“One should wander solitary as a rhinoceros horn.” – Rhinoceros Horn Sutta
“I am Lazarus, come from the dead,/Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all” – T.S. Eliot
Sixty-three days after his solitary stay on Desolation Peak, Jack Kerouac came down the mountain leaving behind him a “column of feces about the height and size of a baby.” Though Kerouac may not be everyman – at times he’s jubilant, at times morose, verbose, braggardly, brilliant, invariably drunk, incessantly dissecting, sullen, always writing, experimenting, vagabonding, observing minutely, oedipally strange, holy, obnoxious, and not infrequently full of shit – nonetheless, Jack’s ordinary failure in the wilderness is perhaps a more honest reckoning on the meaning of wilderness for us everyfolk than all the successful accounts written by the hard men of the great American Wilderness tradition.
In the summer of 1956, at the suggestion of beat-poet and Zen Buddhist Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac worked as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak in Washington State’s North Cascades. It’s a story he tells in Desolation Angels, a “chapter” of The Duluoz Legend, his sequence of thinly veiled autobiographical novels. Jack went to the mountain with big ambitions. Coming out of the wilderness a couple of months later he left behind that great mound of shit, and the carcass of a murdered mouse, Kerouac’s first kill (“it looked at me with ‘human’ fearful eyes”). But what had Kerouac taken away with him; taken down from the solitude to the cites and to his now famously garrulous writer friends? That is, what was the value of Jack’s time in the wilderness, to him or to us?
Kerouac was no ordinary nature poet; nor was he a rhapsodic wilderness advocate. Rather, Jack’s expectations for his wilderness experience thus come not from the American tradition, at least not directly. Rather they are formed by escapades with Snyder and by way of Snyder they came from Han Shan to whom Kerouac’s novel Dharma Bums is dedicated. At the beginning of Dharma Bums, (recording events that occurred in 1955-56) Kerouac describes visiting Japhy Ryder (i.e. Gary Snyder) in his shack near Berkeley and Japhy talks to him about the difficulty of translating Han Shan’s poem Cold Mountain from the original Chinese. Han Shan (AD 577 to 654) whose real name was Chih-yen was a poet of the Tang dynastic period (618 – 907). The poet abandoned his family in his middle years becoming a Buddhist monk withdrawing from a life of reasonable comfort and retreated to the inaccessible sanctuary of Cold Mountain (T’ien-t’ai Mountain) where he remained for thirty years. He once attempted a return, and upon discovering that half of those he loved had died he returned to Cold Mountain.
Jack is impressed with the similarities between Han Shan and Ryder. “That’s like you too, Japhy, studying with eyes full of tears.” Han Shan, Ryder said, was “a mountain man, a Buddhist dedicated to the principle of meditation on the essence of all things… he was a man of solitude who could take off by himself and live purely and true to himself.” Ray Smith (i.e. Kerouac) responded, “That sounds like you too.” “And like you too, Ray”, Ryder generously replied.
Han Shan’s story of retreat (and unsuccessful return) is Thoreau’s, Muir’s, and Abbey’s in the American tradition, but also with greater or less degrees of fidelity it is that of Jesus, the early Christian ascetics, and even that of the anonymous poets of the early Irish tradition (“Cold, cold!/Cold to-night is broad Moylurg,/Higher the snow than the mountain-range,/The deer cannot get at their food.”). Yeats as well, jaded from city life, replicated in the little microcosmos of Inisfree the familiar pattern: “Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee”. Even Nietzsche’s story shares in the grand tradition: the philology professor retired from the University of Basel in 1879 and retreats to the mountains for moutainy succor. Nietzsche’s most famous protagonist, Zarathustra, inaugurated his blistering attack on traditional morality by coming down from the mountain.
Off went Kerouac then inspired by Han Shan and encouraged by Snyder. Off went he to discover “the meaning of all this existence and suffering and going to and fro.” Off went ascetic, poetic, monkish Jack to the wilderness. Good ascetic that he is Jack has left behind liquor and drugs and plans to come face to face with God or at the very least face to face with himself.
