Kerouac, Snyder found inspiration in North Cascades

Author Jack Kerouac was a fire lookout at Desolation Peak Lookout during the summer of 1956. The lookout is now in North Cascades National Park.

North Cascades National Park

While Jack Kerouac’s semi-autobiographical On the Road may be his most famous work, Kerouac’s journey to the North Cascades during the summer before its publication produced literature just as rich.


Inspired by Beat poet Gary Snyder, who had been a lookout at Crater, Sourdough and Sauk Mountains in 1952-1955, Kerouac trained as a fire lookout and lived in the Desolation Peak lookout station for 65 days in the summer of 1956. While he expected to write while isolated in the “unbelievable jags and twisted rock and snow-covered immensities” of the North Cascades, he instead only penned journal entries and a few letters; his experience, however, inspired him to write The Dharma Bums (1958) and Desolation Angels (1960).

Neither Kerouac nor Snyder was the first to submerse himself in wilderness in order to better understand the connection between nature, self and art.  In 1845, Henry David Thoreau built a small house in a second-growth forest area next to Walden Pond near Concord, MA to begin a two-year adventure in living simply.  In Walden (1854), he wrote of this experience:  “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Recognizing this connection between artistic production and emersion in nature, The North Cascades Insitute offers classes and artist residencies throughout the year at their Environmental Learning Center in North Cascades National Park.  Recent classes include “Sit, Walk, Write: Nature and the Practice of Presence,” led by poet Holly Hughes and creative nonfiction writer Kurt Hoelting.  These sessions ensure that the tradition of the North Cascades as an inspiring and galvanizing literary force will continue. 

Of course, you don’t need to live at a lookout or take classes to find literary inspiration in the North Cascades: all you need is a notebook, a good pair of hiking shoes and the will to be taught – in the way of Thoreau or Kerouac and Snyder – by the wilderness.