Notes from a Fire Lookout

When I got to the fire lookout, I spent a good deal of time journaling, so instead of writing a fresh blog post, I’m just going to copy from my journal:

I am surrounded by mountains. This is a startling level of peace, sitting here in a fire lookout with 360 views of Lolo National Forest. I’ve opened the windows so a breeze can come through the screens. Also, eerie and beautiful: this fire tower is beside a huge cell tower and when the wind comes through, it sounds like the sea organ in Zadar. There is music in everything.

I’ll be honest – the drive up here was mildly terrifying. It’s 8 miles up forest roads outside the town of Superior, where I stopped to buy beer, mac n cheese, granola bars, coffee, and water. I checked in at the ranger station, partly to make sure it was safe to drive up in a storm (the woman eyed me warily) and partly to ensure someone knew I existed and would be staying alone on a mountain.


The road that got me there. Thanks, road!


The stairwell leading up to the cab.


What a view to wake up to! (PS – I ❤ my Cat’s Meow)

Of course, the perk of being near a cell tower is cell service, so for all the geographical isolation, I am still connected. I put it on airplane, though. Why do I need to check social media when I’m here?

The drive up was a doozy, along winding gravel roads potholed and rock-lined. More than once I scraped the underbelly of the car on some object. The road hugs the mountain on one side and offers steep drop-offs on the other. The bright red, low-riding Chevy that Hertz rented me was not enthusiastic, but proved up to the task. It’s parked outside now, in case anyone is wondering if someone is staying here.

These views, though! From here you can see the clouds sneaking through mountain valleys and layers of mountains, mountains on mountains, miles of mountains. Green pine mountains and snow-capped mountains and brown rocky mountains.

It’s 6pm here and 8pm in New Jersey. 3.5 hours till sunset. I’ll go check out the azimuth.


The backyard.


Sunny afternoon


You use this to take readings of where the fire is located so you can call forest service with the exact location. I say “you”, but I did not have to do this. A real lookout in a staffed tower would.


Soaking up the view with Solitaire and Moose Drool.


Sunset over the mountains.


A very cool place to sit and watch the sun go down.


My inconspicuous steed faces down a mountain.


I write by the last light of a slow sunset. It’s nearly 10pm and the sky is still pink and orange. Clouds are piled high in the west – I thought I saw lightning earlier. I hope it stays away. There’s a full moon tonight – a strawberry moon, apparently – and I would like to see it.

I passed the time between 6:30 and 9:30 by playing Solitaire and taking lots of photos. Other guests wrote in the guest book that they read about the Man Gulch Fire and found it sad. I’m curious, but I’ll look in the morning. No need to be sad right now when the world is beautiful. Also, I have a brand new sleeping bag I am so excited to use.

Also, I see a star. It’s first in the east. I wonder if it’s Venus.


Oh, another sunset pic? Sounds good.


Sunset from inside the cab. During the day, it’s like a sauna. When the sun’s down, it’s chilly.


Moonrise! And it’s a strawberry moon.


It took a long time for the moon to rise and the world to get dark. Outside, I could hear branches snapping below. The lightning storm still raged in the west, and around midnight, out of nowhere, there came a sudden howling through the cell towers, that spooky and beautiful music the wind makes.

I sat up in time to see a fog roll in on the heels of the wind. I watched it swallow the lookout on all sides. The wind shook the tower, rattled the windows. A crash from outside – this morning reveals that the screen fell over – and lightning, louder than all of it. Then came the rain. It was soothing. It was around this time – 12:30/1am – that I finally fell asleep.

The scariest part was the lightning. I read in the lookout manual that if lightning is intense, you should stand in the center of the room on an insulated stool, but the stool in my cab was metal. Also, I’m sure the guy who wrote the book I’m reading about fire lookouts told about a different lookout guy who was struck by lightning. Oh well. I survived, and hopefully none the battier.

In the morning, I played one last game of Solitaire and nursed my coffee before vacuuming the cab and the stairs. The drive back down the mountain was much less terrifying under clear, sunny skies. Forest service vehicles were chainsawing trees that had fallen during the storm. They expertly moved off-road so my tactless Chevy could pass. All the while I’m driving with an open bottle of Moose Drool in the console, a mix of unfinished beer, toothpaste spit, and coffee grinds and water I didn’t want to dump in the outhouse.

I wouldn’t say I’m brave for staying alone in a lookout for the night, but I will say that it’s worth it. The peace and the miles of unpeopled woods and mountains are all so, so worth it.


Foggy mountain sunrise with coffee.


A lovely place to write.


Lookout during the day. You can see the screen that fell during the storm.


I thoroughly enjoyed waking up here.


Here you can see part of the cell tower.


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