A Different Kind of Neighborhood

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Then there’s Bare Cone Mark. Since there are two Mark fire lookouts on the forest, we refer to him by the name of his mountain: thus, Bare Cone Mark. On my first day of lookout training twenty years ago, after showing me the three main tools of the job (maps, a pair of binoculars, and an anachronistic looking instrument called the Osborne Fire Finder), he told me that he often wondered if being a fire lookout was the craziest, or most sane thing he could be doing with his life. This summer will be his 25th season on Bare Cone—it seems he’s come to a conclusion.

Jim and Christie are well into their second decade on the lookout, as well. Back when I first started, their mountaintop buzzed with the activity of their three children. I remember their youngest son used to write to the host of a children’s program on the local public radio station. The host would say hello to him and his two siblings over the radio, and it was probably almost as thrilling for me as it was for them. That young boy is twenty-six now.

Christie, a former wilderness ranger whose knitting skills are no less than bionic, also has a sixth sense for spotting fires. She can pinpoint a curl of smoke drifting up from a narrow drainage miles away with just a glance up from her knitting needles.

Jim is an artist. This could be defined either by his decades of teaching art, his numerous exhibitions, or by the fact that he can’t walk by a pile of rocks without rearranging them into a spiral, or a serpent, or little houses for spiders, mice, or gnomes. His latest side project, an experiment of sorts, involves temporarily hanging his paintings in the forest in a spot monitored by a game camera. “You’d be surprised how interested animals are in art,” he told me, “and [they’re] much more respectful than humans.”

The other lookout tower on our district is staffed by a rotating cast of volunteers: a ragtag bunch of fire lookout enthusiasts composed of retired teachers and wildland firefighters, an independent bookstore owner, an orthopedic surgeon, and a lawyer, to name a few. Back in the early 2000s, there was a rumor that the sign at the trailhead to the tower had been altered, and somehow the mileage was changed from 1.2 miles to 11.2 miles. It remains a mystery who squeezed that extra one in.

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