“I came to a point where I needed solitude and just stop the machine of ‘thinking’ and ‘enjoying’ what they call ‘living’, I just wanted to lie in the grass and look at the clouds.’’ Jack Kerouac
Desolation Peak is a 6,102-foot mountain summit in Washington State’s North Cascade. In the summer of 1956, American novelist and poet Jack Kerouac spent 63 days as a fire lookout alone there and used his experience to inspire his books Desolation Angles and Dharma Bums. The job now is taken by the Desolation Peak fire watchman Jim Henterly, who spends more than 70 days alone during the summer season in this place of isolation.
Their stories inspired me to go on my own adventure, decisively and intently. I wanted to experience their stories: desolation in solitude. I might see the world from their perspectives.
The dictionary says desolation is a state of complete emptiness or loneliness. As its name implies, Desolation Peak is located in a remote area: no cell service and the only access to the Desolation Peak trailhead is by water taxi, by paddling 14 miles from the Ross Lake Resort, or on foot via the East Bank trail. I decided to take the water taxi to save time and energy for this big hike.
A good adventurer needs to calculate risks. When hiking solo in a very remote mountain, meeting bears is the biggest risk. Food and anything with a scent must be stored in a bear canister, and wise hikers carry bear spray and use a Garmin InReach to communicate with friends for safety. I was fortunate to get a backcountry permit to stay two nights at desolation camp located one mile below the summit. I made myself very familiar with the map and route, making me confident to go solo.
There is no direct road access to Ross Lake Resort to meet the water taxi. On September 22, at 7:10 AM, I arrived at Ross Lake/Dam trailhead and hiked one mile down the trail. At trail’s end I turned right onto a gravel road, then followed the road to the lake. I needed to call the resort across the lake using an old phone on site. However, the phone sign was well hidden, and it took me serval minutes to find it inside a box mounted to a pole. Ha! Just searching for the phone felt like an adventure.
I carried 26-pound full backpack with gear, using hiking poles to begin my climb to the top, a 4,400 feet elevation gain in 4.7 miles. The water taxi dropped me off and it was soon far away, slowly disappearing on the lake. I was on a narrow, steep and curvy trail only wide enough for one person at a time.
“Try the meditation of the trail, just walk along looking at the trail at your feet and don’t look about and just fall into a trance as the ground zips by.” – Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums
Like Jack and Jim, I was alone on the trail, too, experiencing how they felt to be alone here. I immersed myself totally in the fresh and shady forest, like I was floating in a paradise. Even alone, I was not scared. To alert bears, I yelled with a confident voice: “Bears, I am coming! I am human”! My voiced echoed around the empty forest.
Suddenly, the shady forest ended and I was exposed to the broiling sun. I kept climbing up, being bitten by mosquitoes on the trail. At that moment, I understood Jack Kerouac’s description “The trail’s just like life”. The feeling of climbing this trail is really likes life: it is unpredictable, both difficult and beautiful at times, but just enjoy dancing with it.
I kept “talking” to the bears as I baked in what felt like a sauna, the sun beating down on me. I wanted to lie down on the trail because my shoulders and legs were very sore. My body soaked with sweat. But I was strong enough to never think about giving up.
After six hours, I accomplished this very challenging hike and arrived at the top. Hiking five miles actually felt like I hiked 10 miles. It was the hardest day I had. But I forgot the pain when I saw the fire lookout.
I did not think I would actually meet Ranger Jim, but life gave me a wonderful surprise and we met. Jim is tall, lean and cool, and immediately hospitability to me. It was our first time meeting, but it felt like we already knew each other. It felt magical but was real.
I told him with a naïve face: “Jim, you inspired me to take this adventure, because I knew you from the film “Ode to Desolation”. He smiled and shared details of how they shot the film, and told me he was glad that I was here. We enjoyed a simple first conversation, but like close friends, we talked naturally and comfortably.
I observed the cabin surroundings. Everything there was very simple: some art stickers on a green wall, a simple and old device to spot the smoke, a kitchen with stove and hardware, a pot for the hardware washing, a sleeping bag, a sitting desk with lots of books in the front window overlooking the view of Hozomeen.
Jim introduced me to the history of this L-4 cabin, the name of Desolation and how to use a simple device to spot smoke. He has more than 30 seasons under his belt as a fire lookout. This is his seventh consecutive fire seasons in the Desolation Peak lookout in North Cascade National Park. Most fire lookouts in Washington State have been disrupted, but Desolation Peak still has Park Service staff to manage it.
Around every 15 minutes, even as talked, Jim’s eyes were searching for a change of smoke far away. I caught every detail as his eyes turned. I was very impressed. He is using his philosophy to see the change of fire every minute. He immerses himself totally in this wilderness.
I was thinking, with only this 360-degree epic view for company, how could a person remained fulfilled for so long in such isolation? In Jim, I saw passion, and the responsibility within him: his responsibility to preserve human safety, and to carry the legacy and history of this place. He is like a hero, and he touched my heart deeply.
The next day, I hiked from the campsite up to the peak again, on my sore legs. I continued to watch for bears.
