©Jerry Bauer

By Jim Jones*

If you are from the Northwest or you were living in the area when you read Jack Kerouac’s classic postwar adventure novel, On the Road, you may have noticed that late in the novel Dean Moriarty writes to his "old man in jail in Seattle" (252), a suggestion that the infamous Neal Cassady’s father once lived here. Maybe you ate in Jack’s Restaurant in Ballard, where there was a parking space reserved for "Mr. Kerouac." Or perhaps you have seen Vincent Balestri’s excellent one-man show, Kerouac, which played at the Velvet Elvis in Pioneer Square from 1994 through 1998, the latest in a series of local theater productions based on Jack’s life and works. You have undoubtedly heard rumors of the George Washington-slept-here variety that Kerouac used to hole up in the Jell-O-Mold building or drink at the Blue Moon tavern, indications of his legendary presence in the city. Perhaps you have even been fortunate enough to hear jazz poet and painter Ted Joans or to meet the Beat artist Robert LaVigne, both of whom knew Kerouac and now live in Seattle.

Those who have read more of Kerouac’s twenty published books, particularly The Dharma Bums, Desolation Angels, Lonesome Traveler, and Book of Blues, the four in which he discusses the Northwest at length, are aware that Jack spent about two months in the summer of 1956 as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak on the east side of Ross Lake in the North Cascades. It has now become de rigeur for the more physically fit Kerouac fanatic to make a pilgrimage to the many-windowed cabin in which the author spent sixty-three days confronting his demons. In the summer of 1996, the local paper featured an article by a recent Desolation fire-watcher about her experience spending a summer in the cabin (Maureen O’Neill, "Keeping Company with Kerouac," Seattle Times, 9 June 1996: Pacific sec. 20), and in April 1998 Bravo aired a profile of Kerouac featuring Boston photographer John Suiter, who argues there and in a recent (March/April 1998) article in Sierra magazine that Jack’s experience on Desolation Peak was a watershed in his life, the turning point into despair that embittered the fame that followed the publication of On the Road in September 1957.

As far as I can tell from his own writing, Jack Kerouac spent only two nights in Seattle, one June 20, 1956, on his way up to report at the Marblemount station of the U.S. Forest Service, and the other Wednesday, September 12, on his way back down to San Francisco and "south in the direction of my intended loving arms of senoritas" (Desolation Angels 7). By his own account, he slept both times in the old Stevens Hotel at the northeast corner of Marion and First Avenue, which was torn down in the early 1970s to make way for the new Federal Building. Kerouac was encouraged to apply for the fire lookout job by two writers who had grown up in the Northwest, Philip Whalen and Gary Snyder, whom Jack met in San Francisco in the fall of 1955. Both Whalen, who went to high school in The Dalles, and Snyder, whose parents owned a small farm south of Seattle, had worked for the Forest Service in previous summers. The two met while attending Reed College in Portland and subsequently migrated south along with their roommate Lew Welch to become important figures in the San Francisco Renaissance. Kerouac’s letters to Whalen and Snyder during the winter of 1955-56 document both his eager anticipation of his wilderness experience and the facts of his journey west.

On February 7, 1956, less than a month after he finished the composition of Visions of Gerard, his paean to his dead older brother, Kerouac wrote to Whalen from his sister’s home in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, to say that he had just received "an offer to be the Lookout on Desolation Peak in Mt. Baker National Forest" and to thank him for his recommendation (Letters 547). Apparently, Whalen had applied for a lookout job himself, and Kerouac looked forward to hitchhiking up the coast with his new buddy. On March 8, Jack wrote to Snyder, who had sent him his drawing of the peak just to the north of Desolation, Mount Hozomeen, which Kerouac felt had "a jagged sharp menacing look" (Letters 567), prophetic of Hozomeen’s role in Kerouac’s soul-searching of the coming summer. The day before he left North Carolina, Jack wrote to Carolyn Cassady that he felt this was "a crucial moment but a JOYOUS moment" in his life (Letters 572).

