Mountains of Memory: A Fire Lookout's Life in the River of No Return Wildernessby Don Scheese
In Mountains of Memory, seasoned wilderness dweller Don Scheese charts a long season of watching for and fighting fires in the largest federal wilderness area in the mainland United States. In the tradition of Edward Abbey and Gary Snyder, Scheese offers readers a meditation on the meaning and value of wilderness at the beginning of the twenty-first century, painting… See more details below
In Mountains of Memory, seasoned wilderness dweller Don Scheese charts a long season of watching for and fighting fires in the largest federal wilderness area in the mainland United States. In the tradition of Edward Abbey and Gary Snyder, Scheese offers readers a meditation on the meaning and value of wilderness at the beginning of the twenty-first century, painting a complex portrait of the natural, institutional, and historical forces that have shaped the great forested landscapes of the American West.
Read an Excerptmountains of memory A Fire Lookout's Life in the River of No Return Wilderness
By DON SCHEESE
University of Iowa Press Copyright © 2001 University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One settling in
"How's our lookout doing?" asks Jack, the fire management officer (FMO) of the brush crew foreman, glancing my way. Jack is making the rounds of his fire crews out in the field in early June-the field being the two-million-acre Challis National Forest in south central Idaho. At the lower elevations in these parts (about six thousand feet above sea level) spring has arrived, but the mountains are still heavily draped in snow, the result of a wet, cold, long winter (the locals always emphasizing that last adjective). The crews get ready for fire season by working themselves into shape, repairing and replacing last season's equipment, and gathering slash from logging operations into piles to be burned in the fall when it's cold and wet.
Benny, the brush crew foreman, is an old-timer and short-timer-he's to retire at the end of this season. Although a veteran of many forest fires, he's well past the age when the FMO would actually assign him to active fire duty. So he bides his time, driving us to the many clearcut sites where we do our work and, more important, regaling us with stories about a bygone era when firefighters walked for at least a day to a fire (rather than be flown in by helicopter), fought it with only shovels and pulaskis, and lived on government C rations. Not surprisingly, Benny tolerates little whining about working conditions nowadays; if you moan about hard work his only response is, "You'd complain if they hung you with a good rope."
He responds to Jack's question by saying, "Well, we can't seem to get much work out of him 'cause he just keeps a-starin' up at the lookout." The crew members laugh and Benny's blue eyes twinkle as he looks over at me.
These are the kinds of insults lookouts must suffer before they go up on the mountain for the season.
Actually I'm enjoying the (occasional) hard work and camaraderie of the brush crew this first week back on the job. After all, I'm in the mountains again, far from the flatlands of the Midwest where for the rest of the year I live in exile as an academic. I like the hard, simple, physical nature of piling logs after nine long months spent mostly indoors reading books, teaching classes, grading papers, and attending endless meetings. There are many worse things to be than a brush monkey, which is what higher-ups in the Forest Service call the people who perform this supposedly mindless labor.
Still, much as I enjoy being out in the woods again, I'm eager to get back up on the mountain and resume my job as fire lookout. So I ask Jack when he thinks I'll be heading up.
"Oh, I'm thinking maybe next week, when Ron the packer has a day or two open in his schedule," he replies. It's six miles and twenty-four-hundred-foot elevation gain from the trailhead to the lookout, a distance which will take Ron, his helper, Abe, and a six-mule team at least a full day ("from can't see, to can't see" as Ron says) to pack, climb to the summit, unload, and return to the trailhead. Since the trail is mainly south-facing, most of the snow along the route has melted by this time. But just below the summit there is a final set of switchbacks where snowdrifts often remain into early summer, and that keeps Ron worried. "It's his call," Jack says.
Looks like it'll be another week on the brush crew then. The forecast is favorable, with no precipitation expected the next week or so, and temperatures predicted to be in the eighties in the nearby Salmon River drainage by the weekend. So I'll spend my remaining time on the ground as a brush monkey, while reflecting on how much better life will be by next week. And every now and then I'll steal glances up towards Ruffneck Peak, elevation 9,407 feet, my soon-to-be-home in the mountains for the summer.
"Don't kick me, black mule," says Ron the packer. "It's too early in the morning to get kicked." We're outside with a blue day dawning above the Seafoam guard station, where the corral and bunkhouse for the brush crew are located deep in a tributary canyon of the Salmon River. Ron, Abe, and I are herding the mules and horses onto the stock truck to be transported ten or so miles by road to the trailhead.
I'm in awe as Ron methodically packs my stuff: boxes of groceries (enough to feed me for six weeks), books, and other personal items, plus eight cubies (five-gallon plastic containers enclosed in cardboard boxes) filled with drinking water. He places several of the boxes in mannies-six-foot-square canvas sheets-then wraps them in the canvas and secures the load with elaborate knots, to be balanced and tied on to the mules. Packing is a nearly lost art due to the rise of truck and helicopter transport in the modern era, and I feel like a character in Norman Maclean's story "USFS 1919." Because the lookout is in an official wilderness, the Frank Church-River of No Return, where federal law prohibits roads and motorized vehicles, the main mode of transport is still by horse and mule, so the artistry of a packer like Ron survives. One of the many benefits of wilderness is the preservation of cultural-historical values.
