There have been many during the two plus years of van life that shaped the change that is now part of my life. I chose this one story, which captures the spirit and freedom of that change. When I slow down long enough, I'll try to tell more.
Ethan, Kerouac, and Desolation Look Out
Like a local farewell tour, I visited with all my friends prior to leaving out on van life, which usually ended with a van tour, slaps on the back or hugs, and thoughts of living a dream. Most everyone was just as excited as I was about this life adventure. Others were skeptical of a friend who no longer had possessions besides what was in the van, which didn't seem like much. When I was at my friends Ethan's house in Nacogdoches, Tx. he asked what I'd be reading while on the road. I had a few books, but nothing too exciting. He stood up, walked over to a bookshelf, pulled a book, and asked if I'd read Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac. No, I hadn't. I read On the Road a few years earlier so I was familiar with the Kerouac poet-surreal style of writings of the Beat generation from the mid-50's. Dharma Bums then became the first read on the road. It's a book about a free spirit traveling across the country. One chapter has Ray (based on Jack himself) working as a seasonal fire watch out west and immersing himself in nature and writing poetry of what he felt - as close to forest bathing as it gets. Over a year later, on my second crisscross of the country and dozens of books read, I find myself driving through North Cascades NP and stopping at every pull-out as an introduction to this grand beauty. There he was, Jack, on the second or third pull-out, sipping a scotch and holding a pipe. Opposite him on the plaque was Desolation Lookout fire tower. For some reason, from the book, I had remembered he was in the Sierra Nevada Mountains not the North Cascades. What a moment..., being there, a year after reading the Dharma Bums, and looking into the distance at Desolation Peak. It was one of those chill down your back moments, one of those hoot and holler moments, and also; the moment I wondered if the tower was still there and if I could get to it.
The earlier days of van life were much more planned than where I currently stood. Backpacking gear lives in its own tote and I keep several days of backpacking food so I can put together a trip on the fly. A few days after seeing Jack at the pull-out, I wandered into the N. Cascades NP Backcountry office to inquire about permits. The ranger asked what trail I was interested in hiking. I said, "Well, could be a long shot, but what about Desolation Peak?" He kinda raised an eyebrow with some suspicion, maybe of my abilities or the likelihood of a permit being available. Navigating around his keyboard he asked for how many days as it was a 32 mile trek not including the summit to Desolation Peak which added another 14 miles. I had plenty of time and resources and said I'd take whatever was available. He then outlined specific campsites along Ross Lake to and from Lightening Creek, which was near the summit trail. I was all set for a six night trip (two at Lightening Creek for the summit day). Pretty sure I skipped out of that office with smile on face and permit in hand. The next six days would be magical in many ways. With thoughts of Beat poetry in the back of my mind, huge views of Ross Lake and the surrounding North Cascade Mountains, the deer that visited my camps and one those stole my cap while I was skivy swimming in the ice cold lake, to the young boy who brought over a s'more from his family's site, to the two young women I met seeking meaningful paths in their lives, and finally, to the five hours I spent at Desolation Lookout.
I was up before dawn drinking coffee and preparing my pack to summit Desolation Peak requiring some 4,400' of elevation gain. Once on trail, every step delivered broader views of the vast North Cascades eventually rising to heights with 360 degree views. An early summer snow was still lingering in July. As I topped the final stretch with the fire tower in view I paused spontaneously to salute the American flag wind sock. Then I saw him, the caretaker of the lookout. He was shoveling snow into 5 gallon buckets for drinking water. I offered to help with the process, but Jim would have nothing of it. I tried not to ask too many questions, but was eager to see the inside of the tower, not knowing if that was a thing. We hit it off pretty quick and I learned that Jim worked a 10 day on and 4 day off shift for the past several fire seasons. He's an Army veteran, lean and fit, and seventy years old. What an inspiration. I mentioned my service in the Navy and he said he knew I was a vet seeing my earlier salute in his peripheral. After getting to a good stopping point on his water project he asked if I wanted to go into the tower. My response was "Yes sir!" He said go on in the doors' open. There was a lot to take in. It was a work space with a large Osborne Fire Finder in the center to pinpoint fire locations. It was a home with bunk, stovetop, and family photos. And, it was a space honoring both the Beat generation poets and other naturalist including John Muir. A small library of books occupied the back edge of a table that contained most all of the Beat poets, and Dickinson, and Emerson, and others. Small bird feathers were displayed in random places as were sketches with quotes, which I learned were Jim's artwork. He gave me one of his John Muir stickers for the van with the quote "One can make a day of any size." Visitors were encouraged to sign or write poetry in the log book, which I did. The five hours spent atop Desolation Peak passed by like one. I was in the present. The serendipity of the overall experience was not lost on me. It was a blend of surreal and magical. I thought of my visit to Ethan's, him giving me the book, and over a year later standing in Desolation Fire Tower. My visit to Ethan's and many other friends had fueled my resolve for a year of van life. I wonder now how much The Damma Bums contributed to it? My trip out west would have been void of this experience if not from the effort of visiting friends. The bonus of meeting others that had made the pilgrimage that day and our shared conversations is a whole other story...
On the hike down from Desolation Peak I added to my reflections of the past year; how time is my own, how the days slowed to a pleasing pace, how I found myself more often in the present moment, how I'm now a minimalist, how I've met so many positive and wonderful people, and how fortunate to have witnessed so much pure beauty. The simplicity of van life became intoxicating extending the planned one year to two, and now a third. The many wonderful people I've met have made me strive to be a better person. I've become more aware and in tune to the natural world. Finding joy in watching the first rays of sunshine wash over a mountain and amazed at its reflection in an alpine lake. And again at sunset as the fleeting golden hour transitions to shadow. The former with a cup of coffee, the later often with a PBR or sip of whiskey. And seeing that peripherial movement in the woods of a mule deer, a sparrow, an Abert's squirrel, or a butterfly. I am changed. I am distant from mainstream, distant from news and mass media, distant from the consumer culture, and happy to have enough. I do not know where the future will take me, as for now I am living in the present.