Instead of making a bee-line to the Bay Area, where he was supposed to meet editor Malcolm Cowley to discuss the revision of On the Road, Jack took the long way to the West Coast by way of El Paso, eventually joining Snyder in a small cabin in Mill Valley, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, and missing Cowley in the process. The two men spent several weeks discussing Buddhism, partying, and hiking the mountain trails of Marin County. One fine California spring night Kerouac carefully composed his imitation sutra, The Scripture of the Golden Eternity, and a few weeks later, imitating James Joyce, dashed off a spontaneous, stream-of-consciousness creation story called Old Angel Midnight. Snyder, whose grandfather had been a Wobbly organizer, further indoctrinated Kerouac in the history and lore of the Northwest and commemorated his friend’s presence in the poem "Migration of Birds," which bears the date April 1956 (subsequently published in Rip-Rap). After Gary left for Japan in May, Jack wrote him to say that he had been "called to show up on June 25" at Marblemount ranger station in the North Cascades and that he was resolved to spend his time on the mountaintop drug-free (Letters 582). Before he left, however, Kerouac also met the poet Robert Creeley and became implicated in Creeley’s affair with the wife of Kenneth Rexroth, which unfairly earned Jack a powerful literary enemy.

On June 18, 1956, Kerouac began hitchhiking north on the breathtaking coast highway, arriving in Crescent City, California, at dawn the next day after an all-night ride. Jack spent his second night on the road in his sleeping bag on the outskirts of Eugene, Oregon, and in the morning he caught his first sight of the Cascades. In The Dharma Bums he describes the third day of his trip with a wonderful economy of detail:

In downtown Portland I took the twenty-five-cent bus to Vancouver Washington, ate a Coney Island hamburger there, then out on the road, 99, where a sweet young mustached one-kidney Bodhisattva Okie picked me up and said "I’m so proud I picked you up, someone to talk to," and everywhere we stopped for coffee he played the pinball machines with dead seriousness and also he picked up all hitchhikers on the road, first a big drawling Okie from Alabama then a crazy sailor from Montana who was full of crazed intelligent talk and we balled right up to Olympia Washington at eighty m.p.h. then up Olympic Peninsula on curvy woodsroads to the Naval Base at Bremerton Washington where a fifty-cent ferry ride was all that separated me from Seattle!(The Dharma Bums 220)

His entry into the city by ferry at dusk provides an occasion for some classic Kerouac prose. Gary Snyder, by the way, appears in the novel in the guise of Japhy Ryder:

…I went topdeck as the ferry pulled out in a cold drizzle to dig and enjoy Puget Sound. It was one hour sailing to the Port of Seattle and I found a half-pint of vodka stuck in the deck rail concealed under a Time magazine and just casually drank it and opened my rucksack and took out my warm sweater to go under my rain jacket and paced up and down all alone on the cold fog-swept deck feeling wild and lyrical. And suddenly I saw that the Northwest was a great deal more than the vision I had of it of Japhy in my mind. It was miles and miles of unbelievable mountains grooking on all horizons in the wild broken clouds, Mount Olympus and Mount Baker, a giant orange slash in the gloom over the Pacific-ward skies that led I knew toward the Hokkaido Siberian desolations of the world. I huddled against the bridgehouse hearing the Mark Twain talk of the skipper and wheelman inside. In the deepened dusk fog ahead the big red neon saying: PORT OF SEATTLE. And suddenly everything Japhy had ever told me about Seattle began to seep into me like cold rain, I could feel it and see it now, and not just think it. It was exactly like he’d said: wet, immense, timbered, mountainous, cold, exhilarating, challenging. The ferry nosed in at the pier on Alaskan Way and immediately I saw the totem poles in old stores and the ancient 1880-style switch goat with sleepy firemen chug chugging up and down the waterfront spur like a scene from my own dreams, the old Casey Jones locomotive of America, the only one I ever saw that old outside of Western movies, but actually working and hauling boxcars in the smoke gloom of the magic city. (The Dharma Bums)

Here I must confront the local legend that Kerouac slept in the Jell-O-Mold building, located on Western Avenue at Bell Street, when it was the Empire Hotel. Not only does Kerouac name the Stevens Hotel by name in two novels, but common sense suggests that a man with a large pack would prefer to walk the three blocks from the ferry terminal to First and Marion rather than trudge the entire length of the waterfront in search of a flop. Besides, in the 1950s the Stevens Hotel, which was built in the 19th century, featured a large lighted sign on its roof that would have been as clearly visible to Kerouac from the ferry as the "Port of Seattle" neon he noticed on top of the Bell Street Terminal far to the north. This is not to say that Kerouac never slept in the Jell-O-Mold building, only that his residence there is at present a legend rather than an established fact.

