Searching for Smoke

I am a pudgy guy. It would be hard to picture me hiking up the side of a mountain in snow pants and a jacket, my inhaler safely in my pocket. But there I was, on a two-mile trek with an elevation gain of 2,000 vertical feet ascending Squaw Mountain, in Idaho Springs, Colorado, with a ranger from the Clear Creek district. Our destination was the Squaw Fire Lookout, a place I’d wanted to visit since I first discovered that these towers existed.

We begin the climb on a snow-covered dirt road at 10:30 a.m. A snow cat had recently driven through, so the snow is more firm than I expected. Still, I have to stick to the hard-pack in between the tire tracks, otherwise I sink with each step. Ponderosa pines uniformly line both sides, quickly enclosing us. After one turn, I can’t see the road where I’d parked my car. Just the thin-trunked trees and their spiny foliage. The shadows create an endless zebra-like pattern interlaced with the exposed sunlight on the trail, which stretches endlessly before me. 

A fire lookout is pretty self-explanatory: a tower where people search for fires, or the smoke that inevitably points to them. The structures are often located in the most remote areas of the forest, sometimes nestled into the landscape. You don’t see them until the thick foliage clears and you stop in your tracks, standing in awe. These tall and stilted metal structures jut out awkwardly, towering over the landscape below. Iron giants resting on spindly little legs with a spiral staircase leading up to the actual lookout, or “cab,” in fire-lookout jargon. It’s incomprehensible how something that seems to touch the sky and has such a delicate base doesn’t blow over with the lightest gust of wind. 

Others take on a subtler beauty, built with stone found in the area, and usually resting on a peak. These are rustic little things with a cab perched above. Although the towers vary, the cabs all have one thing in common: tons of windows. Some are framed in little four-by-four boxes. Others have giant floor-to-ceiling window panes. All provide the omnipotent, but also slightly vertigo-inducing feeling, that if you take a step forward, you’ll float away into the tantalizingly dramatic view. 

 There are 19 lookouts still standing in Colorado. If you want to spend a night up there, enjoying the beautiful sites, hiking around the mostly-untouched terrain, frolicking in the sunlight, cuddling with your lover, you can rent out two of them: Jersey Jim and Squaw. Jersey Jim is closed in the winter, but Squaw stays open year-round, and the place is in high demand. I guess I’m not the only person who has dreamed of having a transcendental, Emersonian moment on top of a mountain. When I called up to inquire about renting Squaw for a night they told me that it was booked for the next four months. And I was calling in February, not exactly optimal lookout-renting season. The only other way to experience Squaw was to hike up with the U.S. Forest Service ranger, Nicole Malandri, who checks the tower every Friday to make sure everything is in order. Her main job is to remove the ashy refuse from the incinerating toilet in the outhouse. Not exactly glamorous, but a great excuse for a beautiful hike every Friday.

In our first hour together, I know much more about the back of Nicole than the front. I’ve been following her footsteps religiously to avoid stepping into the deeper snow and having it fall into my boots, giving my already cold feet a freezing kiss. She is wearing these smooth, minimalist waterproof boots, jet-black with a spiky gray bottom, the kind that look like regular hiking boots but can trample through anything, rain or snow. Her matching black snow pants are cuffed at the ankles, and she has a gray North Face backpack slung over her shoulders. She’s 42, with an endearing smile and not a single wrinkle on her face. The only thing to interrupt her unintentionally matching and fashion-forward outfit (New Yorkers would love the all-black aesthetic) is a green beanie with the USFS logo etched in gold in the center. For those who haven’t seen a Smoky the Bear commercial (“Only YOU can prevent forest fires!”), the logo is a badge with the letters “U” and “S” boldly emblazoned between a bisecting evergreen. 

We make small talk in between my gasps, and soon we are at the halfway point, where people would normally park to begin the hike when there isn’t snow on the ground. Off to the right is a shooting range that Nicole had mentioned after seeing some bullet shells on the side of the road. People clearly didn’t always make it to the wooden-fenced designated area. The bullet-riddled sign reading “Shooting Regulations” helps me imagine all of the drunken, violent debauchery that must go on when nobody’s around to stop it. Nicole shrugs it off with a sigh, “People will do what they want at the end of the day,” she says dishearteningly.

I can finally make out the tower up ahead of us, a tiny pimple perched on the chin of the peak. We’d reached the point of no return. Ahead of us was a steep cut to the right. 

