Bummin’ my literary West
Ryan Summerlin July 23, 2013
I suppose it was my mother who first set me on the course of visiting sites, both fictional and actual, that I had only read about in books.
A Great Falls, Montana, girl, she spoke to me glowingly of the Lewis and Clark Journals before I could even read and then, later, took me to where it had taken that expedition over a month to portage around "her" Falls. She made it exciting, a page-turner, if you will. It was an ethic that stuck to my ribs.
At one time or another during the many years that have followed, I would find myself making pilgrimages to locales where memorable action took place in my favorite books. For the most part, these ritualized escapades would transpire "way out west," as Utah Phillips would say, "where the states are square."
"My West" is a collage of the ones in which I grew up, spent a lifetime traveling, and, finally, put down roots. It covers both interior and exterior vistas that stretch to distant yet intimate horizons, a personal geography that stakes out cultural landscapes quite distinct and dissimilar from others in my tribe.
The last time I returned to my hometown in the Silver Valley of northern Idaho, I revisited the spot where a historical quarterly had reported that Wyatt Earp had once ran a "portable" canvas-tent type mining-camp saloon.
My father, who had introduced me to the Big Sur poetry of Robinson Jeffers and the dust-bowl refugee world of John Steinbeck during our own family’s migration south along the California coast, had pointed out the actual Cannery Row and the Monterey Cypress country.
It wouldn’t be until I joined the Army that my long-simmering infatuation with beat culture and "Beat-Lit," as they called it, would surface. This immediately added diversity to my west. Kerouac, of course, was the first, followed closely by Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure and others who moved within what had become known as the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance.
I would return later looking for Doc and Dora and Mac and the boys and other characters from the novel "Cannery Row" before continuing south to locate Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s cabin where Kerouac wrote "Big Sur" a short ways upstream from the Bixby Bridge. I was off and running, bummin’ my literary west!
Further north in San Francisco, I would locate where Allen Ginsberg gave the first public reading of "Howl" at the former site of the "Six Gallery" on Fillmore. Gary Snyder’s old bungalow in Berkeley that appeared in Kerouac’s "Dharma Bums" was also an easy target.
As was Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon on the Oakland waterfront where a young Jack London would sit and do homework while dreaming of sailing schooners.
Followed by the spots where Brigid O’Shaughnessy "done in" Miles Archer and Sam Spade dined on Pork Chops in Dashiell Hammett’s "The Maltese Falcon."
Gonzo-man Hunter Thompson had me on the road for a few of his works. The first, Ken Kesey’s old place in La Honda, a rural mountain setting not far from Stanford University, plays a role in "Hell’s Angels." As does East L.A.’s Silver Dollar Café in Thompson’s second ever piece for Rolling Stone magazine, "Strange Rumblings in Aztlan."
In "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," Raoul Duke and his trusty sidekick Dr. Gonzo are unable to score because they discover that the dance club wherein they were to acquire said drugs had burned to the ground shortly before. A few years previous, obviously prior to the fire, I had danced ’til dawn in that same space, losing a "cacti" necklace in the process. Irony rocks!
I can’t begin to calculate how many bumming destinations the works of Tony Hillerman and Edward Abbey have triggered. Suffice to say it covers much of the 4-corners region.
Hillerman gave me the Big Rez of the Navajos and the mesa-tops of the pueblos. From Ship Rock ("Coyote Waits and Fallen Man") to Bluff ("Listening Woman") and Tuba City ("The Dark Wind" movie set) and from Chaco Canyon ("A Thief of Time") to Hovenweep ("Hunting Badger") and Shungopavi ("Dance Hall of the Dead"), his Leaphorn-Chee mysteries had me crisscrossing Indian country for years.
And Ed Abbey, well let me count the ways. Arches National Park, of course, from "Desert Solitaire" and Keet Seel, the Dirty Devil Bridge and Glen Canyon Dam from "Monkey Wrench Gang" and the Sandia Mountains from "The Brave Cowboy." Not to mention Death Valley from "The Journey Home" and Glob(e), Ariz., from "Abbey’s Road" and Taos, N.M., from "Down the River." The List goes on and on and on as you’ll see next week.
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and has been an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social scenes for more than 40 years.