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Kerouwacked Part 2 7/19/22

Though published in 1957, Jack Kerouac had actually written On The Road in 1951. For six years he tried to find someone willing to publish it, and the years of rejection caused severe depression and alcoholism. Always financially insecure, never able to settle down in one place for long, he wanted, and desperately needed, to have someone acknowledge the value of his work. Until that happened, he had to keep moving. It was his character Dean Moriarty who said the words, but it was Jack who actually wrote them:

“Sal, we gotta go and never stop going till we get there.”

“Where we going, man?”

“I don’t know but we gotta go.”

Remember the Six Gallery on Fillmore Street in San Francisco, where the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance began in 1955? That very night Jack had been introduced to poet Gary Snyder. Snyder was a Zen Buddhist who ended up spending several years in Japan studying Buddhism and the Japanese language, and when he introduced Jack to Buddhism Jack thought it might be the solution to his depression and jumped in with both feet. Gary had spent a couple of summers as a fire watch in the Cascade Mountains of Washington State and encouraged Jack to apply for a job there. He touted the experience as an opportunity for Jack to write, practice his newly-learned Buddhism, and generally sort himself out while getting paid to do absolutely nothing. In the early months of 1956, while staying at his sister’s house in North Carolina, Jack received word that his application for a summer job as a fire lookout in northern Washington was successful.

Jack soon headed back west and spent most of that spring living in a cabin on Gary’s property in Marin County having lots of wacky experiences. This guy Gary, of course, was from Oregon. He was a graduate of Reed College in Portland who went on to become famous himself, at least among other poets. This probably goes without saying but, as his Wikipedia entry describes him, he is a poet and environmental activist with anarchoprimitivist leanings. Well, duh. Anyway, Snyder was the one most responsible for turning Kerouac into a dharma bum and setting him on the road to being a zen master. It was a road that Jack eventually ended up abandoning, but it made for an interesting book. Jack’s description of Gary’s home life in his book The Dharma Bums has been credited with inspiring people to imitate his bohemian lifestyle in the 1960’s, leading to a veritable explosion of hippies, and communes, and hippies in communes, and all the other weird stuff that went along with those things. The fact that it was all instigated by an Oregonian, especially one with anarchoprimitivist leanings, is pretty neato. Gary Snyder is still alive, by the way, well into his 90’s. But that summer he left for Japan, Kerouac headed to his mountain, and they never saw each other again.

So Jack went up that mountain, Desolation Peak, in the summer of 1956, hoping to find answers. He literally expected an epiphany, after which he wouldn’t have to keep searching. “I will come face to face with God…” he wrote in Desolation Angels. But there was no epiphany. “What did I learn... I learned that I hate myself because by myself I am only myself and not even that…”. The whole experience was actually the beginning of the end for Jack. He realized that Buddhism required him to give up everything he lived for, and he couldn’t survive without the excitement and drama of city life surrounded by other people. His failure to find the meaning of life only deepened his depression and even before On The Road was published he was headed down a path that he could never get off of.

Since Jack had already looked and found nothing, it would be silly of me to go to Desolation Peak now and try to find the secret to life. So, that’s what I did. Maybe Jack just hadn’t been looking in the right spot? I had Mrs. Ednold with me, of course, in case I did find it and needed some help carrying it back down the hill.

When Jack went there, he had hitchhiked from San Francisco. After an encounter with “a fat cowboy in a gravel truck” in Grants Pass, he spent the night under the stars outside of Eugene. The next morning in Junction City he got a ride from a “funny lighthaired housepainter with spattered shoes and four pint cans of cold beer”. Know what? My grandpa was a housepainter. He had spattered shoes and he was funny. He lived in Springfield at that time, but he was originally from Aloha and often drove up Highway 99 to see his family, and it was not unheard of for him to drink cold beer, at least when grandma wasn’t around. Now, I’m not saying that grandpa was the guy who gave Kerouac that ride to Portland, but… My grandpa gave Jack Kerouac a ride to Portland!

