Fading sunlight shines through the treetops, glimmering on the stream
crashing its way down the mountain. A deep roar echoes from the
woods: a tall, thin waterfall feeding the rushing stream. We cross
the water quickly, me stepping carefully from rock to rock, Warren
splashing straight through, not caring if his feet get wet.
According to our map, faded and water stained, there's a campsite
just past the stream. My legs burn and my back aches from the
inescapable weight of my pack. We round a bend in the trail and
a small clearing appears on the right. There's a blue backpack
lying propped against a tree. Looks like someone's already here.
"Shit," I say. "It's that old man again."
He's in his sixties, slightly built with a long grey beard, sitting
on a log feeding sticks into a fire. This is the second day in
a row he's beaten us to a campsite. Smoke rises from the flames
at his fingertips, fleeting curls and whispers dancing around
his long hair, drifting up into the trees, mocking us.
My body is crying for rest. The day has been long, the hardest
one yet, and I can feel the last of my energy passing through
my feet and back into the earth. I feel bad for disturbing this
man's peace, but it can't be helped. Warren and I are exhausted;
there's no question of us moving further down the trail.
I step forward, snapping a twig under my boot. At the noise the
man looks up from his fire. His gaze locks with mine, black eyes
peering out over the thick beard, searching me. He nods in sympathy
and a weathered hand rises slowly, beckoning us to come down and
share his space.
It's late in August. Warren and I are on the Pacific Crest Trail,
traveling north through the Cascade Mountains in Washington State.
Not far from the Skagit River Valley, just south of Hope, B.C.,
where Jack Kerouac once spent a summer as a fire lookout in the
shadow of Mt. Hozomeen, on Desolation Peak.
We've been planning this trip for months. Warren, a biology student,
has just finished his summer job working at a marine research
centre in Seattle. This is his reward for four months of drudgery
in the city, a chance to get back to the woods and feel the rugged
beauty of the Pacific Northwest.
For me, this is wild country, a place I've been dreaming about
since I first read Kerouac at 16. I'm on a kind of pilgrimage
here-searching for a ghost in a myth.
In high school I devoured his books. Anytime I needed to escape,
I could lose myself in Kerouac's mad beat characters, leave my
world for the jazz and smoke and rhythmic prose flowing across
his pages. I carried my copy of On The Road like it was a bible.
Later, I tried living it. I hitchhiked most of the way across
Canada chasing after my fantasy of Kerouac, before I finally realized
he didn't exist. Turns out the so-called Father of the Beat Generation
never did that much hitchhiking.
The truth is that Kerouac was nobody's hero. He was too twisted
for that-a conservative, womanizing Catholic who loved his mother
and at the same time wrote crazy free-verse prose, a Beat poet
who hated the consumer world but wanted desperately for his books
to be accepted as literature, the valuable work of a scribe documenting
the lives of his generation.
He was also a spiritual being whose most productive and poetic
period were the celibate years he spent as a bhikku, a Buddhist
wanderer, in the mid-1950s. That's when he climbed Desolation
Peak, took his shot at wrestling with the emptiness and the contradictions
that tore at his soul. On The Road was published not long after
he came down. When that happened, when fame finally came for him,
he fell apart. That's the man I'm interested in now. We all have
our demons-Kerouac tried to face his and lost. His failure haunts
And now I'm back in the woods, climbing another mountain. I'm
exhausted, and worried that Warren and I might have seriously
When we left Seattle three days earlier, the plan was to hike
north through the mountains to Stevens Pass, where another highway
would bring us back to the city. 110 kilometres in five days,
crossing 1,800-metre peaks and long rainforest valleys-the longest
and toughest hiking trip either of us had ever done.
The afternoon was already late when we hit the trail, carrying
packs loaded with clothes, a tent, sleeping bags and way too much
food. Our goal for the first day was a campsite by a small lake,
up at about 1,200 metres. For hours we hiked up an endless switchback
trail, feeling the air grow thin and cold as we neared the edge
of the tree line.
