A few months ago I was reading through The Paris Review when I came across a story called Diary of a Fire Lookout by Philip Connors (you can read an excerpt online, and maybe find it at the library to read the rest). It’s a diary of the authors time spent as a fire lookout in the rugged Gila National Forest in New Mexico.
Fire lookouts are becoming more and more rare as modern technology encroaches upon the task of spotting forest fires. Which is sad because some of my favorite writers spent summers high up in a lookout tower thinking, writing, and watching for signs of smoke. Kerouac’s Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels. Ed Abbey’s Black Sun. Doug Peacock spent some time as fire lookout after Vietnam, I’m not sure that he ever wrote about it, but it probably helped clear his head and help him to readjust.
As Connors’s story shows, not all fire lookout towers have been shuttered, but most aren’t in service anymore. The Forest Fire Lookout Association has a list of links to retired lookout towers available for rent, most from the US Forest Service.
A recent article in the UT talks about the old fire lookout tower on Palomar Mountain reopening to be staffed by volunteers.
There’s something romantic about fire lookout towers, spending all that time in the woods. The solitude. The open space. The few journeys into town, via steep mountain trails, to get supplies. The chance encounters with passing hikers. Connors’s story captures the mood perfectly.
Posted in environment, literature, outdoors
Tagged black sun, desolation angels, dharma bums, diary of a fire lookout, doug peacock, ed abbey, fire lookout towers, fire lookouts, jack kerouac, philip connors, the paris review
I went camping at William Heise County Park in Julian this past weekend. It being December and all, I was a little worried about the cold, but when I looked up the weather forecast I realized that December in the Cuyamacas is like July in the Sierra Nevada. I’d never been to William Heise Park, I guess the fact that it is so close to Julian and a county park rather than state park always kept me away. I was a little bummed we weren’t driving the extra hour out to Anza Borrego, but was looking forward to checking out the area around Julian.
Driving east on I-8 we decided to stop by the new(ish) Liars Club in Alpine. I always liked the Liars Club because they had a ton of good beer on tap, but I didn’t like the bar itself. It was pretty small and in Mission Beach. Well, the new location in Alpine isn’t much better, but the building itself is a lot better. There was plenty of seating and the same friendly bartender serving good beer and giving samples of stuff he thought I’d like.
Back on the road we were heading up Highway 79 past Lake Cuyamaca when I drove over a newly paved patch of road. I realized this is where there used to be a grate in the road. What I always assumed was a cow grate. Cows won’t walk over grates, so this was an easy way to keep them from moving too far. It made me wonder if those grates are now unnecessary because no one is raising cattle out there any more, it made me wonder if it’s becoming suburbanized. I was a little disenfranchised by this. But what happened later more than made up for it.
We got to the campground and met up with Kinsee’s friends. As we were sitting around the slowly dying fire before calling it a night, we some movement in the distance. As our eyes adjusted from looking away from the fire we could tell it was a group of deer. About five of them only 10 meters away in the meadow watching us. They moved around for a while but kept their eyes on us for quite some time. Even though we could hardly see them it was exciting, this was only the second time I’ve seen deer in San Diego and it made me hopeful that maybe the San Diego backcountry is still a little wild after all. There was no cloud cover the first night so the stars were quite the sight as well. Nothing like the dessert of Sierra’s, but a lot more than we can see in the city nightly.
The next morning we were awoken by a lot of loud birds and even some wild turkeys. My brother warned me that they were mean, but when trying to photograph them they just ran away from us.
We went a couple short hikes, one to a desert viewpoint above highway 79. It was a clear day and we could see all the way to the Pacific Ocean to the west and to the Salton Sea to the east. The view of the desert wasn’t as good as from some of the mountains off Sunrise Highway were the drop from mountains to desert happens, but it was a great view.
That night we were supposed to go to the Observer’s Inn, a home made/DIY of sorts observatory outside Julian. I was told it’s a two hour lecture/show by a retired engineer that loves astronomy and has five telescopes setup in his observatory. Sadly the weather turned bad and clouds rolled in obstructing the view, so we didn’t go. It sounded like a good time though.
The camping was good at William Heise, we had almost the whole campground to ourselves. There isn’t too much hiking from the campground, but it made for a relaxing weekend.
Rattlesnake in Anza Borrego
Until recently I wasn’t planning on being anywhere near a desert this fall/winter, I had plans to move to Seattle and enjoy some rain and real weather. Well things change and now with no thoughts of leaving San Diego, I’ll be here for “desert season” (I always feel funny saying that, because most people assume that means I’m going four-wheeling or dirt bike riding).
Anza Borrego State Park might be my favorite place on earth (for semi-short periods of time that is). I love the feeling of freedom, there’s plenty of wide open space and very few people. I love the way the landscape looks, and how there are so many different types of landscapes across the desert. In the morning you can be hiking through a rocky mountainous area, in the evening spelunking through caves and camping on a sandy wash in the bandlands just a few miles away.
Seeing a bighorn sheep in the wild has been one of the high points of my life (seriously!)
Speaking of bighorn sheep, they’re being threatened by the US Federal Government on multiple fronts. First, the Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed reducing the designated habitat by 55%. Read more about it here.
And then there’s the new border fence they’re looking to build on the Mexico/US border. No one knows what measures (if any) will be taken to ensure that bighorns in the US can mingle and breed with bighorns in Mexico. Building a giant wall through the desert could have disastrous effects on the bighorn sheep in both countries. Read more about the border wall and it’s effect on desert animals here.
A couple of my extended family members (both of whom I sadly don’t know well enough) have devoted their entire adult lives to Anza Borrego, and restoring the bighorn sheep population in the area specifically.
I’m already counting down the days until the temperature drops enough to enjoy the days out in the desert. I know that November is about the earliest time of year one can be comfortable hiking around during the day, but I also know I’m anxious and I’ll probably end up out there in the 100 degree heat sometime much sooner than that.
More pictures from some of my adventures in the desert can be seen on flickr.