I had really wanted us to hitchhike to Desolation Peak just to get the feel of what it must have been like for Jack. But Mrs. Ednold has a strange aversion to being brutally murdered and dumped on the side of the road, so I had to settle for driving us there myself. And Jack had gotten a ride to Bremerton, where he took the ferry over to Seattle. I saw no reason to make things that complicated, so we just stayed on I-5, a convenience that wasn’t available in 1956 (President Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act four days after Jack reported for work). Jack spent a memorable night in Seattle at the Stevens Hotel on First Street, so that would be our first stop. Alas, the “good clean skid row hotel” where he got a room for $1.75 was torn down in 1970, a year after Jack’s death, and replaced by a slick, boring, sky-scraping federal building, and all traces of it being a part of town that he would

have found appealing are gone.

There is no evidence that Jack ever visited the Pike Place Market while he was in Seattle, but I believe there are very strict rules now requiring all outsiders to stop there during their visit to the city, so that was our next stop. I don’t know what Kerouac would have thought of the market, but I like to think he would have enjoyed the gum wall just outside. It’s pretty disgusting, but in an artsy kind of way that he would have appreciated, especially after a few bottles of wine. In his honor, Mrs. Ednold and I each made ceremonial contributions to the wall. Not only is it fun to look at, but on the way back to the car you can play a game taking turns listing, in alphabetical order, the various diseases you may have just been exposed to while you were there.

After just a few short hours of sitting in the gridlocked Seattle traffic we were back on our way to the mountains, and a few hours after that we had found a hotel room of our own for considerably more than $1.75. We dropped off our bags, washed up, and headed out to do a little more exploring.

North Cascades National Park was established in 1968 and now the place where Jack spent that summer of ‘56 is part of the park that goes right up to the Canadian border. We were so close to the border, in fact, that the little town of Custer wasn’t too far away. Custer is the place where Loretta Lynn lived before she got famous and moved to Nashville, and she and her band played in the little towns of northwest Washington in the late 50’s. While Jack was in his cabin on top of a mountain looking for answers, Loretta was taking care of four kids during the day and singing in bars at night trying to find a way out of her own hand-to-mouth situation just down the road. There’s almost nothing to see in Custer, but Tony’s Tavern was hoppin’. There were more cars parked outside than there are residents in the town.

I parked The Bucket across the street and as I walked over to see if they had room for two more, I daydreamed that it was Open Mic Night at Tony’s and Mrs. Ednold and I got up and sang a duet of “You’re The Reason Our Kids Are Ugly”. The whole place went wild, and as I was explaining to everyone that our kids really aren’t ugly a man walked out of the crowd and signed us to a recording contract and told us we’d have to move to Nashville. Thank god, when I opened the door and snapped out of it, I saw they really didn’t have room for us. It would have taken a shoehorn to fit any more people inside, likely saving us from what would have been a very disruptive move to Tennessee. We drove around the two blocks that make up the town of Custer and saw a couple of places that looked like they may have been former residences of the Lynn family, but there was no way to be sure.

Next morning we made the scenic drive east on Highway 20 that follows the Skagit River up into the mountains. It was cool and drizzly as we made the hour-long gradual climb up a surprisingly straight road to the town of Marblemount, which bills itself as the “Entrance to the American Alps”, a claim that sounded a little ambitious at the time. The Oregon version of Highway 20 could learn a few things from its Washington counterpart, and it’s beautiful the whole way, with mountains to the north, south, and east, and occasional alpine meadows opening up to allow for farms and small communities. Marblemount is the place where Jack reported to work on June 25 and spent the following week learning to dig fire trenches, put out small fires, and all the other stuff he needed to know before taking his position on top of the mountain. We didn’t see a likely spot where Jack might have stayed during this time, and I’m pretty sure those buildings were replaced when the National Park Service took over administration in 1968.

We continued up the Skagit Valley to the town of Newhalem, where the Visitor’s Center for the national park is located, and then further up to Diablo Lake and Ross Lake, both of which have been dammed to provide greater Seattle with electricity. In Jack’s time it was an ordeal to get from Newhalem to Ross Lake, where a boat deposited him and two others, along with their pack horses, for a day-long climb up the side of a mountain. For us, it was a matter of 30 or 40 minutes of fairly steep, windy (in both senses of the word) roads to reach the Ross Lake Viewpoint.

