When I was writing about the romance of being a lighthouse keeper, I also thought about a time when I considered being a lookout in a forest fire tower.
I was in college and had been reading a lot of poetry by Gary Snyder. Gary Snyder was the first poet to get a job as a fire lookout. He was assigned to a station atop Crater Mountain in Washington. (The tower no longer exists.) It was 1952 and he was studying Zen Buddhism and writing and it seemed an ideal job for both practices. Isolation, quiet, few distractions and a long view of the horizon.
I went to a job talk my junior year at Rutgers College given by an old guy from the National Park Service. I have a feeling that a lot of the people there had similar ambitions of being in some beautiful western wilderness. The old guy sensed this and tried his best to dissuade us from joining up. He said, “If you think you’re going become a ranger at the Grand Canyon or Mount Rainier, think again. You could end up in Philadelphia giving tours of the Betsy Ross house. You could get assigned to New Jersey and be at Sandy Hook or Morristown talking about General Washington.” His wet-blanket speech chilled my ambition and I did not fill out an application.
Gary Snyder became a well-known poet and environmental activist. He was part of the Beat poets and the San Francisco Renaissance and became knowns as the “poet laureate of Deep Ecology.”
Snyder’s tower experience inspired some of his friends to do the same. Poet Philip Whalen took a nearby post the next year. At a San Francisco poetry reading in 1955, Snyder met the young Jack Kerouac. This was the reading where Allen Ginsberg, having had enough wine to bolster his courage, performed a new poem “Howl.” Snyder convinced Kerouac to try a stint as a fire lookout.
Kerouac was at Desolation Peak for the summer of 1956. He decided not to bring any cigarettes in an attempt to go cold turkey and quit smoking. He brought one book – A Buddhist Bible – and planned to meditate on emptiness.
Accord to John Suiter’s book Poets on the Peaks, by day 10 in the tower Kerouac wrote in his journal that “Time drags.” He took to smoking coffee grounds out of desperation. He had written that he expected to “come face to face with God” but instead he came “face to face with myself, no liquor, no drugs, no chance of faking it.”
He wasn’t as successful in his practice as Snyder, but he did learn something about himself. Kerouac spent 63 days that summer there and wrote about his experiences in The Dharma Bums, Lonesome Traveler, Desolation Angels, and in a collection of haiku, Desolation Pops.
Gary gone from the shack
– My lonely shoes
is a haiku
Gary would find himself banned from getting a job again in a government fire tower because he was seen as a possible anarchist (though better described as a pacifist) due to McCarthy-era blacklisting.
Snyder was one of the more serious students of Zen amongst the Beat poets and wanted to study in Japan. He had an offer from the First Zen Institute of America of a scholarship for a year of Zen training in Japan in 1955. The U.S. State Department refused to issue him a passport, informing him that “it has been alleged you are a Communist.”
A District of Columbia Court of Appeals reversed the ruling and a patron paid his expenses to Japan. At first, he served as a personal attendant and English tutor to Zen abbot Miura Isshu, at Rinko-in, a temple in Shokoku-ji in Kyoto. His days there were quite full: morning zazen, sutra chanting, work for Miura, and spoken Japanese classes so he could do kōan study. In the summer of 1955, he requested to become Miura’s disciple, thus formally becoming a Buddhist.
I was thinking about all of this the past week when I got an email about the National Parks Arts Foundation offerings for writers and visual artists to serve a residency next year. No fire towers I could find but there is Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park which sounds pretty exotic. How about a stay at Death Valley?
Could I convince my wife to spend a month virtually alone in the historical lighthouse keeper’s house on an islet in the Dry Tortugas National Park in Loggerhead Key in Florida? I doubt it. Could I go alone to this “uninhabited” islet? It’s tempting. To get to this islet in the Florida Keys requires a seaplane or boat and you would need to pack in all supplies, equipment, and food. No Internet unless you have a satellite phone.
Would I be a Gary Snyder in all that isolation, or would I be a Jack Kerouac? Either way, I would certainly write, take photos and do some painting.