Chapter Twenty - Of Hoboes, Barefooters, and the Open Road

I

Wainwright, Alaska, sits on a spit of land at the edge of the Arctic Ocean, just within the boundary of the National Petroleum Reserve. An old Inupiat map from 1853 showed that the fishing camp used to be called Olgoonik. But coal was found along this part of the Chukchi Sea coastline in the early twentieth century, and it seemed only proper to anglicize the name of the town. The first naval report from the Arctic area had been written in the 1820s by Lieutenant John Wainwright. Later the navy honored Wainwright (if you want to call it an honor) by naming the frozen town after him. During the winter in Wainwright, temperatures regularly dropped to about fifty degrees below zero Fahrenheit, and there was very little precipitation. More than 90 percent of Wainwright remained Inupiat, hunting bowhead whales and caribou to survive. But the U.S. Navy kept a lookout station in Wainwright: you never knew when, instead of beluga whales, you might see a Soviet submarine or an oil seep or a UFO.

If one were to pick a place on the globe where one wouldn’t expect to find the poet Allen Ginsberg in the summer of 1956, it could have been Wainwright. But Ginsberg, depressed because his mother, Naomi, had died in June, signed up as a deckhand and boarded the USNS Sgt. Jack J. Pendleton (T-AKV-5)—a cargo ship constructed during World War II—for the summer months while City Lights Books was preparing Howl and Other Poems for publication. His employer was the U.S. Merchant Marine. ThePendleton had been refitted with radar and enlarged hatches in 1948 and usually worked the central Pacific Ocean, visiting ports in Japan, Korea, Okinawa, Taiwan, and the Philippine Islands and restocking U.S. radar stations along the Distant Early Warning (DEW) line with foodstuffs and supplies for the coming winter. Ginsberg was desperate for money and also hoped that the stark Arctic scenery might help him shake off the blues; it had worked for Rockwell Kent. Ginsberg earned $450 a month, the equivalent of $3,500 a month in 2010 dollars. But, far from finding enlightenment in the Chukchi Sea, as Muir had, he grew even more depressed at the sight of the bruised skies, coal storage tanks, Eskimo skid rows, wharf shacks, rocks, and general bleakness of Wainwright. “Settled down in trip more, now up at a place in Arctic Circle called Wainwright, Alaska—so far no ice, snow, icebergs, aurora, whales, dolphins, seals, fish,” he complained in a letter to the painter Robert LaVigne. “Nothing but grey sea and occasional bright day, and day which truly does last all night. The light if you’re interested in these northern lights has a kind of teablush-grey immanence, as if not out of sun (usually hidden behind solid cover of clouds also dead grey color past midnight) but lunar reflected out of the water.”1

What made Wainwright even worse for Ginsberg was the fact that the Pendleton had been quarantined half a mile offshore by the merchant marine, because of a measles epidemic in the Native villages. (The memory was still raw, in the Bering Sea region, of the “great sickness” of June 1900, when a vicious strain of influenza wiped out half the population of Alaskan villages with “lightning force.”2 Also, all around Arctic Alaska tuberculosis—which accounted for one-third of all Native deaths in the territory—was always a threat.) Using field glasses, he could see the village crouched on the cliff: a cluster of about seventy dreary, ramshackle edifices. Jack Kerouac had made a steamer voyage to Greenland in 1942 aboard the SS Dorchester and described it romantically in his first (unpublished) novel, “The Sea Is My Brother.” To Ginsberg, however, the landscape was profoundly desolate. Adding to the grim bleakness, the Pendleton’s captain had a persistent fear that a flood tide or a northerly wind would sink the ship, and all the cargo would be lost. “Northern latitudes look flat and the land of Alaska a pencil line on the edge of horizon from where we are,” Ginsberg wrote to his friend, “and the further Northward stretches up another thousand miles to the pole in the daylight streaked with clouds.”3

As the Pendleton steamed farther north up the Chukchi Sea, Ginsberg’s mood grew darker. Nothing noteworthy happened, there was just the ache of boredom. According to the merchant marine’s plans, the Pendleton would moor off Point Barrow, not far from where the humorist Will Rogers’s plane—the Aurora Borealis—had gone down in 1935 during a violent gale. Meanwhile, Ginsberg would peer out over the wet railing into the cold summer dusk, too often asking himself why. There is no record that he saw any other ships on the horizon. A sharp pang of regret penetrated him as the Pendleton headed toward the north pole. The Chukchi Sea shoreline changed almost minute by minute but became no less desolate. Large scattered masses of blue, green, and white ice drifted forlornly. “I am on the sea north of Alaska 1000 miles from the Pole,” Ginsberg wrote to his grandmother Buba. “The sun is up all night, and ice flows by on the edge of the ocean day after day. I spend my evenings reading through the books of the Old Testament.”4

