A braid of circumstances ties the Beat Generation to the North Cascades. In the early 1950s, a weary America turned its attention to getting ahead after enduring the Depression and WWII---and in that era of the man in the gray flannel suit, a group of literary rebels hit the road and the trail. While the Lost Generation found its refuge and inspiration in Paris, the Beats found their safe harbour in the North Cascades as well as in San Francisco’s North Beach.
James Martin, North Cascades Crest: Notes and Images from America’s Alps (1999) p.58
There is a historic tendency to date the origins of a deeper ecological awareness in North America to the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962. There is no doubt that Carson’s incisive missive woke many to troubling ecological issues, but there were sensitive canaries in the toxic mineshaft before Silent Spring left the publishing tarmac.
On October 7, 1955, the poet Kenneth Rexroth orchestrated the most famous Beat Generation poetry reading in history, one that joined Columbia-educated, Greenwich Village Beat writers—Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac— with the ecologically minded “mountain Beats” of the West— Philip Whalen and Gary Snyder—at San Francisco’s Six Gallery. It was that night when Allen Ginsberg read his poem “Howl” for the first time in public. But for Kerouac, Whalen, and Snyder, a Western landscape far from that gallery touched their work deeply.
Snyder and Whalen had lived in fire lookouts on Sauk, Sourdough and Crater mountains in the North Cascades just a few years before, and Kerouac spent his first summer in the range the summer after the Six Gallery reading, when he worked as a lookout on Desolation Peak. Kerouac’s experience in that job so lingered in his mind that he wrote about it in four of his books. Allen Ginsberg also visited the North Cascades, making two trips with Snyder in 1956 and 1965.
These are the facts of the Beats’ journeys to the ancient rock spires and ice fields of the North Cascades. There is no doubt that they influenced the emerging literary and political vision of this new generation of American writers. The lookout sites, perched high on rock rims, knobs and citadels of ages, became literary sites to develop spiritual and cultural insights. There, the Beat writers retreated to reclaim more meditative lives. They felt that the North Cascades were like the mountains in China where their Chinese mountain sage, Han-Shan, spent his meditative days.
Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982) was the elder and dean of the West Coast mountain Beats. He fondly tells the tale of his North Cascade days in his accessible autobiography, An Autobiographical Novel. Rexroth had traveled across much of the United States in 1924, that summer when he not only helped build a shelter in the Cascades but also hiked, opened trails with saw and axe and had many an adventure. His rambles included a climb of Glacier Peak, west of Lake Chelan, and an amble up the Skagit Valley to Canada. His mountain enthusiasm could not be missed. “I got back probably the happiest boy who ever lived.” (Page 281.) And he recalled, “I tried to arrange my itinerary so that I’d have a peak to climb every evening after work.” (Page 283.) The sights he took in from the precarious perch where he joined the group building McGregor Lookout were worthy of the poet’s soul and eye.
Although Rexroth later parted ways with the Beats, he was their mentor and patriarch and a pioneer in the west coast literary movements from the 1930s to the 1950s. He wove together, on a delicate tapesty, the threads of Eastern and Western mysticism, poetry, politics, ecological awareness, and even publishing.
His influence on the younger Gary Snyder was very clear. Gary Snyder lived as a lookout in the North Cascades at Crater Mountain in 1952 and on Sourdough Mountain in 1953, but the “high summer of the great fear” dominated 1954. Joseph McCarthy was baiting “Reds,” and Snyder’s leftist and anarchist affinities ran counter to McCarthy’s ideological commitments. Snyder could not get a job in the North Cascades because some thought he might be a national security threat. Snyder had more than demonstrated his competence in the mountains as a lookout in 1952-1953, but other factors were at work in keeping him from high mountain lookout life.
Snyder, like Rexroth, was in the midst of synthesizing a new vision for post-World War II America: poetry, politics, Buddhism, ecological attentiveness, and mountain metaphors. The 1950s were the years when the Beats were quietly putting down roots that would give birth, in the 1960s, to the counter-culture. It was in the North Cascades that the silent and listening years formed and forged their souls. It is almost impossible to miss the centrality of mountains in the prose, poetry and translations of Gary Snyder. The publication of Snyder classics from the 1950s such as Cold Mountain Poems, Riprap and Myths and Texts signaled a literary way that was grounded in mountains and the transformative myth of mountains.
I attended a reading of Snyder’s Danger on Peaks in 2004 in the North Cascades area, and almost 1000 turned out for the evening. In fact, many had to be turned away. I was quite fortunate at the reading to get a signed copy of Danger on Peaks and a photograph taken with Snyder. The theme of mountains, though, was ever present in Danger on Peaks as it was in such publications as Mountains and Rivers Without End, Look Out: A Selection of Writings and the hefty tome, The Gary Snyder Reader. Snyder, of course, has traveled, in both a literal and literary sense, beyond the North Cascades, but, again and again, there is a circling back to the glacier thick rock sentinels of the Cascades.
