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Sierra Magazine
Rolling Towards the Moon

Jack Kerouac's Last Great Adventure

by John Suiter

A book from an unlikely source gave an incalculable boost to the staid conservation movement of the 1950s. Jack Kerouac's The Dharma Bums, a celebration of backcountry, Buddhism, and the San Francisco poetry renaissance, was published in 1958. The book's main character, Japhy Ryder, was a prototypical green culture hero, whose guiding influences were John Muir, John Burroughs, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, and Russian anarchist and naturalist Peter Kropotkin.

The fictional Japhy was closely modeled on the real-life poet Gary Snyder, whom Kerouac had met in Berkeley in 1955. A grad student at the University of California, Snyder spent summers in the Pacific Northwest working as a fire lookout, logger, and trail-crew hand-"like a migratory bird going north in summer and returning south in winter," by his own description. Kerouac was tremendously impressed with Snyder, not only by his verses, but by his varied interests, which included Native American cultures and oral literature, Tang Dynasty Chinese poets, the Wobblies, folksinging, mountaineering, skiing, and Zen meditation.

"As seen from Starvation Ridge, Desolation Peak is like a Chinese mountain with pointy firs and gray rocks and a cute round point with the little Pagoda Lookout on top—it looked like a dreaming meadow mount when first seen from the lake below, but when climbed it was an inaccessible world parapet." —from Kerouac's unpublished Desolation journal

Snyder was also outspokenly political, calling for a nonviolent reclamation of America by the young, to be touched off by a joyous hitchhiking and camping rebellion. In one of the book's most prophetic passages, Kerouac describes Japhy's dream of "a world of . . . dharma bums refusing to subscribe to the general demand that they consume, work, produce, consume. . . . I see a vision of a great rucksack revolution, thousands or even millions of young Americans . . . going up to the mountains."

At that point — October 1955 — Kerouac had never been up to the mountains himself. For all his transcontinental questing, he was East Coast urban to the bone, having lived most of his adult life in New York City, and before that, in his red-brick hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts. Snyder introduced Kerouac to the high country of the West, taking him up the 12,000-foot-high Matterhorn Peak in Yosemite National Park for his first hike (Kerouac in sneakers), later outfitting him in Oakland army-surplus stores and showing him how to camp out north of San Francisco.

Snyder also encouraged Kerouac to apply to the U.S. Forest Service for a fire lookout job in Washington in Mt. Baker National Forest. Kerouac took Snyder's advice and was hired for the summer of 1956 to man Desolation Lookout, a remote Forest Service station in what is now North Cascades National Park, just south of the Canadian border.

Kerouac's fire season proved fortuitous, from a literary point of view. Desolation furnished the spiritual climax of The Dharma Bums, and gave him the title and finest chapters of his book Desolation Angels, a long essay in Lonesome Traveler, and a dozen poetic choruses in his posthumous Book of Blues. Kerouac went to Desolation on his own lone spiritual quest, certainly not as an "environmentalist"-even if the term had existed then. Yet, as mythographer, Kerouac's contribution was not insignificant. A dozen years after the publication of The Dharma Bums, when the nation's commons swarmed with Japhyesque ecology radicals on Earth Day 1970, more than a few had well-thumbed copies of the book stashed in their backpacks.

In print Kerouac was reticent about his own politics, but he could not resist a swipe at the Forest Service, which he considered an arrogant and hypocritical bureaucracy. While he respected many of the longtime rangers who trained him at fire school and packed him to his lookout, calling them "old forestry boddhisattvas," Kerouac slammed the agency itself in Desolation Angels as "a front for the lumber interests . . . the net result of the whole thing being, what with Scott Paper Tissue and such companies logging out the woods year after year with the 'cooperation' of the Forest Service . . . people all over the world are wiping their ass with these beautiful trees."

Kerouac admired the stamina and nerve of the firefighters and smoke jumpers, but guffawed at the competitive egos of his fellow lookouts, who considered a smoke "theirs" if they happened to spot it. He questioned the whole effort to stomp out a natural process that he saw as unstoppable and ultimately beneficial. "What American individual loses when a forest burns," he asked, "and what did Nature do about it for a million years up until now?"

