Dharma Bums & Me

If I could point to the main thing that influenced me — a suburb-raised New Jerseyan — at 28 years of age, to leave his poorly-selected temporary home of Los Angeles, California for the greener pastures of the Pacific Northwest, far above all over influences, I’d have to point to Jack Kerouac‘s 1958 novel The Dharma Bums.

This post focuses on just a portion of one sentence from the book, one of the most amazing, gloriously run-on sentences ever written, a sentence that, all by itself, encapsulates the essence of Dharma Bums and its influence on me.

When I first read the book, I was biding my time in the City of Angels, all was not terrible, I had some friends, and a good job doing rewarding work coordinating services for the developmentally disabled, I still liked a good party or pub or club as much as anyone, but I wasn’t happy. I never felt comfortable in L.A., never liked the relentless sunshine, never ever felt a kinship with my friend’s Hollywood acquaintances, I longed for something else, but I wasn’t sure exactly what.

And then I read Dharma Bums, Kerouac’s account of his mid-1950s dabbling in Buddhism, dabbling that led him to a brief but influential friendship with Gary Snyder, a friendship that lured him in fits and starts from his urban life of house parties, bars, poetry readings, and jazz clubs and introduced him to hiking and the mountains and ultimately to Snyder’s home state of Washington, where Jack ends up at the end of the book, as a fire lookout atop Desolation Peak in the Cascade Mountains.

In chapter six, in the last half of the sentence mentioned above, Jack describes these journeys thus:

…prowling in the wilderness to hear the voice crying in the wilderness, to find the ecstasy of the stars, to find the dark mysterious secret of the origin of faceless wonderless crapulous civilization.

And that just blew…my…mind.

And it just so happens that right around that same time REI opened their store in Northridge, CA, just north of L.A., and I was so excited I showed up on opening day and I bought my first pair of good hiking boots, and when I wasn’t researching where in the Northwest I would relocate to, I got out of the city every chance I could, hiking in the Santa Monicas and San Gabriels.

And here I am, 18 years later, and to be honest, like Jack, I’m still torn between the culture of the city and the wilderness (though Bellingham is admittedly a more provincial city than Kerouac’s New York, San Francisco, or even Seattle); and that I’ve been working for the last ten years here at Western Washington University, for all its benefits, makes me wonder how much I’m contributing to the perpetuation of our wonderless crapulous civilization.

Back to the The Dharma Bums sentence in question, closer to the beginning:

…colleges being nothing but grooming schools for the middle-class nonidentity which usually finds its perfect expression on the outskirts of campus in rows of well-to-do houses with lawns and television sets in each living room with everybody looking at the same thing at the same time…

Jack Kerouac had hoped that his sojourns in the wilderness and his dabbling in Buddhism would help him transcend the duality he explored in the book, but it didn’t work out too well for him, as the oft-told, excruciatingly sad story of his life played out.

As I continue my own dabbling in Buddhism, here in the region where Jack made his pilgrimage, I think I’ve found a happy mid-point on the the crapulous-civilization and wilderness continuum; no need to escape to the mountains, just visit there from time to time, then come back to town, enjoy a nice meal and a glass of wine, watch a film every once in a while, camp out in a cozy chair and read at a bookstore, while taking regular breaks on the cushion for zazen, and stopping by the Dharma Hall for refuge in the sangha.

3 thoughts on “Dharma Bums & Me

  1. I was just on Railroad Avenue the other day, took a picture of a friend leaning in the doorway of the Helena Hotel. Do you know if it’s true that Jack Kerouac stayed there? That’s the story I’ve been telling anyway.

    1. Hi Ginny. Thanks for stopping by Fish & Bicycles!

      You know, I’ve never heard that before, and I spent a little time Googling to see if I could find anything to that effect but came up empty.

      Funny you should post a comment on this post today, because this morning I was talking to a co-worker who is going to climb Desolation Peak this weekend.

      What are the chances of that?!!

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