Saturday, May 09, 2009

Kerouac Slept Here

Everywhere I travel in the southeast I encounter old fire towers. These were important structures for decades, used by the parks and various forest services to spot fires by use of triangulation. In the world before satellites and GPS it was the best and most effective way to pinpoint the location of fires.

These days, the Forest Service uses the old eye in the sky. And these tall buildings are mainly being left to decay where they stand. In some cases they've been dismantled, leaving little or no trace that they were ever there. Sometimes when I'm hiking I will encounter the concrete pads that once supported a fire tower. In one case this past year I hiked past a spot where I'd stopped at a fire tower as a teenager not far from the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Now, the fire tower is gone and all that remains are some concrete footings.

Abandoned fire tower in Florida.

In the west, some fire towers are being preserved for historical reasons. Additionally, some fire towers can be rented as overnight lodging. Here in the East, for some reason, every fire tower of which I'm aware is being destroyed through neglect. Almost all of them are shuttered up and locked, and the ones that aren't are targets for vandalism and the general decay. It's pretty sad.

I assume that none are being preserved for the simple reason that the budgets won't allow for it. And there's no serious consideration of upfitting them as overnight lodging here as there is in the West. One reason, I assume, is that the design of eastern fire towers was so much different from those in the Rocky Mountain west. Here, the towers had to be made tall enough to see over the tree-shrouded areas and summits on which they were perched. This required small cabs at the tops of very tall towers of wood, or stone, or metal. Western lookouts could be perched on treeless rocks and bare peaks and stair access was minimal. This makes the eastern towers tougher to sell as an overnight lodging to Forest and Park services frightened of lawsuits.

Desolation Peak Lookout, manned for several months by Jack Kerouac. You can see the difference in construction with eastern lookout towers.

I reckon all of our fire towers in the east will soon be gone. They'll preserve a few of them, I guess, as historical curiosities. Just one more thing that you need to get out and see before they're all dust and rust.

Altered fire tower (turned into lookout platform) on Moore's Knob, North Carolina.

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