In the summer of 1956, at the suggestion of Oregon-born poet Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac hitchhiked up the Pacific coast to Washington State to live in solitude as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak in the Mount Baker National Forest. He was hoping to detox from alcohol, women, drugs, and all of the other things that kept him from writing. In the end, he stayed only two months and the solitude almost drove him crazy.
Kerouac described the experience at length in his 1965 book Desolation Angels, but the excerpt here, about passing through Seattle on his way to the lookout, comes from The Dharma Bums, published seven years earlier. I like it not only for the freshness of his description of my hometown but also because the area around First Avenue was still very much the way he depicts it when I was was growing up there in the 1960s and 1970s.
Kerouac on Seattle:
Then, while he sat in the main room, I went topdeck as the ferry pulled out in a cold drizzle to dig and enjoy Puget Sound. It was one hour sailing to the Port of Seattle and I found a half-pint of vodka stuck in the deck rail concealed under a Time magazine and just casually drank it and opened my rucksack and took out my warm sweater to go under my rain jacket and paced up and down all alone on the cold fog-swept deck feeling wild and lyrical. 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 America, 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.
I immediately went to a good clean skid row hotel, the Hotel Stevens, got a room for the night for a dollar seventy-five and had a hot tub bath and a good long sleep and in the morning I shaved and walked out First Avenue and accidentally found all kinds of Goodwill stores with wonderful sweaters and red underwear for sale and I had a big breakfast with five-cent coffee in the crowded market morning with blue sky and clouds scudding overhead and waters of Puget Sound sparkling and dancing under old piers. It was real true Northwest. At noon I checked out of the hotel, with my new wool socks and bandanas and things all packed in gladly, and walked out to 99 a few miles out of town and got many short rides.
Now I was beginning to see the Cascades on the northwest horizon, unbelievable jags and twisted rock and snow-covered immensities, enough to make you gulp.
One year after Kerouac’s mountaintop experience, On the Road was published and his life was never the same again. Nor was his writing. Even The Dharma Bums, published just one year later, lacks the verve and swing of the book that made him famous. But even a lesser book can have its highlights–and Kerouac’s views of the Pacific Northwest when it was still considered the edge of nowhere are some of my favorite passages in all of his works.