JSNH&B home • Spring 2008 • vol. 1 no. 2

"It’s impossible to fall off mountains you fool"

by Jack Kerouac

from The Dharma Bums, 1958

quoteFor Kerouac, life’s journey centered on finding higher meaning in daily existence. unquote

Jack Kerouac was a leader in the Beat Movement of literature that rejected the societal norms of 1950s America.  Kerouac was a novelist, poet and artist whose contemporaries included Beat icons Allen Ginsburg and William S. Burroughs.  For Kerouac, life’s journey centered on finding higher meaning in daily existence.  Jack Kerouac wrote in a free, conversational, jazz-inspired tone that contemporary critics found difficult to comprehend, but which inspired generations of writers and artists.  Kerouac is sometimes considered the intellectual father of the 1960s counterculture. His work and mindset influenced artists as diverse as Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Ken Kesey, and Hunter S. Thompson. Kerouac’s best known works include On the Road, Big Sur, and The Dharma Bums.

In this selection from The Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac describes his attempt to climb Matterhorn Peak in the Sierra Nevada.  This fictionalized account of an actual occurrence features three characters.  Ray Smith, Kerouac’s alter ego; Henry Morley, the imagined version of Kerouac’s librarian friend John Montgomery; and Japhy Ryder, the book’s embodiment of Gary Snyder, fellow Beat and future Pulitzer-Prize winning poet. Few passages present the exhilarating, transforming Sierra Nevada experience better.

Running Down the Mountain

quote… with one of my greatest leaps and loudest screams of joy I came flying … unquote

Then suddenly everything was just like jazz: it happened in one insane second or so: I looked up and saw Japhy running down the mountain in huge twenty-foot leaps, running, leaping, landing with a great drive of his booted heels, bouncing five feet or so, running, then taking another long crazy yelling yodelaying sail down the sides of the world and in that flash I realized it's impossible to fall off mountains you fool and with a yodel of my own I suddenly got up and began running down the mountain after him doing exactly the same huge leaps, the same fantastic runs and jumps, and in the space of about five minutes I'd guess Japhy Ryder and I (in my sneakers, driving the heels of my sneakers right into sand, rock, boulders, I didn't care any more I was so anxious to get down out of there) came leaping and yelling like mountain goats or I'd say like Chinese lunatics of a thousand years ago, enough to raise the hair on the head of the meditating Morley by the lake, who said he looked up and saw us flying down and couldn't believe it. In fact with one of my greatest leaps and loudest screams of joy I came flying right down to the edge of the lake and dug my sneakered heels into the mud and just fell sitting there, glad. Japhy was already taking his shoes off and pouring sand and pebbles out. It was great. I took off my sneakers and poured out a couple of buckets of lava dust and said "Ah Japhy you taught me the final lesson of them all, you can't fall off a mountain."

"And that's what they mean by the saying, When you get to the top of a mountain keep climbing, Smith."

"Dammit that yodel of triumph of yours was the most beautiful thing I ever heard in my life. I wish I'd a had a tape recorder to take it down."

"Those things aren't made to be heard by the people below," says Japhy dead serious.

"By God you're right, all those sedentary bums sitting around on pillows hearing the cry of the triumphant mountain smasher, they don't deserve it. But when I looked up and saw you running down that mountain I suddenly understood everything."

"Ah a little satori for Smith today," says Morley.

"What were you doing down here?"

"Sleeping, mostly."

“Well dammit I didn't get to the top. Now I'm ashamed of myself because now that I know how to come down a mountain I know how to go up and that I can't fall off, but now it's too late."

Matterhorn Peak in the Sierra Nevada

Matterhorn Peak in the Sierra Nevada