Point Barrow, frozen and windswept, was the most northerly outpost in Alaska. A thick fog suddenly swallowed the Pendleton. Sea ice encircled it as it steamed ahead to port, with the crew hoping for a safe anchorage. Ginsberg, carrying a clipboard that held numerous cargo release papers, was to oversee the unloading of supplies at the U.S. Navy station. In the Inupiat tongue, the geographical location of Point Barrow was Ukpeagvik, “the place where we hunt snowy owl”; in the requisition office two stuffed owls were on display. The midnight sun caused the sleep-deprived Ginsberg to wander about Point Barrow like a zombie. Darkness is the natural signal for human glands to produce melatonin—the hormone that most affects sleep. Body clocks get scrambled in the Arctic. Ginsberg was among the victims.

Before Ginsberg left San Francisco, he had heard sailors describe Point Barrow as the Arctic transportation hub. Now he could see, with his own eyes, that besides a few weather station buildings and conical Native huts, Point Barrow was nothing much. Working to counter his despair, however, was a gladdening thought: before setting sail he had optimistically mailed prepublication copies of Howl and Other Poems to T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and William Faulkner, though he didn’t know any of them. City Lights Books was bringing out Howl on November 1, 1956, as the fourth volume in its Pocket Poets series. The San Francisco poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, owner of City Lights Books, had begun the series with his own collection The Gone World. Ginsberg, like any author, was bursting with anticipation and longing to actually touch his own finished book. “So have been up and down north coast of Alaska for a month, now at northernmost Point Barrow,” Ginsberg wrote to Jack Kerouac in mid-August (Kerouac was at Desolation Peak in the North Cascades, working as a fire lookout, deep in solitude for sixty-three days). “Sun is out all night or was in midsummer last week, dread ghastly pallor all night through clouds, and this week fantastic burning iron sun going down at edge of horizon for a few hours, clear weather. The water always moving clouds, always moving, birds same clouds and me same like a transparent shifting haze everywhere changing.”5

Ginsberg was unlike John Muir in that Alaska didn’t inspire his creative muse very much; although on August 10 he wrote the poem “Many Loves” from the Arctic. The primary intellectual lesson he squeezed out of his job with the merchant marine was how viciously the Chukchi Sea current attacked ships. Whalers considered the waters between Icy Cape and Point Barrow the most treacherous north of New Zealand. The Arctic sea-lanes were in the field of a strong northward magnetic pull that made timepieces run backward. Frequent fog could turn dangerously heavy within seconds in an unexpected rain shower. Nobody was really ever prepared for the strange turbulence that could suddenly appear with no meteorological rhyme or reason.

Once, in poor visibility, the Pendleton’s navigator accidentally rammed the ship into a huge ice floe, causing serious damage to the hull and cracking the fantail. The captain was then forced to make a two-day detour around the floe. Saltwater seeped aboard the ship. Vacuums were brought out. Divers in what Ginsberg described as “Mars suits underwater” tried to fix the damage while the ship was at dockside in Point Barrow. At least no one had to worry about working the graveyard shift: Barrow had eighty-five days of continuous daylight from May 10 to August 2.

Ginsberg, wandering around in the thick weather, did a little paperwork in the village center, thankful for the chance to stretch his legs, and thought about the fame Howl might soon bring him. While supplying a storage shed onshore, he contemplated the U.S. Air Force radar station stuck here on top of the continent. This was the cold war era, and some Democrats—saying that the Soviet Union had the “missile edge”—wanted Alaska to become a launch area. Ginsberg wondered if there weren’t already enough atomic missiles that could be fired, from underground bunkers, over the North Pole to destroy the Soviet Union. Rumors of polar bears on the ice, always bandied about in Point Barrow, were also troubling to him. Feeling unsafe, he went back aboard the Pendleton and continued reading the Bible.