The view from up there was incredible. The morning's clouds and sprinkles down in the valley had given way to warm, blue skies in the mountains and we were surrounded by snow-capped peaks, even in the middle of July. We couldn’t see Desolation Peak from our vantage point, but we could make out the unmistakable silhouette of Hozomeen in the far northern distance. “Hozomeen, Hozomeen, most beautiful mountain I ever seen”, Kerouac wrote of the neighboring peak. The lake down below was the same opaque aqua-emerald the Skagit River had been on the way up. The slightly milky appearance of the water comes from the particles of rock the glaciers up above have pulverized on their way down. Not many people made the arduous trip to the area when Jack was there, but today the hikers, boaters and campers create a lot of traffic through the park, and there were many others beside us as we took in the views.

There used to be several fire lookout stations in the area, but now Desolation Peak is the only one regularly staffed. It’s still in the middle of nowhere, but the lookout gets hundreds of visitors each year, mostly people like me wanting to see the place where Jack spent that summer. We could have taken the water taxi up Ross Lake to the base of the peak and had less than a 7 mile hike straight up to the top. Or we could have just hiked in all the way from the highway, which is closer to 20 miles. We chose a third option - just standing at the viewpoint and looking north. We didn’t get the whole Kerouac-in-the-Cascades experience, but we came as close to it as we ever will at our age. I’m sure it’s not quite the same vista you’d get from the top of the mountain, but we did get the general sense of isolation and the feeling of insignificance that comes from natural surroundings that are all huge, and sturdy, and immortal. It’s awesome and intimidating at the same time, but I can’t say we came any closer to an epiphany than Jack did.

I wasn’t too surprised that we hadn’t found the meaning of life in North Cascades National Park. I would have been satisfied with the answers to some of life’s lesser questions like, if a tree falls in the forest does it make a sound if the one person who hears it fall is crushed beneath it? And, what the hell was it that Billie Joe McAllister and his girlfriend threw off the Tallahatchie Bridge? That’s been eating at me for years and if I could have returned just knowing that, I would have considered the trip a success. But, no, the answers were not in the mountains. There were no thunderbolts, no awakenings, no visions, but it’s a beautiful place and I think maybe if Jack could have just appreciated it for what it was, he might have returned happy and his life may have taken a different course.

Jack came down the mountain and stayed another night at the Stevens Hotel in Seattle on September 12,1956. Two days later he was listening to jazz with his friends in North Beach, San Francisco. But if he’d been in front of a TV on the 9th he’d have seen Elvis’ first appearance on Ed Sullivan. Within a year it would be a different world for both of them, and everyone else for that matter, but at the time he had no idea what was coming. Those two guys had both tossed their pebbles at about the same time, and the ripples they caused eventually combined to create a tidal wave. While Elvis enjoyed riding that wave for a while, Jack was completely blindsided by it, and eventually the wave swallowed both of them. Over the next several months Jack went to Mexico City for a while, then back to New York. Then to Morocco. Then Paris and London. Then he moved with his mother to Berkeley, where they received that box of On The Road first editions. On September 5, 1957 the book was released to the public and he became famous almost literally overnight.

Just two years later Maynard G. Krebs was one of the most popular characters on TV, trivializing the whole idea of what it meant to be "beat". It bugged Jack to see young people adopting artificial beat personas to act hip, knowing they'd missed the whole point of what he'd been trying to say. He'd been on a mission to find meaning, but he was just seen as the world's biggest slacker and the ultimate party animal. It must have really sucked.

Columnist Amanda Petrusich recently wrote that “At a certain point in a person’s life, liking Kerouac—and liking On the Road, especially—becomes embarrassing.” She makes it sound like it’s something I should have grown out of by now, but I haven’t. But I’m not embarrassed which, if you don’t know me, just might tell you everything you need to know. Apart from the beauty of his writing, I think my own attraction also has to do with how sad his own story is. Maybe this attempt to kindle a little appreciation for Jack will fail, especially since a few of my own family members have already informed me of their anti-Kerouac proclivities. And Jack certainly didn’t make it easy for anyone to commemorate him on his 100th birthday; as good as he was, and as influential as he became, in many ways he just wasn’t a very good guy. But stay with me till the end and give him a chance. At the risk of sounding like I’m making excuses for him, I’m going to make some excuses for him.

