Sunday, April 29, 2012

a home in the sky

I hike towards a lookout in the park. There were no other cars at the trailhead, so I sing loudly and badly to keep the bears away. Downed trees crisscross the trail like a pile of pickup sticks. At each tangle I stop and analyze: if I step on this one, then I can bypass that one, and go under the next one. At the top of the switchbacks, a steep snowfield buries the trail. The snow is icy and it wouldn't be good to fall here. I kick steps across it and move on, toward my retirement plan.

Whenever I tell people that when I quit fighting fire I want to work in a fire lookout, they tend to look uneasy. "That'," they say. "But won't you get lonely? I'd be so BORED. What would you do up there?"

There is actually lots to do at a fire lookout, if you're the kind of person who wants to be there. Besides the obvious, looking for fires, that is. You can fix things. Because most of these buildings are historic, meaning 50 years old or more, something always needs to be repaired, painted, or built.  You can work on the trail, clearing out water bars and cutting trees. You can hike the ridges out from your lookout. You can read all the books you meant to, or even write one. You can learn Spanish. You can sing or dance and probably nobody but squirrels and deer will see you, and they won't criticize. And after you do all that, you can sit quietly with all your maps and learn the contours of the land you live in.

When Jack Kerouac scribbled his stream of consciousness that became the book Desolation Angels, he was living in Desolation Lookout high in the North Cascades. I've spent time there, once waking up in the clouds to an August snowstorm. It is one of my favorite places in the whole world. While Jack appreciated the wild beauty around him, his solitary time at Desolation almost drove him crazy with his desires for cigarettes, whiskey, and human company. Over on Sourdough Mountain, his fellow Beat poet Gary Snyder embraced the lookout life, writing one of my favorite poems:

Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout

Down valley a smoke haze
Three days heat, after five days rain
Pitch glows on the fir-cones
Across rocks and meadows
Swarms of new flies.

I cannot remember things I once read
A few friends, but they are in cities.
Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup
Looking down for miles
Through high still air.
Desolation Lookout
I sit on the catwalk of the lookout in the late April sun. I can hear other people coming up the trail; soon it will be time to leave. If I do end up in a place like this, when I am done digging fireline and flying in helicopters, there may be things I don't have up there on the mountain that I wish for desperately. There's no knowing. But somehow I doubt it. I can see myself in that far-off someday, in the arms of the mountains, at peace.



  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Wonderful word pictures! Enticing retirement plan, mountain gal


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