The life of a fire lookout is one of the senses

A former lookout finds the woman who used to guard her tower.

 

Lillian’s knuckle swells with an arthritic burl. Still, she slides her finger down the front of her blouse and into the pack of Pall Malls she keeps in her bosom. She hooks a cigarette without even looking, lights up, and turns to me. Her eyes flame like butane, but there’s an amused lilt to her voice. “Can you believe I used to be the Avon lady — nylons, dress, the whole bit?”

We’re in her garden, watching dozens of pinwheels spin; they protect her strawberries from the robins. We sit in the sun. Our dogs pant in the shade beneath our chairs, and Lillian is reflecting on her life prior to 1972, before she began her career as a fire lookout and, consequently, became my local heroine.

Her transition was sudden. Her husband came home from the Forest Service saying that the lookout had quit. Lillian responded, “I’ll do it.” She told her four teenagers to behave, climbed an 80-foot steel tower, and started scanning Northern California for smoke.

She hopscotched to different mountaintops, but her last post, which was the longest of her reigns, was in southern Oregon. There, for 17 years, she staffed a cedar-shingled pagoda on the summit of Dutchman Peak.

I also staffed Dutchman. That’s why I’m here. I’ve driven several hundred miles to visit Lillian because it’s fire season. But now I’m not keeping watch. I want to vanquish my sense of loss — the feeling that my seven seasons weren’t enough — and reclaim the far-reaching view of all that the mountain gave me.

If anyone can help, it’s Lillian.

 

Dutchman Peak Lookout in southern Oregon.
Wikimedia Commons

By the time I reached Dutchman, Lillian had long since retired. But everyone still talked about her. They told me she spotted fires with speed and precision, and that she shooed visitors away like flies. To her, the lookout was a workstation; entertaining sightseers was not in her job description. 

I aspired to uphold her standard of detection. I studied maps and requested mirror flashes. To avoid distractions during lightning events, I asked visitors to remain in their vehicles, with their windows rolled up.

One afternoon, I told a woman to stay in her vehicle. She ignored me. She plodded up the footpath, her face shaded by a visor. I stood on the catwalk and repeated myself. She paused at the weather station. She lifted her hot blue eyes and yelled at me: “Damn you, girl, I was up here before you were born!” 

And I knew instantly. “You must be Lillian,” I said. I invited her in.

During that storm, I didn’t track downstrikes. It was wet; it would take time for water dogs to dissipate. I studied Lillian. She, too, seemed shaped by the wind. Weather on Dutchman had made the mahogany and hemlock alike: short and stout and strong. That afternoon, I learned Lillian didn’t only guard the forest from wildfire. She’d shoveled bear shit off the roads to fool hunters. She harassed butterfly collectors.

 

Lillian hunches over her garlic and snarls at the mold that discolors it. I ask if she remembers the first time we met, and recount the story. But she denies it. “Oh, I did not say that,” she replies. She mounts a hand on her hip, and, with an inch of ash hanging off the end of her cigarette, corrects me: “What I said to you was, ‘The hell with you, girl, I’m coming up anyway.’ ”

She moves near, sits down slowly, and hunts her own memory. “You know about the ladybugs, right?” she asks. I nod.

“They’d arrive in September,” she says, “and swarm the rocks by the flag pole.”

Ladybeetles congregated on the peak to overwinter in its granite crevasses. Before their dormancy, they’d exude from cracks and purl over boulders, little upwellings, the color of magma. Visitors would stand on the summit and extol their numbers.

“I’d warn them,” Lillian continues. “ ‘Be careful. They’ll bite ya,’ but everyone would look at me like I was damn crazy, until”— whack, Lillian slaps her arm, mimicking a visitor — “one of them’d get hit. And the surprise on their face. They couldn’t believe it. They’d been bit by a ladybug.”

I know the scene; it happened every season. 

“If you had to pick your favorite thing about Dutchman, what would it be?” I ask. I’ve found it impossible to decide. The view? The solitude? Lillian takes a drag and then squashes the cigarette in an ashtray.

“I lived with all my senses,” she says. “I was down on the ground watching a grasshopper lay eggs. You done that?” she asks, as if posing a dare.

I watch her smoke ringlets rise and answer, “Yes, I have.” 

Erin Halcomb is working on other essays about her time on Dutchman. She thanks the American West Center for helping her travel to visit Lillian.