But Ron is too busy and too practical to be thinking in such esoteric ways. He's more interested in getting our collective butts in gear, as we have a full day ahead of us. So before too long we're in the truck and bouncing over Vanity Summit and down to the trailhead. Soon we're out of the vehicle, unloading the mules, then loading them down with gear and supplies. Eight o'clock comes, time for an official government coffee break, but our boss gives no indication of stopping. As a practicing Mormon, Ron doesn't drink coffee and apparently sees no need for a coffee break. Nor does he swear or cuss. But he has no problem with off-color jokes. He assigns me Becky for the ride up to the lookout, a horse with the same name as the woman who is the recreation guard at Seafoam station. Ron tells me I'm gonna "ride Becky all the way up the mountain" and then laughs like hell.
The mules are strung up and ready to ride. Having ridden only twice before in my life, the last time being ten years ago, I'm understandably nervous. Abe offers reassurance, explaining that the horse assigned to me has been nicknamed Flatula because she farts so much and is really quite slow. But I keep thinking of a guy I encountered in Goat Rocks Wilderness in Washington state a decade ago who'd been crushed by his horse after it lost its footing and panicked, then fell back on him on a very steep slope. The National Guard was flown in for the rescue but the man died en route to the hospital. I still remember trying to console and keep him from lapsing into unconsciousness. Ever since, I've been leery of riding stock in the wilderness. And having seen on the topo maps of Ruffneck Peak how close the contour lines run together along the last mile or so of trail, I know we have some steep country to traverse. Maybe it'll be on foot for some of us.
The packer doesn't waste time with training sessions. Once Ron is on his horse and leading the mule train through the lower-elevation forest of lodgepole pine, it's up to me to keep up with him and Abe. Quickly I learn a few things: not to pull too tightly on the reins so as to avoid slowing the animal's gait and falling behind, and to lean backward when plunging down draws and forward when climbing. Occasionally Becky, sensing a greenhorn on her back, tries to rub me off by passing too closely to a tree, but Abe had warned me about this trick of hers so I come to learn how to steer her between trees with enough room to pass safely. We work our way around an occasional snowdrift until the timber thins out and eventually ascend above the Langer Lake basin where some deeper drifts remain and the trail starts to steepen. Ron suggests I get off and walk the horse on the steep slope where he plans to navigate around the snow-buried trail, and I happily comply. Then we're all riding again and in two hours are at the summit. We've had to walk only the last fifty feet of trail where the snow, several feet deep and softened by the morning sun, has Ron concerned about high-centering the stock. We dismount there and lug the cargo the rest of the way. The snow is firm enough to support human weight, so the going isn't too bad.
I've gained some valuable insight into horseback riding. Because you're higher off the ground on a horse, you have a better vantage point. Riding is also less strenuous than hiking with a heavy pack, so you can keep your head up and see more. And it's certainly faster than walking-not that speed is the ultimate goal of wilderness travel. There are legitimate ecological concerns over the impact of horses on the backcountry, of course, given the overgrazing that occurs around campsites and the increased erosion on trails resulting from stock use. But I now feel I could defend the use of these animals in the wilderness much better than I could have prior to the ride up. The horse, exotic species though it may have been (introduced by the Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s in the Southwest), is a venerable, practical, and relatively quiet form of transport in the wilderness, not to mention a historical and colorful part of the history of the American West. Its use ought therefore to be preserved, along with the woods and the mountains.
Ron wastes no time in unpacking. He grabs a bite to eat and points out a few of the local landmarks to help orient me to my new surroundings. Then, removing his work glove for a farewell handshake, he says very earnestly, "You have a good summer, hear?" I thank him for taking such good care of me and my supplies. In keeping with the laconic male Western tradition, we have nothing more to say to each other.
I watch Ron and Abe ride down the trail till they disappear below the summit. Then I turn around to unbutton the lookout cabin.
Only then am I reminded of the powerful silence and solitude that come with living atop a mountain. It shouldn't take me by surprise, of course, since this is my tenth summer as a lookout. In fact, the absence of noise is one of the things I treasure most about this way of life. Yet the silence is also one of the hardest things to reaccustom myself to after spending the past nine months, and most of my life, in what Edward Abbey has called "syphilization." A life spent in places where dissonance is the rule, not the exception.
