On the Fringe
Elegy for a wilderness
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.
I joined Teresa on the catwalk. We stood against the railing looking north toward the big mountains, where tinsel tufts of cloud hovered over the creases in the land, the canyons and the river valleys. It was one of those mornings of fresh-scrubbed serenity that made the forest look like a world at the dawn of time — a view so magnanimous with earthly beauty it made me want to live forever, even as I was more aware than usual that I would not.
Although her days as a freak on a peak were behind her, Teresa still surpassed me by almost two decades of experience in the lookout’s game, having worked thirty seasons in total, most of them on two mountains — Black Mountain, Bearwallow — in our shared home forest, the Gila of southern New Mexico. She last occupied Bearwallow the year before I showed up on the Gila; my first season coincided with her venturing north to work towers in Oregon and Idaho, so I had missed out on the pleasure of hearing her voice on the two-way radio. Hearing it now, in person, I felt sadness and gratitude at once; the sadness would have been there either way, with or without her presence, but I was grateful I wouldn’t feel compelled to hide it from her, as I would have from the average day hiker — that on the contrary I could share it with her, and share in hers. Perhaps in this way we could soften it for each other just a little.
In the distance we could see the Gila Wilderness, the original American experiment in protecting wild country from incursion by industrial machines. In 1924, as an idealistic young forester, Aldo Leopold had convinced his superiors in the Forest Service to draw a jagged boundary line around the only mountains left in the American Southwest not carved up by roads and keep them that way. His plan made the Gila the world’s first Wilderness with a capital W, meaning no automobiles, no tourist developments of any kind, all travel demanding the exertions of animate flesh, either one’s own or that of a horse: the model for what would become, forty years later, the Wilderness Act. True to Leopold’s vision, this exercise in willed restraint had preserved, for ninety years and running, a big enough stretch of country to allow for packing with mules on a trip lasting two weeks during which the pack string never once crossed its own tracks. Even if he weren’t venerated as the high priest of American ecology, having forever changed the way we think about the natural world thanks to his visionary land ethic, Leopold would be remembered for changing our relationship with some pretty big chunks of it — none more resonant with symbolism than the Gila. For some of us it remained not only the first Wilderness but the best: more than half a million acres of grassland, mountain, and mesa, the major sky-island bridge between the southern Rockies and the northern Sierra Madre.
Teresa had seen more of that place than anyone I knew, and I never tired of hearing her stories of riding the trails with old-time mule packers, or floating the river’s forks at flood stage in a battered boat. These were uncommon pursuits, to put it mildly. Packing with mules had always been so, and those who boated in that country ran the Gila River’s main stem, not the smaller and gnarlier headwaters forks. Those forks were too small, offered too many challenges, involved too much boat-dragging and bushwhacking. I had never heard of anyone else attempting to float them. For Teresa, that was part of the allure: the difficulty, the novelty. That, and the occasion for solitude. Hers was an undomesticated sensibility of an especially intense kind, fueled by a passion for wild creatures and native flora, making for a life lived around ranchers and firefighters and others who worked outdoors, fuel-wood cutters and horse breeders and their ilk. She had more than held her own in that world. She was what was called an “old Gila hand” — hand being the most respectful moniker bestowed on humans in wild country, and old not an epithet but an honorific.
Her adventures had hardly been limited to the Gila. She had once run the Green River solo, from northern Utah to Lake Powell, 430 miles in six weeks. Back in the 1980s, she had gone horseback from the Mexican border to Canada, a six-month journey on the second day of which she was thrown from her mount, suffering a broken arm on impact. For most people, that mishap would have derailed the trip, or at least postponed it. Teresa was not most people. As fortune would have it, she found her way to a nearby ranch owned by a semiprofessional rodeo cowboy who happened to have some casting material handy; he typically used it on the calves he practiced roping, whenever the rope broke one of their legs. Calf-roping tended to result in a lot of broken legs, which healed relatively quickly when properly set. His expertise made for an impeccable cast on her arm, and he sent her on her way with some extra plaster, in case she needed to repeat the job herself.
But that was long ago, in what sometimes seemed to her another life entirely. During one of her last seasons as a lookout she had been poisoned by too much time spent in a tower infected with hidden mold. A subsequent tick bite bequeathed her a blood-borne pathogen and set her on an excruciating medical odyssey that lasted several years and only really ended after she spent long sessions in a hyperbaric chamber. At age 63, having lived hand-to-mouth for decades to feed her jones for adventure and avoid what she viewed as the suffocating expectations of the culture, namely marriage and motherhood, she had surprised herself by having a change of heart about marriage. In her capacity for solitude and all-around hardihood she made the perfect partner for John, but they had been granted only eleven months together. Now she was walking around with his ashes in a plastic bag and looking a little lost.
It felt like the right sort of day for spreading some of those ashes. The breeze was barely a whisper in the tops of the pines below us; their needle clusters glinted like pom-poms in the slanted sunlight. As the ribbons of ground fog began to lift and dissolve, we could see mountains way beyond the forest boundary, over in Arizona and down on the Mexican border. We both understood the gravity of what we were about to do and so we held off a while longer, not wanting to rush toward a reckoning. Instead we stood on the catwalk and watched the forest come to life, sometimes speaking quietly, sometimes pointing to something on the landscape, sometimes silently attentive as the hummingbirds buzzed around the feeder and the shadows shortened and the air began to warm. After a while I left Teresa alone with the view and went inside the tower to make myself some oatmeal with nuts and dried fruit, and a cup of coffee, extra-strong, with a generous pour of cream.