While Ginsberg was at Point Barrow, Kerouac was working on his Scripture of the Golden Eternity: sixty-six easy-to-contemplate nuggets of personal wisdom from the Buddha. Corinth Books would publish it as a pamphlet in 1960. Scripture 63, written while Kerouac was at Desolation Peak as a forest lookout, dealt with Coyote; Scripture 62 echoed passages in Robert Marshall’s Alaska Wilderness. “The world has no marks, signs, or evidence of existence, nor the noises in it, like accident of wind or voices or heehawing animals, yet listen closely as the eternal hush of silence goes on and on throughout all this, and has been going on, and will go on and on,” Kerouac wrote. “This is because the world is nothing but a dream and is just thought of and the everlasting eternity pays no attention to it. At night under the moon, or in a quiet room, hush now, the secret music of the Unborn goes on and on, beyond conception, awake beyond existence. Properly speaking, awake is not really awake because the golden eternity never went to sleep: you can tell by the constant sound of Silence which cuts through this world like a magic diamond through the trick of your not realizing that your mind caused the world.”6

Just two weeks after the reading at the Six Gallery, Kerouac and Snyder took off for Yosemite National Park to climb the 12,000-foot Matterhorn Mountain. (The outing, complete with raisins, haiku sessions, and homemade chocolate pudding, became the anchor for The Dharma Bums.) When Ginsberg returned to San Francisco from Point Barrow, happy to be in a softer climate, he learned that the Nation was going to run an explanatory article about the “San Francisco Poetry Renaissance,” which had been launched at the Six Gallery reading of October 7, 1955. Since he was considered the publicist for the beat generation, he wrote to the journalist Carolyn Kizer of the Nation, saying that Kerouac, Snyder, Whalen, and McClure were poetic geniuses. Ginsberg pleaded with Kizer not to write her article in a “condescending tone,” adding, “that’s first paramount.” Kerouac was just returning to civilization from Desolation Peak in Baker National Forest in Washington; Snyder was off to study Buddhism in Japan; Whalen was wandering around the Sierras; and McClure was married and with young children, reading Haeckel, and busy trying to protect marine life as John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts were doing around Monterey Bay (on California’s central coast)—so the burden fell upon Ginsberg to articulate what all the hullabaloo in San Francisco was about. “Generally the method is as in Buddhist Zen Archery or Koan Response,” Ginsberg wrote to Kizer, trying to explain the ethos of the “dharma bums,” “long continued practice at spontaneous exactness of expression requiring years of 10–16 hours a day practicing uninterrupted transcription of the droppings of the mind upon a page—until form, deep form, begins to appear, emerge out of the sea.”7

II

With the reading at the Six Gallery in 1955 serving as an impetus, Alaska opened up to spiritual wanderers, seekers of the northern lights, tripsters, permaculturists, wildcrafters, greenhousers, seedsmen, backpackers, quartz collectors, kayakers, misfits, highway bums, seasonal workers, dropouts, malcontents, and survivalists. To longtime Alaskan boomers and sourdoughs, it was as if all of San Francisco’s mystics were arriving in their territory in search of bliss. If Kerouac was right in saying that in the Lower Forty-Eight “the woods” were “full of wardens,” then Alaska was a land where a free- spirited drifter could still “cook a little meal over some burning sticks in the tule brake or the hidden valley.”8 Land was still very cheap: you could easily purchase ten acres for $1,000. Motor homes were welcome in public domain lands. Squatting wasn’t frowned upon. Instead of seeking gold, the young people now coming to unconventional Alaskan enclaves like Haines and Sitka were seeking self. Unlike Rotary Club types, whose belief in America’s future was limitless, these self-seekers were turning toward Buddhism, Hindu reincarnation, vegetarianism, groovy drugs, social consciousness, and yoga—away from the flag and toward the prayer mat—and were fearful of an atomic or chemical holocaust.

