Paddling in Kerouac’s Path: Part 3



Following in the path of writer Jack Kerouac, Rob Lyon and his buddy Steve have taken to Washington’s Ross Lake in their canoe (read Part 1 and Part 2). Now we join them high above the lake on Desolation Peak where Kerouac once spent a summer and where wind and darkness are proving the mountain aptly named.


©Robyn Minkler
©Robyn Minkler

“Desolation’s way up there Ray, six thousand feet or so looking in to Canada . . . thousands of miles of mountains, deer, bear, conies, hawks, trout, chipmunks.  It’ll be great for you Ray.”  – Jack Kerouac, Dharma Bums

“The tower is sounding better by the minute,” Steve confessed.

“I hear that; sorry about that, Park Service.”

We turned on our headlamps and scootched out from under the tower. Lordy it was miserable getting dressed in the teeth of the blow.  We gathered up our gear fast, not even bothering to lace up our boots.

On the other side of the tower we unhooked a massive shutter and removed the plastic covering up a broken window. Steve held open the shutter while I squeezed in and barrel-rolled onto the floor.  Steve handed in our packs, which barely fit, and climbed in behind me.  Suddenly it was a lot quieter. We could still hear the hell-wind tearing it up outside like a pack of wild dogs wanting in, but the difference was day and night.

I’ll pee in my hat if I have to. I’m not climbing in and out of that window.

We stashed our gear and put on our Petzls.  I offered Steve the cot while I set my pad on the floor in a corner.  We walked around checking things out.   A huge range finder hunkered in the middle of the small room.  Steve had worked his way through engineering school as a timber cruiser and knew his way around survey gear.  He was the engineer, me the lit major.  He explained how it worked.

“Want some hot chocolate?” I said.”


I dug out my JetBoil and fired up a pot of water.

“Pee bottles,” Steve said, brandishing an empty water bottle.  “Got one?”

“Yeah, I think so, I’ll pee in my hat if I have to but I’m not climbing in and out of that window to pee three times a night.”


“More or less.”


We sat quietly for a while, sipping our chocolate as the long day, and the long week, eventually caught up with us.  No matter the inappropriateness of being in the tower, it felt like a refuge.  We would sleep this night, after all.

“We don’t get up on mountain tops much,” I said.”

“No, more like canyons and ridge lines and beaches at the edge of nowhere.”

“Not so much to do up here, is there?”

“Good place to spot a forest fire.”

We laughed.

Steve drained his cup and set it down.  “See you in the morning, man,” Steve announced.  “I’ve got to close down shop.”

“Right.  I’m probably stay up a while; I’m kind of psyched to be here.”

“Sleep in if you want,” he said. “I’ll try not to wake you.”

©Robyn Minkler
©Robyn Minkler

I get up and poke around the tower.  The night feels strange and magical somehow, the chocolate hot to the lips, warm to the hands, sweet to the taste buds and warming my belly in the frosty air of our mountain top cell.  My only sadness is that I cannot see out from the tower with the shutters bolted down.  Can’t see old Hozomeen peering in the window like a vagrant bear, nor the diamond sutra stars winking resolutely overhead.  I walk around leisurely, in the moment, stopping every now and then where fresh air seeps in around a sill and push my nose into the crack . . . aaah!

My breath frosts in the chill air but I am dressed in gloves and down and thick wool socks.  I have always loved remote shelters for wayfarers, at least when they weren’t mousy and scruffed out.  But I’ve never seen one as neat and teat-like as this.

“Neat and teat,” I mutter aloud.

Before long I end up on my pad and wrestle my legs into a half-ass, half-lotus.  I slip in a pair of ear plugs, take off the headlamp and sit with my thoughts and feelings a while before I too shut down.

