There comes a moment, every time you visit a fire lookout tower, when you become certain that you have gotten hopelessly, irretrievably lost. The dirt road is buckled and overgrown; your tires skirt a crumbling cliff. Against your better judgment, you switchback up the mountainside through thinning pine forest, the road at last leveling at the summit.
Craning your neck, you survey the odd structure looming above you: a glass-sided cabin, no more than 12 by 12, perched on 50 feet of rickety stairs. At the top, you find a monastic room equipped with a propane stove, a few utensils, and a mattress littered with mouse turds.
And, oh – 360 degrees of breathtaking scenery, the hazy mountains crashing upon each other like waves, a view that would drop Ansel Adams’ jaw.
Welcome to your home for the evening. Hope you brought your own water.
Social distancing incarnate
America’s fire towers for rent are among the country’s best bargains: around $40 per night, for the kind of alpine panoramas and solitude usually associated with an Austrian chalet.
They’re also hot commodities that book up as soon as the US Forest Service makes them available each winter. This year, though, Covid-19 has scrambled travel plans, forcing tower guests to cancel their reservations. My wife, Elise, trolls recreation.gov each week like a circling vulture, ensuring that no vacated booking goes to waste.
Thanks to her doggedness, we’ve sampled some of the finest towers in Idaho and Montana, two of the states graced with the most lookouts. And we can attest: There’s no better place to ride out a pandemic. Fire towers are social distancing incarnate – close enough to our home in Spokane that we can reach them in an afternoon, remote enough that we’re unlikely to encounter other humans. When we arrive, nobody checks us in.
A world of pure isolation
When we leave, nobody asks us about our stay. Our only company is our dog, Kit, and whatever wild animals happen to be loitering nearby– the ground squirrels chirping from their burrows, the flickers swooping through the eye-level treetops. The deer don’t wear masks, but we don’t mind.
Isolation, even for a night or two, is a gift we don’t take for granted. Think there’s WiFi and cell service? Please, you’re lucky if the outhouse has toilet paper. A tower is a forced retreat from the news cycle, a detox from dire Covid-19 updates and Trumpian tweets. Being surrounded by millions of years of rugged geology doesn’t diminish our present crisis, but it does offer a bit of deep context.
A New Deal program that keeps on giving
Before towers were getaways, they were advance scouts in the Forest Service’s war against wildfire. As early as 1870, lookouts slept in tents, climbed trees to scan the horizon, and, when they spotted a telltale wisp of smoke, hustled off to snuff the blaze themselves.
In the early 1900s, towers began to replace these rudimentary posts. By the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps – a New Deal make-work program that employed young men to build trails, roads and other infrastructure – was erecting hundreds each year. Soon more than 5,000 towers peppered the country.
During this mid-20th-century heyday, a vast army of lookouts spent their summers searching for smoke and radioing directions to firefighting ground troops. “To do a good job, the lookout must have special qualities,” declared the 1966 Fire Man’s Handbook, among them “good health, good eyesight,” and the ability “to think clearly and coolly in an emergency.”
Not all emergencies were fires. Occasionally bears climbed into the cabins and wreaked havoc. The towers – which, after all, were elevated metal boxes protruding from the landscape’s highest points – were also struck by lightning, killing at least one lookout.
“One evening I was sitting there watching the lightning storms in the area,” recalls Gary Weber, director of the Montana/Idaho North chapter of the Forest Fire Lookout Association. “And all of a sudden — kaboom! The whole place lit up.”
Poetry and prose
Rarely was the job that thrilling. In his memoir “Fire Season,” the writer Philip Connors described lookout duties as “a blend of monotony, geometry and poetry, with healthy dollops of frivolity and sloth.” Reclusive nature-lovers used the gig as a sort of government-sponsored meditation retreat.
Edward Abbey, the late author and environmental activist, worked as a lookout in the Grand Canyon (and by all accounts did an abysmal job). The poet Gary Snyder, stationed at Sourdough Mountain in Washington, described “Looking down for miles / Through high still air.”
