Kerouac Desolated

May 3: Jack Kerouac’s Desolation Angels was published this dayin 1965. The title and many of the events were based on the summer of 1956,which Kerouac spent as a firewatcher on Desolation Peak in the CascadeMountains of Washington State. Hoping that the mountaintop job would clear hismind and body, Kerouac took with him only one book, The Buddhist Bible, and no tobacco. After a week he was smokingcigarettes rolled from coffee grounds and, as described in this passage fromthe novel, still a long way from inner peace:

Yes,for I’d thought in June, hitch-hiking up there to Skagit Valley in northwestWashington for my fire lookout job, “When I get to the top of DesolationPeak and everybody leaves on mules and I’m alone I will come face to face withGod or Tathagata and find out once and for all what is the meaning of all thisexistence.” But instead I’d come face to face with myself, no liquor, nodrugs, no chance of faking it but face to face with ole Hateful Duluoz Me. 

Atthe end of the summer of 1956, Kerouac moved on to Mexico and then Morocco. Atthe end of the next summer, On the Road waspublished, and Kerouac was on the fast track to being spokesman for ageneration. In the early sixties, as he reworked the autobiographical plot of Desolation Angels, he includedreferences to his “horror of literary notoriety.” The followingmoment from the novel occurs asKerouac/Duluoz is in Arizona, bound for Mexico—”hiking under a full moonat 2 a.m.” until the police stop him for a few questions:

Theyput spotlights on me standing there in the road in jeans and workclothes, withthe big woeful rucksack a-back, and they asked: —”Where are yougoing?” which is precisely what they asked me a year later undertelevision floodlights in New York, “Where are you going?”—Just asyou cant explain to the police, you cant explain to society “Looking forpeace.”


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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