On The Road
with Mr. Hat to Desolation Peak
under construction

On a warm day in August 2007 (50 years after On The Road was published), Mr. Hat, Dan Barth, and myself started a journey from northern California to Desolation Peak in the Cascade Mountains in the state of Washington. It was where Jack Kerouac spent the summer of 1956 working as a fire lookout. We drove over 2,000 miles. This is a photo essay of that journey.

That journey led us up from California, through the cities of Portland (where we had our usual dinner at Dot's), on to Seattle to work around Pioneer Square (Kerouac's old haunt and skid row), to the peak of Desolation Peak.  If it were only that easy. 

The fine print - All photos (c) Attila Gyenis 2007.

Our chariot

We had to travel in style. It was a (rented) classic Mustang, with just a few thousand miles. It wasn't a convertible, but close enough. After we picked up the car, we had a lumberjack's breakfast at Gary and Pam's which included hot blueberry hotcakes, scrambled eggs bacon and tea (Gary's British). Then we pointed the trusty mustang northward.


Wilderness Information Center

Mr. Hat at the Park Service in Marblemount, WA. This is where you pick up the Wilderness Permit that allows you to camp.


Dan and Mr. Hat packing. We had to make sure that the backpacks were heavy cause remember, we were hiking uphill five miles (a mile in elevation). That doesn't include the mile from the road to the dam where you get picked up by a boat from Ross Lake Resort.


Waiting for a taxi

Dan waiting at the lake for the water taxi. The water taxi, available from Ross Lake Resort, costs $80 one way to the trail head (up to 6 people). It is right at the top of the Ross Dam.


Brett, Our Taxi Driver

This was Brett. He was our water taxi driver. He is also the one who told us the secret of the Void. I don't know if it is true, but it sounds true. The Void wasn't really about Hozomeen. It was the gray emptiness behind it (which was Canada).


This was our destination, Desolation Peak, as seen from Ross Lake. The peak to the left is where the fire lookout is.


The start of the Desolation Trail. We were dropped off by the water taxi. The sign says 4.5 miles, someone scratched in 4.7 miles but I think it was more like 94 miles.


You see, this is Mr. Hat's mode of transportation. He wasn't sweating it.


I took a lot of photos of the flora. It was interesting how many different flowers grew up there, some white, others pink.


This was the turn-off to the campground. It is another mile to the fire lookout at the peak. I was very happy to see this because it meant I could drop off my very heavy knapsack.


I really wish I knew the name of the flowers. I think there were at least 5 different type of flora, though it was hard to tell the difference sometimes.


This was the meadow. Not a typical meadow. This section was called a meadow because it didn't have trees. It was also about 3 miles from the trail head. There were a few other fake meadows that we passed before this point that gave me false hope that we were closer to our destination.


This was the sign I was looking for. It meant that I would be able to put down my knapsack.


These were pine cones. Not like the normal pine cones. These were slightly hairy (fuzzy?) as opposed to the pine cones that are all textured of a hard surface like walnut shells.


This is the lookout from the top of the ridge. I will have to see if this is what they called Starvation Ridge.


The lookout.


Kerouac was there for the summer as a lookout. I would think that during a lightening storm, it would not be a very pleasant experience.


This is the lookout. Not much had changed since Kerouac was there in 1956 (more than 50 years ago).


Hozomeen through the clouds. By the time we got to the top of the mountain the first day, Hozomeen was completely hidden behind deep banks of clouds. All the picture of Hozomeen were taken the second morning.


The clouds. It was an ever-changing panorama.


Mr. Hat and I standing on top of Desolation Peak the second morning. Behind us is Hozomeen.


Mr. Hat taking in the view.


This was on the top ridge. Rugged, and I'm not sure if this is considered to be above the timberline. I wouldn't think so, though the trees weren't very big. I'm sure they took a beating in the winter.


Great old dead trees.


This may be my best shot. When I first got up to the peak in the morning, it was covered by clouds, but I waited about 15 minutes and saw that the clouds were starting to lift. Hozomeen was never completely free of clouds, but patience paid off. A half hour later I got this shot.


Okay, this is an attempt at an art shot, turned it into a sepia tone (or at least that was my intention).


This was the crew. Dan Barth, Mr. Hat, and myself. This picture was taken at the campground just before we started our descent.

PS - See, I still have my sunglasses.


Mr. Hat at the fire spotter. This was what fire lookouts use to determine the location of the fire and report back to the fire crews.


This is the actual map. You see the green section, which is the US Cascade mountains. Then you see the gray section. This was Canada. The US didn't care about Canada forest fires. Brett, out water taxi driver, said that this gray area on the map is what make Kerouac called the void. I have to confirm that. The lookout is 7 miles from the Canadian border.


