The Beat Generation in Whatcom County: Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and the North Cascades –

Posted: October 11, 2019 at 4:46 pm

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The Beat Generation included some of the most influential,controversial, and celebrated writers of the twentieth century. Jack Kerouac,Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs were among many whose experimentalwriting inspired the 1950s and 60s counterculture. In Whatcom County, literaryhistory and local history converge on Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyders time asNorth Cascades firewatchers.

Born in 1922, Jack Kerouac most famously wrote On the Road , an autobiographical novelabout his and Neal Cassadys countrywide adventures. The Dharma Bums and DesolationAngels recount Kerouacs firewatcher job from summer 1956just one yearbefore On the Roads publication.Kerouac passed away in 1969 due to alcoholism, but his influence lives on.Notably, he coined the term Beat Generation and wrote spontaneous prosenonstopsentences that flow like breath, as in jazz and meditation.

Born in 1930, Gary Snyder won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetryin 1975 for Turtle Island. Snyderspent his early life mainly in King County and Oregon which, along with ZenBuddhism, inspired his poetrys natural emphasis. He was really the first sortof poet-environmentalist, with the exception of, say, John Muir or Thoreau,says literary scholar and Western WashingtonUniversity professor Christopher Wise.

Although brief, these writers North Cascades adventureshave inspired similar excursions by many of their readers.

Gary Snyder was a firewatcher at Crater Mountainin 1952 and SourdoughMountain in 1953. He convinced fellow poet Philip Whalen to become afirewatcher, and kept a journal published in Earth House Hold (1969).

Snyder first visited Bellingham while growing up in KingCounty, and visited friends there during both firewatcher trips.

There is this legend about Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouaccoming into Bellingham and visiting Cocoanut Grove, Wise says. A 1953Earth House Hold passage says Jackshowed Snyder the bar. However, the date does not match Kerouacs trip and Conversations with Gary Snyder by DavidStephen Calonne (2017) mentions one Jack Francis as a friend of Snyders inBellingham.

Snyder made later Bellingham trips, including poetryreadings at Village Books and North Cascades Institute in 2004. Havingclimbed mountains since 1945, Snyder knew the scenery well.

When Kerouac was in Whatcom County, he had an encounterwith a culture, with an experience of nature that he had never had before,says Wise. For Snyder, I think being here was more an extension of what he wasalready familiar with in Oregon.

Kerouac and Snyder met in 1955, the year San FranciscosSix Gallery reading featured Snyders Berry Feast and Ginsbergs Howl.Snyder introduced Kerouac to Zen Buddhism and the firewatcher job while theylived at Snyders Mill Valley, California cabinthe experience behind KerouacsThe Dharma Bums.

Jack Kerouac spent 63 days at DesolationPeaks lookout station in the summer of 1956, resulting in Desolation Angels. He never spotted any fires,and had only brief radio contact with the U.S. Forest Service.

DesolationAngels (published in 1965) has three parts: Desolation inSolitude written in 1956, Desolation in the World written in 1956, andPassing Through written in 1961. The first, Kerouacs firewatching journal,describes his struggle with boredom, isolation, and a self-confrontation youdont really see in his other narratives, Wise says. The journal replacesKerouacs spontaneous prose with meditations on Hozomeen Mountain, comparing itto the Void.

For people who really admire Kerouac, it can be afrustrating novel because of the rambling nature, says Wise. But I think ithas a real heartfelt spirituality that still speaks to people today.

From Marblemount and State Route 20, Kerouac hitchhiked toSeattle through Concrete, Sedro-Woolley, and Mount Vernon. Desolation in theWorld returns to spontaneous prose as Kerouac enjoys Seattles burlesque andreunites with friends in San Francisco. TheDharma Bums (1958) describes Desolation Peak in spontaneous prose, moreoptimistic in hindsight.

Desolation Peak may have been Kerouacs last realadventure, as Passing Through recounts following trips more cynically.Visiting Tangier (a Beat cultural hub) in 1957, Kerouac felt nausea concerningexperience with the world at large and lamented On the Roads newfound fame. BigSur (1962) is Kerouacs only other novel set afterward, chronicling laterhealth struggles.

To Kerouac, Beat meant beaten down but also upbeatand beatific. This sentiment resonates with his life story and with readersfollowing the same road.

Hiking Desolation Peak takes a 10-mile overnight trip,Crater Mountain a 19-mile daytrip, and Sourdough Mountain a 10-mile daytrip.Lookout towers still stand at Desolation Peak and Sourdough Mountain.

Poetson the Peaks by John Suiter and a State Route 20 plaquenear Desolation Peak commemorate the Beats mountain adventures. Still, WhatcomCounty feels the Beats influence in other ways.

I see a lot in their writing that resonates with thisparticular county, says Wise. And some of their values, their ideals, theirexuberance, the things that they loved, the experimental nature of their workIthink theres an openness to that here.

In the North Cascades, Whatcom Countys literature enthusiasts can hike further off the beaten path.

Featured photo by Christopher Wise

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The Beat Generation in Whatcom County: Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and the North Cascades -

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