Saturday, June 28, 2008

Long Gone

Last Sunday I hiked to the summit of a peak that has an old Forest Service fire tower. It was a peak with the very cool name of Bearwallow Mountain. Located near Hickory Nut Gorge/Lake Lure, the place seems to be in private hands.

However, it is part of a nature preserve and apparently has some form of conservation easement along the slopes. Therefore, the gravel road that leads to the top is open to public foot traffic. There are also, of course, some radio and microwave and cell phone towers up there, which is just about the case with every prominent privately owned mountaintop in the southeastern USA.

The road to the top also takes you through an active pasture, so the cows stop to give you the eye and wonder what the hell you're doing up there. The last time they saw someone, the guy held them down and punched a hole in their ear and stuck a tag in it. They are suspicious critters, yes.

At the top of Bearwallow we happened upon the old Forest Service tower and what was, obviously, the cabin of the ranger who manned it. In the old days before satellites and GPS took over the job of fire spotting, many of the fire towers were manned on a somewhat permanent basis. In the west, the towers themselves provided the live-in quarters. But here in the south, there were actual cabins and cottages at the base of the towers for the rangers and, sometimes, their families. This was such a tower. The house and facility are now surrounded by a tall chain link fence and off limits. But you can tell that the house was quite nice in its day. It even had a proper yard and one can imagine the ranger and his family having had quite a life up there above 4,000 feet. There was a shed and miniature barn out back, a fenced-in area, what appears to have been a garden once upon a time. Just outside the chain link was a line of red spruce growing in perfect symmetry that I suppose the ranger had placed there for shade and decoration on some future date when the trees had grown large enough to provide both.

The old ranger's residence. Cold and empty and forgotten. The tower unused and faltering.

Well, now the trees are big enough to provide some shade and some unusual scenery. They're the only red spruce I've seen on any mountaintops in the Lake Lure area. But the ranger is gone. The ranger's family is gone. No ranger goes to this place anymore, for fire lookouts are a crusty residue from a bygone day put to rest forever by rockets and satellites and digitized signals received by computers and GPS devices. It must have been a nice place. Before the radio towers and cell phone towers and microwave receivers. It must have been an interesting place to live, there, above the valleys and looking out over waves of mountains rolling off to the horizon, covered with trees, blue in the southern haze, before the spread of roads, and gas stations, and developments of second homes like a rash on the hide of a giant ox.

Once upon a time, the view enjoyed by ranger and wife and children.

If I had a machine gun.


Mark Martin said...

When I was a kid we'd go out to the fire tower and smoke pot. Drive out this barely navigable road until it became completely unnavigable, walk about a mile, and there you were, out on a bareback mountain ridge under the firetower. Everybody said it was still in use at the time, and it was indeed in good repair and locked. But I never ever saw a fire ranger in it or near it.

I thought it would be a GREAT job to sit up there and watch for fires! I could draw all day while I was also getting paid to watch for fires! COOL!

GPS satellites made my dream job obsolete. So much for progress!

HemlockMan said...

Lots of great places for fire towers in the Ridge & Valley region of 'Bama.

Jack Kerouac spent several months as a fire watcher in the Desolation Mountain Lookout in Washington State. One of his best books came out of the experience: THE DHARMA BUMS. I like to take that book with me sometimes when I go backpacking or camping.

I think they keep a few western fire towers manned out west. Why? I can't say.