What Are You Trying to Do—Be a Hermit?
by Donna Ashworth, Lookout Network, Autumn 2001
This article is derived from the author’s keynote address at the Forest Fire Lookout Association Western Conference held in June 2001 in Flagstaff, Arizona. Donna staffs Woody Mountain Lookout on the Coconino NF in Arizona. Reprinted from Lookout Network, Autumn 2001.
Sometimes hikers climb to the top of my mountain. Sometimes I unlock the trap door in the floor and invite them to crowd into my seven-foot-square, glass-walled tower room. They look around on Flagstaff, a toy town from there, and beyond it to the Painted Desert 65 miles away, at the Mazatzals 80 miles to the south and the cliffs of Oak Creek Canyon and the mountains west of Prescott, at the long line of old volcanoes across the north—they look around and they say, “Wow, this is really neat. I’d go crazy in a place like this.” They mean first the size of the view and then the size of the room.
They don’t entirely trust my sanity. “What are you trying to do—be a hermit?” Retreat from a world of speed and noise and pressure? From people who complain and throw temper tantrums? “Hermit” doesn’t sound so strange to me. In the morning I stand in the open doorway of my cabin and look around, look down on ranch buildings 2 miles away, brushing my teeth. There’s no need to hurry through tasks. I am responsible to no one but myself—and the dispatcher—no meetings, no shopping, no driving to work—I am free to stand brushing my teeth, listening to birds, and looking at the sunrise.
Well, OK—it’s not a job that would suit everybody. They ask, “Don’t you get lonesome?” On the FS radio I’m in touch with 300 people, hear their voices, know their names, but I don’t have to deal with gossip or office politics. All day the radio plays music I like and news I don’t like, often as not. In books I’m in touch with the most interesting minds in the country. Lonesome? I’ve been there 18 years, and lonesome doesn’t occur to me.
It’s hard to make a fool of yourself when you’re by yourself. With no one else around, I can be what I want to be, ease into the peace and beauty so lacking in other places. Our Milky Way Galaxy probably contains 200 billion suns—and I can see all of them from my mountaintop at night.
“Don’t you get scared?” Lookouts aren’t afraid of heights. Obviously. Most of us have come face to face with bear, with upset mother elk and deer—they were more afraid of us than we were of them. There’s a lion on my mountain; I’ve found a dead fawn covered with branches. Coyotes sing in the evenings. A dozen vultures ride the updrafts above me.
Wind shakes the tower. Lightning strikes it. Rain makes the stairs slippery. You can more likely be hurt driving a car on city streets. Probably I won’t be mobbed by all three dozen of my hummingbirds. Several times a day they visit the tower, whirring in to examine book covers, my shirt, a flowered cap that keeps sun out of my eyes. If I imitate a statue, they rest on my shoulder.
One day last summer I was sitting at an open window, reading, when a tiny bird buzzed in. I moved my eyes but not my head. It perched on my book and looked at me. Wings blurred, they moved so fast, and it approached my face until I could feel moving air, closer and closer until I couldn’t focus. Tentatively—gently—it put its bill—about the size of a darning needle—into my left nostril. Clean and smooth against the membrane. When I laughed, the bird zipped out the window. I’ll bet I’m the only woman you know who has had her nose mistaken for a flower.
Last year a television reporter came up to my tower with his cameraman and sat around for a while asking questions. Seeking marketable sensation, he asked several times whether anything about the job frightens me. I told him no—each time he asked.
I don’t have the fears that reporter was looking for, but I do have some—people, mostly. A couple of weeks ago Jim reported that a man in camo clothing was up in a nearby tree, pointing a rifle at his tower.
I don’t go hiking after duty hours during hunting season. I’ve watched teenage boys hop off their ATVs and begin to break into my cabin. People are the real danger, as far as I’m concerned.
Shirley agrees. She has elk and bear and lightning strikes and wind at 90 miles an hour and wind chill at 40° below. She’s more upset by the people who come every summer to pick the ferns that grow in the forest around her. Like the rest of us, she feels protective of her territory. You should hear her language when people open her gate after hours and drive up.
The worst fear all of us lookouts have is that ground units will think we’re stupid when we get our distance wrong—again. It would be awful to repeat the record of the lookout who reported the dome at Lowell Observatory as smoke so often that finally the dispatcher’s response was a long silence.