“You know, this is where the real climb begins,” she warns me.

“Here we go, any last words?” I ask.

She laughs, “No, but if you need to take a break just holler.”

I have a confession to make. I’d been nervous to come to Squaw in the first place. I hadn’t been feeling well the day before. I didn’t know if I was in shape to make the climb, I didn’t even really know what I was trying to see there or, rather, what I was trying to feel when I got to the top. I wanted a natural connection to my surroundings. I wanted a kind of spiritual freedom, a lifting of the daily anxieties and deeper thoughts which weighed my city-boy brain down. I wanted my god-damn Thoreau-Walden Pond experience, but I was afraid I wouldn’t get it. 

Growing up on the Upper West Side in New York City, I spent the weekends and summers in a small town in Connecticut called Cornwall. It’s a farming town of about 1,434 people, but at least half of the residents are “weekenders,” people like my family who live in New York during the week but come up every weekend for a reprieve. Although to the locals I must’ve seemed like a snobby, New York City rich kid with a weekend home, I still felt like this was the land where my true upbringing occurred.

Cornwall provided endless activities that took my mind away from city life. Briskly walking block to block, never making eye contact or smiling at the passersby, cramming into the subway during rush hour, just barely slipping through the closing doors. 

Cornwall was my heaven. A house on a hill, with huge windows that lent themselves to the vast surrounding forest. Everywhere I looked, I saw the Earth as God intended it to be. I’d only hear tweets and chirps or the rustling of the trees. At night I could look up into the sky and actually see the stars, not light pollution. I could taste the pine in the air. I could feel the world calm down and the hair rise on the back of my neck before a torrential downpour. I wanted somewhere without a single trace of humanity in sight. 

* * *

Fire provides the heated ambrosia a warm-blooded human needs to survive the harshest winter nights. It can transform carcasses into cuisine. But if you go too close, leaving a madman furious and deserted, he will eventually escape your enclosure. Soon your flesh will bubble, your screams will drown in the fire’s laughing hiss. You are the fuel it needs to make a break for the unknown, leaving ashy, bone-bare destruction in its wake. It has reached its calling. The spark has evolved into a conflagration. 

This is the foe Bill Ellis constantly tries to fend off during fire season. Every 15 minutes for the last 32 years, perched 9,748 feet in the air inside Devil’s Head fire lookout, Bill wields his binoculars, combing 30,000 square miles of wilderness for a slithering smoke that exposes his nemesis. 

“Every time I see a smoke, it’s quite a rush,” he tells me excitedly. He said in a 2007 interview that “It’s quite competitive, you’ve got everybody who lives in the forest looking for fires, everybody who works for the forest service looking for fires.” That adrenaline and the quest of first sight is what he lives for. 

Bill fought fires as a volunteer for the local fire department from the age of 34 until he retired from active duty at 65. He’s 85 now. He has a thick, snowy beard and a slight potbelly. Simply put, Bill looks like a slimmer version of Santa Claus, if his workshop was on top of a mountain in the Rockies. With a slight Texas drawl and curt answers to my questions, he comes off as intimidating over the phone. But the minute I start talking about “smokes,” as he calls them, almost affectionately, his fervor reveals the rugged charm beneath.

Every summer since ‘84 he’s lived in a small cabin with his wife Margaret 143 steps away from his battle station. At dawn he climbs up the pinnacle of Pikes Peak granite to the cab, its window-peppered frame long considered an emblem of conservation to the Forest Service. He scans the horizon searching for “smokes,” and if he’s lucky enough to see one (or unlucky, depending on the size of the fire he’s spotted) he immediately calls it in to the Pueblo dispatcher. He has to move quickly. There’s nothing worse than spotting a smoke only to hear another lookout call it in over the radio. “Sometimes you’re a few seconds late. One time I picked up a smoke, I was walking to the microphone and someone else called it in. It takes days to get over [the disappointment],” he tells me. “It’s devastating.”

To pinpoint the precise location, he consults his Osborne Firefinder. The Osborne is a flat circular map that rotates on a disc. When a lookout spots a “smoke,” he positions the sight so that he’s looking at the smoke through both the site and the peephole, marking the degrees and minutes. He then approximates the distance of the fire by sliding a vertical metal measurement. The Osborne is so old that Leupold & Stevens Inc. stopped manufacturing them in 1975. Although still used today, one day soon there won’t be any more functioning Osbornes. Ancient but consistent and slowly fading into oblivion, the Osborne Firefinder is a microcosm of the state of lookout towers today. 

