Burn Scars

Elegy for a wilderness

Whitney Hubbs, Untitled. Courtesy the artist.

Like any Romantic, I had always been vaguely certain that sometime during my life I should come into a magic place which in disclosing its secrets would give me wisdom and ecstasy — perhaps even death.

 — Paul Bowles

Infrared waves just below twenty hertz associated with approaching thunder seem to have strange effects on the temporal lobe in some part of the population, to wit producing feelings of baseless awe and ecstasy.

 — Norman Rush

I thought I heard a shout from far below. Snug in the cocoon of my sleeping bag, face averted from the honey-colored sunrise pouring through the windows, I could not at first remember where I was and why. For a moment I experienced the tingly, dissociative terror one feels on waking from a bad dream — only to realize I was waking into one.

The shout came twice more before I recognized the voice and hollered back. It belonged to Teresa, fiancée of my friend John, whom we had both been mourning for three weeks. She had started up the mountain on foot before daybreak, a steep two and a half miles from the trailhead. Sleep eluded her past about three in the morning, so she found ways to make use of the dawn hours, fueled by plenty of coffee. For me the trouble was the night, but I stumbled through with the time-tested crutch of whiskey, neat.

During a dozen summers of lookout duty I had mostly spent my nights in a cabin at ground level, in another mountain range entirely, but there was no cabin on John’s peak, only the tower — a spacious live-in model. I invited Teresa up the stairs, feeling almost embarrassed at having to proffer an invitation. She had spent far more time there than I had, hanging out with John; I was merely an emergency fill-in, on loan from a different ranger district twenty miles east. A fire there the previous summer had left my home tower surrounded by a 214-square-mile burn scar: a bird’s nest marooned in a charscape. There wasn’t a whole lot left to catch fire in that country, so my boss figured he could spare me for a few weeks while I covered John’s shifts on Signal Peak, and my relief lookout worked extra to cover mine.

I slipped into my pants and donned a hat while Teresa’s hiking boots rang on the tower’s metal steps. Given her intimate understanding of the profession, she refused to climb an occupied lookout without permission from its resident caretaker, a recognition that fire towers serve not merely as scenic overlooks for tourists but as actual work spaces for lookouts, some of whom consider pants optional.

Rare is the pleasure hiker whose appreciation of the wild is capacious enough to include a surprise confrontation with a hairy human ass. Nonetheless, an unsettling number of visitors disregarded the sign at the base of the tower informing the curious that the structure had an official purpose, and that permission was required to climb it during its annual period of occupancy, roughly April through August. People being people, a few began their thoughtless trudge up the stairs without even a hollered warning. Maybe this impertinence had something to do with the implausibility, in our day and age, of someone still getting paid to stare out the window at mountains all day; maybe certain humans could no longer be bothered to read from a surface other than a screen. In any case, when John had ruled the roost he would tweak trespassers by meeting them partway in their ascent and telling them he was in the middle of some very important paperwork, and if they would wait at the base of the tower for ten or fifteen minutes — twenty tops — he would have the Is dotted and the Ts crossed and be glad to share the view. Then he would return to his glass-walled perch on stilts and laugh to himself. The fact that there was no paperwork was part of what we loved about the job.

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