TODAY, THANKS TO NATIONAL PARK and Wilderness designations, the North Cascades that Snyder, Whalen, and Kerouac saw look much as they did a half century ago when the poets went on their lookouts, though there are a few notable exceptions.
THE PANORAMA from Kerouac’s old lookout remains the same, with great Hozomeen, ever changing aspect in the clouds and light, anchoring the view, commanding all attention. Desolation is still a remote place—eighteen miles south to the nearest road, or a half-hour boat ride from Ross Dam. To the north, on the Canadian side, there isstill only a single gravel road coming down from the town of Hope to the border crossing at Hozomeen.
FROM SOURDOUGH, the northern vista is absolutely unchanged from the day of Snyder and Whalen. The same astonishing one-eighty that greeted them at the top of the ridge in the Fifties—the northern half of Whalen’s mala, from Davis Peak in the west all the way around to Jack and Crater on the east—is what one sees today. The view to the south is significantly different, however, changed permanently by the Cross Cascades Highway that skirts the flanks of Ruby Mountain on the far side of Diablo Lake. On a summer’s day the distant throg of a Harley chopper can carry across the valley; weekends, RV headlights flicker all night long as they climb the grade from Panther Creek. Sourdough Mountain, despite its awsome three-sixty of surrounding wilderness, is hardly wilderness itself; cars can drive right to the trailhead in Diablo. Were it not for the daunting gain of the lookout trail, Sourdough LO might well have suffered the same fate as Whalen’s cabin on Sauk by now.
THEN AGAIN, even where the poets’ old vistas have been preserved intact, how they experienced those landscapes over the seasons is probably not possible today. They came to the Skagit, after all, not for scenery, or to “do” a mountain, but to be changed themselves by the sublime uneventfulness of lookout life. The kind of absolute solitude that Snyder enjoyed on Crater or that Kerouac toughed out on Desolation can only be tasted in three- and four-day draughts at most these days—in part, ironically, because of them. Over the years, as the fame of Kerouac and Snyder (and to a far lesser, but growing extent, Whalen) has spread, their lookouts have become destinations for increasing number of hikers wishing to see firsthand the little shacks and vast surrounding landscapes that inspired their works. Rare now is the summer’s day that doesn’t bring a literary pilgrim to one of the poets’ peaks in the Upper Skagit.
FOR ALL THAT, the peaks certainly do not disappoint, not even Sauk, the lowest and most overrun, with its logging road leading to a timberline parking lot. On the old vision-peak nowadays, one more likely crosses paths with daredevils seeking satori on a snowboard or paraglider than a poet reading Shakespeare, but with luck one can still camp in solitude among the rocks of Whalen’s perch for a night: under a full moon the light still glimmers on the glacier ice of Komo Kulshan, as it did for Philip half a century ago.
CRATER TOO HAS BECOME a destination for hard-core Snyder enthusiasts looking to lay their own eyes on the landscapes that inspired Myths and Texts and Mountains and Rivers Without End . Despite the difficulty of access—the fixed ropes that once ran throughthe southwest gully are long gone—and the absence of any shelter on the summit, people do come. A tin-can summit register tucked into the rocks at the base of the fire-finder shaft contains their scribbled homages to Snyder and his works. And from that rusty Osborne pole, still plumb as the day it was driven, one turns and sees what the poet saw on those transparent mornings fifty years ago, when Desolation called to welcome him, for then and ever, to the “community of lookouts.”
From Poets on the Peaks: Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen & Jack Kerouac
in the North Cascades, published by Counterpoint Press, 2002.
Text & Photos © John Suiter All Rights Reserved.
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1953 photo of Gary Snyder © Jack Francis, used by permission.
“Poem Left in Sourdough Lookout,” from Left Out in the Rain, © Gary Snyder, all rights reserved.
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