And after I got laid off from my teaching job in Michigan, I moved out to Portland and lived on unemployment and savings for almost two years, running my credit union accounts almost down to zero searching for another gig. When that didn’t happen, I decided to try working a summer seasonal job again, fighting wildfires with the Forest Service like I’d done when younger. But then I saw announcements for fire lookout positions: Oh yeah, I’d always wanted to do that. Why did I never do that? So I applied to a bunch all over the American West, though partial to the southwest both for the longer season (and therefore more money) and my desert ratness. I even had a moment of humor applying for lookout towers on the Tonto National Forest where I’d worked off and on, thinking wouldn’t it be funny if I ended up in my hero Ed Abbey’s old tower on Aztec Peak? And lo! The AMFO for Pleasant Valley District called and offered me that exact tower, to start in a few weeks. How could I not accept?
I rushed around getting rid of my apartment and storing all my stuff at my sister’s, and got on the road—down through Utah and over the Grand Canyon at Navajo Bridge to Flagstaff pines, the whole trip a flashback to all my old firefighting haunts. Down off the Mogollon Rim back into Payson where I never thought I’d ever be again but was, driving east and south over to Young, Arizona, the place I always said I’d never ever want to work for or on because remote and the people weird. Now I was one of the weirdoes. And weird to be spending the night with all the young firefighters still gung ho to go out and play with chainsaws and pulaskis. Go to it boys and girls!
After a day of sexual harassment training videos and filling out forms, my new boss sent me back up to Colchord Lookout just off the Mogollon Rim to get my “training” from Denny, who had never been a lookout (LO) before either and in fact had never even worked as a firefighter, but had grown up right down the road and was living his dream by working in a tower he’d been in as a child. I already knew most of the stuff in theory, more familiar with radios and weather-taking instruments than he was, and the next day my boss sent me up to Aztec Tower all by myself, with just a key and “have fun”—odd and not the only time I’d feel that way about her and others there that summer—driving an hour south uphill on a wide dirt road through the piñon and juniper and pondos and left on Workman’s Creek Road, a winding two-track just barely accessible by 2 wheel drive at some points and, when the road leveled off into a sort of big bowl area, there on the left was a battered grey trailhead sign saying:
Aztec LO 2 miles
After years of reading and re-reading Abbey, I was finally literally on Abbey’s Road! As it continued on up, getting tighter and narrower, a couple of spots I sort of gulped at the drop-off—but the view! Miles of open space and air, truck windows down, the long-lost familiar smell of pine and dirt and juniper. Leveling out on top of Aztec Butte, there it was: rising 50 feet up on thin steel girders like an old-fashioned erector set sculpture: The tower! Squarebox room on top, metal catwalk, stairs up the middle, surrounded by scrub and grass and red sandstone and some scraggly ponderosa trees.
And the wind! Twenty miles an hour at least, in early May. Sun bright but at 8700′ air still cool. I climbed up the narrow metal stairs and unlocked the government lock with my government key and pushed the trapdoor open, crawling up and standing on the catwalk, hands on the rail, hundred mile views in almost every direction—at first not even sure which direction I was staring since my bearings were all whacked from the loop-dee-loo road twists up, but I found familiar landmarks: The Mogollon Rim to the north at about the same elevation, a long green line blocking the horizon, and to the southwest the unmistakeable Four Peaks, though I was used to seeing them from the other side. And a little sliver of smoggy Phoenix just barely visible to the left off the backside of the Flat Iron in the Superstition Mountains, with the open pit copper mines to the south near Glob and Miami and blue shiny curve of the Salt River where I’d been a river ranger one winter, along with slices of Roosevelt Reservoir (I refuse to call it a lake)—familiar territory all of it, though none from this POV, from this height! I’d get acquainted with more places later using my maps and Fire Finder, like the whole eastern hills and valleys section which was all Rez land—Aztec tower being almost at the farthest eastern boundary of the Tonto National Forest, itself one of the biggest national forests in the country and extending far west beyond the Mazatzals, butting up against I-17.