By sunset we were still searching for our lake. I said nothing,
sick of the climb, sick of the hike, sick of my backpack. Sick
of Warren. I'd been by myself for so long, following my own path;
I felt awkward sharing time with someone else again.
"Warren's been in the city all summer," I told myself.
"He can't understand the things I've done." His presence
was a burden, slowing me down. Invading my space.
I drop my pack with a careless thump in a corner of the clearing.
Warren takes off his hat and shakes his head, long blonde hair
thick with sweat and trail dust falling down over his eyes.
The old man sits at the fire, cooking rice in a small pot. A
soft shine in his dark eyes speaks of peace and contentedness
with the world. He doesn't try to talk, in fact doesn't even look
at us, but nor does he seem disturbed by our presence.
"Why do you go so fast, man?" Warren asks. "Where
are you trying to get to?"
Halfway through the second day. I've found my hiking pace-I walk
quickly, toes pointing outwards, leaning forward slightly to put
the pack over my waist, long legs and heavy boots thundering up
Warren's been lagging behind. He moves gently up the mountain,
hands in his pockets, stopping now and then to check out strange
plants and bits of fungus. Warren the biologist.
"I asked you a question," he says, unscrewing the cap
on his water bottle. "Why are you going so fast?"
I don't know what to tell him. We're sitting under a cloudless
blue sky on a rolling green grass meadow in the mountains, eating
oranges and staring at the trail. Ahead of us lies a long, steep
ridge curving around a shimmering blue lake a 300 metres below.
I stopped here about 20 minutes ago to let Warren catch up.
"I don't know why," I say. "I guess I feel like
if I'm not going as fast as I can, I'm wasting my time."
He snorts a dismissive grunt. We shoulder our packs and move
The ridge is long and torturous, a slow, steady climb under the
hot sun, scrambling over bits of hard red stone tearing at my
feet. In my mind, fresh from having read Tolkien the previous
spring, I'm Bilbo Baggins trudging through the Iron Hills. Eighty
kilometres to the east stands Mt. Rainier, a magnificent snow-capped
peak. It's Erebor, the Lonely Mountain where the dwarves laid
siege to the great dragon Smaug.
When I say this to Warren, he scoffs. "Forget all that,
man. Just appreciate this for what it is."
The trail takes us down after that, down more switchbacks and
through a long valley. Water tumbles from the alpine lakes, leaping
fearlessly over cliffsides, dancing in roiling pools on thin shelves
of rock, finally landing to rush furiously through the rainforest
The trees here are tall and thick, ancient, gnarled beasts dripping
with dark green moss. Lush vegetation covers the ground, climbing
up tree trunks to catch the sunlight. The air is wet and alive.
Finally, after humping this trail for 25 kilometers, more than
10 hours of long hiking, we near the place where our map says
a campsite should be. Down the trail we can see smoke rising from
a campfire-looks like we're too late. As we pass, cursing, heading
for the next site a mile further on, the old man looks up from
Sitting by the campfire now, watching the flames dance. A bright
field of stars shines in the darkness above the treetops, fresh
earth smell of pine and cedar pressing in around us. Light from
the fire casts a flickering circle in the clearing.
Warren and I sit quietly in the circle, eating rice and beans.
The old man is leaning back against his log, reading a mapbook,
Guide To The Pacific Crest Trail, by the light of the fire.
He still hasn't spoken to us. Earlier we watched as he set up
camp, cooking his dinner and laying out his sleeping roll with
the care and attention of a Zen monk tending a rock garden.
How long has he been out here? He's travelling light, no tent,
and his mapbook is thick. The Pacific Crest Trail is over 4,200-kilometers
long, running from the Sierra Nevadas in Mexico all the way to
southern British Columbia. Has this man hiked the whole thing?
Probably not. But if he has, I think to myself, I'll bet he did
it slow, the same way he's sitting here now reading his book.
Casual ease masking a sharp focus. I can see him taking his time,
learning the feel of the land, covering ground steadily and at
his own pace, leaving himself plenty of room in the day to enjoy
Warren and I have yet to make camp before dark.