As I did so, the other lookouts began to call in service over the radio — first Jean on Black Mountain, then Hedge at Lookout Mountain, and on around the horn, one by one, Eagle Peak, Mogollon Baldy, Mangas Mountain, Fox Mountain, Saddle Mountain, Bearwallow, Hills-boro Peak — until all of us had been accounted for but me. Some days I liked to go first and others I preferred to go last, and often the ritual round of morning voices called to mind the first few lines of Gary Snyder’s poem “The Lookouts”:
Perched on their bare and windy peaks
They twitter like birds across the fractured hills
Equipped by science with the keenest tool —
A complex two-way radio, full of tubes.
The most alone, and highest in the land,
We trust their scrupulous vision to a man:
Or woman, I always added, adjusting the cadence to make the poem more inclusive, not to mention more accurate. The lookouts I admired most were women, so this zeal for accuracy was more than academic. Four of them — Teresa, Jean, Sara, and Rázik — counted a hundred fire seasons worth of experience altogether, a deep reservoir of knowledge about the country that, one had to believe, would never again be duplicated. Jean worked the loneliest of all the towers, seeing fewer visitors than any of the rest of us by far, sometimes only six or eight in a summer. Sara and Ráz split time equally at Baldy, since the hike in was so long — twelve miles — it didn’t make sense for one of them to work the relief schedule of four days on and ten days off and spend half the time coming and going. Sara had spent more summers on her mountain — thirty-three straight — than John and I combined on ours; Ráz liked to joke that Sara knew the country so well she could tell you precisely which tree had started the fire. At twenty-four seasons of service herself, Ráz was no slouch when it came to understanding the lay of the land. She was 72 years old and as spry as most people half her age. I doubted I would be alive at 72, much less fit enough to hike twelve miles each way to work.
I joined the 9 AM chorus by pressing the transmit button on my Bendix-King VHF radio full of tubes and carefully enunciating, “Silver City dispatch, Signal Peak, in service.” It felt peculiar to say words John had uttered on more than a thousand mornings. The name Signal Peak didn’t feel right in my mouth, but that’s where I was, so that’s who I was, for the moment.
My spasm of discomfort passed as I moved into the daily routine of measuring the morning weather, a set of gestures identical for each of the ten lookouts on the forest: note the location and intensity of lightning in the previous twenty-four hours, eyeball the sky for its percentage of cloud cover, check the rain gauge for any precip since 9 the day before. Hold an anemometer into the wind, noting direction and range of speeds and maximum gust. Dip a sling psychrometer in distilled water, dampening the cotton sleeve that hugged its wet bulb; twirl the psychrometer’s twin thermometers in the shade of the catwalk, producing readings from both the dry bulb (conventional air temperature) and wet bulb (cooler temperature created by evaporation from the dampened cotton). Discern the relative humidity from the difference between the two with the help of a handy chart. Write all this in the logbook in preparation for calling it in to the dispatcher.
“Silver City dispatch, Signal Peak, morning report,” I announced, those two little words in the middle again sounding off — not just to me but to everyone listening.
Once I finished on the radio, Teresa suggested a morning stroll. We descended the tower and walked down the trail until we came to an opening in the trees, on a ridge overlooking the rounded peaks of the Twin Sisters to the south. John had come there often with his wife, Miquette, back when they first staffed the tower, back when Miquette was still alive. In 1999, she had been hired as the primary lookout, he as her relief, and they both liked the view from a natural stone bench just below the top of the ridge: thick ponderosa pine rolling down the slopes of the Pinos Altos Range, giving way eventually to piñon-juniper country, and beyond it the cougar-colored grasslands. John spread some of Miquette’s ashes in the clearing after her death, back in 2003.
Now it was his turn to join her.
In their last months together, John played caretaker while Miquette succumbed to cancer. This happened not long after my first summer as a lookout ended, so I didn’t know him at the time, other than as one of many voices on my two-way radio. He later said it was the most difficult thing he had ever done, and in some ways the most meaningful.
Having been informed the disease was incurable, they embarked on a journey John called “hospice in a motor home.” Thanks in part to an unexpected bequest from Miquette’s godmother, the two of them had lived on the road for years, dropping anchor in different campgrounds for a week or a month at a time, moving across the mountains and deserts from New Mexico to Idaho; they didn’t want their journey to end in some godforsaken institutional room. Ignoring the doctors’ appalled warnings to the contrary, they packed up her crutches and oxygen tanks, her gauze patches and pill bottles, and set off toward a secret valley in California where they had stayed many times before. “It was as romantic, in its own intimate way, as a honeymoon,” John later wrote of that week, in an essay he shared with friends.
They continued west to a campground on the Pacific coast, where the host, apprised of their situation, waived the two-week stay limit. As was their way, they continued to make connections until the very end. Folks stopped by to see whether they needed help, fellow RVers brought tapioca pudding to share with Miquette — part death watch, part social hour. When the end drew near they bowed to necessity and joined her family in Santa Cruz. “On New Year’s Eve, with a sigh, Miquette slipped gently away,” John wrote. “Outside the bedroom window, fireworks sparkled in the midnight sky.”
Feeling an urge to bend his grief to some good purpose, John signed up to become an air angel, flying sick patients in need of emergency medical care to distant hospitals free of charge in his own private plane. He constantly reminded himself that, although the end had come too soon for her — she had died at 56 — Miquette had lived out her dreams. As a little girl she loved horses so much she wanted to be one; she also fantasized about living in a tree house. After she met John they lived in the shadow of 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado, tucked amid a grove of aspens on the edge of a meadow, where they cared for a large herd of horses. Later they took up seasonal residence on Signal Peak, in a sort of deluxe tree house above the Gila. The timing and manner of her death had not undone the fact that hers had been, in many ways, a charmed life.