In Homer, Alaska—at the tip of the Kenai Peninsula—a new wave of young seekers found the deeply forested region a spiritual haven, far from the mad rush of consumerism and conformity. Seeking solace in the sea, sky, and mountains of the Kenai Peninsula, particularly the temperate zones, they hoped that subsistence farming and fishing were the way off the treadmill of making money. As Gary Snyder had said, these seekers all wanted to “create wilderness out of empire.”9 Homer’s slogans became “The Cosmic Hamlet by the Sea” and “Living on the Edge,” and were a way of giving the finger to Main Street. To the professional fishermen in Homer, who thought of their village as the “Halibut capital of the world,” all these cosmic-minded kids with no money were a disturbing trend. “Humans don’t own the earth,” Lady Greensleeves and Spoonguy have said about the ethos in Homer. “Pacha Mama, Mother Earth, la madre tierra, she bears us on our destiny, and herstory is a vast saga.”10

Curved around Kachemak Bay, Homer—the magnet for the beats in Alaska—was a clannish fishing village centered on a low, treeless spit (a long, thin gravel bar jutting out into the water). Muir had found the Homer Spit—where fishermen caught thousands of Pacific halibut and Pacific lampreys—enchanting when he sketched Kachemak Bay in 1899. The spit was surrounded on both sides by the exchanging tidal flows of Cook Inlet and the Gulf of Alaska. Low, wooded mountains rose on one side of the spit; on the other side was a rolling ridge of glistening glaciers. At twilight, Homer glowed in what some people described as a blanketing halo. “Light,” Muir had written. “I know not a single word fine enough for Light . . . holy, beamless, bodiless, inaudible floods of light.”11

Homer, a magnet for vegetarians, may be where seaweed became a popular health food in the 1950s. Bands of seaweed—such as porphyra (black seaweed), palmaria (ribbon seaweed), and macrocystis (giant kelp)—became a subsistence food for hitchhikers along Kachemak Bay. Such seaweeds were rich in minerals, vitamins, and carbohydrates.12 Likewise, the clams and mussels of Kachemak Bay, whose beds were in the mudflats, were also an attraction; small but succulent, they were among the best-tasting in the world. Nestled along Kachemak Bay was a huge raft of sea otters. Daily they swam about in these highly productive waters, gorging on shellfish.

When the Harriman Expedition visited Kachemak Bay in 1899, Charles Palache of Harvard University, the mineralogist aboard the Elder, noted the “interesting geology” around Homer; the area gave him a newfound interest in crystallography.13 John Burroughs, however, found “nothing Homeric about the look of the place.”14 But he loved seeing the volcanic peaks, Iliamna and Redoubt, sixty miles across Cook Inlet to the west.

The Kenai Peninsula was ripe for the beat generation ethos after Ginsberg’s Howl was published in 1956, followed by Kerouac’s On the Road in 1957. As Muir had told an earlier generation, “Go to Nature’s School—the one true University.”15 Homer was a natural place for the beat philosophy to take root because the village spit—not San Francisco—was truly the end of the road in America.16 While Snyder and Whalen were injecting Zen Buddhism into the poetry of California, the Barefooters, a group based in the Los Angeles area, were melding Hare Krishna, reincarnation, and Henry David Thoreau’s “Simplify, simplify” into a heady cocktail. The back-to-nature cult had started in 1948 as the Wisdom, Knowledge, Faith, and Love Community (WKFL). A subgroup with theatrical ambitions in the Los Angeles area performed a Christmas play in which none of the performers wore shoes: hence the name Barefooters.

The WKFL was led by Krishna Venta, who sought martyrdom. The members permanently shunned shoes; the men refused to get a haircut until world peace was achieved; the women dressed in long, flowing white gowns and liked to serve apple butter on homemade wheat bread. The Barefooters intended to wear their holy robes until universal love rained down. Love and service were the goals of WKFL. These cultists, forerunners of the San Francisco hippies, devoted their varied talents to humanitarian endeavors such as helping the poor and homeless and extinguishing forest fires. “Bare feet keep one connected to the earth,” Brother Asaiah, a WKFL leader, explained. “One doesn’t need blinders on one’s feet any more than one’s eyes. We learn about the earth through our feet. We learn to tread lightly on earth and not dally too long in one place.”17

During the summer of 1956, six Barefooters—known as the Fountain of the World contingent—left Canoga Park, California, for Homer, Alaska. They had been practicing the “beat” life years before the term was used. Word spread throughout the Kenai Peninsula that beatniks (a term coined in late 1957) were arriving en masse, hitchhiking along Highway 1 but looking too bizarre to get rides. (Alaskan lumbermen prided themselves on their own libertarian values. But what could they make of long-haired people in biblical garb walking barefoot in the snow without guns?) Krishna Venta had a vision of colonizing the Kachemak Bay area as Brigham Young had once settled Mormons around the Great Salt Lake of Utah. The Barefooters would protect the natural world of Kachemak Bay not as a possession but as a responsibility. All religions would be embraced; they weren’t dogmatic about reincarnation as the way, although the Indian religious traditions of Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism, and particularly the transmigration of the soul, seemed to be their prevailing ethos. Feet, however, were their fetish. They held ceremonies in which they marveled at the evolution of the foot’s anatomy: its thirty-three joints, twenty-six bones, and twenty muscles.