When, eventually, he came down Jack did not descend from the mountain top, as other have before him, with a lesson that life is better, purer, living up there in that thin air, and that one should hastily return there. The mountain wilderness was for him a temporary retreat and not the destination. Nonetheless, dipsomaniacal Jack returned affected enough by the experience to devote the first part of Desolation Angels to it, a section he called Desolation in Solitude, and to make his time on the mountain the foil against which his more sociable times in Seattle and San Francisco could be assessed (Desolation in the World).
What specifically had Kerouac hoped to achieve on the mountainside? “There alone”, he proclaimed, “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 and suffering and going to and fro in vain…” And certainly his stint there was not without its pithy Buddhist insight, though perhaps he found little of the equanimity or the stolid and enduring insight that one finds in the accounts of ascetic masters such as Han Shan.
Without his provisions of booze and drugs, and subjected to unrelenting boredom, Jack comes to an insight that was significant enough that he records the time and date (afternoon of 8 August 1956) it descended upon him. Recognizing that the “void’ (this is Buddhist Jack influenced by Buddhist Gary) is not disturbed by life’s vicissitudes he wonders: “Why can’t I be like Hozomeen [the mountain]…and ‘take life as it comes’?” “Is Hozomeen bored?” Jack ponders. The mountain will pass too; it too is a “passing through” but unlike him the Void is “inexhaustibly fertile, beyond serenity, beyond even gladness, just Old Jack [the mountain] (not even that)…” Solid insight to be sure and one that Jack plans to bring down the mountain with him. “Hold still, man, regain your love of live and go down from the mountain and simple be — be — be the infinite fertilities of the one mind of infinity, make no comments, complaints, criticisms, appraisals avowals, sayings, shooting stars of thought… So shut up, live, travel, adventure, bless and don’t be sorry – Prunes, prunes, eat your prunes… it was only the Void pretending to be a man pretending not to know the Void.”
This was his big August insight – a grand seismic revelation, and there were other aftershocks of insight. For example, he prayed in August to “Awakener Avalokitesvara”, and came to understand that “[when] a baby is born he falls asleep and dreams the dream of life, when he dies and is buried in his grave he wakes up again to the Eternal Ecstasy”. And this nugget gave Jack some immediate peace… none of this phenomenal world really mattered. Not his woes, not his misgivings at having left his mother to care for herself in his absence. The world is only “recent”; “there are no awakeners and no awakened.”
There goes Jack: he had his big insights and had a set of principles with which to climb down the mountain, prune-juice tips and all, however, it was still only August and he had 30 long days to go before he got back to “sweet life.” Unlike imperturbable Hozomeen, the dome of Kerouac’s skull hosted memories which clamored “like tics all day perturbing my vital mind…”; memories of a Lowell childhood, sex fantasies inspired by crummy cowboy novels, replays of his solitaire card baseball game, reflections on ex-communists and so on. Mountains may endure, but Jack’s insights from the void prove to be fickle and hard to sustain. Jack sees a vision of Han Shan pointing to the east, yet when he looks “it is only Three Fools Creek in the morning haze…”.
The two poles of Jack’s solitary experience in his assessment of them are the noumena of the visionary moment – “what you see when your eyes are closed”, and the phenomena of endless hours watching out over the mountain – “what you see with your eyes open…the debris of one thousand hours… in a mountain shack”. Jack’s ambitions may have inclined towards the meditative peace of the noumenal, but much of the written account is an itemizing of the detritus of the world: his boredom made tangible in objects strewn about his mountain hut. Stoically he wondered “if my own travels down the Coast to Frisco and Mexico wont be just as sad and mad…” but underscoring just how frightful the experience on the mountain is, he continued: “but be bejesus j Christ it’ll be bettern hangin around this rock –”.
