|N 1955 PHILIP WHALEN WAS BACK in the Skagit for his third fire season, once again manning Sourdough Mountain Lookout. In what was becoming a seasonal ritual for him, he arrived at Marblemount toward the end of June and spent his first week at guard school at Komo Kulshan station.Afterwards, he was sent up the Skagit to the floating guard station at Ross Dam for a week of hay hauling and trail building along Ruby Creek.
BY THE 12TH OF JULY, Philip was back in his old bunk at the floating guard station at Ross Dam, waiting for Andy Wilcox to bring up the packstring to take him to Sourdough. While the faces and routines and landscape of the Skagit had become comfortably familiar, in the summer of ’55 Philip looked on it all with newly sharpened senses. Earlier that spring he had taken peyote for the first time, and still felt subtly under its influence.
IT HAD HAPPENED in Seattle. In March Philip had moved from the Oregon coast at Newport to a large subterranean apartment in the basement of an old Victorian house on Roosevelt Way, just off the University of Washington campus. His roommate was Harry Lamley, an old Reed College friend doing graduate work in Chinese studies. On April 22, at a party given by a friend of Lamley’s, Philip ate three chopped-up peyote buds and went on an exultant twelve hour voyage of initiation that “acted on my spirit and mind and body and everything else as a great cure,” as he would later recall. In June, two weeks before coming up to Marblemount, he took a second trip that left him energized as never before-“Great fun reaching from a position in deep space to touch various suns & receiving great charges,” he wrote to Gary. Even after the pyrotechnics of these trips had subsided, a healthy feeling of heightened awareness and vitality remained. By the time Philip arrived at the Ross Lake Guard Station, the mountains around the dam looked positively “Byronic.”
ON JULY 13TH, Andy Wilcox arrived at Ross Dam with the pack string. The plan was to tow the horses and mules on a raft to the lake-shore trail head of the Pierce Mountain Way, and pack Philip up by the same route he had taken in ’54. The night before they were to go, Andy corralled the animals-three saddle horses and four mules-on the straw-covered horse raft lashed to the guard station dock. That night while the crew slept in their cots in the hold of the float, one of the horses-a one-eyed mare named Mabel-tripped overboard, startling everyone awake with a terrific splash. Philip got to the panicked, snorting animal first and kept her afloat by hooking one arm under her head while Andy the Packer stomped off cursing down the dock to bring around a boat to tow Mabel in to shore. The whole scene was pure slapstick, but as Philip looked up and saw the moon tilting over Jack Mountain and felt the huge horse pumping like Poseidon in the crook of his arm, he felt suddenly socketed-in to the moment and flooded with crazy grace. “I was kneeling over the edge of this raft in my underwear, holding this horse under the chin,” he would recall. “It was two o’clock in the morning and it was a beautiful summer night, and the mountains were all around, and the lake, and this horse, and me-and I suddenly had a great weird kind of satori, a sort of feeling about the absolute connection between me, and the horse, and the mountains, and everything else. And you can’t describe it very well- the feeling- because the feeling is a feeling. But it was…a big take of some kind.”
THE NEXT MORNING Whalen and his packers headed up the mountain, Philip riding on Mabel, who seemed now over her madness as she negotiated the trail with subdued expertise. Once he was set up in the cabin, Whalen took out his writing notebooks and books and set his writing desk in the south window facing the high Neve and Colonial glaciers across Diablo Lake…Unlike his short Sourdough stint in ’54 or his time on Sauk in ’53, which had been bracketed by weeks of trail-crew work, Philip’s mountaintop solitude in 1955 would be long and uninterrupted- a full nine weeks.
OVER THE COURSE of the summer, Philip had ample time to think about and integrate the experiences of his spring peyote trips. At the party where he had first taken it, he had eaten three buds-not dried buttons, but three fresh buds from whole, still-living plants that had been shipped in a cardboard packing case from a mail-order botanic company in Texas. On Sourdough in July Philip still had a vivid recollection of the dreadful taste-like eating soap-but surprisingly he hadn’t thrown up, even though he had had some slices of pepperoni pizza and a couple of beers on top of it, according to the morning-after account he had written Snyder. After nearly two hours without any discernible effects, Philip had gone back alone to Harry Lamley’s subterranean apartment, feeling “generally depressed and dissatisfied,” but no sooner had he gotten by himself than he noticed “the shadows began to glow faintly.”
INSTINCTIVELY, PHILIP had headed for his bed “and was immediately rapt away.” For most of the next twelve hours he had lain on his mattress, not exactly hallucinating, but going forth and returning from an intense “identification” with the mighty Hindu god Vishnu-“enormously powerful but divinely, consciously resting.” To Gary he wrote: “I was the giant Vishnu on the waters, while in my belly there was a cold, brilliant sun.” To feel this recurring identity with Vishnu, the great worker and sustainer and guardian of the dharma seemed highly auspicious. Also, it took Philip back to his first serious interest in Vedantist philosophy ten years before, and even earlier, back to when, as a boy in The Dalles he had first read Lin Yutang’s accounts of the Vedic heroes.
PHILIP’S PEYOTE trip had lasted from midnight April 22 until noon the following day, although it was difficult to say exactly when the drug completely wore off. During that time, Whalen had slept, awoke, and slept again; at times he felt himself dreaming yet remained consciously self aware. At other points he lay awake, sweating profusely while watching vivid projections of himself in the midst of various ceremonial rites. “Sometimes I was a pillar of the temple, sometimes one of the priests, sometimes the idol of the god before whom the ceremony took place. A couple of times I was the bound & mutilated fertility god, high on the oak while the priests circled round, wailing and doing the limping dance-Then I was born several times. I was a great tortoise, then I was Ganesha.”
ALTHOUGH HIS BODY had jerked and tremored uncontrollably at times during his trip, reminding him of descriptions he’d read of insulin shock therapy, Philip’s experience with peyote, both in April and again in June, had been remarkably positive. Despite his periodic depressions over the years and his always self-deprecating remarks about his grip on reality, Philip’s psyche actually seemed to have been quite sound. If nothing else, he had proven on Sauk and Sourdough that he was at least capable of sitting still and watching his mind for long periods.
RESPONDING TO HIS FRIEND’S account of his trip, Gary wrote: “There’s no doubt about it, Peyotl is pure magic. But what it does for you, I’m convinced, depends, just like the Indians say, on how pure your heart is. You must have a very pure heart. I never doubted it.”
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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