connection to it.

    Disconnect.

    I can imagine explanations, but if you stop by Brother Newell, I’m curious to hear your explanation.

  5. .

    (Note: That comment was not intended to sound combative. In fact, I fully intend to buy both those books–the new one soon–I’m just curious.)

  6. Th…

    Thanks for reading either or both, “On the Road to Heaven” and “Latter Days: A Guided Tour Through Six Billion Years of Mormonism.”

    I am, of course, a first-generation convert with no blood linkage to the traditional Mormon story, pioneers, etc. The comment you refer to in “Latter Days” of claiming the 19th Century pioneer experience as my own must be explained as one of adoption: those who sacrificed so greatly kept the faith alive so that those of us who came later could find it, accept it, and hold fast to it.

    I think I probably share the same conviction with most converts with any knowledge of the “old” story. We cherish that “traditional” story of Mormonism both on its own merits… a great and instructive era of amazing faith and courage… and for its bequeathment: the Church stayed alive long enough for us to find it.

  7. Patricia:

    Thanks again for your kind and entertaining comments re OTR2H.

  8. .

    Yes, I remembered that–didn’t come across in my rather, mm, reticent comment, but yes. I guess it’s just that of all the lines in 6by, that one has stuck with me the most (by far) and so the difference here was all the more striking.

    Thanks for commenting back.

  9. Hi Coke,
    I just finished “On the Road to Heaven” Wow! What a beautiful love story and honest missionary narrative. You’ve written the best LDS book I’ve read in a long time! Don’t sell the movie rights to someone who wants to make a cute “Mormon Niche market” movie. If properly communicated, the emotions you described so well are a major film. Warm bus seats getting a nun pregant and talking in English to your Parker pen to scare off a gang wanting to give you a beating had me laughing so hard tears rolled down my cheeks. With your honesty, you captured the reality of the hardships that change a boy to a man in two short years.

  10. Just finished the book. It is actually everyone’s story ( whether we would admit it or not)no matter how many generatiions we are LDS. We should all write a book ourselves..just as honestly and respectfully and gratefully. More for ourselves and our desperate need to see ourselves. Then we should make copies for our children. And let them read it too..for understanding. When all have read it, we should gather together as a clan, build a bonfire and throw in all our copies….and let it go.
    Just as many indian tribes would take their teepee’s and clothes and baskets, etc from the year before and burn them in a giant celebration to their new year’s harvest, then put on new clothes and sleep in their new home.
    As second generationers, my husband and I need all the generations and they need us. Thank you for your story…thank you SO much. It is our story, it is our sons’ story. Reading it has brought back the past and connected me better to the future through understanding better the experience of our sons as they have stepped forward as 19 year old carnal young men and set aside their natural man daily to do their 24/7 bit for the kingdom of heaven.

    Kay and Mac Giblette

  11. Hey Coke,
    Do you remember riding our bikes through the burbs of Lakewood and Golden durning the wee hours of the morning? Getting “busted” by your Dad when we got back?

  12. I just finished reading “On the Road to Heaven”. I couldn’t put it down. It grabbed my soul and drew me along, through the mountains, on the road, through the conversion, and on to South America and back. I’m inspired and uplifted. Yes, those of us who have been seekers and finally converts are still pioneers in our own right, don’t you think? In my case, I lost my family, then regained it some years later. My second-generation son left the church, then returned, having had to find out for himself that it was all true.

    Thank you for your story. I am curious, though. Except for names, how much of the story was fiction and how much autobiography?

  13. Joy:

    Thanks for your comments — I’m glad you liked it. I don’t personally know detail by detail, but I do know that Coke has said that much of it is indeed autobiographical.

  14. Someone needs to fact check Mr. Newell’s claims about growing up in the mountains of Colorado. He was raised in what is now the city of Lakewood, CO. His parents moved to the mountains while he was high school. Why hide the truth of his upbringing? Does living in the suburbs of Denver for 16yrs equate with “I grew up with mountains and lodgepole pine running through my veins”? NO. Perhaps the fact he spent most of his HS yrs stoned explains his memory lapses.

  15. Do you have any further publications. Love your insights. How did working for the Mormon church strengthen your testimony?

  16. I LOVED, LOVED, LOVED this book! So much that I bought a copy for my son, who will also love this book, as his heart is similar to yours, although he grew up in the wilds of Detroit. I also wrote a modern (sort of) convert novel about my own mom, who had to escape Nazi Austria through considerable sturm-und-drang to follow her belief in the Gospel. (ANGELS ROUND ABOUT). So there are a few modern pioneer stories out there, and they are amazing!

    Thanks for yours! I’m also reading “Six Billion Years of Mormonism” and loving it. Your prose is FUN to read. I hope I can find your “Cow Chips” book. Zarahemla is out of everything.

  17. I read Coke Newell’s Smashwords book “On The Road To Heaven” while I was writing my Smashwords book “Why Is Marijuana Illegal.” I searched for the tag “LSD” and Newell’s book was one of the ones that came up. My book talks about an LSD experience, and I wanted to see if other Americans of my general age-group had been profoundly influenced by this drug.

    I would like to send Coke Newell a free copy of my book. I guess I am promoting my book, but aside from that I think he might find it interesting since there is a religious dimension. If you could give me an e-mail address where I reach him I will have Smashwords send him what he needs to obtain a free copy. Otherwise he can purchase the book for $1. Sincerely, Kendra Blewitt

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