Night Driving, Invention of the Wheel & Other Blues. Dick Dorworth. Foreword by Jack Turner. Livingston, MT: First Ascent Press. 2007. 254 PGS. $25.00.
Dorworth, 1975. As an impressionable twenty-one-year-old living in my native Midwest I was dreaming of making a life in the mountains. Then I read “Night Driving” in Mountain Gazette. Within two months my car was loaded, and I was driving into the sunset to make it happen. Okay, maybe I can’t claim a one-to-one, cause-and-effect relationship, but Dorworth’s influence is clear in hindsight. If “influence” is not quite the right word I’ll just say that “Night Driving” made me aware of some of the possibilities.
Now, well over 30 years later, here it is collected in book form, the title essay along with a half dozen others. I was hesitant to revisit it, fearing embarrassment for my former self: the kid who thought this stuff was the real goods might be revealed for the unworldly unread naive waif that I actually was. I fear returning to Castañeda and Hesse for the same reasons.
In Dorworth’s case, I’m happy to say, my fears were unfounded.
Among Dorworth’s non-literary mountain deeds: holding the world’s record for speed on skis, first person over 105 m.p.h.; his six-month “Funhog” road trip with Chouinard, Jones, Tejada-Flores, and Tompkins, on which they put up the Californian Route on Fitz Roy; and two years later with Robbins, the first ascent of Arcturus on Half Dome. This book is officially categorized as “Memoir: Mountaineering,” so we hear the stories of those events in these pages, right? Wrong. Although we do read about driving on the Funhog trip, during the almost 10 pages he devotes to it there’s no mention of summiting Fitz Roy. So where’s the mountaineering? Where’s the skiing?
There are glimpses, of course, but Dorworth is writing about the life that he’s made around those activities. In his foreword Jack Turner calls “Night Driving” “a memoir of a well- spent epic youth on the ski-racing circuit.” Turner, as usual, gets it right, but it’s a hard essay to summarize. It’s an essay about energy and movement, about velocity, and it embodies those characteristics—thus hard to pin down. “Europe: Fourth Time Around,” which, in nearly 70 pages, closes the book, is much the same. Both describe a life to which the mountains and skiing are central, both portray a large cast of characters, succinctly and lovingly. Many of the cast I’d never heard of before: skiers or friends of Dorworth. Others are more familiar, for example the crew of a Bev Clark film, The Skiers: Dougal Haston, Mick Burke, Rick Sylvester, Jim Brid- well, Wayne Poulsen, Jr., and Ginger. I’ve read hundreds of pages about Haston, but Dorworth’s single page undoubtedly gets to his essence. Of Ginger (first name? last name?), all that Dor- worth says is that he was a Brit who once bivvied on the Bonatti Pillar for a stormy week with a group of Japanese who didn’t speak English; that, and that he skied with an Aspen influence. What else do we need to know?
As a youth reading Dorworth I trusted his take on places, believing (correctly) I’d one day make my own lists: “The resort of Verbier, and the mountains which give it life, had once again treated us well. It is, along with Sun Valley, Portillo, La Parva, Chamonix, Aspen, Cervenia and Slide Mountain, a special place for me—a place of magical spirits, friendly, protective, harsh...” My descriptions of his work have thus far neglected Dorworth’s single most salient feature: he’s thoughtful, what educators call a “reflective practitioner.” This thoughtfulness might be directed inward: “I was having some strictly personal reactions to ‘skiing’ which were making me acutely aware that the majority of my energies, for the past 23 years, had been put into one or another aspect of sliding down a snowy hill, on a pair of upturned sticks.”
Or his gaze may be directed outward, as in this spot-on take on the 1950s: “Truman gave way to the blandness of Eisenhower and his distasteful vice president; Stalin dies; the Korean police action ended; Marilyn was both vamp and victim of our society; Hemingway got his Nobel; Bill Haley rocked around the clock...and my family periodically rose before dawn to watch the atom bombs light up the horizon of my childhood.”
Between the first and last essays are five more, each tightly focused. One is on vegetarianism, one is a meditation on Ecclesiastes and coyotes, and one is an instructive illustration of instinct in the mountains.
I’ve admitted there isn’t much actual climbing described here, and yet Dorworth’s three- paragraph description of his climb of the North Buttress of Mt. Morrison in the Sierra is, to my mind, as perfect a description of a climb as is possible. Dorworth is said to have an unpublished manuscript about ski racing—I’d love to read it, and I would hope for one too about his climbs, whether it’s written yet or not.
It’s natural to compare Night Driving to On the Road. Turner does it; the back cover blurbs do it. Somewhere in Night Driving Dorworth himself writes of reading On The Road for the second or third time. I too once loved On the Road, but I have to admit that I can’t block out the mental image of a bloated, alcohol-soaked Kerouac living with his mother and dead before the age of 50.
Dorworth must be around 70 now, and he’s still living the life to which we all aspire. I know, intellectually, that shouldn’t make his words any more or less resonant and true. But, for me, it does.