As a mountain obsessed teenager, I naturally drifted towards working in the mountains. I planted trees on the Monaro Tablelands, did some fire crew work, applied for jobs at ski resorts. I found myself the dream job for a few months, helping renovate a 100 year old store in a town in the mountains of eastern Alaska … But the ultimate romantic job was fire lookout, of course.
When I was 19, someone gave me a copy of The Dharma Bums, by Jack Kerouac, a classic from the late 1950s, about a bunch of Beat era poets who mixed Buddhism, wine, poetry and adventures in the mountains. That thin volume became ever more battered as I hitch hiked from San Francisco to Alaska and back, and then out to the Rockies. By the time it had fallen apart, I had a copy of the next book in the series, Desolation Angels, about Jack’s time as a fire lookout in the northern Cascade mountains.
During the long slow months in the lookout, Jack mostly unravels, slowly becoming disillusioned with his Buddhist beliefs. He eventually escapes to the fleshpots of Mexico. But I was undeterred. Nirvana awaited those sitting in the mountains. Jack just didn’t try hard enough.
When I got back home, I applied for a fire tower position in the Victorian mountains (I didn’t get it). Undeterred, I took off into central Tassie for a month, figuring I’d find the same solitude and, hopefully, insight.
There is an (admittedly very small and niche) tradition of fire lookout literature. Desolation Angels stands out as the first in the genre, and the poetry of activist and Buddhist Gary Snyder, one of the key characters in Dharma Bums, often references his seasons as fire lookout. Many people still undertake the pilgrimage to the tower on Desolation Peak, where Jack spent his summer. Poets on the Peaks by John Suiter was a beautiful large format book that explored the work of Snyder, Kerouac and Buddhist Philip Whalen, and the influence of their time as lookouts in the Pacific North West, as well as the broader influence of the Beat movement. A more recent offering is Fire Season (‘Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout’), about living in a fire tower in New Mexico. Breaking into the Backcountry by Steve Edwards has a similar theme of being in wild nature in solitude (in this case through winning a writer’s residency on a remote homestead property in Oregon). East Gippsland’s regional publisher Ngarak Press, produced a number of volumes under the name of Amelia Angove, that were partly influenced by time spent in the fire tower on Mt Nugong.
The most recent one I have seen is a short film about being a fire lookout in Montana. “Leif Haugen is a lookout for the U.S. Forest Service in Northern Montana, where he patrols his section of wilderness for any sight of lightning strikes or fires from a small cabin on top of a mountain. Beyond this, the film dives into the both rudimentary and contemplative activities that accompany this job. This humble existence isn’t for everyone, but if you have the ability to live slowly and reflectively, it may be a pretty special experience”.
The appeal of this job should be obvious: working in remote areas where you can pursue intellectual or spiritual ventures in pure and wild landscapes.
The next best version of the solitary fire watcher job would surely have to be a caretaker of a backcountry hut … there’s another genre that covers this exceedingly rare profession – mostly all films.
A classic is Winters of my Life, which is a short and reflective portrait of Howard Weamer, who spent 35 winters as a hutkeeper in Yosemite’s backcountry. The most recent I’ve seen is the story on the Ophir hut, in the San Juan mountains of Colorado, and Bob Kingsley, who owns the hut.
Working in a fire tower is just that – work. Which means a regulated lifestyle, and active daily engagement with other people. But it does also mean a lot of time by yourself. Time to think, to write, to draw, to do whatever you need to do to find peace, or balance. I’ve spent enough time on fire crews to understand the realities of working for a government authority. And anyone who has managed a backcountry hut will have had to deal with their fair share of difficult, demanding and incompetent punters. But the romance remains…
[Obscure fact. There is a website with photos of fire lookout towers in Australia, which is where I borrowed this pic of the lookout on Mt Buller].