In March 1956, 34-year-old Jack Kerouac hitchhiked to Mill Valley, California (about 40 minutes from San Francisco). There he lived, for a few weeks, with poets Gary Snyder and Philp Whalen, in an unfinished shack set in a perfumy cluster of eucalyptus and evergreen trees. In this rustic setting, the poets and practicing Buddhists luxuriated in the serenity Kerouac had craved for the past few years.
Previously, Kerouac spent 15 days in New York, writing to Whalen that he had had a “miserable” time of it. It had the “wrong vibrations”. When he was made aware of an opportunity to work as a fire lookout at Washington Park’s Mount Baker National Forest, he applied and was accepted.
There Kerouac found himself, or maybe lost himself, for over 63-days of isolation. He wished to move away from the city. It had become ghoulish and draining. Jack was inspired by reading Thomas Wolfe’s 1951 posthumous notebook, A Western Journal, about his travels to the American northwest. Wolfe’s descriptive powers urged him to move anywhere beyond New York’s concrete cage of skyscrapers. If words weren’t enough, it was the map he studied of Mount Baker National Forest, and a photo of Mount Hozomeen mailed to him from Snyder. “Something,” Kerouac wrote Snyder, “will happen to me on Desolation Peak.”
On 7 February, he wrote Whalen, suggesting that he would live in Mill Valley for a few weeks. His work was done for the moment. There was a batch of manuscripts in the hands of his agent. Though he had just completed a fine run of daring, uncompromising prose and poetry, he felt he was “up shit creek, there’s just no commercial person that understands what I’m doing.” He had hoped for Visions of Gerard to be published, defending the book’s Buddhist overtones that were criticized by editor Malcolm Cowley (it was published in 1963). He had completed Tristessa (1960), a candlelight-written tome scribbled, he told Cowley, “in a stone hovel”. All of this was in motion with or without him. The publication of these books and others would shatter his bliss once and for all.
On 18 June, Kerouac left McCorckle’s cabin and hiked to Marblemount, California. He was scheduled to begin his new job in late June. Friends gave him instructions for a faster route to the Cascades, suggesting that he stick to the coastline before turning northeast toward the mountains. At the start, he bought rye crackers, dates, peanuts, and four pints of beer and put it all into his rucksack. He had $14.57 left. In the flap of his rucksack was a black notebook which, on its small pages, Kerouac scribbled the words of the Diamond Sutra. He was hopeful. Energized, he scaled the mountain and waited for enlightenment or something to happen.
By late July, the novelty of fire-watching became routine drudgery. The top of the mountain may as well have been the bottom of the world. So, why should we read this posthumous book about this period in Kerouac’s life?
In Desolation Peak, we witness Kerouc in the throes of his “long night of life”. He endures personal torment and unbridled bliss through suffering. As he writes in a 1954 notebook, “Birth was the cause of suffering, and suffering was the cause of enlightenment, and enlightenment is the cause of the destruction of suffering…” It is a journey, not “on the road” to the American West, but of the road toward inner peace.
Desolation Peak, edited by Kerouac scholar, Charles Shuttleworth, is about this journey. It is a deep dive into the first of multiple forthcoming publications from the Jack Kerouac archive, spearheaded by its literary executor of Jack Kerouac Estate, Jim Sampas, and Sal Paradise Press co-founder Sylvia Cunha.
Shuttleworth opens Desolation Peak with an account of Kerouac’s summer of 1956 journey to the top of Mount Baker in Washington State. Using various archival resources, Shuttleworth writes a factual re-rendering. He explains how this period had been accounted for by biographers and how the “Dharma” diary may change our understanding of what he truly experienced. Kerouac was lonely. Bored. He was starving for a drink. But there was a personal struggle, a hero’s journey he endured. Shuttleworth outlines Kerouac’s woes. His frugal spending. The fire-watching experience unlocked Kerouac’s turbulent mind state. Desolation Peak is Kerouac raw. Uncut.
Shuttleworth’s reading of the “Dharma” diary was an experience this writer had felt over 20 years before. Upon opening Kerouac’s physical notebooks, he – Man and Writer – comes alive. With every pencil stroke, one can feel the visceral pull of his mental muscle. Kerouac is candid. Poetic, even. He will pencil in a “Pop” (his version of an American haiku) with the same casual ease as a grocery bill tally. His reading and transcriptions (sometimes no easy task) make for plentiful footnotes. These reveal a scholar burning with passion for putting his subject into a proper context.