So had John’s, mostly. As with all of us, there were areas of his personal history shadowed in varying degrees of darkness, but on the day of his death, age 62, he was happier than he had been in some time, excited to be planning a new honeymoon on which he would fly his Cessna Cardinal around the American West with Teresa, golfing at a different course in a different state each day — a major concession on her part, golf being far afield from her own interests, but what the hell, the things we do for love. Instead the plane was orphaned in a hangar at the Grant County Airport, and there would be no teeing off in Arizona one day and Utah the next, not to mention no more air-angel flights with him at the helm.
On the stone bench, Teresa and I shared a few tears, a few laughs. John’s laughter still echoed in our memories, and sometimes we merely felt like displaced conduits for it. Never parsimonious with his emotions, he would have appreciated the sight of us crying one minute and giggling the next — and sometimes both at once — as we sifted through what we remembered most vividly about him.
I sometimes thought of him as the blue-eyed gringo incarnation of a Mudhead Kachina, the drumming, dancing clown in Hopi ceremonies: partial to mischief and merriment, and the most gregarious lover of solitude I had ever known. His laughter, his most winning characteristic, tumbled forth in staccato waves, his belly shaking, his torso rocking back and forth from the hinge of his waist like a seesaw. He had a kind of bebop laugh that reminded me of Dizzy Gillespie’s solo on “Salt Peanuts” — supple and exuberant, the individual notes crowding one another as if in a hurry to be free. When children visited his lookout tower, he delighted in showing them how he could make a flower of his lips by painting them with lipstick, drawing in hummingbirds for a drink of sugar water straight out of his mouth. I found the tube of cherry-colored Wet ’n Wild in the drawer where he kept his weather instruments; its gauche branding first made me laugh and then ruined me for half an hour with all it evoked of him.
The sight of that lipstick was nothing compared with my initial glimpse of his handwriting in the logbook, which detailed the major events of his last hours:
Noonish Past lookout Bart Mortenson family arrives. Bart was a lookout here in the 70s. He honeymooned here
12:32 Smoke report: Azimuth 247° 30′, Township 16S, Range 14W, Section 32 — small white column — BART FIRE
12:39 Smoke more dense, still white color
12:57 Engine 672 on scene
13:00 Mortenson family spreads Bart’s ashes north of tower. Nice singing of hymns drifting inside
13:05 BART FIRE getting a broader base. Lat/Long 33° 55′ 32.1″ × 108° 12′ 46.8″
19:00 Out of service
Shortly after writing the words “Out of service” on the evening of June 7, 2014, he saddled his horse, Sundance, and set off on a ride along the Continental Divide Trail, passing by the spot where he had spread Miquette’s ashes eleven years earlier. When he didn’t call in service the next morning, two friends — his relief lookout, Mark Johnson, and his supervisor, Keith Mathes — set out ahead of a search-and-rescue team to hunt for him. The hunt did not last long. Both John and the horse were found where they fell; Sundance’s massive bulk had crushed the torso of his rider. Neither betrayed signs of having struggled. Those of us who loved John kept telling ourselves that whatever the reason for the fall — a horse heart attack, the evidence suggested, although we would never know for sure — he had gone quickly, doing something he enjoyed, in a place he loved.
At least he died with his boots on, I told Teresa, inanely, when we met in the hours after his body was found.
“Not quite,” she said. “Classic John: the bastard was wearing his tennis shoes. If he’d had his cowboy boots on, who knows, he might’ve been able to get out of the stirrups in time.”
Those of us with long experience sitting watch over the Gila sometimes joked that we were not so much fire lookouts anymore as morbid priests or pyromaniacal monks — officiants at an ongoing funeral for the forests as we had found them when we first assumed our posts. All of us had come seeking solitude, adventure, the romance of wild mountains, and a taste of the sublime; we got everything we had hoped for and more, including pyrotechnics on a landscape scale. The job never lasted long enough — six months maximum, more like four or five in a typical season — but it beat working down in the neon plastic valleys.
You’d have to be lobotomized or a filthy aesthete not to sense something magical about the country.Tweet
Nationwide, our numbers dwindled by the year, our sort of work a casualty of “development” and the schemes of the techno-titillated, who looked forward to the day when the last of us would be put out to pasture by satellites, drones, and high-definition infrared cameras linked with pattern-recognition software. We had been reduced from several thousand to a few hundred in the span of half a century, and the trend showed no sign of reversing; quite the contrary. The only question was how long we would last. Squinting in just the right light, after just the right number of drinks, I found it possible to envision an alternate reality in which I toiled alongside the rest of the creative class in the panopticon of the social-media surveillance economy, another insufferable white guy curating my personal brand — a tiny celebrity on a miniature stage — and art-directing amateur photo shoots of what I ate for lunch. That might still be my future. But not just yet. Not quite.
In the sunset days of a doomed vocation, I had lucked into a lineage of mountain mystics and lone rangers. We were paid in US dollars to read the meaning in clouds and discern the difference between positive and negative lightning. It seemed almost an oversight on the culture’s part that the job still existed at all. Those of us who kept with it across the decades became walking repositories of bird-migration and weather patterns, fire history and trail conditions. For days and sometimes weeks on end we studied maps, performed seasonal maintenance on our facilities, and luxuriated in silence and solitude; some of us even learned to kiss hummingbirds. Then a storm moved over and the fires busted out, one or two or a dozen in an afternoon, and we earned our keep triangulating smokes, alerting crews to sudden changes in wind and fire behavior, guiding smokejumpers toward good trails on which to hike out after demob. It was hard to imagine jumpers on loan from Alaska or Montana, dropped from the sky into a remote place they had never seen before, getting that sort of intelligence from a high-def camera — angle toward the ridge northwest of you above the scree field for about two-thirds of a mile, then look for the rock cairn at the base of a big Doug fir, and follow the trail east from there until it drops down to the creek bottom — but the gadget fetishists never bothered to imagine that we offered more than merely a pair of eyes, that the evolving palimpsest of knowledge we accrued about the country might have some real and practical value beyond that of an adorable curio from an age before the world went virtual.