Moment of truth: I turned on my handheld radio and keyed the mic: “Phoenix, Aztec, in service.”
Hearing the familiar but surprised voice of Amos, a long time dispatcher down at the SO in Mesa, who’d been around back when I started fighting fires almost 20 years ago (!). “Uh, Aztec, Phoenix copies. In service.”
Bringing my few needful things up, the climb putting me out of breath (every time for the rest of the summer) and making my new home habitable—small bed in the northwest corner, counters on the south and west walls, including the spot where Abbey typed on his typewriter, made famous by the posed photo of him there most recently included in American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau, edited by Bill McKibben, a monstrous big book which I’d brought along to read that summer.
And a fridge that didn’t work, sink that didn’t drain, and a space where the old stove used to be, all of them would eventually get up and running by July—just another weirdness to be overcome, though I came expecting who knows what, something maybe closer to Kerouac’s Desolation experience, but electricity at least, off solar panels on top of the radio shack below, lucking out more than most of the other LOs because Aztec is also a radio repeater station for the whole Forest and the Gila County Sheriff Department, so a priority because of safety and communication—plenty of juice for when I finally would break down and start using my computer, whereas Jean over in MacFadden Lookout only had one small panel barely powering her government cellphone, which itself barely worked, like mine, and which was another weirdness on the list. If I’d simply not had a phone I wouldn’t have complained, but having one and everyone expecting it to work made me want it to work and in fact later when it did, at least on clear nights when I stood right in front of the installed booster, I could talk to friends and feel human….
And if I’d thought Aztec would be like Kerouac’s Desolation, I was soon shown different when that very afternoon, a Saturday, ten different parties (not people—groups) drove up to the tower, which I would learn would be normal—the road open to all vehicles and one hour from Glob, two from Phoenix, and with the Forest charging fees for a lot of its lower-elevation rec areas closer to the city, Aztec tower was (or had become) a popular destination place, perhaps understandable since its cool pines were a relief from the godawful heat, but still, something seemed odd about people driving two hours one way past all kinds of trails and creeks and arroyos and forest to come to the top of a mountain and climb a manmade structure—there were plenty of good views from areas on Aztec Butte itself, and for that matter from other mountains in the area with roads, but still, that additional fifty feet did allow for a 360 degrees view and it was amazing and at first I was just happy to be there, proud too to be a lookout and show off my job to folks, sincerely wanting to share and help people see the beauty, especially the younger kids.
As for Abbey, legends still floated around about him, even though it’d be maybe thirty years or more since he’d been there (I never did quite pinpoint the dates)—Denny over at Colchord had talked to older Forest Service employees who mentioned wild parties there, and that Abbey was a womanizer based apparently on the fact that beautiful women had been witnessed. Also that Abbey was a grouch and could be rude to people. Or, to men. He apparently always liked women visitors, as would I, and an old retired FMO later in the summer still seemed irked that his wife had gone up in the tower to talk with Abbey, though when asked why he didn’t go up too, he just scowled.
Though Abbey wrote a whole novel, Black Sun, based on his time at a tower on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, he only wrote maybe three essays about Aztec, the focus never on the tower or his life, really, but about the joys of birding (which, yeah, there were plenty of birds) and meeting a bear one time, and about days off down in Glob. He was already published and ‘famous’ when he took the job, with some novels already out and Desert Solitaire a best seller.
Supposedly—again, rumours—he worked on The Monkey Wrench Gang here which, if true, then I don’t doubt that he might have been a little grouchy with people interrupted him since, to my mind and I’m sure his, since being a LO is really about just being there when actual fires happen, it’s secondary to the writing (or any creative activity)—nothing more annoying than being at work on something, being in the text, and someone interrupts, and then having to actually talk to a human being. Which happened a lot that summer. And to which people, even—especially—some Forest Service employees, will say, Well, come on, your job is to be in that tower and be Ranger John. To which I say no, I’m not a ranger nor a park interpreter, I’m a fire lookout, and though I’d always try and be polite, public contact is only supposed to be to the comfort level of the LO, and set by individual district policy. Some of the other LOs had No Visitor policies, and/or gates to keep people from just driving on up. But no one on my district seemed to care about my comfort level at all—the opposite almost, good frontline PR with the anti-government public.