Mr. Hat in the morning sun with Hozameen behind him.


Mr. Hat is official. See his Park Ranger hat?


Ahhh, Desolation Peak.


This is the very table, facing south (and away from Hozomeen) that Kerouac sat at those many lonely nights long ago.


Hozomeen in the background.


Mr. Hat camping of course. Funny, I didn't hear myself snore.


Desolation Peak is a mountain of two stories (at least). The first occurred 50 years ago and is captured eloquently by Kerouac. The second story occurred on our hike the summer of 2007. This is that story. Hope that you enjoy it more than I enjoyed my hike.


You Can’t fall off a Mountain
Wearing Sunglasses

by Attila Gyenis

It’s not the mountain that was wearing the sunglasses. It was me. I wore them on the way up, and I had them at the start of the downhill climb, off the Desolation Peak. And I didn’t fall off the mountain either, though I almost didn’t make it up the mountain. And not because of the mountain lions or the bears. It was just a demanding five mile hike, all uphill, with a big heavy knapsack. Where is the artistic whimsy in that? And why would I want to do that after I said I would never go trekking into the wilderness again after quitting the Boy Scouts back in 1972?

This was the plan. Drive up to Seattle, head east on Route 20 to the Cascades, and climb Desolation Peak, a mountain where Jack Kerouac spent the summer of 1956 as a fire lookout… Spend the night watching for shooting stars and hooting at owls (at least that was our intent but we fell asleep as soon the misty clouds rolled in around us)... Then greet the next morning, pounding our chests as we stood on top of the mountain, and proclaim that all is well in the universe. Ho!

We would hike back down the following day, five miles (surprisingly as painful as the uphill trek) to be picked up by the boat that would deliver us back to the Ross Lake Resort where it all started, and from where we still had another mile to hike up to where the car was parked (all in reverse order from the day before).

My friend Dan and I packed our knapsacks with camping gear– tent, sleeping bag, trail mix, some salami, bread, and cheese, and a bag of baby carrots. My backpack was crammed with camping gear, a change of clothes, lots of water (which is heavy), the Bear canister (which was heavy but thankfully unnecessary) and my sunglasses.

I apparently lost my sunglasses the next day at one of my many infrequent rest stops on the way down; the one where I leaned against a big rock and had my sunglasses hanging on the outside of my pocket. I had kept my backpack on, not wanting to take off because then I would only have had to lift it up to put it back on. But that is not part of the story, it is just my complaining.

Okay, this is where I skip over the fantastic experience of actually going up to the lookout, being invited inside by the Ranger,  sitting in the same wood lookout and seeing the view that Kerouac captured in his book Desolation Angel. The fog had moved in by this time so that Hozomeen was hidden beyond the great void. Went back the next morning, and there among the morning sun and parting fog, Hozomeen making its grand appearance.

Okay, back to the sunglass story that I was trying to tell. I noticed my sunglasses were missing when I got to the bottom of the mountain. I remarked to my travelling companion that for the first time in my life, I knew exactly where I ‘lost’ a pair of my sunglasses.

My travel compansion then replied that they weren’t lost, all I would have to do is climb back up the mountain again to get them.

I then went on to tell him about my idea for a movie. The movie would follow a character through his or her life and observe under what circumstances they had lost their sunglasses. What was the cause of distraction that caused them to put down their glasses and not remember to pick them back up. Was it a girl (or a boy), senility, liquor, conversation, a fast car, or some other unknown?

Then the strangest thing occurred. Ten days after I returned home, I received a large padded envelope with a typed return address– J. Kerouac, Desolation Peak, Washington. It was empty inside except for my sunglasses that I had left on the mountain. No letter, no explanation, just the sunglasses.

I confronted my friend Dan and he denied any role in the return of the sunglasses, and in fact his alibi is pretty airtight. He had started down from the rest spot before I did and wasn’t aware of my fascination with losing sunglasses.

So now I am left with two dilemmas. First, how is this going to affect the screenplay that I still plan on eventually writing? Do I have to change it to be a movie about how people find their sunglasses again through some unexplainable event? But more importantly, who was it that mailed my sunglasses back. How did they know they were mine and where I live? I recognize that the universe works in mysterious ways, like the evening mist that weaves itself onto the cascading mountains like giant desolate angels that sit perched on the peaks, but there can only be one explanation.

So I give thanks to Jack Kerouac’s ghost who is somewhere up there in the great void enjoying a great belly laugh and a bottle of port.

So it goes...