On this chilly day, Jim made hot tea for me. We were like close friends again, and I felt warm and appreciative. It was as though I was experiencing Jack Kerouac’s story in The Dharma Bums: “One man practicing kindness in the wilderness is worth all the temples this world pulls”.
He shared a wildfire photo he took the previous night. He said, even when the radio is off and others sleep, he still searches for fire, and his experienced eye notices potential fire immediately. I know this is more than just a job for him. He lives it, day and night. I truly appreciate his service and time.
Jim said, “The most challenging thing for someone staying here is that he will miss his family, he cannot share this special place and moments with them”. I answered, “This is your home!” He nods, “Yes. I think, a little selfish alone here.” I understood his feeling.
He shared his story about his wife: they met in a U.S. Forest Service fire crew and worked as a lookout couple. And his wife inspires and “pushes” him to continue to work as a fire lookout with the National Park Service, because she cannot work at a lookout anymore. This is such a beautiful story that I could see and understand “love” better, an amazing couple, very admirable.
The fog cleared so I looked from the window where I sat. Jim sat on his seat, and we enjoyed that quiet. Sometimes, Jim went outside for a stroll. He said, “I cannot just sit here to spot the smoke, I have to walk down the cliff and lake to spot the smoke clearly.” I realize the responsibility is deep inside his soul.
“No man should go through life without once experiencing healthy, even bored solitude in the wilderness, finding himself depending solely on himself and thereby learning his true and hidden strength.”- Jack Kerouac
At first, I became bored quickly, despite the stunning view and mountains. I then think that Jack and Jim must suffer the same boredom from long periods of solitude. But slowly, peace and calmness overcame my mind. I was face to face with myself. The silence was so intense that I could hear my own blood roar in my ears and could feel the mysterious roar of silence itself. It is the “void” as Jack described in Desolation Angles. I learn: Life is nothing but a feeling of aliveness in my body and soul.
In my solitude, I drew the mountain, I read a few chapters of the book “Mountains and Rivers Without End” which Jim gave me, I wrote some notes about I observed and felt there, I read all comments from the visitor logbook, and got to know other adventurer’s journey. I was not lonely.
Jim Henterly, a real legend, a tall, lean, kind and cool guy on the desolation peak. He is quite a character: paratrooper, infantry medic, prolific illustrator, creator of award-winning children’s books, art professor at Western Washington University, volunteer firefighter/EMT, husband, father, and fire lookout are all roles he has held throughout his life. (His illustration website: http://jamichaelhenterly.com/)
He usually carries a 70-pound backpack up and down his post. Even though we have a modern technology to spot fires now, he continues to use his eyes, ears, experience and time to warn of danger of wildfires, keeping a ghost alive! What an inspiration! He is worthy of respect and admiration. It was my pleasure to meet him.
Just before saying goodbye, I said, “Jim, you are very awesome. Thank you!” He replied, “Live your full adventurous life”! We smiled at the same time. Two adventurous souls understand each other. What a beautiful moment I will remember forever.
On the sunrise of the last day, I hiked down to the trailhead alone again. The whispering voice with soft orange and pink colors on the mountain is in that moment full of emptiness and awe.
I “talked” to the bears again, “Morning Bears, I am coming!” I did not see any bears the whole time. Maybe they were finding me too? Ha.
I took 2.5 hours to hike down to the lake. My eyes filled with tears. “Desolation, desolation, so hard to come off of.” Jack Kerouac is right again! Desolation is not entirely desolate. One day, I will bring my kids here, to experience this tough but very incredible journey.
What an awesome adventure, from start to end! Yes, I was by myself on the trail, but I was not alone. The bears were always with me, even we did not meet. All the suffering, the blood, the soreness, and the sweat, thirst, hunger and loneliness is for the cleansing of the soul. Just dancing along the trail, like Jack Kerouac.
Two adventurous souls met and shared their adventures on the top. I saw a bigger world through another adventurous soul. Like those two guys, I live and share solitude with the beauty of nature, cloudy, foggy mountains, met freedom and voidness, happiness in the wilderness. It is a long journey like I experienced 10 days of life, but an extremely special feeling within my soul.
People get used to their experiences and perception of others’ stories and make judgements. But when we are open to experience others’ stories, we learn to understand and appreciate. Our world becomes bigger and more amazing. This adventure was as much about intention as it was curiosity. For me, travelling is not only about seeing cool and new places, it is more about learning about myself through others. I travel to learn, understand and appreciate. I hope you are open to experience others’ way of life and story, too.
“So shut up, live, travel, adventure, bless and don’t be sorry”.– Jack Kerouac, Desolation Angles
Thank you, Jack Kerouac.
Thank you, Jim Henterly.
Thank you, Desolation Peak!
Another excellent adventure for Stephy! Sorry you didn’t meet any bears, maybe next time. 😉
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Haha. Yes. I did not meet any bears but they were with me the whole time 🐻 Thanks again, following my adventure. 👧🏻An adventurous girl accomplished her another favorite adventure in life😎
A wonderful story and adventure Stephy and I am glad that I had the chance to read and learn about it! What an amazing discovery and such great memories vto have! 🙂
Thank you, Mike. Yes. It was really an amazing journey I will remember forever ! 💛