Tag Archives: Jack Kerouac

‘Brilliant and bleak beyond words’

Remnants of a fire lookout on Bald Mountain, Oregon

Remnants of a fire lookout on Bald Mountain, Oregon

All that remains are two large, oblong stones, which lie perpendicular to one another in a small glade.

Yet it’s here that, for decades in the middle part of the last century, fire watchers spent their summers, perched on the summit of Bald Mountain, beneath the huge glaciated wall of Mount Hood to the west.

Only the two stones remain on the mountain top these days, surrounded by the tall trees that have grown up in the 60 or more years since the lookout was abandoned.

Standing at the summit last weekend, on a blazing hot Oregon August day, I wondered if any of those who watched on Bald Mountain were still around? What could they tell of the long months spent up here alone, binoculars in hand, scouring the ridges, tree lines and valleys for storms and smoke?

Since I was a teenager the job of fire lookout has seemed hugely romantic. Long before I encountered Thoreau, and at a time when the highest peaks I’d climbed were the lowly Slieve Bloom mountains in the Irish Midlands, I was fixated on the job.

The weather, the remoteness, the desolation – all undercut with a grave responsibility to protect people: was it any wonder it appealed to a young scout?

Fast forward a few years and – now in my late teens – I discovered the writings of Jack Kerouac. Better known for his cross-country beat jaunts, the writer also spent two months as a lookout on Desolation Peak in the High Cascades range, in Washington.

Writing about the experience afterwards, Kerouac noted: “Sixty three sunsets I saw revolve on that perpendicular hill – mad raging sunsets pouring in sea foams of cloud through unimaginable crags like the crags you grayly drew in pencil as a child, with every rose-tint of hope beyond, making you feel just like them, brilliant and bleak beyond words.”

While brilliant, the crags of Mount Hood National Forest are not bleak – not in summer at least. Every hour dozens of hikers walk the Timberline Trail beneath Bald Mountain’s summit, while dozens more saunter down the nearby level stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail.

But the peak itself is quiet, if not desolate, and a few moments spent alone there are enough to remove you from yourself, and connect you to the generations of people who hiked there before, and millennia of flora and fauna that existed in that spot.

And cause you to think of, as Jack the Lookout put it, “a blade of grass jiggling in the winds of infinity, anchored to a rock, and for your own poor gentle flesh no answer”.

_____

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‘Beguiled and voracious ‘ – a literary meal

'Portrait of James Joyce' Patrick Tuohy (1924-1927)

‘Portrait of James Joyce’
Patrick Tuohy (1924-1927)

My reading habits are a lot like my eating ones. I go too long between chapters or meals and wind up short-tempered and salivating.

This often leads to an undignified gorge-fest, leaving me sweating, shirt-stained and ashamed.

And that was just the first chapter of Eat, Pray, Love.

On other occasions my hunger for a book and dinner collide and I find myself, stuck between pages and meals, craving Ishmael’s clam chowder or Holden Caulfield’s Swiss cheese sandwich.

On one of these peckish occasions it occurred to me – what would be my perfect literary meal?

Appetite:
Half the pleasure lies in anticipation, I’m told (by masochists). Ask Leopold Bloom. Standing at the counter of Davy Byrne’s Dublin pub, in James Joyce’s Ulysses, the ravenous, rambling ad-man scans the offerings.

“Sardines on the shelves. Almost taste them by looking. Sandwich? Ham and his descendants mustered and bred there. Potted meats…Cauls mouldy tripes windpipes faked and minced up. Puzzle find the meat. Kosher. No meat and milk together. Hygiene that was what they call now. Yom Kippur fast spring cleaning of inside. Peace and war depend on some fellow’s digestion. Religions. Christmas turkeys and geese. Slaughter of innocents. Eat drink and be merry. Then casual wards full after. Heads bandaged. Cheese digests all but itself. Mighty cheese.

—Have you a cheese sandwich?

—Yes, sir.”

EH 7239G 1924 Ernest Hemingway outside of his residence at 13 rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, Paris, ca. 1924. Photograph in the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

Ernest Hemingway in Paris, 1924

Starter:

A young Ernest Hemingway sits in a cafe at the Place St Michel on Paris’ Left Bank. After dutifully eyeing up a beautiful young woman and finishing “a very good story” he orders a dozen portugaises and a half carafe of dry white wine.

“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”


Main:

A grown-up son returns to the bosom of his mother’s Italian-American table in John Fante’s The Brotherhood Of The Grape.

“The kitchen. La cucina, the true mother country, this warm cave of the good witch deep in the desolate land of loneliness, with pots of sweet potions bubbling over the fire, a cavern of magic herbs, rosemary and thyme and sage and oregano, balm of lotus that brought sanity to lunatics, peace to troubled, joy to the joyless . . . the altar a kitchen range . . . the old children, lured back to their beginnings . . .beguiled and voracious Virgil filled his cheeks with gnocchi and eggplant and veal, and flooded them down his gullet with the fabulous grape of Joe Musso, spellbound, captivated, mooning over his great mother.”

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Apple pic. Pic: Dwight Burdette

Dessert:

Dean Moriarty is barreling his way across the United States, fuelled by liquor, pills and the internal combustion engine. Jack Kerouac’s On The Road anti-hero doesn’t spend all this time speeding through the American night, though – sometimes he stops for pie. Like this time, outside Joliet, Illinois.

“I went to sit in the bus station and think this over. I ate another apple pie and ice cream; that’s practically all I ate all the way across the country, I knew it was nutritious and it was delicious, of course…[later, in Des Moines] I ate apple pie and ice cream –  it was getting bigger as I got deeper into Iowa, the pie bigger, the ice cream richer.”

Coffee:

And finally, after all else, coffee. Followed by contemplation, and gratefulness – the ‘Nirvana’ of Charles Bukowski’s poem.

“the meal was
particularly
good
and the
coffee.
the waitress was
unlike the women
he had
known.
she was unaffected,
there was a natural
humor which came
from her.
the fry cook said
crazy things.

Coffee, Dublin

Coffee, Dublin

the dishwasher,
in back,
laughed, a good
clean
pleasant
laugh.
the young man watched
the snow through the
windows.
he wanted to stay
in that cafe
forever.”

_____

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