HERE WAS A GUEST BOOK in the lookout that had been there for twenty years with only two signatures in it—and they were former lookouts themselves who knew how isolated the place could get and so came up to visit,” says Jack Francis, who manned the lookout in ’52. “Desolation was aptly named. No one came…”KEROUAC, LIKE JACK FRANCIS before him, had no visitors in his entire sixty-three days on Desolation, a phenomenal stretch for a gregarious urban man like Kerouac, who despite his frequent and outspoken longings for solitude, had an even stronger need for the regular communion of his friends. In the mornings he rinsed his face in a battered tin basin of pure mountain snow water, and in the evening, he stoked the firebox of his stove and sat before it smoking-just as he had dreamed it when he was seventeen. Indeed, fifteen years before, back in New England, he had imagined himself in exactly such a scene, but when he looked up and saw his thirty-four-year-old face reflected in the black lookout windows that now surrounded him, it sometimes seemed impossible that he had ever wanted this.
THE HARD YELLOW LIGHT of his kerosene lantern cut across his features, shading every groove and furrow of his sunburned face, illuminating a man weighed down with sadness. In the stock taking of his final weeks of solitude, it hit him that he was fast approaching middle age. He was well aware that at thirty-four many of his artistic exemplars had begun to see the waning of their powers. At thirty-four, Melville’s greatest works were behind him. At thirty four, Thomas Wolfe had finished his Eugene Gant trilogy and was dying. And Charlie Parker-Jack still couldn’t believe it-was already dead, only halfway into his thirty-fifth year. Even the stoic Thoreau had had to admit, a few days after his own thirty-fourth birthday, “I think that no experience which I have today comes up to, or is comparable with, the experiences of my youth…I can remember that I was all alive, and inhabited my body with inexpressible satisfaction.”
OTHER NIGHTS Kerouac was not quite so haunted. He could see a completely different image: a clear-eyed, suntanned, open-heartedman, still in his prime. There was truth in both reflections. With his system clean of both alcohol and amphetamines for nearly two months, Jack at the end of August 1956 was leaner and healthier than at any time since his football days at Columbia.
ON THOSE NIGHTS he assured himself that thirty-four was not that old, and buoyed his creative hopes with images of his hero Dostoyevsky, whose greatest works were of his maturity. At thirty-four, Dostoyevsky was only just out of Siberian leg-irons. If Dostoyevsky could write five masterpieces in the decade of his forties, Jack told himself, then such a creative outburst was not impossible to him. Shakespeare, another of Jack’s literary gods, had also exploded with midlife genius-Hamlet, Othello, Lear, Macbeth, Anthony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, all writtenbetween the ages of thirty-six and forty-three. At thirty-four, Whitman had hardly begun to sound his voice. Joyce was in Zurich, finishing A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, with Ulysses and Finnegans Wake still to come.
“WHERE THE TOP OF THIS ARCH of life may be, it is difficult to know,” wrote Dante. “I believe that in the perfectly natural man, it is at the thirty-fifth year.” Hopefully, the dark woods of Desolation would lead Jack to Paradise, as they had for Dante. Kerouac vowed to himself that Desolation would mark the beginning of even greater work than what he had so far produced. It would be his “Desolation Testament,” he swore. In fact, Desolation would be Jack’s last great adventure; at thirty-four, his life was almost three-quarters gone.
From Poets on the Peaks: Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen & Jack Kerouac
in the North Cascades, published by Counterpoint Press, 2002.
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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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