Beat poets, local novelists and Pulitzer Prize winners pepper the literary landscape in our state’s northwest corner.
Whatcom County is bounded on the west by the Salish Sea and dominated by Mount Baker to the east. To the north, the county line runs along the ruler-straight 49th parallel, which also serves as the international boundary between the United States and Canada.
In his 2009 novel “Border Songs,” Olympia author Jim Lynch describes the border as “a geographical handshake.” But his protagonist — the abnormally tall, severely dyslexic and newly sworn-in Border Patrol agent Brandon Vanderkool — discovers it isn’t quite that simple. As Vanderkool juggles chasing drug smugglers with watching birds, readers get an armchair tour of this region’s unique mix of landscape, nature and history. Lynch’s novel offers just one of the stops on our literary tour of Bellingham, Whatcom County and the North Cascades.
Driving north from Seattle, you’ll pass through Skagit County, home turf of author Tom Robbins. The Capt. Kendrick Memorial Hot Dog Wildlife Preserve, a zany Skagit Valley flea circus Robbins conceived for his first novel, “Another Roadside Attraction” (1971), may be just a figment of his fertile imagination, but squint a bit as you zoom through on Interstate 5 and maybe you can conjure it up, too.
A Whatcom County reading list
Books mentioned in this story include:
“Border Songs” (Vintage Contemporaries) and “Before the Wind” (Knopf) by Jim Lynch
“Another Roadside Attraction” by Tom Robbins (Bantam)
“This Boy’s Life” by Tobias Wolff (Grove Press)
The “Miss Zukas” mystery series by Jo Dereske (Avon Books)
“The Living” by Annie Dillard (HarperCollins)
“Selected Writings of Ella Higginson,” edited by Laura Laffrado (Whatcom County Historical Society)
If you’re taking a two-day trip, you’ll have time to exit onto Highway 20 at Burlington and head east along the North Cascades Highway. As you pass through Concrete, note that this is where American author Tobias Wolff experienced the worst of times, as he vividly related in his memoir, “This Boy’s Life” (1989), the basis for the 1993 movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro.
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The Beat poet Jack Kerouac traveled east on this road in 1956 on his way to a job as a summer fire lookout on the North Cascades’ Desolation Peak. He captures some of those experiences in his novels, “The Dharma Bums” (1958) and “Desolation Angels” (1965).
He wasn’t the only writer to work as a fire lookout. The book “Poets on the Peaks” by writer-photographer John Suiter details how the North Cascades had a profound influence not only on Kerouac, but also on fellow poets and fire lookouts Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen, all icons of the Beat Generation.
You can hike up to Kerouac’s lookout tower on Desolation, but the trip requires a steep and grueling hike into the backcountry. More doable is a day-hike up Sauk Mountain, where Whalen once was stationed. That station has long since been dismantled, but you’ll still get great views at the top.
After that detour, head back down to the lowlands and briefly return to I-5, then go north on Route 11. You’ll be driving through the Chuckanuts, a picturesque spur of the Cascade Range that comes down to meet the sea.
The road takes you to Fairhaven, once a city unto itself, now the southernmost neighborhood of Bellingham and a nationally designated historic district. This is a great place to grab lunch and stretch your legs.
Your mandatory first stop is Village Books (1200 11th Street), one of the West Coast’s finest indie bookstores, with a hopping events calendar that features visiting authors and a literature-infused variety show called The Chuckanut Radio Hour.
Not only can you find thousands of new and used books in the store, but you MAY also notice that the store (or its co-founders, Chuck and Dee Robinson) can be found in many books. These include dedications (in Jo Dereske’s “Catalogue of Death,” part of her Bellingham-inspired Miss Zukas mystery series), acknowledgments (in Jim Lynch’s latest novel, “Before the Wind”), and even subject matter — when business author Robert Spector started lining up interviews for “The Mom & Pop Store,” his 2010 book on American shopkeepers, the Robinsons, he says, “were at the top of my list.”
From Fairhaven, look out across Bellingham Bay to Lummi Island. Pulitzer Prize- winning author Annie Dillard lived there when she served as Western Washington University’s writer-in-residence in the 1970s.
Today the island boasts an award-winning restaurant, B&Bs, and espresso stands, but Lummi back then was a different place for Dillard — it served as her lab for exploring suffering and our place in the cosmic plan.
“The island where I live is peopled with cranks like myself” she writes in one of the essays in her 1982 book, “Teaching A Stone to Talk.” Dillard also based her nonfiction narrative, “Holy the Firm” (1977), on Lummi — the aim of the volume was to capture life on the island over a three-day period, although it took Dillard 14 months to complete the 66-page manuscript.
Even after she returned to the East Coast, Dillard was inspired by the time she spent here to write a historical epic based on the lives of Bellingham Bay’s first pioneers. “The Living” (1992) became a best-seller — and in the roster of creepy literary characters, Dillard’s Beal Obenchain deserves a place right next to Hannibal Lecter.
There’s another author whose novel on Bellingham’s pioneer life also deserves attention. Longtime Bellingham resident Ella Higginson, born in Kansas in 1861, traveled with her family by horse-drawn wagon to Oregon Territory. She wrote about what she had lived through, and when her novel “Mariella; of Out-West”was published in 1902, reviews compared it to the works of Austen and Tolstoy.
Higginson was the Pacific Northwest’s pre-eminent writer of the era, probably best known for her poetry. Her poem, “Four-Leaf Clover,” was a well-known American standard, and many of her other verses were adopted as lyrics for popular songs. In 1931, she was named the first Poet Laureate of Washington State.
Higginson lived across the street from Bellingham State Normal School, now Western Washington University. A line from one of her poems is inscribed over the entrance of Edens Hall. WWU English professor Laura Laffrado observes in her new book, “Selected Writings of Ella Higginson,” that nobody could imagine a day when the poem’s author would not be recognized. But Higginson’s fame declined with time, and eventually her home was torn down in a campus expansion. Her extensive papers are preserved in WWU’s Wilson Library.
The Library’s Special Collections Department also safeguards the Mathes Reading Figurines Collection, more than 200 small sculptures and carvings from around the world that depict characters in the act of reading. A rotating display of these figurines is showcased on the library’s main floor.
Finally, it’s time to visit the border, 25 miles to the north. Within the confines of Peace Arch Park, you can freely roam back and forth across the international boundary and enjoy display gardens, sculptures and historical markers jointly maintained by the Washington state and British Columbia provincial parks departments.
But the border becomes real again as you watch the cars lining up to go through Customs, and you may yearn, as Brandon Vanderkool does in “Border Songs,” that we could be free as birds.