We’re afraid of going to sleep after lunch and missing a fire. Once I went to sleep standing up—and fell into the fire finder. Pilots headed for Pulliam airport frequently line up with my tower and pass close by. I hope their depth perception is functioning.
“Why did you take this job?” Good question. I had taught high school English for 10 years. When I began to have my semiannual nervous breakdown in September, I wanted privacy, quiet, trees, a long view, company rather than contact—freedom, time.
Everybody has a different reason. James says, “Ah’m jes an ol’ cowboy needed a job.” Eric hurt his knee skiing and took a summer off from fire fighting. Ed hurt his foot. Ray liked fire but was too old to fight it. Scott says—to tell the truth—he had no idea what he was getting into; he didn’t own a car when he reported for duty. Jim says, “Solitude—when controlled and voluntary—is good for the soul. It makes you appreciate people more, not less.”
We work together by radio, communicate in notes carried by patrol people, but we see each other, if we’re lucky, once a season. Shirley, who has been a lookout for 16 years, says she took the job that first summer because she anticipated big fires. Now she can’t think of any place she’d rather be. Sandy’s reason—“I come here to feel alive.”
Visitors to my tower can see books, pen and paper, knitting, a practice keyboard, an exercise bicycle, and they say, “What do you do up here?” I scan the land for fire, for one thing, but I can’t rotate slowly all day. Sometimes weeks go by without smoke anywhere, and the radio is so quiet that I check to be sure it’s on the right frequency. You have to have something to do or you’d be talking on the radio all the time, making a pest of yourself. Lookouts who last long enough to learn the landscape are people who have things they like to do by themselves.
Towers are different sizes of small, and activity inside is restricted. Beth wrestled an electric keyboard in, put a generator on the catwalk, and practiced for hours. Amy painted watercolor landscapes. Paul worked on chess problems. Scott plays his guitar; Shirley quilts. Ray is classifying ground strikes—he says there are at least four different kinds. Bob built a zither. Jim says, “Everybody thinks he wants to be a fire lookout, but there’s no such thing as a ‘normal’ one. We are all a little nuts.”
Nights in my little cabin, alone on its mountaintop, are a joy. The moon shines white on treetops and makes long shadows on the ground. In a storm, trees roar and thrash. Wind whistles through cracks. And I’m cozy with a book under blankets. I’m working on a theory that if phone calls and business decisions, lawsuits, and legislation were conducted from a cabin on a stormy night, this would be a happier country.
Those of us who are long-timers use the isolation—the freedom. Ray says it’s fun and exciting. Jim says that after 34 years as a seasonal employee, he is a fire lookout because it’s an easy, honest, necessary job—and because he’s lazy. Shirley’s reasons for coming back are sunsets and sunrises, birds and elk and bears, and the sound of the wind.
I’ve known men who tied flies and women who carried babies up the stairs on their backs. Once we had a lookout who hung blankets over the windows and watched wrestling on a battery television all day—but he didn’t last long. Shirley Pierce said, “It’s been my life,” in the hospital just before she died. Takes all kinds, they say, and it’s a good thing because all kinds is what we have.
Usually, although it’s not planned that way, we are fairly evenly divided between men and women. A few of us are in our mid-twenties. Some of us are 60, 70, or more. Chris is 81; she’s been a lookout for 37 years. She won’t quit, and they can’t fire her—like J. Edgar Hoover.
Mavis outranks us all—she’s been a lookout for 40 years. At least we think so—no one else on the forest was working there when she started. All of us are part of a long historic line, going back almost 90 years, of people who served as lookouts to keep forests, ranches, subdivisions, whole towns from burning.
We live in the sky. It forms three-fourths of what we can see. A lookout lives with weather, not land, not fire. The sky moves and changes; the land doesn’t unless there’s something like shadows of clouds passing over. Wind blows from varying directions, a different speed every minute. Temperatures rise or plummet. Clouds are not linear thinkers: in ever-changing textures they move and combine, separate, re-form, turn dark, flare with lightning.
Visitors, when they’re through with their incredulous, critical questions, usually have two more: “How much do you get paid?” And “How did you get this job?”