With fire season already in full swing (I’d come up later than the other LOs and firefighters), I was immediately working ten hour days, twelve on weekends, which is a long time to sit in a box, even with the view, I set up a routine, blocking off my days: up at seven, go in service with Phoenix, yoghurt and Grape Nuts breakfast, and most of all my green tea, which I sipped all day regardless of temperature (two different friends sent care packages of loose leaf). Mornings were for poetry—I’d read poetry for an hour or so, and/or write it, and how often do we allow ourselves time to read poetry for hours? Just pouring over various modern and old-school anthologies, at first inside with the wind howling but later in the summer out on the shady west side, watching hawks hover eye-level, hunting, or the crows doing the same just for the fun of it. Hummingbirds buzzing in and staring, expecting something, probably having been fed by previous LOs.
Nine o’clock all the towers called into Dispatch with their weather observations. Usually I’d be ready for it, and maybe even have done some yoga and had First Lunch of peanut butter sandwiches, but sometimes I’d become absorbed in a text, writing or reading, and blissfully lose track of time, and so scramble when I heard Dee over on Diamond Point call in, which she always did reliably at ten to, giving me time to scramble out an Rh with my sling cyclometer—Dee being another long-timer who I’d heard on the radio back in my firefighting days.
Then three hours in which I’d switch to my non-fiction reading, like Montaigne or Plato—my “serious” “scholarly” time, where I’d also sometimes write my own essays, sometimes fiction (short—no novels burbling in me that summer) and the first month I just enjoyed the wind and birdsong, and wrote by hand, but after I busted out the computer to write some graphic novel reviews, cranking up the iTunes seemed natural, and after that, jazz flowed—Mingus, Monk, Horace Silver, John Coltrane, until the time for Second Lunch arrived, when I’d switch to rock or metal to sing along to while I made rice and beans.
Late mornings were usually when Visitors arrived, and I capitalize them like Whitley Strieber’s aliens because they just did not seem human, or maybe it was me, but all freshly showered with clean clothes and generally chubby pale city skin (in Arizona!). They mostly came on the weekends, though cue Newt from Aliens: “Mostly.”
Sometimes, a lot of times, on good-weather days during the week too. I later talked with most of the other LOs and confirmed that no other tower got as many as Aztec. Even Denny in Colchord, five miles from state highway 260 and two miles from a popular campground, didn’t. Why? Why drive two hours from Phoenix here? Abbey’s legacy? No, not at all. Most had no idea who he was. A lot thought Aztec just wasn’t manned, since over the years one long-time LO, post-Abbey (who shall go unnamed) apparently (again, rumours) would just take off for hours on his dirt bike, to “patrol.” When the Forest Service finally had to fire him for that, and cutting down trees so as to have a better view while painting his truck, they tried just manning the tower with district employees during high lightning periods, which btw may have created a jealous rift between me and one of the engine captains who was supposed to be in charge of maintaining the tower and taking care of me, but who did neither, perhaps resenting losing his tranquil days up there (though that’s only what I inferred later)(he was also just kind of a dick, though to be fair I’m sure he felt the same way about me).
In any case, many Visitors seemed surprised to see me, many in a passive-aggressive way. Like, “I didn’t think anyone would be here!” or “You live up here?” Which some days was bearable and some days grew to be annoying, especially when I couldn’t get a nap in, which I could usually kinda do, leaving the radio on and able to jump out of bed if I heard the name Aztec. Don’t judge: you’d do it too.
To clear the brain and get the muscles moving a little, for my real half-hour off-the-clock lunch, I’d take my mid-day stroll—never anywhere far, being on top of a mountain. Down the road to the east side cliff, farthest point away from the tower, and a great view of the unpopulated Rez, and ignored by daytripper Visitors, though the best place to camp up on top. And/or over to Flintstones campsite, so-called from the chairs and tables made out of rock, post-Abbey. And out on the big sandstone cliff—all barefoot of course: the best part of that summer was being barefoot all the time, which I didn’t find out until my end of season eval was cause of great concern and consternation among the district employees. Actual quote from my boss: “You could injure yourself.” That plus apparently another rumour claimed I was running around naked. Which I think is what people wanted to believe. They want to believe lookouts are crazy.
