On Monday 18th September, 2017, shortly before boarding a flight from London to Seattle, I received an email from the US National Parks Service:
Dear Mr. Richards,
This is an important message from Recreation.gov regarding your reservation at Big Creek Baldy Lookout Rental. We regret to inform you, that due to a fire in the area, the lookout will be closed from September 18th, through September 30th, 2017.
Your reservation has been cancelled, and a full refund has been issued. …
We apologize for the inconvenience this has caused.
Customer Support Representative
Which was a bit of blow, really, because the stay at Big Creek had been the main reason for my trip. So I flew out to Washington State in disarray, hopeful that things would yet work out and I’d be able rustle up a similar fire-watch adventure at no notice — perhaps trace Jack Kerouac’s 1956 journey north to Desolation Peak and see what happened from there.
This, ironically enough, had been my original intention at the start of the project since I’d researched and written about Kerouac’s trip in a previous book named Climbing Days — specifically his run in with a bear — but then, fearing that the path to Desolation Peak was perhaps too well trodden, I’d shifted focus to Big Creek Baldy — partly because it was a tower style lookout, raised on stilts like the fire-watch cabins of my imagination, partly for the name but, mainly, because it was in the area of the Idaho Panhandle where the writer Denis Johnson lived — a literary hero and the author of a book named Train Dreams.
I was first put on to Denis Johnson by the staff at Mr. B’s Bookshop in Bath. I was in the early planning stages of the new book, a blank panicked state of mooching — browsing with a terrible furrowed intent — scouring the shelves for miraculous mulch to germinate vague ideas.
In retrospect it was here that the project in question — a book named Outpost — was really born: a realisation that my enthusiasm for the alpine cabins I’d visited whilst climbing and writing my last could accumulate and meld with stories of other eyries and spartan architectures on the edge for the next; a continuation of the more tangential reading I’d done for Climbing Days — Consolations of the Forest by Sylvain Tessen, Rebecca Solnit’s Field Guide to Getting Lost, The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky, The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich. I told this to Nick and Ed behind the Mr. B’s counter and they set about racking up a reading list.
I mentioned Kerouac’s Lonesome Traveller as the sort of book I had in mind since I’d enjoyed his tales of a season fire-watching in the high Cascades, a summer spent eyes-peeled for smoke and bears. Kerouac had been inspired to sign up for a stint as a lookout by his friends Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen, fellow beat writers and belvedere vedettes, and the idea of a link from one book to the next — an echo of familiar mountain huts, the recommendation of friends — felt like a good place to begin.
I left Mr. B’s with several books, Train Dreams by Denis Johnson amongst them. Several things about it impressed be straightaway — the most impressive being Ed’s wild-eyed, almost manic passion for the author.
The cover showed pale trees on a rusted steep overlaid with solid typography, white capitals akin to film titles —
A] love story, a hermit’s story… a small masterpiece. You will look up from the thing dazed, slightly changed.
New York Times
I was also the shortest of the lot at 116 pages. I read it first, in one sitting. Then again immediately afterwards to check I was correct that it was the work of staggering brilliance, I thought. Then again a week later to try to work out how he’d done it.
In retrospect the clues were there even before I began reading — the filmic cover, the novella length reminiscent of catnip Simenon, the fact the New York Times had used the word thing to describe it — the myriad universal noun, manifestly more than just any old book — ‘You will look up from the thing dazed, slightly changed.’
In short, Train Dreams is an epic in miniature and tells the story of a man, Robert Grainer, birth to death, a man born at the end of the nineteenth century who ‘had one lover… one acre of property, two horses, and a wagon… [had] never been drunk… never purchased a firearm or spoken into a telephone.’
Robert works in the American West, cutting timber for railroad tracks and then, when he’s too old for that, carting people’s possessions around the countryside. The book’s chronology is loose, or, rather — as Jonathan McAloon puts it a contemporary review — Grainer’s whole life comes at us all at once.
A life concentrated but effortlessly airy, panoramic in sweep but deeply personal and concerned in the specific — this man, this life, this cabin, these woods; specific tragedy, recovery and transformation.
The presence of great craft was apparent from the off, the sense that the vast landscapes and forests of Idaho had been fixed and fitted into the slim volume by an omniscient master who knows each tree, stream and track. At times it felt as if the story was misting out of the landscape itself. Yet the art and workings never weighed, since Train Dreams has a directness and momentum which pull you along — an urgent locomotive beauty shot through with magic and origin myths, a great fire at its heart; a massive all-consuming firestorm to steal your breath.
Like Simenon, Johnson’s prose eschews literary gloss, no wasted words. Train Dreams is pithy and tough — hard-boiled precision in the vain of Hammett or Carver, or Cheever; tight but loose, dancing feet and lightning hands, and absolutely American, uncannily so; an American fever dream.
The wilds have not been tamed in Johnson’s west, they’re just beneath the surface, they howl in the night. Train Dreams is haunted by pioneer angst, frontier phantoms and an unplumbed feral darkness. I’ve never read a book so small that packs such scope and scale, a novella so shot through with the sense that man is a blip — panning out to green space, then further out to blue, blue to black. Train Dreams is a small book of deep time.
‘Sometimes I'd yell questions at the rocks and trees, and across gorges — 'What is the meaning of the void?’ Wrote Kerouac of his time atop Desolation Peak. ‘The answer was perfect silence, so I knew.’
Johnson also knew.
