i met a hero of mine last night. what do you really say to a hero, if you have the chance to say something? are there bones and flesh that can render the one whom your mind has wrapped itself around for all these years? is there really anything you need to know, anything that hasn’t been asked of them a hundred thousand times? is the guy i met last night really the one from the books i’ve read; the ones written by him and the ones written about him?
gary snyder is a pulitzer prize winning poet, a naturist, a zen pupil, an activist and one of the main characters in my favorite jack kerouac book, dharma bums. kerouac famously changes the names in his novels, which are actually stream-of-consciousness memoirs. they are more fact than fiction, and like most of life, fact is stranger and cooler than fiction.
jack’s name for gary snyder in dharma bums is japhy ryder, but towards the end of the book, in one of the lines, he is referred to as gary. there is debate about whether the editors and keroauc, himself, simply missed this reference, or if was on purpose, this calling out of the man behind the nom de guerre. for me, it’s simply evidence that this man is so real that his true identity could not be masked.
kerouac, ginsberg and snyder all lived in a shack on mount tamalplais on the other side of the golden gate bridge in marin county. they lived together in what is known as the homestead valley, in mill valley, ca (circa 1955-56). it was during this time that kerouac grokked most of the material for what would become dharma bums.
gary introduced them to nature and the mountain and the way of zen buddhism. this not only played a part in the book, but became a part of keroauc and, arguably more so, ginsberg’s way of life. snyder and ginsberg would become close and stay so for the rest of ginsberg’s time (died 1997).
gary also introduced them to the concept of circumambulation, the act of moving around a sacred object. this is a tradition in zen, tibetan, catholic and hindu cultures, among others. they never climbed mountains, they circumambulated them, went around them, in what would be 15 hour hikes, eventually reaching the peak.
in a letter to ginsberg in 1966, snyder talks about going to haight ashbury and digging the blossoming hippie scene, there is “something really lovely flowering, the dance-joy-love-acid scene is too beautiful. do you think it was all that circumambulating on mt. tamalpais that sparked all this?” gary wrote to allen
it is telling that just a year later, in 1967, both ginsberg and snyder, as well as alan watts, another seminal author/philosopher were concerned about the haight-ashbury scene and saw it “getting out of control”. for them it was missing the point by 1967. i guess there was too much climbing and not enough circumambulating.
i sat back last night on a hay bale in a barn at this anniversary event for a point reyes, ca bookstore with a couple hundred other acolytes, listening to gary snyder speak; about mountains and old friends, about zen and about politics, about poetry and life. he was rich, he was vital and he was bigger and older and younger than he had ever been. he was more than the hero i had etched in my mind. so much so that when it came my turn in line to get the book signed, i had nothing to say or ask. it had already been said.
he signed my book and i was about to leave when i saw a book that was for sale. it had a picture on the cover of gary snyder and allen ginsberg, arm in arm. i picked it up and realized the significance it had for me. i had met allen 16 years ago when i was 19 in boulder, co, during a road trip from iowa to los angeles. i had a magical meeting with mr. ginsberg, with few words but a lot of eye contact.
it has stuck with me all of these years, not least of which, because that was at the beginning of my love affair and kinship with these group of “beats” who were adored, derided, misunderstood and worshiped. it felt like a full circle as i stared at the book jacket and then back at mr. snyder.
i decided to buy the book and have it signed. i got back in line and when it came my turn again, i had planned to ask him out for a beer; not to hear about old times, but talk about new times. i was sure he would appreciate that and accept. most folks, i assume, only want to hear stories about keroauc and ginsberg, or the old days. at this point, i didn’t care about that. i just wanted to be with this powerful titan, this peaceful warrior and ask him what he had planned for the future.
but when i finally got up there and had my chance, i didn’t do it. i almost said nothing again. not because i was scared or shy. but because the moment felt silent, reverent. he had already spoken to me and gave me what i needed. i didn’t need more, didn’t feel right asking for more.
in particular there was a quote he gave, earlier in the night. a gift. one that he had read on a hand-carved, wooden sign at the base of the mt. shasta trailhead: “all paths lead nowhere, so it is important to choose a path that has heart” he stopped for a second, after he said those words then looked out in the audience and said “remember that, ok? it’s important.”
i was the last person in line and when he gave me the book back, signed, we made some small talk. i pointed to the picture of ginsberg on the cover and said “i met him in boulder a long time ago.”
he sparked and looked at me. i almost thought he might have been giving me an opportunity or an opening. he held out for a sec, as if to say “anything else?”
i said, “gary” and handed him back the book which he had already signed with just his name. “could you write ‘for chris’?”
he looked at me and held my gaze, as if he had expected to hear another question. but the surprised look let me know that he approved. he wrote “for chris” in his handwriting, a cross between lao-tzu and john adams. i thanked him and looked at the “for chris” right in the middle of a sea of white space on the front page. it looked as if he really meant it, as if it somehow belonged there.
i drove home through the winding, marin roads, to my sleeping children, content that i had truly met my hero, in the flesh. he is japhy ryder, he is gary snyder, he is lao-tzu, he is the coyote trickster. he is more than the sum of his parts and more than the stories of his past.