A fourth of Desolation

Jack Kerouac wrote Desolation Angels about his time on top of Desolation Peak, which overlooks Ross Lake, a twenty-mile reservoir that straddles Washington State’s border with British Columbia. If I recall correctly the Ur-beat was up there in the mid-sixties. About that time, maybe a little after or a little before, my friend Jeff’s dad, Vance, started going up to Ross every year to get away from everything and fish off the side of a boat. I don’t know when he started taking Jeff and Jeff’s older brother Gary up with him, but I remember that Jeff started talking about his annual June adventures up there sometime in junior high. 

In our last year of high school, I started getting invited along. We got up there every year a few days before the opening of fishing season and snagged the best campsite on Dry Creek, a little north of Ten-Mile Island, which Vance and other old timers just called Midway. Vance got up every morning at 5 and went out in the boat. The tent did not stir again until the sun hit it, which was much later because the lake is surrounded by tall mountains and ridges.

Steeper than it looks. This is a hillside we called Tableland just south of Desolation -- whoa! In all the years I've been looking at this photo, I only now -- just this instant -- realized that Jeff is in the picture, above and right of center, picking his way up the mountain.

Jeff and I invented a game called Stalkanother, which basically happened organically one year when we camped on Midway Island. There was nowhere to go when Vance had the boat out, and the fish were biting that year so he stayed out. Without the boat to get us to the mainland, we fidgeted, threw rocks. One cold afternoon, when Jeff was bored out of his skull and had finished carving decorations in his walking stick (an annual ritual), he got up quietly and left the campfire. I thought he was relieving himself, but he didn’t come back soon. I grew lonesome after a while and took up my own staff and headed out to find him. Doubtless he’d brought down a grizzly or something and would be eager to show me. The island was just a single hill, but densely forested with small thin firs about six inches around. The only way to hide in there was to be still. I sensed he was hiding. And he sensed I was up for a hunt. Thus was born “the ancient game of Stalkanother.” I sprinted from boulder to bush, bush to tree, tree to ledge, aware of his eyes — somewhere — watching me. A twig snapped. He doubled back, I lunged ahead. I waited. He waited. I stole forward. Finally he emerged behind me with the faintest step, and I turned to see the heavy end of his stick aimed at the my chest, he having gained the position of surprise at close enough range to win a point. The point was conceded by me with a nod. Then he was off and gone through the trees, and the game was literally afoot again. None of this was planned beforehand, nor ever written down. In the following years, even when we were no longer on an island, one of us would just get up and leave camp, quietly, and the gauntlet was down.

Bored at Dry Creek. Incorrect in so many ways.

But we camped most years on Dry Creek, which had easy access to the trail that circled the entire lake. Jeff and I fished a little, but we hiked a lot. We were all over the mountains there. The terrain in the first photo above typifies the whole region. We thought nothing of scampering up slopes like that. For another similar shot that demonstrates that I was foolish enough to hike this kind of topography in worn-out running shoes with no socks, click here.

One of the mountains we busied ourselves with is Desolation Peak.

Jeff and I nearly killed ourselves on our first journey to the top of this breaker of men and destroyer of boys with big ideas. It was a classic instance of leaving the trail because we were sure a better route existed. After we conquered the summit that first year, we swore we were done with that berg. But we did it again the next year, this time using the trail. It kept drawing us back. Even when we rose at 3:30 a.m. and headed out across the grasses of Dry Creek meadow at first light, it took an hour to get to Lightning Creek bridge, and Desi’s trailhead was a ways north of that. By the time we got above the tall trees into the alpine meadows, it was inevitably 10am and debilitatingly hot. We would trudge in agony up the sun-baked, south facing slopes of the two last knolls, slipping on the snowpack that remained through June, to collapse at the top in the shade of the ranger’s hut, and use the outhouse — hanging off the back of the mountaintop with the greatest view you ever relaxed a bowel to — that Kerouac himself had made legendary.

