Tuesday, February 22, 2011

All Along the Watchtower

As I often do in the morning, I went to my bookcase to see what I felt impelled to bring down and open. This morning it was, Poets on the Peaks, by John Suiter, instructor at the New England School of Photography, and who apparently has a fascination with the Beats, as I do. His book covers the summers Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Jack Kerouac spent in fire lookout towers in the Cascades during the mid-1950's and the literary lives they began to develop there.

I've always been intrigued by fire towers and those who kept watch. I once had a yearning to spend time on a mountain keeping watch myself. The idea of being in a remote location with the wilderness for company seemed like it might be a good way to spend a summer. There was a job to do, and loneliness would need to be let go of, perhaps repeatedly, but still I held on to this romantic notion that fed into my love of the wild. At the time I thought of myself as a budding poet who might find her muse waiting for her there much like these fine writers did.

When I was a teenager, friends would come up north from Iowa to spend a couple of weeks each summer and we would spend our days driving around on the back roads in their little red Volkswagen Bug looking for then unoccupied fire towers to climb. We hung out at the top, carved our initials into the wooden steps, and surveyed our wooded kingdom. The vertigo that sometimes catches me never showed its face. I felt no fear at the height or the openness of those towers. I felt free, like anything was possible.

One of the early chapters in the book begins with this paragraph, words that sing for me:
In June of 1953, Gary Snyder was back in the Skagit, this time assigned to the lookout on Sourdough Mountain. As he had done the year before, Gary hitchhiked up from San Francisco to Portland first, where he stopped off to visit his mother and catch up on old friends for a week before moving north. On a whim he bought a battered 1937 Model A Ford from a man in Portland and drove up Highway 99 to Burlington and then out to Marblemount, where he sold it for $25 to Harold Vail's brother Roger.

There's something about the time, the name places, the Model A ... I spent a few very young summers sitting in one (or was it a Model T?) parked at the edge of our field, pretending to be on some journey to a far away corner of the world. Oh, the places I went.

I knew a lot about Jack but this book taught me more about Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen, two writers I had often thought I should get to know better. This gets to the heart of their experiences, especially Snyder and how those summers helped give shape to his life. They were all so young then - early to mid-twenties - with life just starting to unfold before them.

Poets on the Peaks, is about summers in lookout towers, writing, and fine literature. It's about Zen Buddhism, solitude, and learning to be alone. It's about really Seeing. For Snyder it was a natural fit. He said, regarding the solitude he had always been drawn to:
When I was  eleven or twelve, I would sometimes make up a pack and go out for a night or two and camp in the woods by myself, just walk from our house out into the forest. I liked solitude... That's the way you learn, by sitting still and being quiet in nature. Then things start happening around you."

Life on these lookout mountains broke everything down to the essentials. It's a notion that still appeals to me. That, and the infinite beauty they surely found there.

I don't think I would like to be in my twenties again. I like being here with a body of experience to draw from still willing to look at all the possibilities, possibilities that have nothing to do with how many times the earth has revolved around the sun but have everything to do with the willingness. I like being open to exploring life where every day offers some new discovery no matter how small. And I want to learn to remain calm regardless of what is swirling around me, to still those voices of uncertainty, to find that perfect center where peace lives.

During the time Gary Snyder spent on Sourdough a man named Blackie Burns was more or less in charge of the local Forest Service. He spoke in rather colorful colloquialisms. Of Snyder he said: 

I like that boy Snyder on Sourdough. He's a calm son of a bitch.

P.S. Gary Snyder, shown in the photos above, won, among other literary prizes, the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for, Turtle Island. Now in his 80's, he still lives pretty much off the grid in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in northern California.

The title of this post is a song written by Bob Dylan.


  1. You touch a fascination of mine too, a Jungian archetype(?) of standing atop a high place surveying the vista below. Inspiring and rejuvenating.

  2. I think they all are done with technology now.I will have to look for that book, I have read about this experience already.Over time we do build stability in the lives we wish to live.I find my me time the most valuable to work with.

  3. Thank you, Paul,Steve and Adrian. I appreciate your taking the time to read and leave a comment.

  4. Beautiful post...I think it would be fun to hang out with Gary for a while even at eighty years of age...I bet he'd have some good stories. I'll have to see if my library has this book. I've never heard of fire towers.
    What a brave young girl you were to go out and sleep in the forest. Growing up in Chicago those types of experiences never came up for me...so that's probably why sleeping in a forest sounds pretty scary to me. It would be more like me sleeping in the alley way...lots of critters and interesting things to see after dark! ha!

  5. The Skagit - about an hour from where I live, but I've never been there.

    I love your contemplative, reflective posts. A person has to slow down to create such things.

  6. Good book and good memories. Who could ask for more?

  7. Teresa, this is such a beautiful post. Thank you.

    You've got a fine library.I regret that I once gave away many books. How could I do it?
    I like Jack Kerouac, and I like those three guys and their ways of living in the tower. I'll look out for all three on the library.


