James Knisely is the author of “Riding the Storm,” an essay featured in North Dakota Quarterly Volume 80.1. The essay talks about the author’s experience as a fire lookout and compares them to those of another author/fire lookout, Jack Kerouac. Knisely was kind enough to answer a few questions about the essay for NDQ’s series of author interviews.
- In “Riding the Storm,” you literally are “riding the storm” that came in that night. What made this experience stand out more than others you may have experienced? Also, how longdid you end up working at Little Mountain Lookout?
In a place like Little Mountain where visitors are rare, the life of the lookout is a life of solitude. And sometimes boredom. And loneliness. Those experiences stand out in their own ways, as Kerouac found—but one like flying utterly alone through the furious heart of an electrical storm stands out in its own way, believe me!
I worked as a lookout and fireguard a total of four summers. My tenure at Little Mountain was about three months, though unlike Kerouac, I was taken down from the mountain during periods of damp weather. If I’d been left up there the whole time, I might have been as overwhelmed by the isolation as he was.
- In the beginning of the essay, you state that you were still searching for your voice as a novelist or a poet, so you returned to the mountain in 1961. What drew you back to the mountain to find your voice (obviously it worked!)?
For starters, it was my summer job. But it was a job that gave me all the time and quiet a writer could want. Even so, as a twenty-year-old adolescent I hadn’t yet developed either a satisfying voice for my writing or a clear sense of myself, so I found myself in a kind of love-hate relationship with the solitude of the mountain. After I’d been on the mountain a couple of weeks I could hardly wait to get back down to “civilization.” After I’d been down a few days, I could hardly wait to get back up.
- Have you since returned to the mountain? Would you ever go back and “ride” another storm, or was it a sort of one-time deal?
I’ve never been back to Little Mountain because, as the source of Seattle’s water, the Cedar River watershed is closed to the public. And since those days, the tower has been torn down. The storm experience was one of those once-in-a-lifetime thrills. It might be fun to experience that excitement again (knowing I’d probably survive), but it would still be plenty scary.
I ask myself from time to time whether, as an older version of my young self, I’d like the solitude more now. I don’t know. The poet Tim McNulty spent a few weeks one summer during his mid-fifties at Gary Snyder’s lookout on Sourdough Mountain. He says the loneliness didn’t get to him—he savored it.
- One part of the essay that really stuck in my mind was when you saw the ghostly fireballs dancingon the shutters—I could almost picture it in my own mind. Can you explain further your initial thoughts when you saw this phenomenon? Were you frightened, or more amazed at what you were seeing?
Though I had read in school or somewhere of St. Elmo’s mysterious fire, it was simply one of those obscure phenomena you read about somewhere and then forget. I had certainly never seen such a thing. So when these balls of blue fire flickered forth before my very (and just then exceedingly vulnerable) eyes, I can tell you they caught my attention! Frightened? Amazed? Filled with wonder? With awe? Terrified? Have mercy, all of those and more!
- 5. When reading “Riding the Storm,” I initially thought your experience seemed pretty frightening. But you said that you felt happy, and you were glad to be there at that time. Were you at all scared? What exactly made you feel the happiness you felt, while in a very dangerous and scary setting?
It was a rush! It was partly an adrenaline blast and partly the fear of being obliterated by the universe itself and partly the understanding that I would probably survive, if only because the place was designed to keep me alive and had been tested by others—presumably with success. And it was a rare experience of astonishing power and beauty. To ride that wave of excitement and terror thinking I’d most likely survive was an amazing sensation—not just a rush but a kind of joy.
- Did you ever imagine that this experience would be one you would one day write about?
For some reason I didn’t write about it for fifty years. I don’t know why. Funny. One day Katie Klahn of the Cedar River Education Center asked me to write it up, and it was only then that I began to contrast my experience to Kerouac’s. Until then I had mostly noticed the similarities in our experience of that beautiful but haunting loneliness.
- What was the most importantthing (or lesson, thoughts, etc.) you took from the experience? What did you learn about yourself and about nature in general?
I suggest in my piece that I had a transformative revelation of some sort, which I did. But I’m not sure I can give it a name. A new sense of being alive, perhaps. A sense of Zen-like paradox—that I could experience opposites like terror and joy at the same time. Kerouac went to the mountain looking for God. For me the experience of the storm was not so much about God as it was about the chaos in which we live, the natural universe. But if our quests for God express our quest for life and order, my experience of The Chaos gave me a glimpse into the wild disorder through which we pass—and which passes through us. Pretty cool.
James Knisely is a native Seattleite. His novel, Chance: An Existential Horse Opera, was a finalist for the 2003 Washington State Book Awards. His poetry and prose have appeared in Exquisite Corpse, Knock, the now defunct Point No Point, Summit, and online with several essays at HistoryLink.org. An interview with him appeared in The Raven Chronicles (Vol 13.1, 2007) He’s honored to be the Novelist-in-Residence at Seattle’s legendary Blue Moon Tavern, where Kerouac was also known to toast the muse.