My fourth year at Ross, we had invited Kip and Dougie (whose name was Bert, I think) to join us. The pain and misery of hiking Desolation were too great not to share with others. There’s much more to tell about those days at Ross Lake, and Kip can tell you what he remembers of this trip, but what history will remember is the Pear-Grape Shot. Jeff’s mom was the one who lovingly packed all the food for this annual expedition, all but the fresh fish. We took it all up to Ross in a huge green wooden chest, which we loaded in the middle of the boat for the ten-mile journey up the lake. Among the staples that she placed into this ark, besides Peanut Butter, which I ate so much of that Vance started calling me “ol’ Peanut Butter”, was a week’s supply of Apple and Pear-Grape juice in little cans.

We were extremely amused by these little refreshments, and I can’t even remember why, unless it was just the indecisiveness of the name. Pear or Grape, which is it? We were young, we were eager to find targets for our wit. Anyway, we got to the top of Desolation and set up a camera with a self-timer, then all did our best to sell the product.

Desolation dogs, left to right: Bert (a.k.a. Dougie), Bernard (a.k.a. Kipper), Jeff, and Matt

Desolation dogs, left to right: Bert (a.k.a. Dougie), Bernard (a.k.a. Kipper), Jeff, and Matt. (Click to see the thrill of victory and the agony of the feet in higher resolution.)

This hike took it out of us, but this photograph, which we have always called the Pear-Grape Shot, really captures that moment that you don’t know is your grandest moment until you get some distance past it. It’s the moment you later look back on and would give anything to return to. It never got better than this for us as a group of friends or even as pairs of friends.

Kip’s college life in Boise turned into his career life in Boise, and he came back over the mountains less often, and his time here was earmarked for family gatherings. Bert was a recent buddy of Jeff’s from college, but he virtually disappeared shortly after this. Before the Internet, Jeff used to consider hiring a detective to find him (I don’t know, Jeff may have tracked him down in the last few years).

I think Jeff and I didn’t hike the mountain the next year, or maybe there wasn’t a next year. I thought four was a lousy number of times to do something like that and always figured we’d get back to Desolation for one last go. And we did. We came back a decade later and flung ourselves at the old monster one last time in an adventure we called “A Fifth of Desolation”. That might have marked the beginning of the end of a friendship that was built on just such intense and rarified experiences and was eventually bound to crumble. Certainly I was well into a long period of shift in my spiritual outlook, the outcome of which rather took the old boy by surprise, and both of us were having trouble finding our way in life. The two of us made the climb, ate our lunch, and headed down, almost without talking to each other. And we never went back together. Old Vance is gone, felled by cancer just before the turn of the new century. Jeff himself has gone dark, somewhere in the vicinity of Reno. He hasn’t talked to me in years. But that crazy hill is still there, just like it has been forever, double-dog-daring everyone to take it on.


15 Responses to “A fourth of Desolation”

  1. 1 Ben August 30, 2009 at 15:20

    Dear Brother:

    You have once again recklessly exposed yourself. I admire that. I remember feeling a pang of jealousy when you would set off for Ross lake. I remember the photograph well. I knew you and your pack of adventurers were always hunting up fun. Words can’t quite express all that is tied in with Ross Lake. But having grown up with you, I think it communicated enough. Perhaps one day the mountains around Ross Lake will know the feel of both your footprints again.

  2. 2 Kip August 30, 2009 at 19:32

    I must admit I have but a few memories of that trip. I seem to have a memory issue, but I do remember seeing deer in camp, and getting up very early to climb Desolation. It really did take everything out of me. I do clearly remember now that the memory door has been open, that I was a bit grumpy long before the top, but getting there did make it all worth while. Do I recall correctly that at the summit we separated for a while? Remember after the picture was developed (remember when pictures WERE developed?) and we analyzed it for hours? The two on the end with heads covered, the two inside uncovered? Jeff and I wearing the same boots…..Eddie Bauer brand hikers…the two on the outside sneaker-types. I know there are more, but at the moment I am unable to recall. It was a trip I have not forgotten, even if I have forgotten some of the specifics. Is it odd that I WOULD like to go back and give it a go? Just sayin’.

