As I often do in the morning, I went to my bookcase to see what I felt impelled to bring down and open. This morning it was, Poets on the Peaks, by John Suiter, instructor at the New England School of Photography, and who apparently has a fascination with the Beats, as I do. His book covers the summers Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Jack Kerouac spent in fire lookout towers in the Cascades during the mid-1950's and the literary lives they began to develop there.
I've always been intrigued by fire towers and those who kept watch. I once had a yearning to spend time on a mountain keeping watch myself. The idea of being in a remote location with the wilderness for company seemed like it might be a good way to spend a summer. There was a job to do, and loneliness would need to be let go of, perhaps repeatedly, but still I held on to this romantic notion that fed into my love of the wild. At the time I thought of myself as a budding poet who might find her muse waiting for her there much like these fine writers did.
When I was a teenager friends would come up north from Iowa to spend a couple of weeks each summer and we would spend our days driving around on the back roads in their little red Volkswagen Bug looking for then unoccupied fire towers to climb. We hung out at the top, carved our initials into the wooden steps, and surveyed our wooded kingdom. The vertigo that sometimes catches me never showed its face. I felt no fear at the height or the openness of those towers. I felt free, like anything was possible.
One of the early chapters in the book begins with this paragraph, words that sing for me:
In June of 1953, Gary Snyder was back in the Skagit, this time assigned to the lookout on Sourdough Mountain. As he had done the year before, Gary hitchhiked up from San Francisco to Portland first, where he stopped off to visit his mother and catch up on old friends for a week before moving north. On a whim he bought a battered 1937 Model A Ford from a man in Portland and drove up Highway 99 to Burlington and then out to Marblemount, where he sold it for $25 to Harold Vail's brother Roger.
There's something about the time, the name places, the Model A ... I spent a few very young summers sitting in one parked at the edge of our field, pretending to be on some journey to a far away corner of the world. The places I went.
I knew a lot about Jack but this book taught me more about Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen, two writers I had often thought I should get to know better. This gets to the heart of their experiences, especially Snyder and how those summers helped give shape to his life. They were all so young then - early to mid-twenties - with life just starting to unfold before them.
Poets on the Peaks, is about summers in lookout towers, writing and fine literature. It's about Zen Buddhism, solitude and learning to be alone. It's about really Seeing. For Snyder it was a natural fit. He said, regarding the solitude he had always been drawn to:
When I was eleven or twelve, I would sometimes make up a pack and go out for a night or two and camp in the woods by myself, just walk from our house out into the forest. I liked solitude... That's the way you learn, by sitting still and being quiet in nature. Then things start happening around you."
Life on these lookout mountains broke everything down to the essentials. It's a notion that still appeals to me. That, and the infinite beauty they surely found there.
I don't think I would like to be in my twenties again. I like being here with a body of experience to draw from still willing to look at all the possibilities, possibilities that have nothing to do with how many times the earth has revolved around the sun but have everything to do with that willingness. I like being open to exploring life, where every day offers some new discovery no matter how small. And I want to learn to remain calm regardless of what is swirling around me, to still those voices of uncertainty, to find that perfect center where peace lives.
During the time Gary Snyder spent on Sourdough a man named Blackie Burns was the de facto in charge person for the local Forest Service. He spoke in, shall we say, colorful colloquialisms. Of Snyder he said:
I like that boy Snyder on Sourdough. He's a calm son of a bitch.
P.S. Gary Snyder, shown in the photos above, won, among other literary prizes, the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for, Turtle Island. Now in his 80's, he still lives pretty much off the grid in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in northern California.
The title of this post is a song written by Bob Dylan.