Those of us who worked on the Gila had the good fortune to watch over the forest that, for the sake of the health of the land, was allowed to burn more aggressively than any other in the Lower 48. We had witnessed the triumphs of progressive fire management, even played a small role in them, participants in a new pyromancy that no longer saw wildfire as a despised disruption of the natural order, a menace, a scourge. After most of a century of total suppression, the fire managers of the Gila National Forest had sculpted that new attitude into a strategy — let a few fires burn, when and where conditions were favorable, generally in the middle elevations of the wilderness areas, away from the settled edges of the forest — that helped preserve one of the healthiest ponderosa-pine stands in the Southwest.
The country outside the forest boundary was essentially a sacrifice zone to cattle grazing, denuded so thoroughly it was a study in desertification. The forest’s fringes had been transformed as well, also badly overgrazed for more than a century, crisscrossed by roads and off-road-vehicle trails, and overgrown with unburned brush. In certain areas, woodcutting — for cooking, heating homes, making lumber, and smelting copper ore — had altered the forest structure, and throughout the region top predators, notably Mexican gray wolves and grizzly bears, had been the object of a relentless effort at zoöcide. Against all odds the wolves were making a comeback, but the grizzlies were likely gone forever.
The heart of the country nonetheless remained a land without roads, one of the wildest we had left, licked frequently by flame since at least the end of the Pleistocene and all the more beautiful and resilient for it. At McKenna Park, the place in the state of New Mexico farthest from pavement, you’d have to be lobotomized or a filthy aesthete not to sense something magical about the country: the scent of earth unbroken by human tools, a pine-oak savannah that called up a primeval feeling in the blood. The whole interwoven pattern of life there flourished amid frequent low-intensity burns; it had been and remained a fire-adapted ecosystem. The ponderosas dropped their lowest limbs to prevent fire climbing into their crowns, giving the forest a distinctive, open look. Nearly every living tree was blackened at its base — evidence of wildfire as handmaiden to evolution.
For close to four decades, the mantra on the Gila had been that fire was good, fire was necessary — the land had burned for millennia, after all, with no paramilitary force to stamp out smokes until the first years of the 20th century — but the size and character of the burns were changing. All across the planet, forests were undergoing an alarming die-off due to drought, disease, and beetle infestation, not to mention logging and slash-and-burn agriculture on an industrial scale — an apocalyptic acceleration of tree murder. Even in the world’s first Wilderness, theoretically protected from destructive human activity, the effects of global warming were evident in the form of unstoppable megafires. They reinforced the fact that no place on earth was safely sealed off from the effects of human activity.
“One of the penalties of an ecological education is to live alone in a world of wounds,” Aldo Leopold wrote seven decades ago. An ecological education is easier to come by in the 21st century than in Leopold’s time; the penalty now is not to live alone with the burden of the knowledge — there is plenty enough company — but to feel helpless to stanch the losses foreordained by our pollution of the atmosphere with heat-trapping gases: losses of forests and ice, losses of habitat and species. We are in the midst of an irreversible ecocide. To fully grasp what our appetites have done to the nonhuman life of this planet would be to combust in guilt and grief.
In the two fire seasons preceding the summer of John’s death, the forest saw the two biggest burns in its known history. First came the Whitewater-Baldy Fire in May 2012, which set a state record when two fires merged and burned five hundred square miles of the Mogollon Range, forcing Ráz and Sara off their mountain for most of the summer. It was followed eleven months later by the Silver Fire, a burn that chased me from my peak in a helicopter as half of the Black Range succumbed to flames. Taken together, the two fires roamed across nearly half a million acres. There wasn’t much to do about them but marvel at the heat and smoke and what they wrought, which included, at their hottest, the incineration of the normally moist, dense woods of the high country: Douglas and corkbark fir, blue and Engelmann spruce.
The drier, warmer land below, on the flanks of the mountains and along the high mesas, was meant to burn frequently and had — the historical record suggested a couple times a decade was about average. But the big fires had taken the kind of old, big trees — living near 10,000 feet and above, and along the cool north-facing slopes slightly lower — that, according to tree-ring analysis, typically saw consuming fire just once every century or three, and then only in small patches. Now they were going away in massive stand-replacement events, and it felt silly to hope for their eventual return in a warming world. They were gone, and they weren’t coming back.
On John’s last day as a lookout, the open-ended memorial enlarged to include not just big old trees but one of our predecessors. It unnerved me to learn that John had saddled his horse and ridden to his death within hours of witnessing, out his tower window, those rituals honoring the memory of Bart Mortenson. The resonance of all the little details made for a paradoxical feeling, a retroactive sense of foreboding: the loved ones of a fellow lookout bearing the man’s ashes to the mountain; the mention of that now poignant word, honeymoon; John’s honoring the memory of the man by bestowing his name on a fire — BART FIRE — a mere seven hours before the fire in his own eyes went out.
