Busted Beer Cans and Baby Culture
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Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac and lookout tales in the North Cascades
As fire lookouts go, the poet Gary Snyder is my first love, but my favorite is a maintenance foreman down the street.
Gerry Cook, my neighbor in Marblemount, Wash., is the kind of guy who enriches your life by the sheer generosity of his spirit, a disarming ease that relaxes anyone who spends time with him. Gerry is the most senior employee in North Cascades National Park, having worked on Ross Lake since before the park's creation in 1968. He's also an artist and naturalist who loves good stories and wild places. And in the early 1970s, he served as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak, Copper Ridge and Sourdough Mountain, all still maintained by the National Park Service.
Gerry's the real deal. When he describes how on lookout "everyday, all the time, those mountains look different," you understand it, if only by witnessing how the memory moves him. You laugh too as he talks about his first stint on Desolation when he took little food, no entertainment and a monk's idealism. Or later on Sourdough, a lot looser and wiser, he counted on a Cessna pilot he knew only by radio to toss cartons of ice cream and beer on nearby snowfields. "When a can busted on impact," Gerry says, "you'd hustle to suck down the brew on the clock or not."
For 10 years, Gerry and I have taught a class called "Beats on the Peaks: Lookout Poets and Backcountry Tales" while traversing Ross Lake between Desolation and Sourdough, about 15 miles apart near the U.S.-Canada border. Come August, we gather a dozen backpackers – schoolteachers on break, history buffs, long-ago beatniks whose gray hair and sore knees are little match for their enthusiasm. We all board a barge Gerry has captained for decades. It's called the Mule, its back saddled with an old picnic table and a few folding chairs.
Camping three days at lakeside, we study natural history like fire scars, the ways of wildlife, how mountains and rivers form, and celebrate Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac and the long line of scribblers who have spent time in the North Cascades for labor and adventure. Along the way we learn about jobs like trail crew and wilderness rangers, how to read a topo map, work an Osborne Firefinder or hop on a stool with insulating glass feet before lightning strikes the lookout cabin.
The best part is rising early on Saturday for the hike to Desolation Peak where Kerouac stood watch in 1956, a few months before he published On the Road, a book that changed America and turned his life upside down with fame. It's a full day's journey, about 12 miles roundtrip with a steep climb of 5,000 feet. Later that night, we swap stories around the campfire and fill journals with images for our own poems: plant species at trailside, off-color remarks, pink alpenglow on Nohokomeen Glacier – what Kerouac called a "hundred football fields of snow." As the embers cool, we thank writers throughout the West and beyond.
As luck would have it, shortly before our class in 2002, Gerry and I spent an afternoon on Ross Lake with Gary Snyder and a few friends. The day before, Snyder had spoken in a Park Service event called "A Lookouts' Rendezvous" in honor of John Suiter's Poets on the Peaks, a first-rate history of Beat Generation writers in the North Cascades. It was the first time Snyder had ventured up the Skagit Valley in nearly half a century.
Aboard the Mule, as wind kicked spray across the bow, Snyder admired a view he hadn't seen in decades and talked about the summers he spent firewatching in 1952 and '53. I told him how his poem, "Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout," inspired me to move west after growing up in Indiana, how I still turn to it year after year with Gerry and our students. He smiled and laughed.
"When you wrote those poems on Sourdough," I asked, "did you expect them to have such a lasting influence on the people here?"
"No, I was just a kid," Snyder replied. "Those poems started out as journal sketching notes with a little haiku mixed in. I caught the flavor from the Chinese poetry I was studying at the time."
Snyder described Hanshan, the ninth-century poet who lived in a place called Cold Mountain, where "days and months slip by like water." I was familiar with the man from Snyder's early translations but had never grasped the tradition he represented. Hanshan was part of a long line of Chinese mountain poets who wrote about the hermit's life and about each other. Their words trailed across centuries. Finishing his explanation, Snyder looked at me as if waiting for a nod, though still I needed to hear more.
"You see, ours is a baby culture," he said, his thumb veering toward the skyline. "We'll need a hundred poets on Sourdough and a thousand other peaks to create a rooted culture here. I was only one."
Later that afternoon, Snyder relaxed alone, his elbows on the railing, and I watched Gerry at the helm as friends leaned in close to hear him talking over the diesel engine. I knew then that this is how it works, slow but sure, like our pace up Desolation. Every story we share about the Beats and busted beer cans, big snow years and riding out a lightning storm on a glass-footed stool, reminds us: To retell a tale means as much as first hearing it. Every word is a step toward home.