Jack Kerouac Found Rapture Off the Road

Palmer Park

March 11, 2022

This article appeared in today’s WSJ:

On his 100th anniversary, the Beat novelist deserves to be remembered for his celebration of the American landscape.

Jack Kerouac lives in pop culture memory as a writer on a perpetual road trip, a shooting star riding the highways and rails of postwar America alight with Catholic mysticism, booze, bebop and outlaw liberation. That’s the milieu of his breakout novel “On the Road,” a masterpiece of widescreen travel writing populated by eccentrics “who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time…who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles.”

But when “On the Road” was published in 1957, the road trips it chronicled were already 10 years in the past. By then Kerouac had already emerged as a different kind of writer, one who found rapture off the road, prowling in thick forests “to hear the voice crying in the wilderness, to find the ecstasy of the stars.” As we celebrate his centenary on March 12, it’s Kerouac the nature writer who glows most brightly.

Kerouac made a literary breakthrough by applying a jazzy, stream-of-consciousness style to his descriptions of America’s wild lands. Born in 1922 to French Canadian parents in Lowell, Mass., Kerouac grew up captivated by the mighty Merrimack River, which Henry David Thoreau had written about in the 1840s. His first novel, “The Town and the City” (1950), begins with a loving description of the Merrimack, and the fascination cast a lifelong spell. In his travel journals of the 1940s, he made a literary breakthrough by applying a jazzy, stream-of-consciousness style to his descriptions of America’s wild lands and waterways, including the Hudson, the Delaware, the Susquehanna, the Ohio and the Mississippi. “On the Road” was originally going to be titled “Rain and Rivers.” Kerouac’s feeling for nature took a religious turn after he met the poet Gary Snyder in 1955. A first-rate mountaineer, Snyder was a practicing Buddhist who wrote haiku-inspired verse about the Pacific Northwest’s flora and fauna.

Influenced by Native American cultures, Snyder envisioned preserving the entire Pacific Coast as a zone where people could live in harmony with nature. As “Japhy Ryder,” he became a main character in Kerouac’s ecstatic 1958 novel “The Dharma Bums,” whose early pages detail their meeting in San Francisco.

Soon after, Kerouac and Snyder climbed the 12,285-foot Matterhorn Peak near Yosemite National Park, with the novelist shod only in tennis sneakers for what he likened to a “terrifying elevator” ride going higher and higher. “I gulped,” he wrote, “when I turned around to look back and see all of the state of California it would seem stretching out in three directions under huge blue skies with frightening planetary space clouds of immense vistas of distant valleys.” The descent was easier. “Running down the mountain in huge twenty-foot leaps…bouncing five feet or so, running, then taking another long crazy yelling yodelaying sail down the sides of the world,” Kerouac made his classic observation: “You can’t fall off a mountain.” The next summer, he headed to Washington’s ethereal North Cascades to begin a two-month stint as a U.S. Forest Service firewatcher, a job that Snyder had once held. At Marblemount on the fast-flowing Skagit River he received a week of fire training before beginning the three-day trek to his station atop 6,102-foot Desolation Peak. While Kerouac’s job was to scan the horizon for wildfires, his goal was to write and meditate, take botanical hikes, gaze at the Northern Lights and cleanse himself of anxiety and alcohol. His lookout tower had no electricity or indoor plumbing, just a two-way radio to call in fires. The only book he’d brought along was “A Buddhist Bible,” an anthology of readings from classical Buddhist sources. Off the grid, surrounded by glorious glaciers and blue mountains, he felt liberated from what Henry Miller called “the air-conditioned nightmare” of postwar American society.

Kerouac kept detailed notes about the shifting weather, circling hawks, friendly chipmunks, deep glacial valleys and swift-running creeks, about “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.” For 63 days the twin-peaked Hozomeen was his mystical muse, its “untouchable towers” and “inaccessible horns” transmuted into Buddhist symbols of Dharmakaya, “the body of the great order.” “And it was all mine,” he wrote, “not another human pair of eyes in the world were looking at this.”

Two year later, he published “The Dharma Bums,” his paean to Gary Snyder and back-to-the-land living. The novel helped launch the “rucksack revolution” predicted in its pages, inspiring legions of young Americans to abandon materialism and seek revelation in nature. Kerouac’s work was also used by grass-roots environmentalists to win support for the effort to establish North Cascades National Park, which finally succeeded in 1968. “As a mythographer, Kerouac’s contribution was not insignificant,” wrote historian John Suiter. “A dozen years after the publication of ‘The Dharma Bums,’ when the nation’s commons swarmed with Japhyesque ecology radicals on Earth Day 1970, more than a few had well-thumbed copies of the book stashed in their backpacks.” They still do. In his journal, Kerouac described Desolation and Hozomeen as sacred natural places that would one day become shrines, “loved as though they were famous memorial parks and monuments, to which countless pilgrims and sages will come.” These day hikers dressed in North Face and Patagonia gear climb Desolation Peak to stand where Kerouac once dreamed of satori while scoping for wildfires. His one-room lookout, very much intact, is now part of the Ross Lake National Recreation Area, protected as a literary landmark by the Interior Department. In our time of ecological destruction and climate change, Kerouac’s Buddhist observation in “The Dharma Bums” that “One man practicing kindness in the wilderness is worth all the temples in the world” is a fine starting point for understanding that there really is a divine order to the natural world.

—Mr. Brinkley is a professor of history at Rice University and the editor of “Windblown World: The Journals of Jack Kerouac 1947-1954” and the Library of America edition of Kerouac’s “Road Novels.”

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