To be at work and at play at the same time is to know inspiration. To labor with passionate commitment on something you believe in is to know fulfillment. But to simply awaken at 6521 feet to a dazzling sunrise is to experience the exalted treasure of one of Washington’s remaining fire lookouts.
I became lookout chairman 14 years ago, working with the Mount Baker Club and the U.S. Forest Service to preserve the historic Winchester Mountain Lookout, built in 1935, from the ravages of extreme weather and visitor damage.
The janitor’s paycheck is found in the crimson sunset, the resolute counsel of mountains, the generosity of penny-whistle birdsong, and a six-figure inner peace. That is pay enough.
The club restored the lookout from near-ruin in 1982 with resourceful dedication, and I’m grateful to be a part of the ongoing effort. I typically visit about four times per year and sometimes log more than 14 nights in a season. The idea is to get the work done in May and June, so it’s open to the public from late July through about mid-September when the first snows require shuttering again. Arrival at the lookout is always a familiar, homey embrace: the door is opened to an anchoring smell of old wood and cured enamel paint; the attic hatch is unlocked and pushed back to the memorable fragrance of cedar shingles and turpentine; the braces are liberated to prop the shutters open to brilliant sunshine, once again chasing away winter’s damp and cold.
Thanks to 80 panes of glass, there is little difference in the 14 x 14-foot shack between inside and out. Once the shutters are opened, the mountains practically walk in like welcome houseguests. Though I try to time my visits with the best weather, it’s not always sun and games, especially during extended stays. Sometimes clouds descend, erasing the mountains, and the focal distance shrinks, but the imagination expands.
Storms roll in, and clouds build quickly into great generators of electricity. Through the distant thunder and thundering hail, an ominous buzz can sometimes be heard on the singular lightning rod on the roof peak, the sound of “Mr. Zappy” contemplating a visit. Fortunately, I’ve never experienced a direct lightning strike to test my nerve. Usually, though, inclement weather means spruce trees just outside the windows comb droplet gems from passing clouds, capturing light, not unlike a radiant chandelier in the gloomy calm.
One doesn’t typically associate privilege with janitorial duties, but the feeling is inescapable when the tide of cloud recedes. A roll-call of summits reveals a dream team of North Cascades mountains: Tomyhoi, Redoubt, Larrabee, American Border Peak, The Pleiades, Ruth, Luna, The Pickets. And then there are the celebrity mountains, Shuksan and Kulshan, so prominent they command most of the attention. One can see the restful mirrors of Twin and Tomyhoi lakes far below. In contrast, the freshly- masticated geometry of a clear-cut delineates the US/Canada border only about 1.5 miles away.
While cleaning the windows, my focus will often shift from the panes muddled with handprints, food, and smashed bugs to the brilliant range of rock and ice beyond. It reminds me of where I am, surrounded by the spectacular tumult of mountains, a slow-motion tectonic storm we call the North Cascades, those mountains that capture winter so well and hold it long into summer.
The attic is the janitorial heart of the lookout, a veritable ReStore of salvaged hardware and tools: screws, nails, nuts, bolts, and washers sorted into respective jars or old coffee cans; nails stored in mouse-nibbled boxes; hooks, latches, and eye screws dangle from shower curtain rings fastened on rafters above like big keychains. Old hand tools including hammers, screwdrivers, pry bars, tape measures, carpenter saws, hack saws, paintbrushes, hand drills, hand planes, files, a drawknife, a glazier point gun, and one indispensable vice are each fixed to a panel like a memorial to the old ways.
An assortment of paint options in traditional Forest Service fire lookout colors: forest green, pale mint, and gray are tucked away on the far side under the low roofline. All the better to blend this little shack into the dominant mood of northwestern skies. Winchester’s particular gray is called ‘Silvery Moon,’ a rather romantic color name that certainly reflects some of the finer nights I’ve spent there, as cross-hatched parallelograms of light skated over and around me while I slept.
Although there is no paycheck, one could think of my position of lookout janitor as a union job because I belong to a coalition of humanity that ascends to a summit cabin in the North Cascades on a summer afternoon. We pay the sweaty dues and accordingly enjoy the benefits. I, too, unfurl my sleeping bag onto the thin mattress in almost-forgotten silence. I too gather snow—remnant of winter—to melt into water, that most basic of human needs. I count myself as just one of many who visit and care. I’m the same kind of pilgrim; only I may have a hammer in hand pounding a piece of steel in the vice to fashion it into a needed fastener. Really though, my and other visitor’s goal of doing no damage and cleaning up after themselves should find a place in every human being’s heart, no matter where they find themselves. In reality, the janitor’s paycheck is found in the crimson sunset, the resolute counsel of mountains, the generosity of penny-whistle birdsong, and a six-figure inner peace. That is pay enough.
Awakening in a fire lookout can be a sweet confusion of surrendering the dream world for a dreamy reality. At dawn, with one eye open, the sleeper may behold smoldering pink clouds in the east or the sight of the moon fading away and blending with the gathering light of a new day.
After an afternoon of mopping, repairing, painting, removing garbage, replacing an occasional window, or slowly coaxing the old shack back into plumb, I get to sit, sweaty in the white-hot fusion of light seemingly focused on the summit shack from every snowy peak within a mile. Then, as an antidote to all that heat and light, I sip a mug of iced green tea that I steeped and stashed in a snowbank that morning.
Around me, every window pane is a framed portrait of mountain beauty, a seat in a gallery of Cascadian art. It’s also a time to indulge in a book from the lookout library—all donated, many of them favorites: Ed Abbey, Annie Dillard, Henry Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Gary Snyder, and Mary Oliver. Evenings are a time to appreciate the steep gradient of color in the west, from burnished blue to purple-pink to fiery red. It is a time to burrow into a cocoon of feathers and rest, a time to contemplate the kindly ghosts of the past.
Sure there are ghosts at Winchester, but not necessarily those of the dead. Instead, I refer to the companionable spirits of those who devoted their life-energy and passionate commitment to restoring the lookout. They have names like Gary Hauffle, BK Smith, Ed Alm, and Scott Welker. Their signatures are found in the carefully crafted logbook or carved onto the handles of tools in the attic they donated. I find following in their visionary footsteps during my day-to-day efforts humbling, bringing to mind the words of poet Philip Whalen: “Four times up, three times down, I’m still there.”
Indeed, footsteps may lead away, but the experience remains.
David Inscho is a believer in coffee, beer, and the profound power of wilderness. When not at his day job, he can be found backpacking with his camera in the silence of our public lands.