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.
Dat So was the exception. She claimed to be seventy years old, and ragged clothes or not, had a natural dignity, wasn’t much of a talker and brought him rainbow trout from her illegal camp at Blue Lake to go with the rice, miso soup and vegetables he usually ate. Her incense burns he deliberately omitted from the log, because fire was fire and she wasn’t supposed to do it. Still, her little wads of tied-up sage seemed harmless on rock like that, and she was good about sheltering them from the wind. He always went down to share a word or two, even when she didn’t stop at the base of the stairs holding a fish wrapped in alder leaves.
With night now closing in and stars beginning to show, he quit editing the poem about trail building he’d jotted down earlier, did his call-in, checked the weather instruments, made his final log entries for August 13, 1970, and marked a new page with tomorrow’s date. Ideally, it would be as uneventful as today, but there was something humid in the air and an odd blip on the barometer that made him wonder. Clear skies all around, though, and a half-moon slated to rise in a couple of hours, but it could be they were headed for thunderstorms and all hell would break loose. He’d radioed in three small fires this month already. Storms could even happen at night, when every lightning jab looked like it would start a fire whether it struck anything or not.
Returning from a trip to the tiny outhouse, positioned so your butt hung virtually off the cliff, he watched the rolling expanse of forested ridges in the west turn from hazy green to rumpled black in the fading light, while alpenglow on the barren, snow-streaked peaks to his south and east waned away into shadows. This was what he lived for, this sense of vastness. Then he laid out his morning tea things and got ready for bed. His goal was to live by the sun—sleep right after it set and wake just at dawn. Night also meant a brief yoga regimen on the tatami before he crawled in, and getting up meant zazen followed by calisthenics on that same mat.
In his cot, as sleep took hold, he knew the whole sky above his roof would soon become an intricate, glinting diamond pavé. He also heard in the distance the horn of a train, grinding up through Yuba Gap, where the new Highway 80 and the hundred-year-old railway carved parallel gashes across the ridgeface. Again, all part of the routine, and he let himself go deeply under.
by Anthony Spaeth