Afternoons were for music and reading. Playing my guitar every day, singing Beatles and Dylan. After much temptation I bought a cheap mandolin in Glob and taught myself how to play. And when playing music was done, I’d read fiction: short stories but mostly longer stuff, like Kerouac’s Desolation Angels, Hemingway’s Fiesta (plus his Collected Short Stories) (all for like the third time) and who knows what else: Bolaño’s 2666, anything I could find in the small Glob library, or that friends sent me, or graphic novels sent my editor at Comics Bulletin. Random stuff, some of which I might never have read otherwise back in civilization.
If I’d gotten whatever writing I would do for the day done in the morning, then Visitor visits were less annoying, and in fact sometimes I even actually felt like talking to people. Still, there were just a surprising number of grumpy passive-aggressives who 1. either resented that fact that I had a job like this where I could just sit and play my guitar all day, or 2. resented a government presence out there. To be clear: they didn’t mind the tower, they just didn’t want a federal employee there. Some would camp out overnight, and though some of those were people I’d even might want to hang out with, they still camped at Flintstones, so I’d have to hear and see them the whole time, and be completely visible to them. My standard response to being out in the woods or on a mountain is to want solitude, but they didn’t seem to mind or resent the big old lit up tower in their wilderness experience. I think they thought of the place as almost an official campground. And I was Ranger John.
The three worst visitations happened in one day: first a group of hunter-wanna-bes/survivalists/potential-armed-occupiers came up mid-afternoon in (I kid you not) a Ford Escort painted camouflage with rifles mounted on a rack on top. It was not yet hunting season, but all three of them were decked out in camo and military boots, with pistols strapped to their belts. I wanted nothing to do with them, so tried to politely say that the tower was closed to the public. They didn’t like that, and one of them ran to the stairs yelling, “I’m coming up!” Not until I came out on the catwalk holding my radio did their leader stop grinning and call his friend off. Meaning if I hadn’t had a radio, they probably would have fucked with me. But, they left.
And almost immediately after, a party of youngsters came up to party at the Flintstones campsite. First thing they did was pull out a large cooler of beer, yelling and laughing. They came over to the tower, one of the young men showing off the tower to the young women. All of them carrying beers. I again said that the tower was closed, which they did not like, and I heard the rooster-leader say as he walked away that they’d just come up in the tower that night after I was gone. Well, I wasn’t going to be gone, and didn’t like the thought of night visitors, so called my boss about both parties. She, to her credit, called the Forest Law Enforcement Officer (LEO) though he, and any other FS employee, was an hour and a half away from me. Then! while he was in route, an older ‘gentleman’ arrived up Abbey’s Way with a big old-school backpack. The time was after six, I was supposed to be off the clock, and I was just not in the mood for anything at that point, but he became irate when I told him the tower was closed for the evening, coming up the stairs anyways, trying to force his was through the trapdoor to the catwalk, yelling and threatening me with violence, all while the “youts” cheered him on. He finally just hiked off down the road, saying he’d talk to me when I got down out of the tower, shaking his fist.
Yes, and when the LEO finally arrived (there were two actually, one for backup) and they talked to everyone, they allowed him to camp down the road about a mile, with the supposed promise that he wouldn’t come back. And the youts were allowed to continue their party. The LEO then warned me that he’d been hearing rumours (!) about how rude I was to people, reminding me I was a Forest Service employee and had a responsibility to talk to the public. Yes, I was being blamed. So, I had joined Edward Abbey in being the curmudgeonly lookout-writer of Aztec in the eyes of the general public, and my fellow Forest Service workers. Well, if I was creating the same kinds of rumours as he, I must have been doing something right. All because I preferred to be alone and do my own thing. Which I suspect is exactly what Abbey wanted. But the herd doesn’t like that. Makes them feel insulted, I guess. Like I should have been grateful for their presence.