For one thing, writing was everything to him, and he was manic and uncompromising and totally committed in pursuit of his artistic goals. There is also some evidence that his later depression, strange behavior, and addictive personality may have been at least partially caused by the cumulative head trauma he suffered as a football player, in a car accident, and from getting beat up. Then there was his upbringing in the lower rungs of the economic ladder in Lowell, Massachusetts. His family had their origins in Quebec, so Jack, or Jean-Louis, as he was born, didn’t learn English until he started school and still had traces of a French accent into adulthood. He felt like an outsider in America and spent his life trying to prove he wasn’t just a “dumb canuck”.

Jack was a tortured soul from the time he was four years old and his older brother died of an incurable sickness. When Jack was 24 and just truly getting started in life, he nursed his father through a short, unsuccessful battle with stomach cancer. Later, his sister died of a heart attack at age 45. Two years later his mother had a stroke and spent the rest of her life as an invalid, though she outlived her son.

Whatever the cause, Jack could be hard to deal with. He loved women, but other than his mother he didn’t have much respect for any of them. He basically disowned his own daughter and refused to provide her any financial support while she was growing up because he didn’t have time for that kind of responsibility. Luckily, he didn’t have any children with his first wife, whom he only married because she was the only one willing to bail him out of jail after he’d been arrested for helping his friend cover up a murder. Yeah, his friend murdered a guy and threw him in the river and then got Jack to help him clean up the scene of the crime.

A few years later one of his other friends, while drunk at a party, told his wife to put a glass on her head and he’d shoot it off with his pistol. She did. He didn't. How intentional it was will never be known, but he missed and shot her right in the head! Neither of those Ivy League murderers served more than token time in jail, by the way. Another of his friends was decapitated when he crawled out the window of a moving subway car as it left the platform and entered the tunnel. And if you’ve read On The Road, then you know that Neal Cassady, the real life version of the character Dean Moriarty from the book, left his wife in San Francisco and picked up his ex-wife in Denver on the way to New York where he met Kerouac for the first time. Who does that? Even in Kerouac’s anything-goes crowd, Cassady was famous for having no boundaries and drew everyone’s attention because they never knew what he’d do next. If you can judge someone by the company they keep, then Jack should probably have gotten himself some new friends.

But that was the thing with Jack: It was all about the friends. In probably his most famous line of all, he says it himself: “...they danced down the street like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles…”

Jack didn’t finish school at Columbia. He met too many “mad” people to continue with anything as mundane as earning a degree. He spent the late 40’s traveling back and forth from east coast to west and back again, and many places in between, and by the end of the decade he was ready to sit down and start writing about all of his adventures. He got his first novel, a relatively tame semi-autobiography of his life in Lowell and New York City, published in 1950, but it was a flop. Even before it came out he knew it wasn’t in the style he really wanted to write.

He nearly drove himself to madness trying to find the right “voice” to tell his stories, and in April of 1951, Kerouac hung a roll of paper on a coat hanger above his typewriter and, over a three week period, produced a 100 foot long scroll draft of On The Road. Without the need to replace sheets of paper, typing 100 words a minute and stopping only to sleep and use the restroom and drink the coffee supplied by his wife, he “spontaneously” wrote his masterpiece. Jack did write some poetry, but his new style of prose was more poem-y than his poetry ever was.

(Jack and his second wife Joan - his first marriage was annulled in 1948 - were never happy together and the writer and the dutiful wife that had been there as he wrote split soon after the scroll was finished. But not before Joan became pregnant with the only child Jack would ever father. The path from that little apartment on West 20th Street in Manhattan to the place she spent the last 20 years of her life is too long and meandering to trace here, but it is interesting to note that Joan Kerouac eventually changed her last name to Stuart - not because anyone she knew had that name; she just liked the sound of it - and ended up living in… You guessed it! Eugene, Oregon, where she died in 1990. Jack’s daughter Jan died in 1996, but one of Joan’s daughters by her second husband is a successful real estate agent in Eugene today.)

