Monday, July 8, 2019

Fire lookouts: An obsession

I perched uncomfortably in a glass-windowed fire lookout.  It was in  Mesa Verde, in the early 90s.  For some reason I've forgotten, there were two regular lookouts who weren't related, and they were fighting.  To give them a break from each other, the fire crew was taking turns filling in as lookouts.  

As great as this might sound (no pulling weeds or cleaning up the rifle range!) there were some serious drawbacks.  Instead of being isolated on a peak somewhere difficult to get to, this building was reached by a short, paved path (we are talking a few yards here).  A large sign helpfully directed the tourist hordes to the lookout, which was a cabin on the ground, not a tower where the besieged fire watcher could lock them out below the catwalk.  In fact, we weren't allowed to lock anyone out at all, except during our half hour lunch break.  This sounded okay in practice, until you sat there eating your tuna fish sandwich while visitors peered in at you through the windows.

I didn't love lookouts then, not like I do now anyway, especially when I spotted a fire and there were 50 visitors crowded inside the small building.  That came later, when I moved to the Pacific Northwest, a treasure trove of fire lookouts.  There was Sourdough, once inhabited by the Beat poet Gary Snyder, Park Butte with its amazing view of Mt. Baker, and the best of all, Desolation, made immortal by Jack Kerouac in Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels.  I fell in love.

Now although I love lakes and mountain peaks, I would rather hike to a lookout than anywhere else.  I've been lucky (and perhaps annoyingly persistent) enough to fill in for the regular lookouts on the forest where I work.  The moment when the lookout trudges away toward civilization for days off and the silence settles around me is the best, although the sunsets and sunrises, and fires burning on distant ridges are close rivals.

There is a lookout rental program around here, but they are booked up months in advance (how do people know what they will be doing so far ahead of time?) so I have to mostly be content with hiking to these sacred spots, visiting for a time, and then reluctantly leaving.  I dream about summers spent in one of these places, until reality intrudes: what would I do with my cats? my house? who would pay me? 

It will probably remain a dream.  Still, as obsessions go, it's not a bad one.  And recently I was asked if I wanted to spend a couple of nights in one of the lookouts later this summer.  You know what my answer was.


  1. Have you ever gone back through your photos and compiled all the lookouts you have been would be an amazing book! Simply because you not only hike to them but you also have inside shots and the shots like the one you shared a while back when a lookout was all wrapped to protect it from a fire!

  2. Oh I would love to spend the night in a fire lookout! Sadly you really have to plan ahead and be on the computer at the stroke of midnight to get a reservation.

    1. Yes you really do! Sometimes there are cancellations but you need to haunt the site to see them. Some lookouts in WA are first come first served if you went on a road trip!

  3. You have seen so many...and shared many of them with us. Dream job (with pay). Many folks can't handle the solitude but you seem to thrive on it. Keep those site visits coming!


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