Acquiring three homesteads in the Fox River valley, about a half-hour drive from Homer, the Barefooters established a commune in 1956—when Ginsberg was in Point Barrow on the Pendleton. They named their land Venta. Although the Barefooters didn’t make elegant handcrafted chairs, there was something of the Shakers in them. What Krishna was trying to teach was avoidance of avidya (one’s true self), since the self led to ignorance and militarism. The Barefooters were more freakish than Ginsberg was in the late 1960s, when he wanted to levitate the Pentagon.

Krishna Venta (originally Francis Herman Pencovic, born in San Francisco on March 29, 1911) was a very popular leader. By the mid-1950s he had tens of thousands of followers. Venta had messianic blue eyes and a tangled beard like Charles Manson’s, and his favorite subject was himself. He stated matter-of-factly in April 1948: “I may as well say it: I am Christ. I am the new Messiah.” Angry that newspapers kept calling him Francis Pencovic instead of Krishna Venta, he had his name legally changed in 1951. When asked why he was the new Christ, Krishna Venta claimed that he had led a convoy of rocket ships from the burning planet of Neophrates to save Earth; even L. Ron Hubbard, whose first scientology writings appeared in 1951, thought he was weird.

Dormitories were built at Venta, along the Kachemak Bay mudflat on the far outskirts of Homer. The Barefooters became children of the Kenai Peninsula tides. Outside their front doors, glacial erratics dotted the flats. Driftwood and detritus hourly washed up on their beach. Mushrooms grew along the horsetail-fringed shore—not psychedelic ones, for the Barefooters were opposed to using drugs. Moose browsed around their acreage eating dwarf birch and willows. But being a Barefooter during the winter months was of course dangerous and nonsensical. “It wasn’t even the Alaska icy roads that stopped the Barefooters from going barefoot,” recalled a former state senator, Clem Tillion. “As long as they kept walking, when on the ice, they were fine. If they stopped, the heat from their feet melted the ice, and they stuck to the ice, so they didn’t just stand when they were barefoot. It was actually the sparks from welding in their shop that brought about the decision to clothe their feet.”18 Alaska’s weather had, alas, forced the Barefooters to wear thick leather boots.

Krishna Venta’s principal surrogate in Homer was Brother Asaiah (originally Claude Bates, raised fatherless in Pilot Mountain, North Carolina). Shuttling between Ventura County and the Kenai Peninsula, keeping the Homer contingent well supplied for the hard winter months, Brother Asaiah was treasured by all the Barefooters. “He became our beloved Brother Asaiah,” Martha Ellen Anderson recalled. “His consciousness propels our lives in directions we often know not where but the path is not unknown. He expressed his truth, international, intercultural, and universal, in the last frontier on this earth, in our little town at the end of the road, Homer, Alaska, our cosmic hamlet by the sea.”19

For all their peaceable words, however, the Barefooters had a darker side. On December 10, 1958, Krishna Venta was murdered in Chatsworth, California, by two disgruntled followers. Claiming that he was embezzling funds and seducing their wives, they strapped on twenty sticks of dynamite and blew up themselves, Krishna Venta, and seven other Barefooters. The explosion also burned more than 200 acres in California. A shock wave touched youth communities such as Santa Monica and Venice Beach: How could such destruction emanate from the seemingly benign Barefooters? Hadn’t members volunteered in soup kitchens, wildlife reserves, organic farms, and orphanages? The victims of the explosion had included a seven-year-old girl and a baby; how could this be explained? Brother Asaiah was left holding the torch for Krishna Venta’s followers, trying to make sense of what had happened. Alaskan newspapers naturally reported the tragedy, pointing out that the cult had a presence in Homer. Shaken, Brother Asaiah nevertheless came north, preceded by a taciturn message: “Heading to Homer.”

