Oh the Places we Sleep – The Fire Tower

“Oh the place we sleep”… A series of place profiles documenting my favorite shacks, cabins, huts, yurts, and such. With no physical home I call my own, I am continuously drawn to, and drawn back to, the simple structures that have provided me shelter over the years. It’s all inspired by, and drawing name from, an old essay and collection of photos.

The Fire Tower – Late September

The snow is now up past my ankles and I am making much shorter steps, not moving as fast as when I was on the trail up the bare ridgeline two thousand feet below. I cross a moose track, then a deer track, both barely covered in the dusting that is still laying itself down in today’s storm. It seems early in the year for snow at this elevation, but who knows; a handful of warmer days in October could wipe these eight inches away, leaving bare ground for the fresh canvas of a later snowpack. The trees get smaller and gnarlier; krumholz is the fancy word I learned in an ecology course in grad school. The wind is eating at my exposed skin, just my nose and the very tops of my cheeks where my beard doesn’t grow. I first come to the outhouse, its green and white paint mostly peeled down to bare grey wood. That same wind that will give my cheeks a little windburn has been eating away at this paint, and the wood underneath, for decades. The lookout tower is just a couple hundred feet further, perched atop the ridgeline, and visible through the light haze of blowing snow that has been moving in and out all morning.

I brush the snow off each step with my boot as I make my way up the stairs, and spend a little more time in the doorway, where the wind deposited more snow. One of the storm shutters was missing the last time I was here, leaving the old single pane windows exposed to the elements of the high ridgeline. Two more are missing this time. Inside, I brush the snow off my feet with a small broom and close the door, immediately treated to the comfort and quiet of a windless environment.

I lived in the windy city of Laramie, Wyoming one year. Like wind on an alpine ridge eating away at outhouse paint and bare skin alike, the wind in Laramie had the ability to eat away at the human psyche. There are a couple feelings the English language fails to completely describe with a single word: that of relief from the wind, and conversely, that way the wind eats away.

In Laramie, it was the windless days that provided a relief that wasn’t realized until one would stop, think for a moment, and acknowledge it was the lack of wind contributing to that day’s jovial mood. Closing the door behind me in this old fire lookout brought back the familiar sensations of stepping outside on a windless day in Laramie. Closing the door to the cabin and stepping inside, it was no warmer and I was still wet and sweaty. Nevertheless, a sense of calmness prevailed.

I brought a tape measure and a notebook, with the intent of making the first steps toward replacing the missing shutters that protect the old and delicate windowpanes from the extreme ridge-top winds of high-elevation Western Montana. I started a fire, put a pan of water on the top of the fireplace, and started to poke around the lookout. The US Forest Service abandoned this lookout tower some years ago. But rather than stripping it of items of use or boarding it up, it has been left to the forces of nature. The forces of nature, in this case, include humans, and it has been the humans who enjoy this place that have kept it in good order. There is a mattress, a wood stove, binoculars, and a few nice cast iron pans. There is a drawer of assorted utensils, a small tin that contains a spice collection, and a paperback copy of Tess Gerritsen’s “The Bone Garden.” Chopped wood, old newspaper, and a box of strike-anywhere matches. A cribbage board, decks of cards, and candles. A broom, a smaller broom, and a hand broom. An ax, though no hatchet, and the little watercolor sketch of the view out the window and up the canyon that I recall from my last visit here was missing.

Places like this could be considered visitor-curated. With no official rules and no official caretaker, care it is left to the broad interpretation of every individual that utilizes the space. Some people might get pissed off at the random assortment of food left in the unofficially-designated food box, but I don’t mind being able to snag an old syrofoam packaged “cup o’ noodles” from said box for a little salt replenishment and to help take the chill off. The double-edged sword curse is that there are and there aren’t unofficial rules for a place like this. Especially in the realm of free to the public unmanaged places (of only which I am aware of a few), there are many loose rules that only are self-enforced, and dictated by the individual. The rules I play by: Leave more firewood than you found. Leave the place cleaner than you found. Take out your trash. Bring extra and pay it forward (such as leaving your fuel, olive oil, toilet paper, or whiskey). Share with friends.

I step back out into the ridgetop wind. Under the lookout, someone has been gracious enough to have done some work with a saw, leaving a decent collection of log rounds stacked against the broken pieces of the old storm shutters. I select a big squat round, digging it into the snow and dirt as a chopping block and get to work on splitting wood that will better fit into the lookout’s little wood stove. After all, it is the people that sawed wood, that left a little extra gas for the stove, or chop wood that are the stewards of this place. If those people keep taking good care, they will be welcomed back, and welcomed home, upon their next visit. February, anyone?

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