Snyder extolled the lookout life to his friend, Jack Kerouac, who spent a summer on Desolation Peak and mined the experience for material in his novels. Although he’d expected quiet contemplation, Kerouac spent his tenure swatting bugs and craving cigarettes so badly that he smoked coffee grounds in desperation. “Many’s the time I thought I’d die, suspire of boredom, or jump off the mountain,” he lamented in “Desolation Angels.”
The remains of the day
Despite their storied history, fire towers soon became obsolete, phased out in favor of spotter planes. Today, only 400 or so remain staffed by employees and volunteers. Thousands more simply “melted into the ground,” Weber says.
A select few, however, survived the wind and rain and have been spruced up for guests. According to the Associated Press, about 75 restored towers are available for nightly rental.
And what exactly do visitors do in these aeries? The answer, we’ve found, is: nothing.
Some towers come stocked with chess sets; sometimes we bring a crossword puzzle. Mostly, though, we gaze slack-jawed out the windows and follow the sun as it rolls across the sky, the mountains shading from green to purple to blue as the daylight fades.
Besides, watching weather is more exciting than you might imagine. You experience meteorology differently from the sky — you’re above the fray, an independent observer of rainstorms rather than their victim.
At a lookout called Yaak Mountain, located in Kootenai National Forest in northwest Montana, we watched gauzy sheets of rain roll from west to east, drifting between valleys like the arc of a sprinkler sweeping a lawn.
For 15 minutes, the storm front lingered over us, and the mountains disappeared behind a gray veil. Then the storm moseyed along, and in its place a psychedelic rainbow shimmered over the Kootenai River. I’d never been above one before.
Into the wild
Each fire tower, like each home, has its quirks. At Gird Point Lookout in Bitterroot National Forest in Darby, Montana, a potbellied wood stove warmed our bones against the wind that hissed through a broken pane.
At Bald Mountain, part of the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests in Idaho, we followed logging roads through clear-cuts carpeted in lupine, yarrow and the delicate white cups of wild strawberry.
From most towers, you can see distant civilization – a railroad paralleling a river, the scattered lights of a small town – but from the Big Creek Baldy tower (not to be confused with Bald Mountain), we couldn’t see so much as a dirt road.
We stood, alone and in awe, in the jagged embrace of the Northern Rockies. It was easy to imagine that we weren’t in a manmade structure at all, that we drifted over mountains on a cloud.
Past is present
Fire towers are cultural relics – artifacts of the early 20th century, when the Forest Service regarded every wildfire as an enemy to be vanquished rather than a force of ecological rejuvenation. Today, though, towers are experiencing a renaissance. As climate change parches the planet, and as humans encroach upon wildlands, fires have become fiercer and more destructive.
At the same time, we’ve come to recognize that wildfire is vital to forest health – that many trees need fire to release their seeds, that wildflowers and shrubs sprout from the ash, that woodpeckers drill for grubs in scorched snags.
By spotting fires early, lookouts can help us determine which ones actually threaten people, and which we should let burn. Many states are restoring derelict towers, and Pennsylvania is even building new ones.
“We can’t restore them all,” acknowledges Gary Weber. “But where’s a use for them, we think they’re a part of history that could be saved.”
I am not, in general, in favor of human-built structures on otherwise untrammeled landscapes. It brings me joy to see derelict chalets dissolved to moldering timbers or roads vanish beneath thimbleberry and huckleberry.
But I’ll make an exception for fire towers, which, during this tragic, disorienting summer, have brought me and Elise bliss and perspective – and, I suspect, provided thousands of other people with the same pleasures. Even Jack Kerouac could probably use one right now.
Ben Goldfarb is an independent journalist whose writing has appeared in the Atlantic, the Washington Post, Science, and many other publications. He is the author of the book Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter, winner of the 2019 PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award.