Lew Welch ‘went Southwest’
By Tom Kellar
Special to The Union
What happened to Lew Welch? It’s a question that has teased the collective imagination of literary types everywhere for 40 years.
Certainly, most locals probably have no idea that he was a celebrated beat poet of the 1950s and ’60s, or even that ground zero for the mystery that surrounds him is right here in Nevada County – the San Juan Ridge, to be exact.
Born in Phoenix, Ariz., in 1928, his parents’ marriage dissolved soon after and Welch moved with his mother and sister to California in 1929. Much of his childhood was spent moving from town to town with his mother.
Eventually, he graduated from high school in Palo Alto and in 1948 was off to Reed College in Portland, where he became a friend and roommate of future Pulitzer-Prize winning poet and longtime San Juan Ridge resident Gary Snyder.
Welch graduated from college in 1950 and in the late 1950s, became a San Francisco fixture in the then-burgeoning beat poetry scene.
His first book of poetry, “Wobbly Rock,” was published in 1960. He would spend time in Reno and the Trinity Alps area before moving back to San Francisco in 1963.
Three more of his books were published in 1965. He taught a poetry workshop as part of the University of California Extension in San Francisco from 1965 to 1970 and was a poet-in-residence at Reed College in January 1971.
His friends included celebrated authors Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, William Carlos Williams and Jack Kerouac. Welch is supposed to have been the model for a hard-living character named Dave Wain in Kerouac’s novel, “Big Sur.”
Through the years, Welch was linked with several women and after the dissolution of a relationship in 1971, moved to Nevada County at the urging of Snyder.
Author Steve Sanfield first met Welch while living in the Santa Barbara hills and was already living in the San Juan Ridge area when Welch arrived. According to Sanfield, Welch spent a good portion of his final night on the Ridge dining with him and his wife at their home.
Welch seemed almost ecstatic that night, Sanfield recalled. He spoke of a publishing contract for a new book and of plans to build a cabin for himself on land that Snyder owned.
“We had a wonderful time,” Sanfield said. “He was all spruced up, cleaned up, had a shiny new 50-foot Stanley measuring tape on his belt. He said that he was preparing to build a cabin, getting lumber and building materials. Then the next day, he disappeared.”
On May 23, 1971, Welch walked out of Snyder’s house packing a revolver and was never seen alive again. He left behind a despair-drenched farewell note that read: “I never could make anything work out right and now I’m betraying friends. I can’t make anything out of it, never could. I had great visions but never could bring them together with reality. I used it all up. It’s all gone. Don Allen is to be my literary executor, use mss. at Gary’s and at Grove Press. I have $2,000 in Nevada City Bank of America, use it to cover my affairs and debts. I don’t owe Allen G. anything yet nor my Mother. I went Southwest. Goodbye. Lew Welch.”
Long before his disappearance, Welch had become well-known as a man who wrestled with demons.
“He was trying to kick the drinking habit, which had always been a problem for Lew,” Sanfield said. “He was a very depressed guy, a noble man caught in an almost schizophrenic mind. He was something else. There was nobody like Lew.”
The search for Welch was exhaustive.
“We looked for days and never found him,” Sanfield said. “I think it was a great loss, I think he was among the best of those (the Beat poets) guys and he never got the recognition that he deserved.”
Todd Cirillo is a published local poet who says that his first visit to this area was propelled by a desire to learn more about Welch and to ponder the mystery surrounding his disappearance.
“I went to the library and read all of Lew’s journals and as I started to meet more people from around here, I heard more stories about him and ran into people who knew him and had searched for him,” Cirillo said.
He believes Welch had a real gift for picking just the right word.
“In his poems there is absolute clarity,” Cirillo said. “There is also an enormous sense of humor and that is what’s always attracted me to his work. Almost every word is the correct word.”
At the time this article was written, Gary Snyder was away on travel and unavailable for comment. He is scheduled to be in Southern California on May 26 to take part in an event celebrating the work of Welch on the 40th anniversary of his disappearance. It is to be held at the Mark Taper Auditorium-Central Library in Los Angeles.
Tom Kellar is a freelance writer living in Cedar Ridge. He can be reached via email@example.com
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