Driving up the Richardson Highway to the Wrangell Mountains, then heading west to Anchorage, Brother Asaiah may have felt optimistic. Krishna Venta had been his spiritual teacher—and he would continue to convey Venta’s philosophy of love in Homer. After a few days in Anchorage, Brother Asaiah headed into the Chugach Mountains along Highway 1. After a night of camping, he headed down the western side of the Kenai Peninsula and saw Redoubt Volcano looming across Cook Inlet like a watchtower. He pulled into Homer and bought a trailer-like home from a local realtor on Lucky Shot Street. To make ends meet, he got a janitorial job. So suspicious were his manner and his hair (he had a ponytail) that the police regularly asked for his identification. But after a while, the community of Homer got used to Brother Asaiah’s eccentricities. Slowly but surely the inhabitants adopted him as one of their own.

Warmhearted, deeply mystical, convinced that the world needed to be rid of nuclear weapons, Brother Asaiah became the spiritual leader of nonconformist Homer. He probably did more than anybody else to inject the word cosmic into the American parlance of the late 1950s. “When the Barefooters arrived, there were a lot of John Birchers living in Homer,” Martha Ellen Anderson recalled. “They wouldn’t so much as talk to Brother Asaiah. The Birchers were about the conquering spirit of Alaskan lands. The Barefooters were living a whole-earth philosophy. But their kids all got to know one another. Eventually the Barefooters were accepted. What everybody in town had in common was this strange draw to how the land met the sea in Homer.”20

Brother Asaiah brought an old-time homesteader ethic to Homer. As a community leader he encouraged Barefooters to grow their own food, construct spruce-log buildings, and cook communal meals. He promoted social services in Homer when there weren’t any. Owing in large part to Brother Asaiah’s leadership, Homer offered social services such as Alcoholics Anonymous, a women’s clinic, an abuse shelter, meals on wheels, and an elder hostel. The Barefooters also donated land to the city of 10,000 to make the WKFL Public Park. A hospital was built, and the Family Theatre opened. Long before Whole Foods got started in Austin, Texas, the Barefooters, led by Brother Asaiah, promoted organic foods. Brother Asaiah was like a one-man Great Society, applying the principles of social work to Homer, earning praise even from right-wing townsfolk who were initially skeptical about him. Until his death in March 2000 he was the heart and soul of Homer. “Attempting to capture the essence of Brother Asaiah seems akin to trying to catch a moonbeam in a mason jar,” Governor Jay Hammond of Alaska (in office from 1974 to 1982), explained.21

Another presence in unconventional Alaska was the sea goddess Sedna. Long a part of Native mythology, popular in shaman art along the Bering Sea coast, Sedna was supposedly a mermaid-like woman who lived in a huge mansion on the seafloor. In some renderings, Sedna had a fishtail and caribou antlers. So strong was Sedna’s appeal that when NASA discovered a new planet in 2003, it was named VB 12 “Sedna.” In one enduring story, Sedna refused to marry a man. Her angry father threw her into the sea, chopping off her fingers for good measure. Her fingers turned into sea mammals such as seals and walrus. Sedna stayed on the ocean bottom, deciding, according to her all-powerful whim, whether marine game should be withheld from Eskimo men. Without this food, the men would perish.22

For liberated women of the 1950s who were moving to Alaska, Sedna’s story involved turning abuse into empowerment. There was a rejection of marriage, a cruel father, societal ostracism, and finally Sedna herself—holding all the power, making men beg for sustenance. Sedna and mermaids became popular during the 1950s among avant-garde artists in Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula—perhaps not surprisingly, in a state with 33,000 miles of coastline. The strength and persistence of Sedna’s legend spoke to a confident belief that in the male-female exchange, the woman held sway. Interestingly, in the biological sciences, once a male domain, women were becoming the top marine biologists in Alaska, Hawaii, and the Lower Forty-Eight by the 1950s. Also, national wildlife refuges began to be named after women: Elizabeth A. Morton in New York, Rachel Carson in Maine, and Julia Butler Hansen in Washington.