Gary Snyder met Philip Whalen (1923-2002) in 1952. Whalen was never as active in the mountains as Snyder or Rexroth, but he spent a few years there. He lived as a lookout at Sauk Mountain in the North Cascades from 1953 to 1955. I have been to Sauk many times, and the old lookout is no longer visible. It’s an easy perch to reach, and it was from this pleasant spot that Whalen began to synthesize his interest in poetry, Zen Buddhism, mountain metaphors, and an ecological sensibility. Life in the lookouts for Snyder and Whalen was about looking out for changes in American society. Distance from the valley was needed for better seeing, and Whalen and Snyder saw much in the fast moving and driven ethos of the time. Did they want such a frantic existence? The North Cascade Beats were very much charting a new path worthy of a life trek in the 1950s. Continuous Flame: A Tribute to Philip Whalen (2004) is a fine eulogy to Whalen’s role in pointing the way to a spirituality that is deeply meditative and poetically probing.
Most know Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) as the “King of the Beats.” The publication of On the Road in 1956 drove the shy and introverted Kerouac to the center of literary life in the 1950s. Kerouac was an east coast urban boy, but in 1955, he met Rexroth, Snyder, Whalen and many others at the Six Gallery Reading in San Francisco. Kerouac, like Rexroth, Snyder and Whalen, was on a conscious spiritual and literary search, and he found part of his answer in the mountains. Kerouac was hired as a lookout at Desolation Peak in the North Cascades in the summer of 1956. He had high hopes of what the experience of more than two months alone on a rock knoll would do for him on his journey. Kerouac, like Rexroth, had pronounced Roman Catholic sympathies and leanings, but both men were also interested in the Eastern traditions and Buddhism. Both men were quite aware of the work of Thomas Merton, and the way, as a Christian monk, Merton used the image of mountains as a dominant metaphor in his journey. (Snyder and Whalen, conversely, tended to be much less interested in the relationship between West and East.)
Kerouac’s lengthy sojourn as a lookout on Desolation Peak had a profound impact on his life. Desolation Peak is on the north end of Ross Lake just as Snyder’s Sourdough lookout is on the south end of Ross Lake. The sheer aloneness as a lookout combined with the silence and rock turrets in all directions does work its way into the inner life. Kerouac wrote poignantly and graphically about his time on Desolation in four books: Dharma Bums (1958), Lonesome Traveler (1960), Desolation Angels (1965) and Book of Blues (1995). Snyder is immortalized in Dharma Bums as Japhy Ryder just as Mount Hozomeen (whose split knife edge broods over the northern Cascades and gazes down on Desolation Peak) is never far from Kerouac’s imagination and writing. Kerouac lacked the inner discipline of Rexroth, Snyder and Whalen and this partially explains his short life and tragic death, but there can be no doubt that the North Cascades touched a deep chord within him that would not be still or silent. The opening few lines of Desolation Angels are descriptively apt and insightful.
Those afternoons, those lazy afternoons, when I used to sit, or lie down, on Desolation Peak, sometimes on the alpine grass, hundreds of miles of snow covered rock all around, looming Mount Hozomeen on my north, vast snowy Jack to the south, the encharmed picture of the lake below to the west and the snowy hump of Mt. Baker beyond, and to the east the rilled and ridged monstrosities humping to the Cascade Ridge…stark naked rock, pinnacles and thousand feet high protruding from hunched muscles another thousand feet high protruding from immense timbered shoulders.
I was fortunate to climb the fang-like upper peaks of Hozomeen in 1975, and I have led many a trip to Kerouac’s lookout shrine on Desolation Peak. Kerouac brought to a close the final few lines in chapter 22 of The Dharma Bums with this celebration of Hozomeen.
Hozomeen, Hozomeen, the most beautiful mountain I ever seen, and the most beautiful as soon as I got to know it and saw the Northern Lights behind it reflecting all the ice of the North Pole from the other side of the world.
Sadly so, Kerouac’s descent from the upper knoll and mountain ridge of Desolation Peak to the demands of valley wrecked havoc with his soul. The tragic descent is well recounted in Desolation Angels.
The North Cascades—mysterious or even obscure to many who read the Beats—played an essential role in the emerging Beat generation. Rexroth, Snyder, Whalen and Kerouac were all indebted, for different reasons, to the white clad summits, rocky gorges and guardians of ages past. The merging of Eastern and Western spirituality, poetry, prose and politics, ecological awareness, and the mountain as a mystical metaphor, happened to the Beats in the North Cascades in the 1950s.