The first thing you noticed about John were those lively, almost effervescent blue eyes. As lustrous as polished turquoise, they gave him an expression that appeared never to say no to the world, although that hadn’t always been the case. “It took me some time to animate my face,” he had once written, in a notebook discovered by Teresa after his death.
I thought I knew what he meant. When I learned he was a fellow Minnesotan, I tried once and only once to engage him on the subject, but he pivoted away so abruptly, with a look of such dread in those normally avid eyes, that I felt I had poked my finger in a wound. Only later would I learn that he had been present when his best friend accidentally killed himself while fooling around with a gun in the woods during the winter of their senior year of high school. The mere mention of the state where this had occurred was enough to make him recall the scene as if it had happened yesterday, although forty years had passed. He remembered just as vividly his parents’ reaction to the tragedy, his father picking him up at the police station afterward, not saying a word as they drove home in terrible silence, and his mother turning away in disgust when he walked through the door, as if he had committed a murder.
It was not the sort of story one dropped as an icebreaker at parties. He trusted me with it, I suspect, because I first shared with him the fact that my brother had ended his life with a bullet from a semiautomatic assault rifle. Sometimes you just have a feeling about people, and from the beginning of our acquaintance I judged him to be the kind of man who was capable of absorbing such knowledge with sensitivity and grace. From the very beginning, in fact: I shared my brother’s story with him the first time I saw him face-to-face, at an end-of-season gathering of lookouts in summer 2003.
Come to think of it, I suppose you could say I dropped it as an icebreaker at a party. Mark Hedge, the resident sage on Lookout Mountain, had invited four of us to his place at Elephant Butte for beer around the backyard fire pit; for some in attendance, including me and John, it would be our first chance to connect faces with familiar voices on the radio. That was the day John spread Miquette’s ashes near the tower where they had lived four summers together. He knew he was going to spend time with other lookouts that evening, and although he hadn’t met us all in person yet, the thought of our company gave him the courage to do a thing he had been putting off for months. Within an hour of having shaken hands, we were both in tears over the loss of people we had loved. We began in mutual candor; it would have felt phony to proceed any other way thereafter.
Shared some months later, his story of having paid witness to a friend’s death by gunshot revealed that we were blood brothers of a sort. Each of us, in the wake of a bullet’s destruction, had checked into the guilt suite at the Hotel Sorrow and re-upped for a few hundred weeks, he at 17, I at 23.
“I reviewed my life and it was also a river,” Herman Hesse wrote, in the voice of Siddhartha, a sentence that stayed with me through the years. Whenever I recalled it I felt an impulse to revise it for my own purposes and replace the word river with the word fire: I reviewed my life and it was also a fire. My life was more like a series of fires, each of which moved through similar phases, from a thunderous moment of ignition — the lightning strike of a brother’s suicide, the incendiary dissolution of a marriage — to the full flaring heat of grief, followed by a long, slow cooling, a landscape of ashen remains, and, finally, purgation and rebirth. It occurred to me more than once to share my plagiarized sentiment with John, including him in it — I reviewed our lives and they were also fires — but I never had, and now I never would. I had erred in assuming that tomorrow remained a perpetual possibility for that combination of elements forged in friendship and known as us. For me, tomorrow might still come. Probably would, in fact. For him, and for us, there would be no such thing.
Shortly after the fatal gunshot, John left the exurbs of Minneapolis and began a life of travel and adventure that took him across the country and around the world, including a yearlong trip through Mexico and South America and a stint of expatriate living in Spain. His work life included an exotic mélange of duties: bartender, gentleman rancher, private investigator, PR man for a race-car team, claims adjuster for Lloyd’s of London. At the time of his death, he was president and part owner of an airplane-repair shop. The job about which he liked to reminisce most involved his misadventures as a deputy marshal in Telluride, Colorado, where he and his boss, committed to gentler forms of justice than the code books called for, adopted the motto Better us than the real guys.
He possessed a colorful and mysterious backstory and lots of fancy toys even as he cultivated a reputation as a midwestern penny-pincher, partial to torn blue jeans and thrift-store sweatshirts, liable to haggle over the cost of just about anything. He surrounded himself with all the trappings of old-school machismo, the whole suite of midlife-crisis totems — airplane, Jeep, motorcycle, Pantera sports car, GT40 race car — while conducting his emotional life in the most open and vulnerable way possible. He liked to fly high and drive fast; he liked sitting in one place for months, watching mountains. He lived simply in a house of four hundred square feet; he owned a forty-foot mobile home he liked to call his “land yacht.”
The last time I saw him alive it was with our mutual pal Mark Johnson, John’s relief lookout on Signal Peak. My girlfriend and I joined John and Mark for dinner and a beer, and when we were through Mark was the first to leave. Before he did so, John opened his arms as if welcoming a good-bye hug; Mark leaned in, and John gave him a kiss full on the lips. All this, appropriately enough, at a bar called Wrangler’s, which catered to the clientele one would expect from a place by that name. It struck me as the first time in my entire life I had witnessed two straight dudes kiss each other on the lips with real affection and no self-consciousness in a public place. The surprise of bearing witness to it was surpassed only by the surprise of realizing I was a little bit jealous.
On the other hand, when I mentioned John’s death to the first friend I encountered after hearing the news, my friend said: “You know, that guy was a real asshole.” Stuart said that John had come into his metal-fabrication shop one day, seeking a quote on a minor welding project. When Stuart gave him one, John blanched and began — cheapskate that he was — to bargain for a lower price. Stuart countered that he had given him a fair price: take it or leave it. John grumbled in a way that left Stuart feeling abused and insulted. John left and never returned.