  8. There's a great lookout tower at Duncan Peak near Foresthill where we used to live in california and we looked forward to going there every summer and visiting with whomever was manning the tower. I fantasized about manning the tower, but alas at the time I had to work and I think it was a six week commitment if I recall correctly. There's nothing like the high Sierra. A required week or two alone for every person wouldn't be a bad thing at all.

  9. This is so interesting, I had never heard of fire towers.
    Solitude is so important to me. As a child I always wanted to live in a lighthouse. They were always in remote places, up high, with just nature around them.

  10. Karen, Yes, the thought of hanging out with this interesting and thoughtful man crossed my mind, too. That would be fun. The woods were a natural extension of our home. I was more scared of the Big city, which was an unnatural environment for me. It's whatever we are used to and have grown comfortable with, I suppose.

    Linda M. It sounds like you need to get yourself over to the Skagit. :) What beauty you live in. Slowing down is good and, yes, necessary to let that kind of peacefulness start to flow through us.

    Betty, A good combo!

    Grethe, I gave many books away, as well, especially when I moved back to Minnesota. Room was valuable and books can get heavy. So, I kept my very favorite ones and now am rebuilding my library, which is fun, too!

    Linda S. I agree, the world would benefit, we would all benefit, if time alone was mandatory. Perhaps that was part of the wisdom of our ancestors, the native Americans, when spirit quests were a part of every young man's journey. Now, if they had seen the wisdom in including young women...:)

    Marilyn, Lighthouses, yes! A very similar sense to them. Now you have me thinking about lighthouses I have known and loved...thank you!

  11. Hey Teresa,
    Nice musings. Summer in a fire tower. A great place to find some things about yourself.

    I haven't done this for a few years, but I must again. My ranch is in the mountains and I pitch my little tent in the far remote. I fast (only water) and meditate until I have my dream that tells me if I'm still on the right path. Always works like magic. Ta dum...
    Follow your dream

  12. 2 things I love...fire towers and poetry. We still have fire towers in my neck of the woods (manned) as well as one or two abandoned ones, which we climbed in my youth. Next to flying, there is nothing I like more than being up high and isolated, surveying the wonders of the world below. One nearby tower is unused but open to the public and is popular with Scout groups, etc.which I think is wonderful. There are also concrete WW2 spotting towers in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware (I'd post a pic but don't know how) which have now been sealed up.

  13. Manzanita, That sounds like a great idea. I hope to do more camping this summer. Now to find the right spot, quiet and private. Near a fire tower would be nice, but many from my youth have been removed. "Follow your dream." Thank you.

    Li, A kindred spirit. Those WWII spotting towers would be interesting. Thank you for telling me of our shared interest.

  14. Such a wonderful post. What an amazing work..sitting atop such beautiful places. i could handle that. what a place to retreat to.

    I was fascinated in Western Australia with the firewatch lookouts they have in the hugely high trees. The trees are climbed by long spikes that circle the tree round and round with a hut at the top. You would love them I'm sure.

  15. Joan, Tree houses have always fascinated me, so this sounds interesting, too. Huts in trees and beautiful views. Thank You!

  16. How interesting : I'd heard of the poets (or at least some of them) but never heard of the look-out towers. I agree with you about the temptation of isolation, but on the odd occasions I have gone in search of it during my life I have tended to return to civilisation in no time at all.

  17. Alan, Living with true isolation would be a difficult thing to do. It bedeviled Kerouac no end. But, the notion continues to intrigue me. My life is, perhaps, too quiet.

  18. Teresa,
    You know, as I was reading your post mainly about the life and how rugged,isolated it could be I wondered if I could live like that. I use to think I could when i was mad at the world and trusted no one, but I think I would miss the opportunities the busy-ness provides. I'm not sure...
    I love poetry, and use to read a great deal...Richard Bach, Hugh Prather, but don't so much anymore; perhaps I've found just the book you spoke of to get me back into it.
    Thanks Teresa~

  19. Tracy, Thank you for your comments. Despite my newest post, I still have great faith in my fellow Beings and I believe the world is a beautiful place. It's the politics that are driving me dingy. That's where the isolation sounds inviting... :)

    I think reading of others experiences, our shared perspectives, helps to give vitality and meaning to my own.

    Again, Thank You.

  20. Yes, it's the politics that drive me dingy, too, as you point out to Tracy.

    I'm not brave enough to climb a fire tower but I applaud those who can. And I've been to the Skagit many times...I have family out there. It is beautiful country. I'm always happy to come home, though.

  21. Hi Cheryl, It appears to be beautiful country. I hope to visit it someday.

  22. Hi Teresa - Will have to check out your book, it looks awesome. I am looking for a picture of the old Duncan Peak Lookout out of Forest Hill, California. Do you have any suggestions on where I would find one?

  23. Guess I messed that up, you didn't write the book and please don't approve this post!! lol But was still curious if this book has a picture of the Duncan Peak Lookout! Thanks!

  24. There are no pictures in this book that I could find at a quick re-perusal, but I Googled, as I'm sure you have, and it sounds like all that remains is the platform. Hope you find what you're looking for.

  25. Thank you so much Teresa, I appreciate your efforts! :)