“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow Roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars, and in the middle, you see the blue center-light pop, and everybody goes ahh…”
from On the Road
I was six years old when Jack Kerouac hitchhicked to my hometown Mount Vernon Washington, took a right hand turn and headed up to Marblemount. He had secured a job with the Mount Baker National Forest Service as a fire lookout in the North Cascades on Desolation peak. He salary was $230.00a month. He thought this 63 day experience would be good for him…away from the drugs and the booze. September 6, 1956, I stood on the gravel driveway of my parent’s farm. My mother snapped a photo of me with my Roy Rodgers and Dale Evans metal lunchpail in hand. I was facing east toward Mount Baker and desolation peak. Kerous could look down on the Skagit valley from his fire post. At the time I was not aware of him but he influenced a generation of writers who were forever changed by his writing.
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:
“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).
If Kerouac had lived beyond the age 47 he might have traveled to Asia. His friend a Gary Snyder had adopted Buddhism and would have pulled him back into the fold. Unfortunately Kerouac drank himself to death in Florida.
I am a son of Kerouac. All of us are his children born after WWII. Whether we knew him or not whether we stood at the foot of the Cascade mountains in 1956 or lived in an East Coast concrete jungle he looked down upon us and we were influenced by the world he created.