His style was so different that Kerouac couldn’t find anyone who would put his new voice in print. And six years later, when he finally did, success proved even worse than the struggle to find it. When the book came out he was immediately anointed “The King of the Beats”, and felt completely misunderstood. He famously said “It ain't whatcha write, it's the way atcha write it", and, in my opinion, he was right. He could have written about tree stumps on a beach and it still would have been a work of art. The fact that he wrote about sex, drugs, and jazz music distracted people from the beauty of how it was written. Most people overlooked the style and focused on the subject matter, which understandably added to his madness after all the years he had spent finding that voice and getting it heard. He was annoyed that the whole “beat” attitude was commercialized and trivialized, and it really bugged him that people meeting him for the first time expected him to be the 25 year-old character from the book. He was never able to reshape his public image and be taken seriously, and he spent the last several years of his life admittedly trying to drink himself out of existence.

Actor Nick Nolte, who once appeared in a movie about Kerouac, read On The Road in high school and much later said "I remember thinking, 'You mean you can just do that? Pick up and go?' It seemed incredible to me." I’m pretty sure my father’s life would have been at least a little different if he’d never read that book. He picked up and went more than once, dragging his family behind, and we are all glad he did. So the book changed my own life, even without me reading it, which I did. Which only made a bad case of itchy feet even worse, which is why I’ve never even mentioned it to my own children: It’s dangerous.

Why get an education? Dean Moriarty didn’t have one. Why have a steady job? Dean Moriarty made his living stealing cars. Why have a spouse and a family? Dean didn’t, at least not in the conventional way. Why say no to drugs? Dean certainly never did that, either. Why stay in one place and settle down? Dean couldn’t and wouldn’t. Dean didn’t do any of the things people believe are necessary for a happy and fulfilling life, yet nobody was happier than he was. Nobody, but nobody, was getting more out of life than Dean Moriarty.

What’s not in the book is the fact that the real-life Dean, Neal Cassady, eventually preceded Kerouac to the Great Beyond when he collapsed and died on the railroad tracks just outside of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The cause of death was never definitively determined, but it’s safe to say the amount and variety of substances he had ingested over the years were a factor. Kerouac awakened people to the idea that there’s some Dean in all of us. Even if you don’t like his writing, he gets some credit for that, right? But it's a cautionary tale, and it’s up to us to figure out how to keep our Deans happy without ending up dead on the railroad tracks.

I feel I may not have done a very good job of selling you on the virtues of Jack Kerouac. Hopefully I haven't turned anyone off from at least giving him a chance, and for those of you who still aren't convinced, I have a few more aces up my sleeve. First, consider the fact that Kerouac inspired Maynard G. Krebs, who in turn was the inspiration for Shaggy, of Scooby Doo fame. Yep. No Jack, no Shaggy. Let that sink in for a minute, then listen to this. You can’t tell me the guy wasn’t onto something. If nothing else, you have to agree that Steve Allen could really tickle those ivories.

Then read this before you make up your mind for good. Early in 1957, in those few months after his time on the mountain before his book came out and made him a legend, Jack wrote a letter to his first wife where he tried to explain where he was at spiritually. A lot of it honestly doesn’t make much sense to me, but at the end of the letter he included a poem. It makes me think that maybe he had figured everything out, after all. Maybe the final dozen years of his life were such a mess because he really had found the answers but nobody would listen to him.

The world you see is just a movie in your mind.

Rocks don’t see it.

Bless and sit down.

Forgive and forget.

Practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you’re already in heaven now.

That’s the story.

That’s the message.

Nobody understands it, nobody listens, they’re all running around like chickens with heads cut off.

I will try to teach it but it will be in vain, s’why I’ll end up in a shack praying and being cool and singing by my woodstove making pancakes.

Mrs. Ednold has already nixed the idea of living in a shack, but if anybody likes pancakes you’re always welcome to drop by and be cool and sing with me.

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Gil Stewart
Gil Stewart
Jul 20, 2022

WOW.......I've never seen Jack K directed so well. As you conclude he was the one who seemed to give a lot of us fledgings permission to spread our wings.....even if we never acted it out the way he did. Well done.

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