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Jack Kerouac wrote about this fire lookout, currently threatened by fire in WA

As crews battle the Sourdough Fire in Washington's north Cascade Mountains, one corner has received particular attention for its place in literary history.

"I believe it's an author. I learned about this today, actually. Author Jack Kerouac ... he based some work off of a person who was operating out of that lookout,” Thomas Kyle-Milward with the state Department of Natural Resources told KUOW about the Sourdough Lookout.

“So it has some historical significance, which is one of the reasons why such pains were taken to make sure it was safe.”

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Kerouac stayed at a nearby lookout, Desolation Peak, and wrote about the Sourdough location, where fellow poet Gary Snyder previously worked. For a few years, this corner of the Cascades served as a summer home, place of inspiration, and source of boredom for writers before their bylines garnered fame.

Both the Sourdough Mountain Lookout and the Desolation Peak Lookout have views of Ross Lake, where a nearby wildfire has threatened hydroelectric operations that power the city of Seattle. Crews have dropped fire retardant around the Sourdough Lookout. Kyle-Milward noted that it's the second time retardant has been used in the park. Tin-foil-like material has been wrapped around the structure to protect it from any flames, making it look like a big baked “potato,” as KUOW's John Ryan reported in early August.

The Sourdough Lookout is no longer operational, and is only staffed when needed, according to Kyle-Milward.

Across Ross Lake, a few miles north, is Desolation Peak, surrounded by dry tinder and a rocky landscape. Rocks are space, and space is illusion when it comes to wildfires that rip through a mountainside.

Desolation Peak gets its name from Lage Wernstedt. He was the first recorded person to scale the peak in 1926, after which he gave it the name that stuck — Desolation Peak — because a wildfire had recently charred the vast surrounding landscape.

Fire lookouts were constructed in the years that followed to watch for such fire threats. That’s when the writers came.

What is that feeling when you're fighting a wildfire away from where a beat poet once looked out on the plain? It's the too-huge flames vaulting us, and its good-bye, but we lean forward to the next crazy fire erupting beneath the skies.

Beat poets in the Cascades

Fire lookouts have been an attractive destination for some writers. Norman Maclean worked for the Forest Service in 1919 at Idaho's Elk Summit Guard Station. Edward Abbey was a lookout at posts in Arizona, California, and Montana's Glacier National Park.

Washington’s literary lookout history, perhaps, started with poet Gary Snyder, who got a job in 1952 at the Crater Mountain Lookout in the North Cascades, as Seattle Met previously reported. He returned in the summer of 1953 to work at the Sourdough Lookout. That same year, he convinced poet Philip Whalen to take a job at a nearby peak. Snyder’s poem “Mid-August at the Sourdough Mountain Lookout” is one obvious result from this time.

The poets went to the mountain peaks for solitude, time to think, to write, and to study Buddhism. Those were among the selling points that Snyder told Jack Kerouac at the now-famous Six Gallery reading in October 1955.

Having come down from the mountains, Snyder and Whalen were among the poets reading that night. Allen Ginsberg debuted his poem “Howl.” During this event, Snyder urged Kerouac to also take a job in the mountains of Washington state. At the time, Snyder was barred from taking another lookout job. He attempted to return to the Cascades in 1954, but as McCarthyism was all the rage at the time, Snyder was blacklisted for his union and political ties.

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Kerouac took Snyder’s advice and landed a lookout job at Desolation Peak the very next summer in 1956. This was one year before "On The Road" was published, the book that put Kerouac on the literary map. That success had not yet manifested as he went into the wilderness and attempted to go without vice and lean into writing. The only contact he had was a two-way radio.

The gig paid $230 per month. Kerouac hitchhiked from San Francisco to Seattle, and then to a ranger station at Marblemount in Skagit County where he spent a week training to be a fire lookout. He spent $45 on groceries, and traveled over Diablo Lake, then across Ross Lake, and eventually hopped onto a horse for the final stretch up to Desolation Peak.

The 63 days Kerouac spent at Desolation Peak served as material for two books — "Dharma Bums" and "Desolation Angels" — as well as some short essays and haikus. The closer you get to real matter, rock air fire and wood, boy, the more spiritual the world is.

“Dharma Bums” was published in 1958, following up “On The Road” (so was “The Subterraneans”). Kerouac wrote about the Sourdough Lookout in “Dharma Bums.” The book’s character Japhy Ryder is the pseudonym he used for Snyder, and Warren Coughlin is the name used for Whalen. The story covers Kerouac’s pursuit of Buddhism, using the mountains as a means to get away from city distractions, and to meditate.

“Desolation Angels” was published in 1965 and takes a different tone than “Dharma Bums.” Kerouac wrote of how bored he was spending days atop the mountain. He writes of longing to return to the city, with rain on brick walls, the smell of burgers and dishwater.

“Desolation Adventure finds me finding at the bottom of myself abysmal nothingness worse than that no illusion even—my mind’s in rags,” Kerouac wrote in “Desolation Angels.”

Today, both the Sourdough Mountain Lookout and the Desolation Peak Lookout are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

This article previously stated that the Desolation Peak Lookout was not operational and only staffed when needed. It has been corrected to state that the Sourdough Lookout is not currently operational and is only staffed as needed.

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