More even than haggling for better deals, the man loved needling bureaucratic authority. Even as a lowly agency employee (pay grade GS-4) with no health insurance, no retirement benefits, and a merely seasonal appointment (forestry technician — lookout), he wrote long, deeply researched letters of complaint to the chief of the US Forest Service about the waste of running reconnaissance flights over a forest already covered by the eyes of ten lookouts. “Dear Chief Tidwell,” one such missive began, “I am a fellow Forest Service employee. I work as a fire lookout . . . rest assured my office is nicer than yours.” After this cheeky opening, he spent nine pages and several thousand words attacking the agency’s rationale for using expensive, accident-prone aircraft to detect fires and guide slurry planes in a place such as the Gila. His objections encompassed both the practical — wasteful spending of tax dollars, leaded-gas emissions over the wilderness — and the philosophical, the latter grounded in the knowledge that the landscape we loved and claimed as part owners along with the rest of the American public was stolen from the Apache in a genocidal war. With the red man subdued and removed, red flames had been cast as a savage force that could be tamed only by efforts on a military model. Seen in that light, firefighting — with helicopters, slurry bombers, and paratrooper smokejumpers — was simply a way of perpetuating the endless war on the land. Despite a reputation as the most forward-thinking forest in the country when it came to fire, the Gila still suppressed more than 90 percent of new wildfire starts. Some old habits die hard, none more so than those involving the tools of warfare, funded by unlimited sums of emergency money.
A part of John hoped, vainly as it turned out, that he would be called on to answer for his litany of heresies by the “chain of command.” Meanwhile he remained on a friendly, first-name basis with the aviation officers of the Gila, who always said hello via the air-to-ground frequency when they flew over his mountain on their redundant recon missions. He thought their work bogus and profligate, not to mention needlessly risky with human life, but that didn’t prevent him from liking the people who did it, or they him. He loved to fly circles over beautiful country — and had to admit it was quite the caper for the flyboys and flygirls to have found a way to get paid for doing precisely that.
About ten days into my hitch as his stand-in, I hiked down to the scene of his death to pay homage. For reasons I couldn’t fully explain, probably having to do with both my fear of death and the allure of it — the big dark, the long sleep — I wanted to spend some time in the place where he had breathed his last breath.
Over the years, I had become, quite in contrast to anything I had ever dreamed — who would imagine such a thing ahead of time? — a connoisseur of burn scars. My first such forays involved backpack trips to the interior of the Gila’s wilderness areas, but more recently the burns appeared inclined to come to me.
The earth where John fell to his death had burned in the Signal Fire a little more than a month earlier. His last big wildfire as a lookout, it had left another new burn scar calling out for exploration. The smoke started on Mother’s Day afternoon, when target shooters threw their spent shells in a hollow stump just off the Signal Peak Road. The heat from the cluster of shells set the stump to smoldering, and it smoldered long enough to ignite the grass and pine needles surrounding it. (The shooters slipped away and were never identified.) Aided by steady winds at thirty miles per hour and up, the grass fire quickly swept into the timber; once in the treetops it became a running crown fire, with flame lengths of fifty feet and more. These sorts of fires — started accidentally by humans — were often the hottest kind, because they tended to happen not, as with lightning, in conjunction with rain, but rather on dry, windy days, early in the season, before the summer monsoon greened the grass and brought the fuel moistures back up. On windless days the goofuses who were careless with fire tended to catch their own mistakes before the fires spread. On windy days they turned tail and ran, leaving the fight to the Forest Service.
The Signal Fire ran up the flank of the mountain in a hurry, wind-driven all the way. Only the arrival of a backdoor cold front that first night stopped it from growing ten times larger than its final tally of 5,484 acres. Overnight, the humidity rose and temperatures dropped into the twenties; more crucially, the prevailing west wind changed to a light east one, turning the fire back on itself — but not before John and Teresa were forced to flee down the mountain on foot. After their departure, the fire crested the ridge at the base of the tower, and the heat half-melted the flamingos John had arranged in wry imitation of a suburban lawn. The fire essentially died there, leaving one side of the mountain green, the other black, with malformed pink plastic birds marking the boundary.
Two weeks later, the fire was cold when three students from a local charter school flew over the burn scar in a private plane, assessing the changes to a forest transect they had laid out for a class project in eco-monitoring. It was the last thing they would do with their promising young lives. “On May 23, 2014, at 1553 mountain daylight time, a Raytheon G36 airplane, N536G, impacted terrain near Silver City, New Mexico,” the National Transportation Safety Board report stated. “The private pilot and three passengers were fatally injured. The airplane was destroyed.”
The airplane was returning from a local flight and the pilot flew a tight downwind leg for landing on runway 35, possibly due to a direct crosswind in excess of 20 knots. During the base turn, the airplane overshot the final course, and the pilot used at least 60 degrees of bank to correct the airplane back on course and over the runway. The airplane then bounced and touched down at least 20 knots above the manufacturer’s published approach speed with about 1,810 ft remaining on the runway. The airplane’s airspeed began to rapidly decrease, but then several seconds later, the airplane’s airspeed increased as the pilot rejected the landing. The airplane did not gain significant altitude or airspeed then began a slight right turn. The airplane’s roll rate then sharply increased, and the airplane quickly descended, consistent with a stall, before colliding with a transmission wire and terrain. Examination of the airframe and engine did not reveal any preimpact anomalies that would have precluded normal operation. Strong, variable, gusty wind, with an environment conducive to the formation of dry microbursts, was present at the airport at the time of the accident. Several lightning strikes were recorded in the vicinity of the accident site around the time of the accident. It is unknown if the presence of lightning or wind impacted the pilot’s inflight decision-making in the pattern, on approach, or during the attempted go-around. The circumstances of the accident are consistent with an in-flight encounter with a strong tailwind and/or windshear during climbout after the rejected landing.