    • 3 Marni September 1, 2009 at 17:50

      “a bit grumpy”? hmmm. I seem to remember you when you are “a bit grumpy”. Fun times, that! What good company you must have been….

  3. 4 jstwndrng August 30, 2009 at 23:28

    I’m sensing that my story didn’t work as a cautionary tale. You guys want to trouble that rock again, I’ll go with. But you’ll have to hire a shirpa to carry my coffin and the digging tools, because if I see the top of Desi again it’ll be the last thing I look on, sure. I’m in no kinda shape.

    Ben, a beautiful sentiment, and thanks for it. I think I won’t hold my breath, and anyway, there’s a saying that you can’t swim in the same river twice, and I think it goes as well for climbing mountains. Five times I’ve gone that trail and I’ve found myself on a new peak each time. You can’t really go back.

    Kipper, I don’t recall splitting up at the top. The summit is pretty confined in all directions, so we couldn’t have strayed far from each other. But we probably needed space from each other and I’m sure we all harumphed off to gaze soulfully at separate mountain ranges. And yes, I recall studying the photo for those unplanned pairings. Hats, no hats. Boots, sneaks. Bearded, shaved. There are also several flowers stuck in my hat that pair with a single yellow flower in Dougie’s hair, near his right ear. Not quite the cover of Sgt. Peppers, but there’s a lot to look at here.

    I forgot to note the year of the photo, which I don’t know offhand. I’m guessing 1984? When I can find the journal from that trip I’ll stick the date it in the caption.

  4. 5 Kip August 31, 2009 at 07:12

    Yes, I meant harrumphed off when I said sepparated. I seem to recall I was a bit out of it at the top, so I was probably not able to totally capture the moment in my brain. I am in no kind of shape either…maybe we should TALK about a return trip, with the understanding that it may not happen. Oh, it certainly COULD happen…nudge nudge wink wink, say no more!

  5. 6 Ben August 31, 2009 at 07:26


    I will concede that going back is risky. Sometimes you go back and find yourself only to be further haunted, like walking into the barracks, after everyone else has been sent home. You walk among the bunks and foot lockers, remembering each face. However sometimes I think going back is merely a pleasant by bath on the way forward.

    • 7 Ben August 31, 2009 at 07:28

      “bath”..was supposed to be “path”. I’ll blame it on the hand that isn’t working well after the softball tournament yesterday.

  6. 8 Louis Chirillo August 31, 2009 at 16:10

    Thanks for the story, Matt. And great picture. I’ll risk setting myself up by saying, “I’d like to take that hike…”

    Do they still make Tree Top juice?

  7. 9 jstwndrng August 31, 2009 at 17:07

    Well that’s four. Like I said, I’m willing, but we’re spread over three states of the Union, about four time zones and two hemispheres. Gonna be a while planning that one. And seriously, my knees will give out as soon as we turn and start down.

    I think Tree Top’s still in biz, but I don’t know if they’re still making Pear-Grape.

  8. 10 Marni September 1, 2009 at 09:04

    I remember that picture….I love that picture! Now I get to love the story that goes with it as well. You old guys go off and enjoy that hike; I’ll just sit here and look at the picture and think “ooh, pretty”…and save my knees. and my feet. and my hips and back. and my life.

  9. 11 jstwndrng September 1, 2009 at 09:21

    You’ll be the one they interview afterwards. Marni on the evening news: “I can’t imagine how this tragedy could have happened. They all seemed pretty bright”.

    I note with irony number four of WordPress’ suggestions for further reading. Sounds like what we should call this hike.

  1. 1 Missing the Perseids « Just Wondering Trackback on August 27, 2010 at 21:28
  2. 2 Closer than a brother – Part II « Just Wondering Trackback on January 12, 2011 at 14:38
  3. 3 Circle of fire « Just Wondering Trackback on August 12, 2011 at 15:54

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