Following in the Washington footsteps of Jack Kerouac
Hiking up to the Desolation Peak fire lookout in the North Cascades, where Beat Generation author Jack Kerouac spent the summer of 1956.
The New York Times
I passed through a stand of fir and out onto the bare ridge, and there it was: the squat white structure where Jack Kerouac spent 63 days as a fire lookout in the summer of 1956. I had assumed that the Desolation Peak lookout would be empty, a silent monument to the Voice of the Beat Generation. But the shutters were propped open on all four sides, the door was ajar, and inside a small, seated silhouette was visible against the hazy late-afternoon sky.
I grew giddy as the figure stood and came into the doorway. Surely this was Kerouac's spiritual brother, a man uniquely qualified to speak about the solitary days and nights that inspired major portions of "Desolation Angels," "The Dharma Bums" and "Lonesome Traveler." A compact man with dark hair, he introduced himself as Daniel Otero, a Marine reservist who had served two tours of duty in Iraq. Kerouac, I remembered, was 34 during his time on Desolation Peak and did stints in the Navy and the merchant marine.
Otero, who had been up there all summer and was leaving in only a few days, invited me into the shack, which felt like the cabin of a ship with its desk, kitchen, bed and astrolabe-like fire-finder tool all squeezed into the single, tiny room. My eyes latched onto the corner bookshelf lined with Kerouac paperbacks. We made small talk for a few minutes before I finally asked about Otero's famous predecessor. He took a deep breath, obviously having gotten the question before. "I tried, but ... " he said, gesturing toward the books. Those books, I now realized, did not belong to Kerouac's spiritual brother. They looked new, untouched, as if they had just come out of an Amazon box. "Me and that guy just don't see eye-to-eye."
I knew exactly how he felt. For my college graduation, my uncle gave me a copy of "On the Road" with the heartfelt wish that I would find it as life-changing as he had. I was a likely candidate to do so: avid traveler, a student of English and political science in college and, later, a writer. Instead, I found Kerouac's "masterpiece" rambling and frivolous; it took me two years to get through it.
But Kerouac's hold on the public imagination has only seemed to grow in my lifetime. Two new film versions of his books are due soon, including one of "On the Road" with Kristen Stewart on Dec. 21 and another of "Big Sur," with Josh Lucas and Kate Bosworth, which does not currently have a release date.
When I moved to Seattle last year, I started hearing about Desolation Peak. Ten years older than the last time I read him, I decided to give Kerouac's "spontaneous prose" another shot; I picked up a biography and the relevant novels, organized a few friends for a fall weekend and set out for the North Cascades.
The nice part about the Desolation Peak hike is that it can be as easy or as hard as you please. The trailhead is about three hours from Seattle, and day hikers can pay for a boat ride up Ross Lake to the base of the mountain from Ross Lake Resorts; the lakeside camp at nearby Lightning Creek offers the option to tack on a night in the wilderness. But for those looking to sleep atop Kerouac's mountain, as we planned to do, the price of admission is steep: a 3,500-foot climb carrying all the water you will need for the next day (not to mention camping gear), as Desolation Peak is bone-dry once the snowfields melt in August.
And although Kerouac himself got boat rides both ways, my wife, buddies and I opted to go farther and hike in from the highway, taking the boat only on the return trip. After all, Kerouac had two months in the northwestern woods; even with the extra mileage (almost 30 for the whole trip) we would have only three days.
The first day we hiked 16 miles across slopes of sword ferns and Oregon grape shrubs, stopping occasionally to peer into the clear depths of Ross Lake, whose contours we followed. But pretty views don't make 16 miles any shorter, and we stumbled into Lightning Creek Camp with feet in full rebellion.
Many people forget that the publication of "On the Road" in 1957 came almost a decade after the events that inspired it. In the summer of 1956, Kerouac was still an anonymous wandering soul looking for truth in America's boxcars, bars and wildernesses. Nature as a subject was new to him, having been introduced to hiking and the mountains by his brief but intense friendship with the Buddhist poet Gary Snyder, an experience recounted in "The Dharma Bums." Snyder was a Pacific Northwest native who himself had twice been a fire lookout in the Cascades; it was he who suggested the Desolation posting to Kerouac.
Kerouac arrived at the base of Desolation by boat on a wet July morning and rode up the mountain in his poncho, a "shroudy monk on a horse" with mules carrying the supplies. For our hike, we were the mules. Although hundreds of people a day hike up Desolation Peak every summer, according to Otero, fewer than a half dozen groups stay at Desolation Camp, one mile down the ridge from the summit with many of the same views. I can't blame them; with the extra water our packs weighed over 40 pounds. But the reward was having Kerouac's mountain to ourselves.
I especially couldn't wait to see Hozomeen, the unbelievably symmetrical, four-peaked prominence to the north. "Hozomeen, Hozomeen, most beautiful mountain I ever seen," Kerouac wrote.
The peak was his constant companion, his friend and tormentor. "Stark naked rock, pinnacles and thousand feet high protruding from immense timbered shoulders ... awful vaulty blue smokebody rock."
The mile-long climb up the ridge brought ever grander views of fjord-like Ross Lake and moody Jack Mountain 7,000 feet above. At a couple of points, snatches of Hozomeen were visible, but it wasn't until we were in calling distance of the lookout tower that we felt the mountain's full impact. It wasn't much for elevation at 8,071 feet — only 2,000 above Desolation — but, oh my, Hozomeen wasn't human-looking, but rather monstrous. Kerouac frequently connected it to the Abominable Snowman, but to me it looked like the back of some Cascadian dragon, wings folded as it waited until night to hunt.
Taking full advantage of our nearby camp, we stayed up on the mountaintop until almost dark, drinking in one of Desolation's "mad raging sunsets pouring in sea foams of cloud through unimaginable crags like the crags you grayly drew in pencil as a child, with every rose-tint of hope beyond" ("Lonesome Traveler"). We hustled down the ridge in the windy dusk and zipped into our sleeping bags.
As the night was fine, we slept in the open beneath a black blanket of sky pierced with winking stars. When I started planning this trip, I had imagined this night as my last chance to "get" the Beat writer. But in reality, I was already a Kerouac convert. Not to his writing — the guy needed an editor after Desolation Peak possibly more than he needed a bath — but to the story of his life, as recounted in Dennis McNally's biography and other places. It reads like a classical tragedy, or at least a high-minded Hollywood screenplay: a sensitive young man seeks truth in order to change his world; he doesn't find that truth, not in any real, sustained way, but his quest makes him famous and inspires a generation to follow in his footsteps, even as he cannot cope with his fame and drinks himself to death.
Three months after Kerouac came down from Desolation he learned that Viking would finally publish "On the Road" — ostensibly his greatest triumph, but in reality the beginning of his end. Kerouac's time on the mountain was a literal and figurative apex for him, his last truth-seeking adventure before he was transformed by the hostile media into first a caricature of himself, and later a shadow.