This review is the first for my list of the 34 best travel books you've never read, posted in no particular order. Up first, Poets on the Peaks, a travelogue that chronicles the varied routes the Beats took on their way to meeting in San Francisco in the 1950s.
#18 Poets on the Peaks
by John Suiter
Counterpoint (April 16, 2002)
One of the greatest travel books published in recent times mirrors another, smaller book—that wasn't a travel narrative at all. It was a small novel published in 1958 that’s become a vade mecum for drifters, backpackers and train hoppers around the world. The first chapter of Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, in particular, plants the reader in the scene with such precise language and meditative rhythm, the experience is not so much of reading as it is watching scenery slide by—the taste of tobacco in your mouth, a half-finished bottle of Irish Rose in your pocket. Reading it aloud, I’ve been told, is the only way to truly get lost in the story:
Hopping a freight out of Los Angeles at high noon one day in late September 1955 I got on a gondola and lay down with my duffel bag under my head and my knees crossed and contemplated the clouds as we rolled north to Santa Barbara. It was a local and I intended to sleep on the beach at Santa Barbara that night and catch either another local to San Luis Obispo the next morning or the first class freight all the way to San Francisco at seven p.m. Somewhere near Camarillo where Charlie Parker’d been mad and relaxed back to normal health, a thin old little bum climbed into my gondola as we headed into a siding to give a train right of way and looked surprised to see me there. He established himself at the other end of the gondola and lay down, facing me, with his head on his own miserably small pack and said nothing. By and by they blew the highball whistle after the eastbound freight had smashed through on the main line and we pulled out as the air got colder and fog began to blow from the sea over the warm valleys of the coast.
The book continues in Santa Barbara, San Francisco, Berkeley, and at the famous Six Gallery reading where Ginsberg first read Howl and Gary Snyder, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure and Philip Whalen performed. From there it follows Snyder and Kerouac up California’s Matterhorn Peak and through Kerouac’s musings of a rucksack revolution—as the two writers trade Zen wisdom on the summit, eat peanuts and raisins and prance back down the mountain high on enlightenment and starvation.