The quotations on these pages are from Kerouac's unpublished Desolation journal. I took the photographs during a two-week volunteer fire watch in the summer of 1995. From the rugged 6,000-foot summit, Kerouac's lookout from The Dharma Bums still beckons, only slightly worse for wear after four decades of howling Cascades winters. The view, thanks to national-park and wilderness designations in 1968 and 1988, remains essentially unchanged from Kerouac's time-a cyclorama of glaciers and blue mountains flowing to the horizons in every direction.

"A mad sunset pouring in sea foams of cloud through unimaginable crags, with every rose tint of no-hope beyond, I feel just like it, brilliant and bleak beyond words—pow—" —from Kerouac's unpublished Desolation journal

The lookout itself is also pretty much the same. It still has no electricity, no running water, no indoor toilet-and no television, as I had to explain to the jaw-dropping amazement of some of the younger kids who came by. At night it is illuminated by candlelight and Coleman lantern. Water for washing and drinking comes from the bracing mountaintop snow, hauled up from winter's last drifts and melted down in a battered old tin basin, possibly the same one Kerouac used.

For all that remains unchanged, Desolation is not exactly the same. After all, despite the awesome beauty of the place, the essence of Kerouac's experience here was not about scenery but solitude. At the time the area around Desolation was part of the Mt. Baker Primitive Area-"primitive" being what the Forest Service called unprotected roadless areas. It took Kerouac three days by truck, tug-barge, and muleback to get to his mountaintop from the ranger station in Marblemount.

Today the lookout is roughly a day's journey from downtown Seattle. In his 63 days on the peak, Kerouac never saw another person; his sole human contact was with the radio voices of his fellow fire watchers calling from their own lonely mountaintops. Nowadays on Desolation hardly three or four days pass without at least one hiker trudging up the trail. Summer weekends can bring dozens, many of them on literary pilgrimages.

For Kerouac, his Desolation summer was the culminating experience of several bitter years of disillusioned wandering and spiritual reckoning. Although he spent much of his solitude wrestling inner demons and angels, his mountain hermitage ultimately provided him with the last period of relative peace in his life, his last months of obscurity, and a final measure of badly needed sobriety. Though he would live another 13 years, his lookout stint was, sadly, also Kerouac's last great adventure -- nothing he would ever do or write about again would be as worthy of his soulful literary enthusiasms as his fire season on the mountaintop. As he wrote at the conclusion of The Dharma Bums: "Desolation, Desolation, I owe so much to Desolation."


The Desolation Peak lookout that inspired Kerouac's imagination is still surrounded by wildlands, thanks to dedicated environmentalists. For more than a decade, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups, including The Mountaineers, the Federation of Western Outdoor Clubs, and the North Cascades Conservation Council, fought for protection of these lands.

In the mid-1950s David Brower and Howard Zahniser, heads of the Sierra Club and The Wilderness Society respectively, toured the area with photographer Philip Hyde. Not long after, the park crusade was on their organizations' national agendas, and photos of the "American Alps" appeared in the national media.

In 1965 the Sierra Club published The Wild Cascades: Forgotten Parkland by Harvey Manning, with photographs by Ansel Adams. In the same year a Sierra Club film celebrating the area's forests and glaciers was shown to civic groups across the country and aired many times on television. "Brower would say, 'Now that you've seen it, you've got to do something to save it,' " says Patrick Goldsworthy, a founder of the Club's Pacific Northwest Chapter. "It wasn't just a scenic film. It was a political one."

The book, the film, and a petition for the park signed by 22,000 locals put the effort over the top in 1968, when Congress passed legislation to establish North Cascades National Park, which includes Kerouac's beloved Desolation lookout. —Tom Lombardo


John Suiter is a Boston-based freelance photographer and writer. All excerpts from Kerouac's unpublished Desolation journal are copyrighted and used by the generous permission of John Sampas, executor of the estate of Jack and Stella Kerouac.

(C) 2000 Sierra Club. Reproduction of this article is not permitted without permission. Contact sierra.magazine@sierraclub.org for more information.


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