I am glad to have an inside look at a fire lookout. I’d told Steve earlier I’d take the job in a heart-beat, but I may have jumped the gun on that.  I recall it hadn’t turned out all that well for Jack.  I can imagine him exiled up here for a long summer season with only the conies and grouse and bears for company, missing his Yab-yum girls, his booze, his jazz clubs and his buddies, and feeling maybe a little hung out to dry.

Of the two, Gary Snyder was the wilderness man, the true nature pilgrim, manning a look-out himself on Crater Mountain a few years ahead of Jack, and the one who urged Jack to take the Desolation gig.

But in the sixty-three days he spent on the peak, Jack did not produce more than a letter to his mum, a few haiku and several journal entries.  I recall a passage where he and Snyder and Allen Ginsberg were climbing a peak in the Sierras and Ginsberg waited at the bottom, Kerouac hunkered down part way up and freaking out, while Snyder tattooed a wild jig on the tippy top, conveying, perhaps, the relative quotient of passion for wilderness in the three.

But as for creating or writing in the wild, I can relate.  Out alone for three months in BC I’d written even less, then followed that up with another long trek with the added stupidity to pack a laptop and solar panels with me in my kayak.  I buried the lot on a remote island the third day out, like Long John Silver. The wild was is not the place to go to write, it seems to me—it is too severe, too rarified, an environment.

But it was time well spent, time alone in the wild, a hefty deposit with Bank of the Soul.  At least with the kayak and a hundred miles of empty beaches there was room to roam.  I might feel like Napoleon on St. Helena up here.

A sudden blast of wind judders my train of thought.  I push my plugs in deeper, thinking no long term mountain top contracts for this old boy, but I can sure appreciate the sanctuary afforded us this one stormy night and with a small bow of the head I express my gratitude.

It is late and I feel the overwhelming need to roost up.  I lay out my bag and make a pillow of my down parka, slip on in, then remember I’d forgotten to brush my teeth again after the chocolate.   Too bad.

We sit on the steps of the cabin in the sun drinking coffee next morning, waking up, coming around.  The intense self-awareness of the night before has evaporated with the caffeine and fresh air like the dew steaming off the tower walls behind us, and the wind, blessedly, was down.

I picked a passage from Bums, one reflecting Jack’s early enchantment with the tower:  “Lo, in the morning I woke up and it was beautiful blue sunshine sky and I went out in my alpine yard and there it was, everything Japhy said it was, hundred of miles of pure snow-covered rocks and virgin lakes and high timber, and below, instead of the world, I saw a sea of marshmallow clouds flat as a roof and extending miles and miles in every direction, creaming all the valleys, on my 6600 foot pinnacle it was all far below me.  I brewed coffee on the stove and came out and warmed my mist-drenched bones in the hot sun of my little woodsteps.  I said ‘Tee tee’  to a bit furry cony and he calmly enjoyed a minute with me gazing at the sea of clouds.”

“Tee tee,” I said,

“I’m no cony.”

I got up and walked over to the window to secure the tape and plastic as best I could.

A paste of white fog covered the lake below while on the mountaintop the sun did shine.  “They have parafoils now,” Steve said, “that you can pack up a mountain.  Only thirty pounds or so.”

I was stiff and sore from yesterday’s grunt and could use a parafoil.  We would be braking going down, at least, using a different set of muscles.

We stalked around our alpine domain while we jacked up on the coffee, putting our packs together and making small discoveries around the peak.

I could imagine the tower in summer with its wing like shutter thrown up, not unlike the curved rooflines of Buddhist temples I’d visited in Korea.  Maybe Han Shan, I thought, would be the ultimate tower denizen. He could carve his poems on bare granite, a kind of rugged Grauman’s north, where instead of handprints of Marilyn Monroe and Sophia Loren, we have Desolation Peak haikus.  It is a life above the world, in any case, this tower life, literally and figuratively, best lived in deep communion with Mind and Void and perhaps the simple scratching of inspired wisdom on mountain bones.