And after he and his backup left, the youts strung a sheet between two trees and watched a movie (Predator) with the projector aimed at such an angle that it shown right into my tower.
But besides all that? Besides all the people? There were moments, mornings, hours, a few days, and a lot of nights, when I was all alone, with the birds and elk and deer and probably mountain lions (though I never saw any, sadly)(actually they were being hunted by a couple locals all summer—which is legal in Arizona). I did see a couple different bears on my nightly runs down the mountain. And fire. There were fires, though none too big that summer. The bigger ones were elsewhere. And yes, lightning: lightning storms moving across the terrain, mostly from the east, strangely, or the north, where clouds built over the White Mountains and Rim, moving south and west, against winds, usually on a regular schedule—late afternoons—meaning mornings were mostly quiet, though always looking for smokes popping up. Not that I was constantly looking, but I’d take an occasional scan with the binos, though most all the smokes I saw were with the naked eye. You just get used to terrain from seeing it all the time, so even thin strips of white smoke stand out. Though by the time lightning came with the monsoonal moisture from the southwest, there was also rain. Not always, but mostly, so that if there was smoke, there was water, and the engine crews’ real concern was hiking into a smoking tree before getting struck by lighting or soaked. Meaning most of those fires could have just been left to burn, and eventually, in August when there had been so much rain it was ridiculous, the District FMOs did switch to a mostly let-burn policy, including the one big fire of the season which was up on Four Peaks, in a Wilderness area and far from any buildings, of which I had a nice view at nights, its long curvy line of flame backing downhill through the pondos.
And rain sometimes just dousing the area—more rain there that summer than back in Portland, clouds sometimes just pouring up through the ravines, engulfing the tower so that sometimes I couldn’t see the ground (‘socked in’). Plus lighting, both off in the distance, and real up close—a couple big strikes right on Aztec Butte, shattering trees, though never on the big metal tower itself for some reason. One clear night a wall of lightning, down-strikes and cloud-to-cloud, curved all the way from Payson south around me to Glob. It was late and I was tired but just could not bring myself to go to sleep, knowing I’d never see anything like that again. Amazingly, no fires the next day either.
So much rain that in fact I almost started to feel guilty for still being on duty into September, but there were just enough lighting strikes to keep us all going, and by that time the whole Forest was on a skeleton crew of firefighters, most already having gone off-Forest up to Oregon, which was having one of its biggest fire seasons ever. In fact, they really needed us LOs at that point, just in case, since there were no Air Attack planes or helicopters.
And, while the ‘bad’ weather kept Visitors away, I soaked up those views, those red and orange sunsets, those stars, as much as I could, because I’d never see them, not like that, again. Because there was no way I’d be coming back. I would have wanted to. I loved the land, but not the people, and the feeling was apparently mutual. Perhaps I’d try another tower somewhere else next summer. Still, at the least, this Aztec Summer had been a beautiful mid-life adventure I’d almost resigned myself to never having because I thought I’d supposedly grown up and become a boring adult.
My last day at Aztec Tower I still had time to brew one last gunpowder tea and sit out on the catwalk, looking at desert and forest and rock, Salt River and Mazatzals, Superstitions and Mogollon Rim, the Rez and Glob and Phoenix. Still time to watch a hawk hover in the wind. Still time to listen to the morning crickets. One last clear warm day and southwest wind. One last look through the binoculars, as if there could be any fire after two months of rain, everything septemberlush green.
I carried my guitar down. Cleaned the counters, sweep and mopped the floor. Turned off the fridge and gas. Signed out with Dispatch one last time. Even they sounded sad.
Walking down the stairs one last time. Bowing to the ghost of Ed Abbey. Bowing to the tower itself, which kept me protected from wind and cold and clouds and lightning and rain and aliens. Bowing to myself for doing it, finally doing it— a goddamn fire lookout! After I thought I might be done with real adventures! But they end only if we want them to.
Time to get in the truck and come down the mountain.