Kerouac doesn't live here anymore: Finding a friend on Desolation Peak
Beat Generation author Jack Kerouac spent a summer in a fire lookout on Desolation Peak in the North Cascades in the 1950s. A recent visit found a very different caretaker there.
Special to The Seattle Times
From Interstate 5 in Skagit County, take Highway 20 east to the Ross Lake Dam trailhead near Milepost 134. Hike one mile down to the Ross Lake Resort access phone. Rent a boat or arrange a ferry to trailhead. Travel approximately 12 miles up the lake to Desolation Peak trailhead.
To access trailhead on foot, from Milepost 138 hike 16 miles along the East Bank Trail.
Boat rental from Ross Lake Resort (open mid-June through October) is $95 a day plus tax for a 14-foot boat with outboard; $30 for canoes, or $40 to $55 for kayaks; some discounts in June and October. For more info and other access options, see www.rosslakeresort.com or call 206-386-4437.
Required reading: "The Dharma Bums" and "Desolation Angels," by Jack Kerouac, and "Poets on the Peaks" by John Suiter.
For more trail information: www.nps.gov/noca/planyourvisit/desolation-peak-trail.htm.
Get a free (but mandatory) backcountry camping permit at the Wilderness Information Center in Marblemount. Call 360-854-7245 for directions and hours.
Northwest travel guides
Our engine sputtered. Then it died. I looked at my wife. She stared back. Perfect.
We were eight miles up remote Ross Lake with a lifeless two-stroke engine. Even on the hottest summer weekend of the year, we had passed a total of five boats — and three of them were canoes. We were dead in the water.
"Maybe a ranger will pass by," I said hopefully.
Surrounded by rugged North Cascade peaks on all sides, we felt the carbon karma for relying on 9.9 units of horsepower rather than two units of human power. With no cellphone reception or radios, we couldn't even update our Facebook status or Twitter for help.
Instead, I did what most clueless guys do and started pretending to examine the engine. After a thorough diagnosis, I told my wife, Bethanne, with a reasonable degree of confidence, "It's not working."
As a fan of silent sports, I would have much preferred a good, old-fashioned canoe or kayak on these holy waters. But this trip was different. We were on a mission. We were searching for Jack Kerouac.
Dotting the Cascades, historic fire lookouts were the early warning system for forest-fire crews. In the summer of 1956, Kerouac — the "Beat Generation" author — spent 63 days in the 14-by-14-foot shack on top of the North Cascades' 6,102-foot Desolation Peak (referenced in "The Dharma Bums," "Desolation Angels," and "The Lonesome Traveler"). He scribbled in his notebook. He meditated. He smoked cigarettes — a lot of them.
Although the climb to the top of Desolation Peak isn't terribly hard if you can handle four miles of unrelenting steep switchbacks, just getting to the fjordlike waters of Ross Lake is an exercise in logistics.
Kerouac hitchhiked. We drove a Ford wagon. After passing what Kerouac aptly described as the "rich butterfat valleys" of the Stillaguamish and the Skagit rivers, you can portage a boat from Diablo Lake, hike down from Highway 20 via Ross Lake Dam or East Bank Trail, take the Diablo Lake Ferry, or drive around to the north end of the lake near Hope, B.C., and launch a boat. And don't forget to pick up your backcountry permit at the Marblemount Ranger Station for one of the free boat-in camping sites along the lake. It's a little complicated, OK.
For the sake of economy and allowing more time for the climb, we opted for the hike down from Highway 20 and a boat rental from Ross Lake Resort.
After serving our powerboat penance through 20 minutes of desperate cord pulling and throttle gunning, we were able to limp the boat to the Desolation Peak trailhead approximately 12 miles up the lake. Wasting no time, we hoofed it up the lonely path, which starts climbing almost immediately from the boat dock. The only other hikers we passed were a sickeningly fit, middle-aged French Canadian couple in matching gear coming down the mountain.
Ascending through the lower-elevation forest for two hours, we finally hit the upper meadow that afforded views of the surrounding valleys and miles of unbelievable mountains "grooking" on all horizons — Kerouac occasionally made up words.
When we finally topped out at the peak, I expected an empty lookout similar to most of the decommissioned fire lookouts in the country. Instead, a tattooed man with a Marine haircut smiled and opened the door.
"Welcome to the Desolation fire lookout," he said.
In a stroke of luck, North Cascades National Park Superintendent Chip Jenkins happened to be on the summit, too, with his wife and two young sons. Daniel Otero, the lookout, was as surprised as we were, and slightly embarrassed about his crisp laundry hanging neatly on a line off the back of the historic structure.
Rather than finding a feral artist scrawling existential manuscripts in his lonely lookout, we were surprised to learn that Otero was a proud Marine reservist who had already served two tours in Iraq with an artillery unit. He hasn't read much Kerouac — just a couple of chapters — and he shaves every day.
Kind and soft-spoken, Otero immediately invited us inside and showed us his digs for the summer. He demonstrated how to use the Osborne Fire Finder, an instrument used to locate coordinates of possible fires. The war may still be lingering in Iraq, but Otero might as well be on a different planet. Working on a natural-resources degree in Spokane, he applied for the job to fulfill a program requirement, and was chosen from more than 70 applicants. Actually, it was Jenkins who hired him — and this was their first face-to-face meeting. Jenkins brought peanut-butter bars and a puppy named Rocket.
Otero was 34 — the same age as Kerouac in 1956. They slept on the same rope-framed bed ("to avoid lightning strikes"). They both lived under the intimidating twin-peaked hulk of Hozomeen Mountain, dominating the view at 8,066 feet.
But while Kerouac longed for enlightenment, a liquor store and women, Otero had one thing on his mind when we asked about the hardships of lonely living on a harsh mountaintop: food.
More specifically, meat — lots of it. Oh, and a shower.
"I experimented with sponge bathing, but it just isn't the same," he said with a laugh. Side note: He looked markedly cleaner than many a college student with ample access to running water.
Also, unlike Kerouac, he could stomach returning to his guard shack among the clouds for another summer. When asked if he would do it again, he didn't hesitate: "Definitely."
But if you happen to be planning a trip to the historic lookout on Desolation Peak — Otero's there until late September — for God's sake, bring the man a hamburger.
John Kinmonth is a Seattle-based freelance writer.