Kerouac Desolated

May 3: Jack Kerouac's Desolation Angels was published this day in 1965. The title and many of the events were based on the summer of 1956, which Kerouac spent as a firewatcher on Desolation Peak in the Cascade Mountains of Washington State. Hoping that the mountaintop job would clear his mind and body, Kerouac took with him only one book, The Buddhist Bible, and no tobacco. After a week he was smoking cigarettes rolled from coffee grounds and, as described in this passage from the novel, still a long way from inner peace:

Yes, for I'd thought in June, hitch-hiking up there to Skagit Valley in northwest Washington for my fire lookout job, "When I get to the top of Desolation Peak and everybody leaves on mules and I'm alone I will come face to face with God or Tathagata and find out once and for all what is the meaning of all this existence." But instead I'd come face to face with myself, no liquor, no drugs, no chance of faking it but face to face with ole Hateful Duluoz Me. 

At the end of the summer of 1956, Kerouac moved on to Mexico and then Morocco. At the end of the next summer, On the Road was published, and Kerouac was on the fast track to being spokesman for a generation. In the early sixties, as he reworked the autobiographical plot of Desolation Angels, he included references to his "horror of literary notoriety." The following moment from the novel occurs as Kerouac/Duluoz is in Arizona, bound for Mexico—"hiking under a full moon at 2 a.m." until the police stop him for a few questions:

They put spotlights on me standing there in the road in jeans and workclothes, with the big woeful rucksack a-back, and they asked: —"Where are you going?" which is precisely what they asked me a year later under television floodlights in New York, "Where are you going?"—Just as you cant explain to the police, you cant explain to society "Looking for peace."


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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