We shouldered our packs and started off down the trail by mid morning.  Going down wasn’t as painful as expected, but we were grateful for cushioned canoe seats a few hours later.  We threw our packs aboard, dragged the boat to the water and got in, and Steve pushed us off.

©Robyn Minkler
©Robyn Minkler

We continued south that afternoon across a glassy surface, the fog all melted away and the banked timber and snowy peaks and sky, a vast blue boy sky, rendered in mirror image.  We had our legs thrown up over the gunnels and our aching backs pushed deeply into cushioned backrests.  The descent of Desolation had been uneventful, four hours up, less than half that coming down.

We passed Cat Island and I turned around for one last look at Desolation, then we passed Ponderosa and pulled into Ten Mile Island for lunch.

It was my turn to sit in the sun in the stern by the cooler doling out cold cans of beer and using the clever steering arm Steve had rigged up.  I fired up the little motor, then idled it down.  I picked up my rod and unhooked the fly from the hook-keeper and slowly let out line.

“Dude,” I said, sensitized to what might seem like literary fawning, “can you handle one last excerpt from the K man?”

“Yeah, sure.”

“You sure?  It’s the denouement to his time on the tower.”

“Spake on.”

“I like that about you, you know, you’re always patient with me, you don’t just shut me down.  Most guys would wince at this point.”

“I am wincing.”

We laughed.

“Alright. This when he’s finally through with the lookout gig and back in the bowels of humanity. Seattle, 1956.”

I dug a scruffed up copy of Desolation Angels out of the side pocket of my pack, found the passage, and held forth: “I tell the busdriver to let me off downtown, I jump off and go klomping past City Halls and pigeons down to the general direction of the water where I know I’ll find a good clean Skid Row room with bed and hot bath down the hall — I go all the way down to First Avenue and turn left, leaving the shoppers and the Seattleites behind, and lo! Here’s all humanity hep and weird wandering on the evening sidewalk amazing me outta my eyeballs — Indian girls in slacks, with Indian boys with Tony Curtis haircuts — twisted — arm in arm — families of old Okie fame just parked their car in the lot, going down to the market for bread and meat — Drunks — The doors of bars I fly by incredible with crowded and waiting humanity, fingering drinks and looking up at the Johnny Saxton-Carmen Basilion fight on TV.”

“Back in his element, eh?”

“No doubt.  And his final words on Desolation: “No clock will tick, no man yearn, and silent will be the snow and the rocks underneath and as ever Hozomeen’ll loom and mourn without sadness evermore . . . Farewell, Desolation, thou hast seen me well … All I want is an ice cream cone.”

“Ice cream would work right about now, yes,” from the bowman.

“Copy that, maybe Tom’s got some.”

©Robyn Minkler
©Steve Thomsen

Motoring the lake was Samadhic, the purr of the little gas motor vibrates through the hull.  I felt it pleasantly stirring my lowest chakra.  We troll slowly back downlake that afternoon heading for Little Brown Jug again for a night of decompression before heading out in the morning.  We catch our dinner of delicious rainbow trout (and one extra to barter with Tom for that ice cream) and stow away our rods.  Within sight of the dam we notice a boat closing quickly toward us . . . a Boston Whaler coming at us like a shot.  It was a Park Ranger.

I shut down our kicker as he came about.

‘You fellows seen another canoe today?’ he called over.

Steve and I looked at each other.

“I found some gear,” the Ranger said, “paddles, sleeping bags, life jackets, floating near Cougar Island.  When I saw your boat I thought it was two other guys I’d written a back-country permit for earlier this week.  They had a permit for Cougar Island their first night in.

Seen anything?”

Author’s Note: The fate of the two canoeists is still a mystery to us. The shuttle driver reported not having shuttled them back down to Diablo and Tom knew nothing about it.  To our knowledge, no bodies have ever been found.  My guess is the swamped their boat and swam ashore, then hiked out to Highway 20 and hitched home. Cocktailin’ is a whole lot easier in the city.