Which is not to say there is a dearth hope, humanity or humour in his work. All the books of his that I’ve read — Train Dreams tracks the staggered reader back to a remarkable and varied canon of novels, short story collections, poetry and plays — spin about a human story, it’s just that Johnson’s eyes were unusually clear and saw straight into the soul. Many of the lives he explored were dead-end but the rawness was wrought in amazing fidelity. Addicts are rendered in full-bleed colour. The reader gets a hit of pure character; take this sketch from his acclaimed short story collection Jesus’ Son —
‘I knew him, this John Smith. Once at a party he tried to sell me a gun, and later at the same party he made everyone quiet down for a few minutes because I was singing along with the radio, and he liked my voice.’
Horrific. Compelling. I wonder how long those few minutes were. The muscle of those verbs. Less anthropology than ethology. Economic like Joseph Conrad, Johnson’s prose mixes the wyrd steel of David Lynch with the dark humour of Richard Brautigan.
I loved it.
I was utterly smitten.
It made me want to light out after this America, these wilds, this author and so, hoping to immerse myself in the wild fire flood of Train Dreams, I found the nearest lookout to Grainer and Johnson’s world and booked a stay in Big Creek Baldy, a white cabin on a cat’s cradle pylon of poles.
The current lookout is the third on the site. The first was built in 1929, a log cabin built which is still stands in a rather dishevelled state at the foot of the current campanile. In 1934 a 30’ tower with a small 7’ x 7’ cab akin to a garden-shed was erected to better peer over the forest. In 1966 the current lookout went up — a 41’ tower with a positively palatial 15’ x 15’ box atop it — BCB (III) as I came to think of it.
Retired around 1990, the lookout can now be booked for up to two weeks at $40 a night — the 15’ x 15’ room sleeps four and confers uninterrupted views over Kootenai’s blue chevron pelt to the Purcell Range, Lake Koocanusa and the Yaak River valley. The tower comes with propane lights, a stove, heater, one double bed, one twin bed with mattresses, a shovel and some cooking utensils. There is a pit toilet in the woods a little way away — hence the shovel. There is no electricity or water supply. Residents are asked to bring their own.
So I reserved Baldy in March 2017, having scoured the US National Parks website for a suitable perch. Retired lookouts can be booked 6 months in advance and it’s advisable to do so since berths sell out with remarkable speed. Then having dreamt of my crow’s nest week for six months, I received that email just before my flight out — We regret to inform you, that due to a fire in the area, the lookout will be closed… — all of which perhaps begs the question whether the tower should have been decommissioned in the first place but even before the NFS veto I’d had the sense that I was chasing a shadow because Denis Johnson died in May. There would be no pilgrim walk down to the town of Bonners Ferry with a vague address and a hopeful grin. He was nowhere to found now but in his books.
As things turned out, I got to Desolation Peak, Kerouac’s eyrie of 1956. I drove up from Seattle in September with a friend, hailed an early boat to speed across Ross Lake, and slogged up the thickly timbered mountain on a switchback trail rugged bright umber with fir needles for several hours until, near the top and in the gloaming, we met the current lookout, Jim Henterly.
That night my tent was sniffed round by bears. Old friends of Kerouac, perhaps. And next morning Jim was revealed in the cold sun to be a gentle giant, an ageless Vietnam vet; Cormac McCarthy and Herman Melville quotes pinned by his Osborne Fire Finder, a copy of Nansen’s Arctic chronicle on his desk — a great reader sat in his glass shebang. Generous, interested and interesting host, he gave us coffee and chocolate for breakfast, pointed out famous peaks within his 360° sweep and shared the warmth of a cast-iron kettlebell heated on the gas stove hob.
We’ve kept in touch.
When I got home, I sent him a copy of Train Dreams.
He emailed me regular updates as to how he was getting on with it through October having packed up the Desolation cabin and returned to his other job as a regular fireman — lines he liked, moments and descriptions which chimed with his own experience:
Well, Train is definitely grabbing me more as it goes along — authentic telling of aftermath of a large fire.
Yesterday we had a mock drill in Deming — pipeline explosion, half of the town in flames, including gas stations, high school being evacuated.. mostly just stood by my fire truck stopping traffic (simulated)… Eventually we were requested to enter the firestorm and combat the flames at the gas station — destructive element immersion training!
Wolf encounter in Dreams (real or not), aside from reminding of some of McCarthy's most haunting passages, made me think to send you this photo of a likely wolf-coyote hybrid in the field between the house and river taken last winter--this guy has appeared occasionally over recent years, markedly different from the regular coyotes he is sometimes with. There is a wolf pack way up the Nooksack Middle Fork. A pack was reportedly near Hozomeen Lake last season (2016), but I never did hear anything of them…
I got another line to use on an aid call: "I'm not a doctor. I'm just the one that's here..." Imagine it will prove very comforting in some scenarios. And then there will be that rare patient that will ask, ‘Hey, did you read Train Dreams?’
Why, yes, I did...
And we will be able to strike up a distracting conversation on the long ride to the ER.
His most recent message ended —
‘[Train Dreams] reminded me of a line from a poem by Kim Stafford I read in my 20s that I’ve found very applicable in life: Hard times make good stories, and good stories make rich lives.’Biography
Dan Richards is author of Holloway (Faber, 2013) — co-written with Robert Macfarlane & illustrated by Stanley Donwood — The Beechwood Airship Interviews (HarperCollins, 2015) and Climbing Days (Faber, 2016).
Outpost was published by Canongate in 2019. Click here to buy it now.