So what do we get from Desolation Peak? The included Kerouac texts begin with a duplication of Kerouac’s 180-page “Dharma” diary. This diary initiates 56 others Kerouac preserved for the remainder of his life. These later diaries, for the most part, document a gloomy, self-loathing drunken despair. On the other hand, the “Dharma” journal sparkles with life. Here, in these pre-On the Road years, the writer is hopeful. With his Diamond Sutra in hand and his long-wished-for Thoreau-inspired bucolic state in place, he hopes to finally quiet the storm in his head.
The Diamond Sutra anchors him in place. He yearns to achieve mental harmony within a disharmonious life. He reads the Sutra to exercise charity, Selfless Kindness, patience, and humility. He strives for tranquility (“Dhyana Paramita”) with the static wilderness unrolled before him like a Thomas Cole landscape painting.
Kerouac writes down almost-daily affirmations (“THIS IS ONLY ME, THE ABIDER IN THAT WHICH EVERYTHING IS EMPTY AND AWAKE”) to keep his demons at bay. Sometimes, it works. Other times, he experiences things like “nightmare naps”. His mood crashes in regular bouts of manic depression. He may slip into a Samapatti trance (Samapatti is a name for the eight absorptions of the fine-material and immaterial spheres and the attainment of self-extinction), to which he encounters a “sharp pinprick shock on my arm!” He sees the devil, an apparition described as a Dostoyevsky character from 1875’s A Raw Youth.
Kerouac’s “Dharma” diary begins to form into a work in and of itself. It is scattered with haiku and prayers, quotes from the Sutra, detailed expenses for his stay on the mountain, and commentary on his day-to-day activities. He meditates on the Essence, the Tathagata, beyond all coming and going. The big nothingness. Long walks on logging roads bring him to a place of dead trees. He sings into the silence despite a horde of mosquitoes biting him.
At night, the mice keep him awake. He sets up a makeshift water trap to catch the mice, and when one dies, Jack feels guilty because he has abandoned his Buddhist principles. Another time he catches a mouse in a basket of food hanging from the rafter with rope. It was nibbling into a packet of dried pea soup. Jack stabs it and wounds it. Jack feels its eyes looking through him. His flashlight knocks it on the head, and its eyes pop out. Horrified, Jack sits and trembles. Heartsick. Another mouse, a baby, is tossed over the side of his shack and down the precipice. To the sky, Jack laments, “If there’s a hell and bad karma, send me hell and give me bad karma for doing this and may I be reborn a mouse.” Kerouac does not care if there is a God, a Buddha, or Heaven. He finalized this sorry chain of events with one of his most enduring aphorisms: “I don’t know, I don’t care, and it doesn’t matter.”
The other texts in Desolation Peak include writings Kerouac wrote on Desolation Peak. In “Ozone Park”, Kerouac’s mouse killing induces a Proustian episode of his father drowning mice. “Ozone Park” reads as an elegy to Leo Kerouac, who died about 11 years prior. Two chapters narrate the story of Leo and Big Slim, an ex-patient of Bethesda Naval Hospital, and their nighttime excursion to the Bowery. Jack had befriended Big Slim when he was admitted to the hospital after he could not conform to a military regimen. Also, “Ozone Park” includes his time spent in Times Square with his parents. This traditional prose is shorn of the experimental writing he had recently accomplished with his prose poem, “Old Angel Midnight” (1959).
A handful of other prose and poetry rounds out a splendid volume that unfolds a significant chapter in Kerouac’s life. It is his turning point. From here on out, the dissolution of Kerouac escalates after On the Road is published in 1957. Kerouac is a rising literary star in a downward spiral. Desolation Peak channels him at the height of his powers. Such books as Tristessa, Maggie Cassidy (1959), Doctor Sax (1959), The Subterraneans (1958), and a cluster of unpublished papers document the fact that Kerouac only lived to write. Nothing else mattered.
Desolation Peak is vital reading. It establishes that Jack Kerouac was more than a road warrior out for kicks. Or some wayward beatnik. It documents a man at war with his demons and winning as he loses.