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Author Jack Kerouac spends 63 days as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak in the summer of 1956.

HistoryLink.org Essay 8034 : Printer-Friendly Format

During the summer of 1956, author Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) spends 63 days as a U.S. Forest Service fire lookout on Desolation Peak in the Mount Baker National Forest in Whatcom County. Kerouac hopes to use the solitude to write, but he will be disappointed. His experiences in the Northwest and his journal entries will provide material for two novels: The Dharma Bums (1958) and Desolation Angels (1960).

Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac is best known as Jack Kerouac and for his On The Road (1957), which in 1956 had yet to be published. Inspired by a mountain-climbing trip in the Sierras with friends, Kerouac thought that a summer as a fire lookout away from people, drugs, and alcohol might help his writing. He managed a seasonal appointment as a fire lookout at the Mount Baker National Forest in Whatcom County for $230 a month. He hitchhiked from the San Francisco Bay Area through Seattle to the ranger station in Marblemount.

In The Dharma Bums he describes the journey this way:

"And suddenly I saw the Northwest was a great deal more than the little vision I had of it of Japhy in my mind. It was miles and miles of unbelievable mountains grooking on all horizons in the wild broken clouds, Mount Olympus and Mount Baker, a giant orange sash in the gloom over the Pacific-ward skies that led I knew toward the Hokkaido Siberian desolations of the world. I huddled against the bridgehouse hearing the Mark Twain talk of the skipper and the wheelman inside. In the deepened dusk fog ahead the big red neons saying: PORT OF SEATTLE. And suddenly everything Japhy had ever told me about Seattle began to seep into me like cold rain, I could feel it and see it now, and not just think it. It was exactly like he'd said: wet, immense, timbered, mountainous, cold, exhilarating, challenging. The ferry nosed in at the pier on Alaskan Way and immediately I saw the totem poles in old stores and the ancient 1880-style switch goat with sleepy firemen chug chugging up and down the waterfront spur like a scene from my old dreams, the old Casey Jones locomotive of American, the only one I ever saw that old outside of Western movies, but actually working and hauling boxcars in the smoky gloom of the magic city.

"Now I was beginning to see the Cascades on the northeast horizon, unbelievable jags and twisted rock and snow-covered immensities, enough to make you gulp. The road ran right through the dreamy fertile valleys of the Stilaquamish [Stillaguamish] and the Skagit, rich butterfat valleys with farms and cows browsing under that tremendous background of snow-pure heaps. The further north I hitched the bigger the mountains got till I finally began to feel afraid. I got a ride from a fellow who looked like a bespectacled careful lawyer in a conservative car, but turned out that he was the famous Bat Lindstrom the hardtop racing champion and his conservative automobile had in it a souped-up motor that could make it go a hundred and seventy miles an hour ...

"The fellows who picked me up were loggers, uranium prospectors, farmers, they drove me through the final big town of Skagit Valley, Sedro Woolley, a farming market town, and then out as the road got narrower and more curved among cliffs and the Skagit River, which we'd crossed on 99 as a dreaming belly river with meadows on both sides, was now a pure torrent of melted snow pouring narrow and fast between muddy snag shores. Cliffs began to appear on both sides. The snow-covered mountains themselves had disappeared, receded from my view, I couldn't see them any more but now I was beginning to feel them more" (The Dharma Bums, 222-223).

At Marblemout Kerouac received a week's training in fighting fires in June and started up the Skagit River with $45 worth of groceries (purchased on credit), to Diablo Dam, up the Seattle City Light incline lift, across Diablo Lake by boat, up to Ross Dam and Ross Lake, across Ross Lake by boat again, then by horseback with a ranger and a packer six miles up to Desolation Peak. His only contact with the outside world be through a two-way radio to the ranger station.

Kerouac found the reality of stunning panoramas, solitude, abstinence something less than the fantasy. Years later, a ranger who remembered Kerouac, complained that the writer would turn off the radio in order to write. But Kerouac apparently penned only one letter to his mother, some haiku poetry, and journal entries.

In September, Kerouac received a radio message that he was being recalled. He left the lookout the way he came up, hitchhiked to Seattle. He later wrote in Desolation Angels in his runon sentence style:

"The Seattle of ships -- ramps -- docks -- totem poles -- old locomotives switching on the waterfront -- steam, smoke -- Skid Row, bars -- Indians -- the Seattle of my boyhood vision I see there in the rusted old junkyard with old non color fence leaning in a general maze.

"I tell the busdriver to let me off downtown, I jump off and go klomping past City Halls and pigeons down to the general direction of the water where I know I'll find a good clean Skid Row room with bed and hot bath down the hall --

"I go all the way down to First Avenue and turn left, leaving the shoppers and the Seattleites behind, and lo! Here's all humanity hep and weird wandering on the evening sidewalk amazing me outta my eyeballs -- Indian girls in slacks, with Indian boys with Tony Curtis haircuts -- twisted -- arm in arm -- families of old Okie fame just parked their car in the lot, going down to the market for bread and meat -- Drunks -- The doors of bars I fly by incredible with crowded and waiting humanity, fingering drinks and looking up at the Johnny Saxton-Carmen Basilion fight on TV ...

"Hotel Stevens is an old clean hotel, you look in the big windows and see a clean tile floor and spittoons and old leather chairs and a clock talking and a silver-rimmed clerk in the cage -- $1.75 for one night, steep for Skid Row, but no bed bugs, that's important -- I buy my room and go up in the elevator with the gent, second floor, and get my room -- Throw my pack in the rocking chair, lay on the bed -- soft bed, clean sheets, reprieve and retreat till 1 p.m. checkout time tomorrow --

"A drinking and eating place is still showing the fight but also what attracts me (on the rosy blue neon-coming-on street) is a fellow in a vest carefully chalking out the day's baseball scores on a huge scoreboard, like old days -- I stand there watching" (Desolation Angels, 101-103).

Sources:
Ellis Amburn, Subterranean Kerouac: The Hidden Life of Jack Kerouac (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995), 239, 246-253; Michael J. Dittman, Jack Kerouac: A Biography, (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004), 69; Ann Charter, Kerouac: A Biography, (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1973), 266-278; Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums (New York: The Viking Press, [1958] 1973), 216-244; Jack Kerouac, Desolation Angels (New York: Perigree Books, 1960), 101-103.


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U.S. Forest Service lookout (1933), Desolation Peak, Mount Baker National Forest
Courtesy Pete Hoffman


Desolation Angels by Jack Kerouac (1965)



Commemorative postage stamp, Jack Kerouac
Courtesy U.S. Postal Service


 
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