Matterhorn Peak, California in Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums

Matterhorn Peak and the Sawtooth Range, near Twin Lakes, CA, 2006. PHOTO CREDIT: Jeff P. This photo is licensed under the the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

“I nudged myself closer into the ledge and closed my eyes and thought ‘Oh what a life this is, why do we have to be born in the first place, and only so we can have our poor gentle flesh laid out to such impossible horrors as huge mountains and rock and empty space,’ and with horror I remembered the famous Zen saying, “When you get to the top of a mountain, keep climbing.”1

Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums focuses largely on his first encounters with Buddhism. The main character Ray Smith, who is based on Kerouac himself, spends time with Japhy Ryder, based on poet Gary Snyder, while he is staying in San Francisco. At Japhy’s suggestion the two men and another of Japhy’s friends, Henry Morley, agree to hike Matterhorn Peak in the Sawtooth Range of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Ray, who has little experience with the outdoors, is enjoying his spiritual connection to nature for most of the hike, but near the peak he panics and refuses to climb higher. As he lies on the trail, he listens to Japhy’s triumphant yodeling from the top of the mountain. As Japhy comes bounding past him on the descent, Ray regains his courage with the realization that “it’s impossible to fall off a mountain you fool.”

The Sawtooth Range is often considered the northern beginning of the High Sierras with Matterhorn Peak, the highest in the range, reaching 12,279 feet. The jagged profile of the range can be seen clearly from Bridgeport, the small town where Ray, Japhy, and Morley eat after descending from the mountain. Matterhorn Peak takes its name from its resemblance to the famous mountain in the Alps, which can be seen when viewing the peak from below its north face.

Read more about Matterhorn Peak and hiking in the High Sierras on Summit Post. Find Dharma Bums at a local library or on Amazon.

1Kerouac, Jack. Dharma Bums. New York: Penguin, 1976. 83-84. Print.

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