John had reported the presence of the small fixed-wing near his tower that afternoon, in keeping with lookout protocol; he later reported the smoke plume from the crash, aware from the moment he saw it what it meant. The deaths of those kids, coming so soon after they had circled his tower, shook him badly. Two were 16 years old, the other 14. All were members of the Aldo Leopold High School science team, which had won the Envirothon state championship six weeks earlier. A thousand people turned out for their memorial.
The young man among them, Michael Mahl, had been a gifted guitarist who also played drums, ukulele, and mandolin; he performed most Sundays at a church in Silver City led by his pastor grandfather. The two young women, Ella Jaz Kirk and Ella Myers, had participated in a writing workshop I conducted at the school not long before their death. Ella Myers wrote a novel at the age of 12 and had been accepted at an elite film school in Chicago; Ella Kirk, the youngest, played violin and piano, wrote her own songs, and collected more than 6,400 signatures on her self-authored petition to protect the Gila River from a billion-dollar dam project cooked up by scheming bureaucrats in Santa Fe. She testified about the issue before a state legislative committee with a poise I doubt I could have matched. Those kids’ lives, seemingly limitless in their potential, were, in a way, casualties of the fire as surely as the mixed conifer on the north slope of the mountain. That John died inside the burn scar shortly after the crash only compounded the fire’s eerie aftereffects: loss layered on loss.
From the mountain one could see almost the entire burn, the pattern it had chewed across the land quite obvious: west to east, with an uphill push to the top of the divide along the southern perimeter. It was far from the most spectacular fire I had witnessed, but it had more personal resonance than most. It was to be the last smoke on which I collaborated with John; I gave him an azimuth on it from my vantage, so he could pinpoint how far north of his tower it was before he bailed off the mountain. Now, staring at the burn scar day after day up close, I felt as if I would be shirking a duty if I didn’t venture into it. One evening, after signing off the radio, I decided it was time for a walk through the ash.
It didn’t take long to discover the scene of John’s death; the smell tipped me off from fifty yards away. The body of Sundance still lay where it fell, and his bay-colored hide stood out in a landscape that was now monochrome, the bare earth and fire-scarred trees streaked and daubed with white vulture droppings, like a halfway-finished Pollock painting. John’s body had been retrieved by Forest Service friends and colleagues, but rules and regs did not call for the removal of a half-ton of horseflesh from national forestland, and the birds had made a feast of it. In the afternoons, I sometimes watched them circling the ridge southeast of the tower, as many as two dozen at a time riding thermals over the crest of the divide, spinning in languid gyres, dark against the light-blue sky — lazy-looking but never not vigilant. Sort of like lookouts.
The trail ran along a steep slope on the southern edge of the burn. Sundance had fallen hard to the downhill side, his neck bent around a charred tree trunk. In the two weeks since, his carcass had shrunk until the hide draped over the bones like a tattered blanket. Beneath that blanket, inside the rib cage, something scratched and scrabbled — something alive. I stood and listened for a while, touched in some very old way, even sort of honored to eavesdrop on the process of flesh reentering the food chain by the traditional method. The sound said all you needed to know about the pickins being slim: a dry scraping, signifying that the carcass had been worked over pretty well already. I tossed a small rock at it, then another, half-fearing the appearance of a tiny bear cub, which would imply the presence of its mother nearby.
Instead a vulture poked its head from inside the horse’s body cavity. It crawled out into the light, glanced over its shoulder at me, beat its heavy wings, and took flight through the bare branches of the ghost forest: meal interrupted.
The turkey vulture, a study in paradox: from a distance so graceful, gliding on invisible currents, air riffling its fingerlike wing tips; at close range so hideous, with its raw red head, greasy brown feathers, and contemptuous yellow eyes. Misfortune its sustenance, death what’s for dinner. “Your ass is somebody’s else’s meal,” Gary Snyder wrote, in his essay “The Etiquette of Freedom,” and more than once I had imagined my corpse — after an accidental fall from my fire tower — picked clean by Cathartes aura, ensuring my remains would soar one last time over mountains before falling back to earth as scavenger’s excrement. What can I say? The days are long in a lookout tower. But not until that moment, as I stood over the bag of bones called Sundance, had I known by name a creature who’d passed through a vulture’s digestive system.
It occurred to me to wonder whether John might have chosen the same fate, had he been given the option. It would have been like him to skip the expense of cremation.
A peculiar thing happens once you’ve been a lookout for many seasons. Radio protocol demands that you forgo your given name and identify yourself by the name of your peak. For several months each year you are not Sara Irving or Rázik MaJean, Teresa Beall or Mark Hedge, Jean Stelzer or John Kavchar; you are the name of a mountain. Mogollon Baldy. Bearwallow. Lookout Mountain. Black Mountain. Signal Peak. The longer you keep the job, the more intimately your identity becomes entwined with that mountain.
At the same time, in our shared vigilance, scattered across the sky-island ridge tops, we come to feel ourselves a part of more than just a mountain, a part of something grand and dignified, a club of splendid misfits, delightfully at odds with the drift of the culture. Eventually the voices of our fellow freaks on peaks become aural talismans, sources of comfort and connection amid a sometimes enigmatic solitude.
It’s not merely the radio that provokes this transformation. By living and working where we do we become intimate with the moods of a wild and moody place, its flora and fauna, its susceptibility to extreme weather; we discover which of the north-face snowbanks melts last, where water collects in the rainy season, which trees lure convergent lady beetles by the thousands until their bark turns a writhing orange. We learn the songs of birds and the names of flowers, the spooky thrill of monsoon-season mornings waking up inside the clouds. We discover where to find food in the time of ripeness — wild raspberries, prickly gooseberries — and where other creatures find theirs.
