Amid lightning strikes and peyote dreams, "Gary" and "Jack" reunite at a 1970s Sierra fire lookout. Or maybe not.
THE LONG SUMMER TWILIGHTS, when the last of the blinding sun slid behind the Coast Range far to the west, made the little room, twelve feet by twelve and constructed of wood, seem particularly perfect. On waist-high worktables around the perimeter were his binoculars, range finders, radios and other equipment, but with his tightly made cot in one corner, a tatami mat on the floor and the chop-sticks and earthen dishes from his supper stacked to dry near the sink, it reminded him of places he’d lived in Japan—especially the one on the shoulder of Mt. Fuji.
Except the view here was better. Way better. Large glass windows formed the upper half of each wall, and perched like that on the ridge, there were no obstructions for miles in any direction. Which was the whole point, if you were Gary, sitting fire lookout in the northern Sierra, alone day after day. But these golden evenings were the best of it, the time when poems and ideas would come and he’d open the coarse grass-paper cover of his journal to capture them.
Not that he was ever really off duty. You always had to do your call-ins to begin and end the day, keep the log of temperatures, barometer readings, wind velocities and weather fronts, and note whatever you saw that was out of the ordinary. Forest fires could start anywhere, any time—vehicles or aircraft malfunctioning, people being stupid, lightning strikes—though all were more likely by day than at night. It was the breakfast campfires, not the evening ones, that got out of control and caused trouble. In the dark campers could see right away if something went haywire.
And being alone wasn’t strictly true. Hikers would show up now and then from the campground a third of a mile down slope, and according to some calendar only she knew, the Washoe shaman, Dat So Lolly, would burn sage incense on the rocky crag just north of his low tower. Yet even if someone waved or hollered hello, he didn’t invite them up. Access was restricted to Forest Service personnel, and unless it was an emergency, you got dumped for violating procedure.
Every two weeks the supply jeep bounced up the rutted track with his food order, mail, water canisters to refill the gravity tank, propane for his stove and fridge, and fresh batteries for the receivers, transmitters and auxiliary lights. Part of those guys’ job was to clomp around inspecting critical safety features like the fire extinguishers, lightning rod and ground wires, and afterwards they would talk a bit and joke about his diet, but it wasn’t something he looked forward to.
He was also eligible for relief days, when HQ would send up a sub, which he’d put in for once so far. Regardless, he had stuck close by, taking a solo hike with his backpack through the chains of lakes scattered among the granite outcrops and stands of pine to the east and north. Being a lookout was his chance to purge. He didn’t need or want people right now. He’d had lots of them in his life before and would again, as soon as fire season was over.
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by Jack Henry
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