Fire towers were extremely popular from 1910 until the late ‘50s. By the early ‘60s, lookouts began to get phased out in favor of newer technology like flyover planes that could cover the area of four to five lookouts in one loop. The downside to the flyover plane technique is that once the plane’s route is finished, no one is monitoring the forest until it makes its next round. During that gap, lightning could strike a branch and start a fire and no one would be the wiser. And in this line of business leaving a fire smoldering for hours can be the difference between a small brush fire that’s out in a couple days or the next Big Blowup. Nothing beats a human being with a good set of eyes, a veteran’s intuition for the location they’re scanning and a consistent work ethic. 

Still, due to a combination of government cutbacks and a technophile’s wet dream, the majority of fire watching has been left to technology. Since the ‘60s, fire towers throughout the country have been dismantled or abandoned. Today there are fewer than 2,000 lookouts left, and last year only 600 to 700 of them were staffed. 10 to 15 percent of the staff are volunteers. Lookout towers have become a relic of the past, with hundreds of thousands of tourists pouring through the remaining active sites each year, or renting out renovated old lookouts like Squaw to take in a bit of the history. 

* * *

It takes a special type of person to man a fire lookout. You have to be dedicated, focused, alert at all times. But, most importantly, you need patience. In today’s fast-paced, information age, everyone has a smartphone in their hand, constantly extracting them from their surroundings and granting immediate entertainment. So the idea of a place with no cell service, no Wi-Fi and no notifications of any kind, where you just sit and watch the forest, seems both outdated and enticing. 

It’s no surprise that most of the people in the Forest Fire Lookout Association (FFLA) are of an older generation. Talking to Kent Argow, the director of the Colorado and Utah chapter of the FFLA, it’s clear that the FFLA hasn’t exactly attracted a younger demographic. “The biggest issue that I’ve had as a director for the Forest Fire Lookout Association is getting younger people interested. Historically this organization has been populated by people who have worked in fire towers and enthusiasts who hike to them. But the younger population… it’s been tough.” 

This may be true, but he had no problem getting one millennial hooked: me.

 From the first picture I saw of Squaw Mountain Fire Lookout, I knew that I wanted to work there or somewhere like it. My romanticized notion of a sanctuary where I could completely immerse myself in nature was finally a reality. And it was sitting right in front of my face. I could already picture myself looking for fire during the day and taking in the sights and smells of the great outdoors, as I basked in my freedom. When the sun would set and my shift would be over, I’d write into the wee hours of the morning, an old oil-lamp or flickering candle my only source of light, my thoughts my only company. 

* * *

We turn the final corner, Nicole leading the way. I was about to see Squaw: a lone cabin perched on a shelf of rocks, the only form of civilization 11,486 feet in the air. My paradise. Instead I see stark medal rods reaching up to the sky. They were radio antennae and they were completely out of place. 

“So they call that the radio house,” Nicole tells me. I call it an ugly ear-mark of civilization, the structure that had already ruined my fantasy. She keeps talking about a couple that lived up there in the ‘60s. But I’m not listening. I’m seething. My mind is racing. How is this not what I expected? I haven’t even gotten inside the lookout, and I’m already disappointed. This was my worst nightmare. The reason I was hesitant to come in the first place. 

Maybe this was why I wanted to be alone in nature. To continue this dream of success in the face of failure. To feel a freedom, not only from civilization, but from my own insecurities. Instead I was faced with a reality riddled with power lines that shot up like artificial trees on the edge of Squaw Mountain’s cliff, their perfectly smooth poles pissing me off. I knew before the hike that Squaw now had electricity, a refrigerator, even some power outlets to charge your iPhone. But I never thought about how the electricity actually reached the tower. I hadn’t thought out a lot of things. I’d just envisioned perfection. 

We pass the wooden “Squaw Mountain Lookout” sign and climb the stairs cut into the stone. My heart begins to beat quickly again. I am more apprehensive than excited. But quickly, my enthusiasm returns. I can see the cab, and it’s even better than I expected. The window panes are huge, floor-to-ceiling only separated by a small wooden frame. They wrap around the entire cab. I can’t wait to get up there. 