Our terse radio commo ratifies an evolving external reality. The work has made of the mountains a gift to us, and we honor this gift by assuming and intoning their names. John had been Signal Peak; Signal Peak had been John, for every summer of the new millennium, just as Mogollon Baldy had been Sara and Ráz, and Lookout Mountain Hedge, and Black Mountain Jean. No matter how many times I repeated those two little words, I couldn’t make them comfortable in my own voice, calling in service each morning, calling in my smoke and weather reports. I was not Signal Peak and never would be. Only John could eyeball the sky and with whimsical precision call in a morning report of 17.5 percent cloud cover. Only John could get away with naming a harmless end-of-season smoke the Jell-O Fire. To have tried such a trick would have marked me as a pretender.
His presence permeated the two hundred square feet of penthouse real estate where I cooked and slept and kept watch that June, and sometimes I had to leave the tower and wander the mountain for twenty minutes just to get away from him. He was there in the vase of plastic flowers set on the windowsill; he was there in the bag of Smokey Bear lapel pins kept handy as swag for visitors with kids. Even something as simple as a can of refried beans in the pantry reminded me of our routine for Continental Divide Trail thru-hikers, those creatures of seemingly limitless fortitude whose route brought them first to my mountain, then his, on their journey from Mexico to Canada. By the time they reached me they had traveled 100 miles through the desert — the bare beginning of their 3,000-mile journey along the spine of the Rockies. If they arrived at my tower after quitting time, I would offer a swig of tequila as we looked upon the country they had traveled to get there and the route that lay ahead. Once they returned to the trail, whether that same evening or the next morning, I would radio John and let him know visitors were on their way, ETA twenty-four hours, give or take, and he would do the prep work on a batch of nachos. We had never met a thru-hiker who wasn’t tickled by the gift economy of the Gila’s high peaks: aperitif at my tower, appetizer at John’s. All they had heard of the place were rumors of its rough beauty and its capacity for inflicting bodily punishment, and here they were, being treated like visiting dignitaries.
The moment had arrived for John to become one with the mountain. Teresa opened the plastic bag. We dipped our hands in his ashes, extracted pinches between our fingertips, let them float off below us, toward a cluster of surviving century plants. His ashes mingled there with the ashes of the Signal Fire, his final form mingling with his final major burn; within weeks, perhaps even days, a good rain would flush some of the ash and loose soil down drainage, a nutrient recharge for the banks of the creek bottoms and, for a bit of his remains, one last ride through a piece of country he had known better than nearly anyone alive.
I was surprised to find myself reminded of the Catholic masses of my childhood, when the priest, arms uplifted, would intone over the Eucharist the words of the doomed savior at his last supper: Take this, all of you, and eat, for this is my body. . . . Do this in memory of me. John had been intimate with those same rituals, and we had talked about how one is never quite a former Catholic, only a recovering Catholic, the liturgy having been absorbed on an almost molecular level by our spongy young minds. For us, the metaphors had been more enduring than the faith, none more so than those of Ash Wednesday, when our foreheads had been traced by the priest’s thumb, the cross-shaped smudge a reminder of mortality and mourning, a harbinger of what lay in store for us all:
For you are dust, and to dust you shall return . . .
Simultaneously — unprompted by word or gesture — Teresa and I each licked our fingers, wanting to take a bit of him into ourselves. I suppose some might view this as macabre, perhaps even some kind of health hazard, but we had both inhaled the smoke of huge burns, as had John during his fifteen years on the mountain. The taste of ash on the tongue was becoming more familiar all the time, as historic fires devoured the mixed conifer of the Southwestern high country. The forests would evolve and become something else — spruce and fir succeeded by aspen, pine replaced by locust and oak. What they had been for millennia was now, like John, a memento etched in flame.
As the day’s heat increased, a few proto-cumulus began to form. Teresa and I tossed another pinch of John into the air, watched the motes drift and swirl downslope on the breeze. We shared a bitter laugh at the irony of her having finally found a man she cared to stand by for the long run — only to have him maroon her at the altar in the most theatrical fashion possible.
She gestured at the sky: “Looks like you’re about to be in business.” We hugged and said good-bye, and she set off down the trail, back toward home, where she would spend the next year and a half in a longer and more complicated relationship with John’s possessions than she had with the man himself.
Her departure left me alone to the spectacle in the sky. And what a spectacle: the ancient drama of monsoon moisture streaming north off the Gulf of Mexico, meeting the furnace of the desert and rising over the mountains, the resulting cumulus clusters expanding like popcorn kernels, their bottoms slowly darkening and tendrils of virga beginning to fall, and finally the first hot flash of a ground strike in the middle distance. By midafternoon, dry lightning jabbed the mesas to the north every few seconds, and new smokes were popping up. I called in three in the span of an hour. Still unfamiliar with the terrain from John’s vantage point , I misplaced one of them by two miles. The crew sent to suppress it found it anyway, in plenty of time.
That evening, off the clock and out of service, I took a couple of pulls from the tequila bottle John had left behind. I uncapped his tube of lipstick and made myself up in the reflection of his handheld signal mirror. Lips puckered, a sad clown waiting for a hummingbird’s kiss, I couldn’t help thinking that the man I would have liked to ask about the contours of the country, the man who could have alleviated my ignorance, was forever unavailable. No longer up above the country keeping watch, he was now a part of it — and a part of me.