III

Jack Kerouac never came to Homer, never met Brother Asaiah, and evidently never learned about the legend of Sedna. But the commune at Homer was in existence a year before On the Road was published and more than two years before the term “rucksack revolution” was coined in The Dharma Bums. Kerouac had predicted the “rucksack revolution” in The Dharma Bums as an imminent, consciousness-changing movement in which city dwellers would light out for places like the windswept Kenai Peninsula seeking personal renewal.23 (The hitchhiking, communal back-to-nature movements that absorbed many baby boomers of the 1960s bore out this prophecy.) In The Dharma Bums, Kerouac wrote about the glory of going barefoot, of feeling connected to the earth without oppressive footwear, of taking “off my shoes” and sitting in a lotus position feeling “glad.”24 Sometimes being primitive like a caveman felt superior to living above a Laundromat in New York or a restaurant in San Francisco. “If Cro-Magnon man was less subject to degenerative diseases and less prone to modern genetic and actual defects such as caries and tuberculosis,” Michael McClure mused in Lighting the Corners, “the artist could idealize him and begin a review of history from that point.”25

Following the success of The Dharma Bums, feeling footloose and fancy-free, Kerouac wrote his wilderness essay, “The Vanishing American Hobo,” for Holiday Magazine; it was included in his omnibus of drifter essays, Lonesome Traveler, published in 1960 by Grove Press. (The novelist John Dos Passos would also soon write an essay about Alaska’s Glacier Bay for Holiday.) This was Kerouac’s first truly autobiographical work, comprising eight sparkling essays. Kerouac detailed his stints as a brakeman in California and as a fire lookout atop Desolation Peak in the North Cascades. He seemed to have the soul of a bedouin. “There is something strange going on,” Kerouac complained; “you can’t even be alone any more in the primitive wilderness.” To Kerouac the Eisenhower era was a police state and was killing the noble traditions of camping, tramping, and trailblazing in favor of a homogenized monoculture of groupthink. Individuality and authenticity were being stamped out. The international economy was on the rise. If you wanted to sleep out under the Milky Way along a roadside, policemen would demand identification and treat you as a vagrant.26

By 1959 Kerouac had become a hero of the nonconformists. Groups like the Barefooters were an early version of the hippies who hitchhiked to Alaska throughout the 1960s, searching for revelations in nameless woods. Feeling blessed, they wanted to escape the confines of the Lower Forty-Eight. Kerouac spoke to later young people disenchanted with postwar abundance, thirsting for a deeper truth than air-conditioning and missile technology. The neoconservative critic Norman Podhoretz, in the Partisan Review,dismissed On the Road as anti-American, and as promoting drug use, free sex, and joblessness over the Protestant work ethic.27 What Podhoretz didn’t say was that the “know-nothing” beats, as he called them, were bravely asking questions about an accident at a nuclear power plant in Windscale, England—and about Minamata disease, a neurological syndrome caused by poisonous mercury in waters.

In The Dharma Bums, the poet Gary Snyder (Japhy Ryder) represented the open road: a lineage that could be traced through American literature from Thoreau to Whitman to Muir. Despite all the commentary about the novel’s overt sexuality (“yabyum”—two men with one woman—adds spice to the story), The Dharma Bums was, in truth, an intersection of Christianity and Buddhism. Kerouac’s overriding message was, “Charity shall cover the multitude of sins.” His mountaintop exhortations represented a great original American artist at his absolute prime; the descriptive writing equals the best of Thomas Wolfe and John Muir. “I’ll tramp with a rucksack,” Kerouac wrote, “and make it the pure way.”28

Perhaps more than any other novel, The Dharma Bums conveyed the value of wilderness to young audiences in the 1960s. Kerouac’s words pulled readers toward a craving for outdoors experiences, for almost mystical reasons. “Logs and snags came floating down at twenty-five miles an hour,” Kerouac wrote. “I figured if I should try to swim across the narrow river I’d be a half-mile downstream before I kicked to the other shore. It was a river wonderland, the emptiness of the golden eternity, odors of moss and bark and twigs and mud, all ululating mysterious visionstuff before my eyes, tranquil and everlasting nevertheless, the hillhairing trees, the dancing sunlight. As I looked up the clouds assumed, as I assumed, faces of hermits.”29