After only one night at the Stevens, where for a dollar and seventy-five cents he got a room, a hot bath, and a good, long sleep, Jack headed out. On First Avenue—thrift store fans will be pleased to read—he "found all kinds of Goodwill stores with wonderful sweaters and red underwear for sale." Before hitting the road he "had a big breakfast with five-cent coffee in the crowded market morning with blue sky and clouds scudding overhead and waters of Puget Sound sparkling and dancing under old piers." Relishing his first taste of the "real true Northwest," he packed up his purchases in his rucksack, checked out of the Stevens, and "walked out to 99 a few miles out of town" on June 21, 1956. The palpable excitement of his initial visit pervades these descriptions of Kerouac’s first few hours in Seattle.

In Lonesome Traveler, a collection of short pieces published in 1960,Kerouac presented his impressions of the city that summer in a paragraph of travelogue that still rings true over forty years later:

Anybody who’s been to Seattle and missed Alaskan Way, the old water front, has missed the point washing under old piers, the dark gloomy look of ancient warehouses and pier shed, and the most antique locomotives in America switching boxcars up and down the water front, give a hint, under the pure cloud-mopped skies of the Northwest, of great country to come. Driving north from Seattle on Highway 99 is an exciting experience because suddenly you see the Cascade Mountain rising on the northeast horizon, truly Komo Kulshan [the Nooksack words for "white, shining, steep mountain," their name for Mount Baker] under their uncountable snows. huge rock twisted and heaped and sometimes almost spiraled into fantastic unbelievable shapes. (Lonesome Traveler 119)

Kerouac’s lengthy repetition of his experience on Desolation Peak in four different books—accounts all drawn presumably from the same journal—gives some indication of the importance of the spiritual crisis he endured in the course of sixty-three days alone on the mountaintop. In The Dharma Bums, where the experience concludes the novel, his description is positively uplifting, while the account of the same period in Lonesome Traveler is more detached and reportorial. Taking its title from the mountain peak on which it opens, Desolation Angels begins as The Dharma Bums ends, but by contrast with the earlier novel it tells a horror story of two months of isolation in which Jack Duluoz, the Kerouac character, ruminating on the anniversary of the deaths of his brother (in 1926) and his father (in 1946), delves deep into his own personality only to find that he hates himself (Desolation Angels 61). In the "7th Chorus" of "Desolation Blues" (alluding to Gary Snyder’s translation of Cold Mountain Poems) he expresses his desperate desire: get down
Off this Chinese Han Shan hill
...and make it
To the city & walk the streets
And drink good wine (Book of Blues 123)

Needless to say, his mood on returning to Seattle is tinged by his sense of relief at having survived his dark night of the soul and arrived safely back in society.

Thanks to a factual reference in Desolation Angels we can ascertain the exact date of Kerouac’s return: Wednesday, September 12, 1956. You may have noticed in the passages I quoted previously that Kerouac tends both to identify those features of the landscape that have personal meaning—such as the switch engines on the docks—and to universalize the scene as somehow symbolic of all America. He continues to follow this practice on his return trip, when his ride to town drops him off near the University of Washington campus, which he dismisses as "all right and pretty Eternal." Wasting no time on the "all right" college scene, Jack takes "the first bus into downtown Seattle" (Desolation Angels 101), calling into question the factual basis of the legend of his regular drinking at the Blue Moon on 45th Street. Downtown he finds:

... old ships of sea water with ancient scows in em, and red sun sinks behind the masts and shedrooves, that’s better, I understand that, it’s old Seattle of the fog, old Seattle the city in the shroud, old Seattle I’d read about as a kid in Blue Books for Men all about the old days a hundred men breaking into the embalmer’s cellar and drinking embalming fluid and all dying, and all being Shanghaied to China that way...the Seattle of ships—ramps—clocks—totem poles—old locomotives switching on the waterfront—steam—smoke—SkidRow, bars—Indians—the Seattle of my boyhood vision I see there in rusted old junkyard with old non color fence leaning in a general maze. (Desolation Angels 101)

Kerouac’s own account of his second visit continues in this way:

I go all the way down to First Avenue and turn left, leaving the shoppers and the Seattleites behind, and lo! Here’s all humanity hep and weird wandering on the evening sidewalk amazing me outa my eyeballs—Indian girls in slacks, with Indian boys with Tony Curtis haircuts—twisted—arm in arm—families of old Okie fame just parked their car in the lot, going down to the market for bread and meat—Drunks—The doors of bars I fly by incredible with crowded sad waiting humanity, fingering drinks and looking up at the Johnny Saxton-Carmen Basilio fight on TV—And bang! I realize it’s Friday night all over America.... (Desolation Angels 101-102)

In fact, the Saxton-Basilio rematch, in which Carmen Basilio recaptured the world welterweight championship with a TKO in the ninth round, was a Wednesday night fight, but Kerouac transposes it in order to evoke the characteristic American excitement at the beginning of the weekend, the same time as he had set Old Angel Midnight: "Friday afternoon in the universe" (1). Kerouac goes into a bar, sets his pack down on the floor, and orders a beer. Watching the bout, he identifies with the loser’s brains and attributes to the other patrons Basilio’s guts. Realizing that their drinking may ultimately lead to a barroom brawl in imitation of the televised fight, he warns himself: "You gotta be a nutty wild masochistic Johnny O New York to go to Seattle and take up fistfighting in bars!" (Desolation Angels 103). Immediately, he makes a haiku-like resolution:

A night in Seattle.
Tomorrow, the road to Frisco.

After again paying $1.75 for a night in the same Stevens Hotel and getting settled in his room, Duluoz, taking up a poignant theme explored in both The Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels and continued in the twelve choruses of "Desolation Blues," pauses a moment for a Buddhist reflection on what he has just seen:

Ah Seattle, sad faces of the human bars, and you don’t realize you’re upsidedown Your sad heads, people, hang down in the unlimited void, you go skipplering around the surface of streets and even in rooms, upsidedown, your furniture is upsidedown and held by gravity, the only thing prevents it from all flying off is the laws of the mind of the universe, God—.... (Desolation Angels 103)

As he often does, Kerouac moves rapidly from the sublime to the ridiculous. In a shop where he has gone to buy a Sporting News and a copy of Time to catch up on events in the world he has been absent from for over two months, he remarks on the racks full of "a thousand girlie books" (Desolation Angels 103). Naturally, he finds that he is extremely horny, and on the way back to his room to read he passes a burlesque house and resolves to spend the evening there. This was probably the Rivoli, "the city’s last grand burlesque house" (Paul Dorpat, 1st Ave. $1, 33), which was still offering live shows in the 1950s on the opposite end of the block from the Stevens Hotel.

As you can well imagine, like most cities Seattle has not been careful to preserve its erotic history. Fortunately, I found an antique dealer on Alaskan Way who had a copy of a brown paper packet sold by the Rivoli Theater in the early 1950s. I have tried to correlate the photos of the strippers with the text of Kerouac’s description of his visit to the show, reprinted in 1957 in the Evergreen Review, the first of the underground magazines to go mass market (I,4:106-112), and in 1963 in the influential anthology The Moderns, edited by LeRoi Jones, as "Seattle Burlesque." To my mind, this is one of Kerouac’s best set-pieces:

Aw, they’ve got little Sis Merriday up there, girl from across the bay, she oughtnt be dancing in no burlesque, when she shows her breasts (which are perfect) nobody’s interested because she aint thrown out no otay hipwork—she’s too clean—the audience in the dark theater, upside down, want a dirty girl—And dirty girl’s in back getting upsidedown before her stagedoor mirror—.... (Desolation Angels 105)

They bring her out, the Spanish dancing girl, Lolita from Spain, long black hair and dark eyes and wild castanets and she starts stripping, casting her garments aside with an "Ole!" and a shake of her head and showing teeth, everybody eats in her cream shoulders and cream legs and she whirls around the castanet and comes down with her fingers slowly to her cinch and undoes the whole skirt, underneath’s a pretty sequined virginity-belt, with spangles, she jams around and dances and stomps and lowers her haid-hair to the floor and... That Lolita goes slumming around then ends up at the side-drape revealing her breast-bras but wont take them off.... (Desolation Angels 106)