By the third day we've found a rhythm: climb up a mountain in
the morning, and in the afternoon climb down.
Right now, we're climbing down. The trail is steep, murder on
the knees. With our heavy packs we walk leaning backwards, to
keep from breaking into a run.
"What do you think, man?" Warren shouts from far behind.
"Is it harder to go up a mountain or harder to come down?"
I just laugh. Things are getting ridiculous. Earlier in the day,
on our way up, we crossed paths with another group of hikers.
They looked happy, and with good cause: they weren't carrying
backpacks. Two of them had on small CamelBak water carriers, but
they were nothing like the 25-kilogram monstrosities Warren and
I were hauling.
We were shocked. "How did you get in here without any gear?
The nearest highway is three days away."
A woman smiled, tossing dark hair behind her head, sipping on
a straw snaking out of her backpack. "Outfitters," she
said. "We hired 'em to come in on horseback, set up camp
for us each night and make us dinner."
Warren and I just stared numbly, struggling to process the information.
"They make breakfast for us, too. It's a sweet deal."
Of course, we had to agree.
We stop on a bridge next to a roaring waterfall late in the day.
The sun is setting behind the trees, casting long shadows across
the path. Dropping our packs on the trail, we climb down slippery
rocks to bury our heads in the cool stream. We drink greedily.
Later, standing on the bridge looking at the map, I see that
we've already passed the nearest campsite. The next one is almost
three kilometres down the trail.
I want to go for it. I'm running on overdrive, tired but still
capable of hiking. I don't want to backtrack.
Warren, on the other hand, is exhausted. He's been walking on
hot coals all day, trying to cope with two huge blisters on his
right foot. The strain shows on his face, taut skin streaked with
dirt and sweat. His eyes look tired.
"Come on, man," I say. "Think of how much farther
along we'll be tomorrow."
He squints and throws his head back. A moment later he opens
his eyes; there's a fresh, mischievous glint to them.
"Fuck it," he says, grabbing his pack and turning towards
the trail. "Let's go."
He takes off fast, almost sprinting. As I follow, struggling
just to keep him in sight, a smile creeps slowly across my face.
Soon my laughter echoes through the woods.
I didn't know he had it in him.
Sitting by the light of a dying fire now, listening to my thoughts.
The old man is curled up tight and peaceful in his sleeping bag.
Warren is snoring in the tent.
I sip hot tea, boiled over what was left of the fire. All around
me I hear trees sighing and animals nestling down into their burrows,
a quiet symphony of fallen leaves and broken twigs. The sound
of the forest turning over and going to sleep.
What am I doing here? I think of the land we've been through,
the long, grueling climbs, the rush of the last three days' experience.
Is it worth it?
And then it comes. I think of Warren ("Is it harder to go
up a mountain or harder to come down?"), I think of Jack
Kerouac laughing ("It's impossible to fall off mountains
you fool!"), I think of Kerouac's grand dharma bum awakening
("Everything is alright forever and forever and forever"),
I think of Kerouac, mad Kerouac, Ramblin' Jack, who hitchhiked
the world and dug jazz in San Fransisco, who climbed a mountain
in Washington State, who had an epiphany atop Desolation Peak
with great fearsome Mt. Hozomeen looming over him like the crashing,
endless void, who came down the mountain and into a nightmare
of murderous fame and alcoholism, who finally died fat, drunk
and broke in his mother's arms, 47 years old.
It's the moments that count, I think to myself, sitting by the
fire watching the embers glow. Warren is right. I need to slow
down, take more time to appreciate life for what it is.
"Everything is empty and awake," says Kerouac. He's
right, too, and in that moment I can see where he went wrong.
He learned his lesson on the mountaintop, where lessons were meant
to be learned, but somehow he lost it coming down into the city.
I won't make the same mistake.
Two days later, Warren and I come down from the mountains at
Stevens Pass and hitchhike into Seattle.