When Jack is not questing great noumenal visions or being crowded with memories or wailing about his boredom or engaged in a thousand other distractions and reactions, he finds the time to jot down some astute and lovely observations of nature on the mountain. He observes ‘two butterflies comport, with worlds of mountains as a backdrop.” Later, he reported on a ‘green alpine caterpillar comports in his heather world, a head like a pale dewdrop.” He reported on “Flights of gray birds [that] came merrying to the rocks of the yard, look around awhile, then start to peck at things…”. A bear came visiting and Jack observed “his big mysterious black horseshit by [his] garbage pit…”. These are not the observations of a seasoned naturalist: the descriptions do not come with taxonomic lists nor very precise anatomical descriptions (the caterpillar has “ugly many bud legs”), nor is Jack a remote, objective, observer chronicling nature’s ways from the remove of his hide. When the gray birds look up at a yellow butterfly, no doubt with predaceous eyes, Jack had “the urge to run out the door and yell ‘Y a a a h’…”. He restrained himself, exercising compassion for them one supposes, noting that yelling would “be a frightful imposition on their beating little hearts”. Jack’s nature studies are not self-contained natural history meditations – the pieces variously conclude with complaints of his boredom or drive towards a Buddhist maxim. To illustrate, his meditation of the caterpillar concludes with his cursing the rock that he’s been hanging around. The gray birds yield to thoughts of imprisonment and ends with Jack desiring an ice cream cone. The bear meditation ends with a premonition of the bear as Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva, who will soon “come out of the fog, huge, and come and stare in my window with big burning eyes.”
Desolation Angels cannot be read as a conventional natural history of the North Cascades, nonetheless, it is an ecological book containing observations on fire and ecosystems that anticipate the more technical discussions of the theme in later decades. The life of a fire watcher is more watch than fire. The whole point, of course, if for the watchers to direct the work of fire crews dispatched to quench the flames and protect the resource. But in section 32 Jack takes a sideswipe at his employer The Forest Service regarding the purpose of the enterprise. Testily he calls the service “a vague Totalitarian governmental effort to restrict the use of forest to people…” Angrily he declared, “result, net, is people all over the world are wiping their ass with beautiful trees.” Quite casually he remarked on an issue central to the management of fire. “As for lightening and fires, who, what American individual loses, when a forest burns, and what did Nature do about it for a million years up to now?” Where does this meditation lead? Not to a rethinking of the role of fires in ecosystems (as it shortly afterward does for advocates of the New Forestry. For Jack it leads to a contemplation of the “bottomless horror of the world.” Bottomless horror of the streets of America, of Mexico City, of Frisco; resignation from happiness, confession of his human failures, enviousness of the void.
What, after all, had Jack learned on the mountain? He confessed early in the second half of the novel that though he tried to bring down to the world the “Vision on Desolation Peak”, his friends being “involved in the strictures of time and life, rather than the eternity and solitude of the mountain snowy rocks, had a lesson to teach me themselves…” The world brushed aside his mountain wisdom. Besides, he conceded, the sorts of vision that “wilderness hermitage saints” have seen, and that he had seen “is of little use in cities and warring societies.” In fact, it is his very failure to bring with him a substantial message from the wilds that interests me. His Buddhist precepts were a consolation to him, and in his boredom and despair he tried to steady himself with visions of the Void. But these visions were perishable and were swamped by out competing memories and by the happenings in the phenomenal world. He exercised, as best he could, compassion for living things, although he killed a mouse, and tried to “murder” another. He made some stout observations on other beings and on fire and land management, though these often trailed off without conclusion. All this being said we are up there on Desolation Peak with Jack in a way that we can rarely be with other ascetic devotees. The account is honest, unvarnished. Like Leopold Bloom in Ulysses we are taken into the shitter (literally and metaphorically in both cases) with our protagonist while he craps and looks out upon the world (Bloom reads on the “jakes”, crapping Jack stares out across Lightening Gorge). Those of us who are social creatures – perhaps that is most of us – would fare, or have fared, no better than Jack I suspect. We’d go howling from the Void. We’d return to home with our hard won truths and would try to do the best we can with the world to which we’d returned. We’d be glad we’d gone up but we’d be happy to be down. We’d come back to tell the world, and they’d politely listen to our stories, view our snapshots, read our blog entries, humor us, and then hope we’d shut up and get on with it. Is this the real lesson of wilderness: that it cuts us off only to remind us that we can’t go back to the womb or the cradle? That mountainy phantasma only get us part of the way. Least this seem to sound too negative a chord, let me point out that part of the way is not no way at all.
Wu Chi-Yu 吳其昱 A Study of Han-shan – T'oung Pao, 1957
Dittman, M. J. Jack Kerouac: A Biography Greenwood; edition (August 30, 2004)
References are to Kerouac, J. Desolation Angels, Paladin Book 1990
 Desolation Angels, #48
 Ibid, p2
 Ibid p20
 Ibid p12
 Ibid p23
 Ibid p48