Understandably, Kerouac deeply resented any belittling of his romantic yearnings for Walt Whitman, Huck Finn, and Herman Melville. Combining Bob Marshall’s wilderness philosophy with Gary Snyder’s belief in nature as a healer of the soul, Kerouac defended the hobo tradition in a torrent of heartfelt, first-rate prose. Writing from a cabin at Big Sur, where the rugged Santa Lucia mountains dropped straight into the Pacific Ocean and huge waves slapped in rhythmic fury against towering sea rocks, Kerouac lamented the mainstream culture and its need to commodify everything, even its national parks. In Big Sur Kerouac, with a charitable heart, objected to the end of “barefoot kids” with “a string of fish,” warming themselves by wood fires while camping out in secret coves along the Pacific coast. The Barefooters were doing that in Homer, but most American families were now driving station wagons into sacred landscapes like the Painted Desert or Mount McKinley, “sneering” over a “printed blue-lined roadmap” and worried silly about getting “the car washed before the return trip.”30 Or, perhaps, these families headed to Alaska on a cruise ship, listening to music and eating buffets of chemically enriched foods five times a day.

Lonesome Traveler was filled with impressionistic prose riffs; its central premise was the enduring virtues of hoboing in the wilderness. In the jargon of Broadway theater, Kerouac “believed his own show”: spontaneous prose enriched by Buddhist philosophy, transcendental yearnings, and American outdoors romanticism. When Grove Press published his essays, Sputnik had been launched, Americans were worried about a supposed “missile gap” relative to the Soviet Union, and NASA’s space programs were headline news, so Kerouac’s meditations about the open road seemed antiquated. But the essays took on relevance when the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission drew up plans to test nuclear weapons on the Aleutians. “The Jet Age is crucifying the hobo,” Kerouac wrote, “because how can he hop a freight jet?”31

Kerouac was concerned that in mature America “camping” was deemed a “healthy sport” for the Boy Scouts but “a crime for nature men who have made it their vocation.” With a rucksack on his back, Kerouac had wandered through America from 1948 to 1956. But he abruptly halted his hitchhiking because of ugly television news stories about the “abominableness of strangers with packs passing through by themselves independently” in frightened suburbia. Beatniks were considered dangerous perverts to be avoided at all costs. To Kerouac, untrammeled places like the North Cascades, the Brooks Range, and the Kenai Peninsula offered the last best hope for disappearing into the wilderness to find oneself, as Rockwell Kent had done at Fox Island in 1920. In Lonesome Traveler,Kerouac noted the great hoboes in American history, from Ben Franklin to William O. Douglas. Lovingly he declared John Muir a hobo who “went off into the mountains with a pocketful of dried bread, which he soaked in creeks.” To Kerouac the great Teddy Roosevelt was a “political hobo” of the first order. Hadn’t the poet Vachel Lindsay enriched America by his “troubadour” hobo wanderings, giving farmers verses in exchange for homemade pies?

Kerouac was frustrated that the open road was under assault by a police state mentality. Douglas had complained about railroad cops beating hoboes outside Chicago during the Great Depression; now, Kerouac voiced a similar complaint in Lonesome Travelerabout “great sinister tax-paid police cars (1960 models with humorless searchlights)” bearing down on The Wilderness Society types who were only looking for “hills of holy silence and holy privacy.” To Kerouac, the celestial seeker, there was “nothing nobler” than to “put up with a few inconveniences like snakes and dust for the sake of absolute freedom.”32 Kerouac was insisting, in 1960, that vagrancy wasn’t merely legal; it was part of the patriotic Thoreauvian tradition that made America unique. To Kerouac, Johnny Appleseed (whose real name was John Chapman), the Swedenborgian orchidist who dropped seeds of fruit-bearing trees from the Berkshires to the Ohio Valley chanting “the Lord is good to me,” a wanderer who was even kind to skunks, should be celebrated as an American counterpart of Saint Francis of Assisi. Nothing was more liberating to Kerouac than to live in a wilderness where, overnight, you could be reborn, choosing your own new name and identity: Aurora Borealis, Brother Asaiah, Sedna, Japhy Ryder, or Johnny Appleseed.

But the Anchorage Museum of History and Art circa 2010—funded in part by BP and Shell—doesn’t consider beats, Buddhists, or Barefooters* a part of state history worth remembering. Instead it prominently displays under glass the bronze boots worn by William G. Bishop when he ordered the Richfield Oil crews to drill the discovery well for the Swanson River oil field on the Kenai Peninsula in 1957. This was a gift from the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce, which was promoting the slogan “Drill today, drill tomorrow.” Down south in Homer, however, every summer a “Howl” camp was held, at which naturalist instructors took children backpacking, rock climbing, and bird-watching.

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