Actually, it's not so much silence I confront up here on the mountaintop, but stillness. For there are sounds: the occasional wind through the white-bark pines; the "phee-bee" of a mountain chickadee; the far-off roar of a creek. What is different, and so appealing, about life as a lookout is the absence for the most part of anthropogenic noise. Free of human-caused sounds, different landscapes produce different kinds of stillness, what environmental musicologists refer to as "the music of a place." R. Murray Schafer in The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World employs the term keynote to designate the "sonic ground" of a particular environment, its signature sounds. There is a certain sound to the prairie-say, wind passing through crinkly grasses, the intermittent, melodic call of a meadowlark. There is a different sound to the north woods-wind whooshing through the soft needles of a stand of white pines, the laving of lake water along a shore, the plaintive yodeling of a loon. There's yet another kind of stillness in the desert, where the sound of wind passing over rock and sand and expanses nearly empty of vegetation predominates. On alpine summits like this one, there's a sound having to do with mountains and trees and endless horizons-and the nearly ever-present wind. Looking up stillness in my American Heritage Dictionary, I read, along with the definition ("the state or an instance of being quiet or calm"), this accompanying statement by Barry Lopez: "The stillness that permeates the valleys is visual as well as acoustical." I glance up from the page and see in the basin below an immense carpet of conifers bending with the breeze. The wind then rushes up the slopes of the mountain and the trees sway gracefully around the lookout. I hear the elemental sound of wind whooshing in the pines. It is one of the keynotes of this place.
I should be unpacking gear and opening up the cabin, but I'm distracted by these sounds and thoughts. Save the practical, the quotidian, for later. First things first. Like the view: this cloud-free, early spring day in June, I can see a hundred miles in some directions. It's a mountain megalopolis: the Stanley Sawtooths and White Cloud ranges to the south, the Wallowas in Oregon to the northwest, the Bighorn Crags to the northeast, and the Lost River Range to the southeast. Plus many sub-ranges closer to home like yonder Tangos (a local appellation), peaking out at just over ten thousand feet. Mountains and more mountains, cut and carved by rivers over billions of years. Every man needs a horizon, said Emerson. Here, I have an abundant supply.
How often do we get to fulfill our dreams? It depends in part on the nature of our dreams, I suppose. For as long as I can recall I wanted to live in the mountains. Why? For the views; because the gods lived there in Greek and Roman mythology; because Indian braves fasted on them to have a vision; because Romantic writers like Thoreau climbed them for religious, intellectual, and aesthetic reasons; because it's a cool thing to do. Now that I've managed to arrange my life so that I can spend my summers on a mountaintop, I feel immensely gratified.
Last week before coming up I had an interesting talk with Becky, the recreation guard who lives and works at Seafoam. A native Idahoan, born and raised in the mountains, she has worked for the Forest Service for a number of seasons. Somehow we got on the subject of free will versus determinism. She argued for the latter, claiming that mountains represented forces beyond human control that compelled people (like her) to come back to them again and again. Though a diehard proponent of free will, I had to see her point. After all, I myself was yet further proof of the lure of the mountains, just as some folks can't seem to leave the plains or desert or sea coast. Do people have innate preferences for certain types of landscapes? If so, why? There may be something to sociobiologist E. O. Wilson's theory of "biophilia"-literally, love of life. One aspect of Wilson's theory has to do with preferred landscapes. According to some psychological studies, the landscape of choice for many subjects is one with trees and open views from a promontory near water. Perhaps, Wilson has theorized, the desire for openness is traceable to our emergence as a species on the savannas of Africa several million years ago, where in order to survive we utilized our keen powers of vision and our ability to stand on hind legs in order to keep a wary eye out for predators. I have often wondered about humanity's love of prospects, the desire to see the world from the highest point around. Is our love of mountaintops a pre-Romantic phenomenon, an atavistic practical instinct?
The prospects up here are liberating and alluring, that much I know.
A snapping wind awakens me from my reveries. It's clear and sunny but at ninety-four hundred feet in June the temperature, with a brisk wind, must be in the fifties. I grab an anorak from my pack and pull it over my upper body. Much better. Now come the ritual moving-in chores: opening, cleaning, and stocking the cabin.
First I prop open the plywood shutters that protect the four walls of glass that make up the fourteen-by-fourteen-foot cabin. Next I slide open some windows-not an easy task since they have been shut for eight months-to ventilate my living space. What was just a dark cave becomes a well-lighted (if not yet clean) room: sunshine floods the cabin with all four shutters up. Already the space is feeling more comfortable, almost homey. I sweep the sills, shelves, and floor (lots of mouse turds), then empty part of one of the cubies into a galvanized bucket and mop the place clean with antiseptic. Between the fresh air, Lysol, and warm light the place becomes alive, vital. Once I've stocked the shelves and cabinets with canned and dry goods, stowed the perishables in a large metal garbage can in a nearby snowbank (my refrigerator), put my few articles of clothing and miscellaneous personals into the drawers beneath the bed, and placed my books and old typewriter on the table, the house has been transformed into my home.
I'm inhabiting the mountains again.
Excerpted from mountains of memory by DON SCHEESE Copyright © 2001 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission.
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