Although fire lookouts continue to be critical front-line components of our forest system’s battle to detect and prevent wildfires, their roles often times go unnoticed, due largely to both the manual nature of the work involved and the quiet, extremely solitary nature of the working environment. Leif Haugen is a fire lookout in a remote corner of the Flathead National Forest in northwestern Montana, and each summer he lives and works alone on top of a mountain three miles from the Canadian border. A simple, somewhat primitive one-room structure serves as both his home and office; however, what it may lack in amenities (neither electricity nor running water are available) is more than compensated for by the majestic, 360-degree views of the world that his perch provides. With only a remote radio to keep him connected to the outside world, Leif’s primary responsibility is to scan the valley floor for any signs of destructive fire activity – one which calls for enduring long stretches of tedium and an eagle’s eye and quick response the moment fire is spotted or lighting strikes in the distance. There are approximately 500 active lookouts currently operating in some of the most rugged and desolate outposts of the American West. The Lookout captures both the critical nature of one fire lookout’s work as well as the life of quiet, contemplative solitude which accompanies his job.
Re-reading The Dharma Bums, which is making me feel old and weary with its faux-naivety and its golden-glow masking of the general cuntery of the protagonists involved; but every so often the odd bit of magic will shine through – particularly in the mountain scenes, which still have a simple joy about them, however forced. The odd bit like this, which comes after their moonlit descent of the Matterhorn:
We got in the car and drove back to San Francisco drinking and laughing and telling long stories and Morley really drove beautifully that night and wheeled us silently through the graying dawn streets of Berkeley as Japhy and I slept dead to the world in the seats. At some point or other I woke up like a little child and was told I was home and staggered out of the car and went across the grass into the cottage and opened my blankets and curled up and slept till late the next afternoon a completely dreamless beautiful sleep. When I woke up the next day the veins in my feet were all cleared. I had worked the blood clots right out of existence. I felt very happy.