Nicole unlocks the door, and I race up the metal stairwell alongside the stone base. On the perimeter of the cab is an observation deck and looking straight ahead, desperately trying to ignore the power lines to my right, I finally stare into my wilderness. 

The brown stone and dirt lead to white snow which cascades down into the green expanse of the forest. Mountains with their brown-studded tips look like tiny mounds. They recline into a deep valley underneath, with just a hint of glimmering lake peeking through. The trees are endless. Spiky little soldiers protecting the untouched land. I can see Pikes Peak and Mount Evans, their white caps turning an already dramatic landscape into a postcard no one would believe was real. 

I hear nothing. I think nothing. My mind is finally clear. My entire being is focused on lapping up a view I may never see again. I stupidly utter, “Wow, we’re on top of the world,” because I have nothing better to say. It’s perfect. For a fleeting moment my confidence is restored. I can spend the rest of my life just looking, but even then I won’t be able to take it all in. And then I look down and see a picnic table.  

I come back to reality. It’s time to go inside the cab and look around. 

There are two twin beds and a desk. An Osborne Firefinder rests on a pedestal in the center of the room with an antique radio and some guidebooks beneath it. In the desk drawers I find Monopoly and Charades. Some playing cards, dice, “Lonesome Traveler” by Jack Kerouac and a set of watercolors. Perched on a ledge is a glittering silver mini-purse the size of my hand. I unzip it and find two joints in individual tubes, some eye drops and a lighter. The discovery is perfectly Colorado. Even the most beautiful landscapes can lead to boredom. And for some, drugs are needed to really enjoy the beauty.

I sit down in the chair by the desk, looking out, imagining living up here. I think about spending day after day surrounded by beauty. Would it get old? Would it one day become mundane? And by just having these thoughts, I realize it already had. 

Margaret Ellis, Bill’s wife of 55 years, told me, “Every day we’re thankful we’re up there.” In the spring right before fire season she’d call the forest service every day with the same question. “You think we can go up yet?” I don’t have this type of enthusiasm, I realize. I’m not single-minded enough. My brain can’t glean the same amount of pleasure in the consistency required to traipse up the same old steps. Hold the same pair of binoculars. Constantly searching for something that for the most part wasn’t there. 

In an article I read in The Guardian, entitled “Freaks on the Peak: The Lonely Lives of the Last Remaining Forest Fire Lookouts” a particular quote jumped out at me. “New lookouts often have all these plans, they’re going to read all these books, or paint, or photograph, or learn an instrument. Then they’re amazed by how much they just sit there on the catwalk, watching weather. Those who can be content with themselves, and not having a list, have the most success.” 

The entire hike up, I’d been compiling a list of everything I wanted to accomplish—not just if I was a fire lookout, but in the next few weeks, months and years. I’ve had lists of this sort my entire life. They give me something to look forward to. The ecosystem I’d subconsciously constructed completely clashed with the care-free attitude and kind nature that is required of a lookout. 

I am truly a resident of New York City, not Cornwall.

“It’s like we’re in our own little world up there,” Margaret says wistfully. And that’s when I pull out my e-cigarette, lean back and take a fat puff. I whip out my phone and start Snapchatting. I pour over the guestbook reading all about people’s transcendental moments. Couples on first dates that made them fall in love. Morning grouches turning into saints when they watched the sunrise. Little kids with their parents drawing pictures of the lookout and landscape, the seeds planted for their own dream which one day might disappoint them. I seriously consider getting high but then realize that would only make things worse. I’d be trapped in an even greater dread. A tornado of swirling thoughts. 

There are many different types of fire. Some are good. Some are bad. A small flicker from a lighter, a flame underneath a stove, a campfire with your friends, an inferno that burns down your house and even a mighty wildfire that razes all in its path. But there’s also a fire that encapsulates a whole different dimension. 

The fire inside of us. 

The energy we’re constantly on the lookout for: Rage, doubt, hatred, jealousy, passion, love, ecstasy, even obsession are all different forms of fire. If we’re conscious, we’ll be able to spot it and alert ourselves of it. It’s okay to let it out. To a degree. Every forest needs to burn. To clear the duff and dead foliage, the baggage that holds us back. But often we are unable to prevent these prescribed burns from growing out of control. We let them overtake us, transform us into polarized beings. If I am ever going to find the freedom I ache for, I first need to learn how to put out the fires that rage inside of me, controlling my every move. 


Part of the Ritual Issue