... Seattle’s own redhead Kitty O’Grady...she’s tall and got green eyes and red hair and minces around...Pretty Miss O’Grady, I can see her bassinets...the beauty spots on her cheek...she tries hard to be naughty but caint, goes off showing her breasts (that take up a whistle)...(Desolation Angels 107-108)

"And now—the Naughty Girl—Sarina!"…There’s a furor of excitement throughout the theater—She has slanted cat’s eyes and a wicked face—cute like a cat’s mustache—like a little witch—she comes slinking and bumping out to the beat… (Desolation Angels 108)

Duluoz, drunk and disappointed by the documentary films that separated the live shows ("Sawmills, dust, smoke, gray pictures of logs splashing in water, men with tin hats wandering in a gray rainy void and the announcer: "he proud tradition of the Northwest’—then followed by color pictures of water skiers… [Desolation Angel 110]), staggers into "the outside night air of Seattle, on a hill, by redbrick neons of the stagedoor" and falls into a fit of melancholy, despairing that no girl will want to sleep with such a drunken old bum—he was thirty-four at the time—as himself. To make matters worse, after a quick Chinese dinner, he gets on the elevator back at the hotel with a crippled man escorting a woman to his room, and later Duluoz hears them "creak the bed in the next room in real sexual ecstasy."
(Desolation Angels 111)

In the morning—presumably Thursday, September 13—complaining of blisters on his feet but not mentioning his probable hangover, Duluoz decides to take the bus to San Francisco , flush with his summer pay. Before checking out of the Stevens, however, he trudges up the hill out of Skid Row and finds "a splendid serve-yourself restaurant where you pour your own coffee as many time’s you want and pay that on an honor basis and get your bacon and eggs at the counter and eat at tables..." (Desolation Angels 113). Nothing testifies to Kerouac’s vitality in 1956 better than the power of cheap, simple food to restore his sagging spirits. After checking out of his hotel, Duluoz makes this observation:

Everything is so keen when you come down from solitude, I notice all Seattle with every step I take—I’m going down the sunny main drag now with pack on back and room rent paid and lotsa pretty girls eating ice cream cones and shopping in the 5 & 10—On one corner I see an eccentric paperseller with a wagon-bike loaded with ancient issues of magazines and bits of string and thread, an oldtime Seattle character "The Reader’s Digest should write about him," I think, and go to the bus station and buy my ticket to Frisco. (Desolation Angels 114)

After a brief infatuation with a waitress in a soda fountain near the bus Depot—another marvel of compression of detail to create a wistful, romantic mood—Dulouz boards his bus, which pulls out of Seattle and goes barreling south to Portland on swish-swish 99." (Desolation Angels 117)

In slightly less than three months in the Northwest, Kerouac spent a mere two days in Seattle, yet those two days impressed themselves indelibly on his writerly imagination as the appropriate frame for his profound experience on Desolation Peak. The Jack Kerouac who returned to the Stevens Hotel on the night of September 12, 1956, was not the same Jack Kerouac who arrived there in mid-June. A complex set of emotional circumstances came together during his two months on the mountaintop, leading to his confrontation with his own internal demons. He had been forced to abandon the illusion, which he had cherished for at least ten years, that like his fellow New Englander Thoreau, he could live a life of solitary meditation. Kerouac needed the excitement of social life more than he needed peace and quiet. Though his nine weeks without drugs or alcohol on Desolation Peak also seem to have convinced him that these substances were unnecessary and even harmful to his spiritual pursuits (Desolation Angels 96), he began to drink in desperate earnest when he came down. Less than a year later the publication of On the Road thrust Kerouac into the unflattering light of the national media as "The King of the Beatniks." From that moment, which ought to have marked the pinnacle of his long struggle to reach the status of literary artist, it was all downhill, leading to his early death from alcoholism in 1969. Kerouac’s visit to the Northwest was the prelude to his fall, and as always in his writing, he managed to record the good, bad, and indifferent moments of his two days in Seattle with a fidelity and vividness that make them symbolic. To this day—and probably for a long time to come—his descriptions of the city resonate with readers around the world because of Kerouac’s ability to forge from simple, subjective values a universal truth.

*Excerpted from Jack Kerouac’s Nine Lives: Essays by Jim Jones due out this month by Elbow/Cityful Press,