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Each June, about the time most people think of vacations and many begin moving to the seashore, a few hundred strangely assorted Americans head for the high mountains and great forests of the land. Their stated purpose is to help prevent forest fires. But what they really have in mind is the ultimate get-away-from-it-all, an escape into the blissful solitude of a delightful little wilderness penthouse—a U.S. Forest Service lookout station. Helping to prevent forest fires is merely the price they must pay for their room with a view. Early each September out they come again, and from their stories one wonders if the solitude is all that blissful, the price that mere or the penthouse that delightful; there are, it seems, a few trials and even some tribulations.
To begin with, the living quarters are a bit cramped—12 to 14 feet square—and are nestled atop towers anywhere from 10 to 100 feet high. Fuel, food, water and all other supplies needed to sustain an easy life must be toted by hand up the stairs, which can seem interminable. The sanitary facility is 50 yards off in the bushes, and the nearest source of water may be a mile or more down the mountain. During storms the higher towers have a tendency to sway sickeningly, lightning strikes with un-monotonous regularity a few feet from where the lookout is sitting (or kneeling) and balls of weird blue "fire" from time to time sizzle about the place like water on a hot skillet. The lookouts are assaulted by insects, besieged by beasts, seared by the sun, chased by forest fires and, perhaps worst of all, tortured incessantly by the monstrous silence. This is to say nothing of the work, but, as one lookout suggests, the work consists largely of being there.
The experiences of the Forest Service suggests that no particular kind of individual is ideally suited to life in a tower suite, and the recruits who show up for training early each summer prove to be a strangely mixed lot: prim lady schoolteachers, college professors, ministers' wives, loggers, vacationing businessmen, farmers, grandmothers, coeds, honeymooners, old marrieds, beauty queens, students, female truck drivers, ex-marines and cooky-baking housewives; in short, just about anyone who can shake off the fetters of routine life for three months.
Newlyweds long ago discovered that lookout towers make private places for honeymoons, and each forest usually has at least one couple launching its marriage atop a peak. Rangers, reluctant marriage counselors that they are, generally avoid pointing out to the couples that if a marriage can survive a summer in a lookout tower it can survive almost anything. Their fervent hope is that the rocks the marriage may be headed for won't be those at the foot of the tower. Familiarity may or may not breed contempt, but there is no doubt that the tiny cabins breed profuse amounts of familiarity. Paul Wilson, dispatcher for the Coeur d'Alene ( Idaho) National Forest, recalls one couple that stopped speaking to each other 15 minutes after being moved into their cabin. "Right then I knew it was going to be a long, hard season," says Paul. "And it was, for all concerned."
But whatever small apprehensions the honeymooners may create for the rangers, newlyweds almost always turn out to be highly competent and dedicated fire lookouts, not to mention a source of considerable humor. Visitors to one of these bridal towers listened in fascination recently as a blue-jeaned bride gave her impressions about honeymooning on a lookout platform: "One thing I've noticed is that the days seem so long and the nights so short!" Her stricken husband hastened to explain that this was because the tower was the highest point in the mountains and was, consequently, the first thing the sun's rays touched in the morning and the last in the evening. The nights actually were shorter.
The Forest Service likes to man its towers with married couples whenever possible. For one thing, the lookouts are not so lonely; they can break the monotony by making either love or war. For another, the Government gets two pairs of eyes for the price of one. The husband is paid for the five weekdays and the wife for Saturday and Sunday. In practice, of course, the husband and wife are both in the tower most of the time and are therefore both watching for fires most of the time. As one official points out, "There just isn't that much else to do."
Sometimes the lookouts are single women. Last summer 23 of the 233 stations in the Northern Region were operated by female fire spotters. The consensus among rangers is that they do an excellent job, frequently surpassing the men. "They are more observant," says a ranger. "They hold their interest well in what can be a monotonous job, and they keep meticulous records. They also keep their quarters in much better condition." One girl, a coed from Idaho State University "who didn't know a meadow bottom from a ridge top," was assigned to an observation cab atop a 100-foot steel tower overlooking a vast area of the Nezperce National Forest. Not only did she adapt quickly and well to this awesome place of work, within two weeks she had memorized the names of every ridge and water drainage in sight. Other women operate the complex network of stations that serve as communications centers for the Forest Service and various other state and federal agencies.
Although men are preferred in stations where smoke chasing and fire fighting may be a part of the duties, the Lava Butte station in the Deschutes National Forest in Oregon was once manned by a lady who did all her own fire fighting. Having formerly worked on a tugboat, she was known, naturally, as "Tugboat Annie." She further endeared herself to the foresters by smoking cigarettes in a long, elegant holder, which she would use to point out various features of the landscape to any occasional visitors.
Many of the women return year after year. Mrs. Carol Sopher, the only woman lookout in the Bitterroot National Forest of Montana last year, has spent 17 summers in fire towers, and Dorothy Taylor, a former schoolteacher, has worked for nearly 20 years in Montana's Lolo National Forest.
Not only are the rangers pleased to see the ladies return, so are the squirrels and chipmunks that live in the rocks around the stations, for they receive a lot of maternal care. One lady fire watcher baked sugar cookies every day to feed to the golden-mantled squirrels around her station, and by summer's end she could bring them running by calling, "Here, kitty, kitty, kitty!" Another lady lookout fed her chipmunks hotcakes daily. "By the end of summer," says a ranger, "they were so fat they looked like marmots."