Mountains of Memory
A Fire Lookout's Life in the River of No Return Wilderness
Publication Year: 2001
A student of nature writing as well as a fire lookout with over a decade of experience, Scheese recounts his life at the top of the world, along with daring adventures such as backpacking and mountaineering in the Bighorn Crags and kayaking down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. All the while, he touches upon the mysterious and powerful realities of the wilderness around him and stunning dawns visible within the glass cage perched on a 9,000-foot mountain, stirring flashes of lightning visible all around the dark landscape as the radio crackles with reports of strikes observed and fires spotted, long-awaited trips down the mountain to civilization for cold beer and hot pizza.
In the tradition of Edward Abbey and Gary Snyder, Don Scheese offers readers a meditation on the meaning and value of wilderness at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
Published by: University of Iowa Press
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I first encountered Don Scheese when he was a student in my classes at the University of Iowa nearly two decades ago. I remember him on campus then—it must have been the fall of 1984—as a solid, tanned, soft-spoken bike-rider receding from view along a bordering street after a brief conversation about John Hanson Mitchell's Ceremonial Time. We were...
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I was born in the mountains—the Pocono Mountains of central-eastern Pennsylvania, a sub-range of the Appalachians. One of my earliest memories is of craning my neck in our backyard in order to take in the mountain—Summit Hill, we called it—that rose behind our house. Many men in my hometown and surrounding area worked literally in the...
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An author is frequently asked, "How long did it take you to write your book?" In the case of writing this book I have usually replied, "Oh, about twenty years—since 1980, when I worked my first lookout and began keeping a journal." Over that time I have accumulated many debts. Intellectual debts I have acknowledged in the book itself. Here I wish to...
1. Settling In
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"How's our lookout doing?" asks Jack, the fire management officer (FMO) of the brush crew foreman, glancing my way. Jack is making the rounds of his fire crews out in the field in early June—the field being the two-million-acre Challis National Forest in south central Idaho. At the lower elevations in these parts (about six thousand feet above sea...
2. Working a Lookout
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It is a real world, all right, a world of rocks and ice, a tactile universe. Only rock is real, claimed Ed Abbey when he worked in Arches National Park in Utah, a desert consisting mainly of red slickrock sandstone sculpted by wind and water into fantastic shapes and sizes. Here in the wetter, colder mountains of Idaho, there are far more trees and the rock is of a different...
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Despite the fire I reported, human activity on the national forest is only just beginning at this early point in the season. The receding snows slowly open access to trails and roads in the high country. The warmer temperatures and spring rains melt the snow, increasing runoff and raising river levels—good for all the rafters on the world-class rapids of the Main and...
4. Independence Day
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I'm sitting in the outhouse this morning reading the New York Times Magazine (part of a recent mail drop from a passing patrol plane), when my routine is interrupted by the unmistakable buzzing of a mosquito near my ear. Soon there's more buzzing, and I finish my duties in premature fashion, cursing the pests which will, for a brief time, render me a...
5. Eyes in the Sky: A Brief History of Fire Lookouts
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The next day I find out that two other lookouts on the Challis National Forest are to begin working soon: Bernie on Little Soldier Mountain and Bobette on Pinyon Peak. Bernie, like me, is a veteran, having worked lookouts all over Idaho for many seasons. In the winter he retires to Boise, living off unemployment checks and money he's invested over the...
6. Some Former Inhabitants
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Whenever I become drawn to a particular landscape, one of the first questions that comes to mind is, Who were the first humans to inhabit this place? Answering it is part of the process of going native, satisfying one's curiosity about previous inhabitants. Despite a "cultural resource reconnaissance" of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River basin conducted by the...
7. Running the River
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We are about to embark on a voyage of exploration down the Middle Fork of the Salmon, the premier whitewater rafting river in the Lower Forty-eight. Of the five guides who will lead us, two of them are now herding the reluctant passengers and their duffel bags into a school bus to drive up the washboard road to the airport, a rutted clearing in a meadow below...
8. Midsummer Musings and Field Notes
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One morning in mid-July, back on the lookout, I'm awakened early by high winds, shuddering the shutters and rippling the flag. There's no drawing of the curtains or shades in this cabin because there are none. So at sunrise (at this time of year around 6 A.M.) the light is inescapable no matter how hard I try to burrow down inside my sleeping bag. Finally I give...
9. Fire on the Mountain, Lightning in the Air
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It's my second day off in a row, and since I'm told by the office this morning that I won't be on the clock today—this in spite of the ominous sky and predictions of stormy weather—I decide to walk down the Halstead Trail in the early afternoon for a hike and a swim. I want to check out the Mable Lakes, a cluster of pothole ponds about two miles south of the...
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A week after the lightning bust I get another day off. This time the predicted LAL is one to two, which means there's little chance of lightning. The sky in midmorning confirms the forecast: only a few fair-weather clouds are starting to form. I call Jack the FMO and he gives me the ok to come down off the mountain for a day or two. I then call Becky, the recreation guard at...
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My stores are running low, it's true, but more on my mind these days are things like whiskey and cigars. I like a shot of JD in my tea now and then late at night, and there's nothing finer than an occasional meditative smoke after a hard day at the office, even if the office is in the midst of the wilderness. I'm plumb out of booze and down to my last cigar. I suppose...
12. Pleasing Prospects
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There's a smoke pall in the air, reducing visibility. It's the result, I'm told, of a large sagebrush fire in northern Nevada. I can no longer see the Wallowas in Oregon to the northwest, or the Bighorn Crags to the east. The smoky skies add to the somnolence of midsummer...
13. Getting to the Source of Things
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Another day, another dolor. One early evening late in August I decide to head down the hill once again to clear my head, stretch my legs, snap out of the funk that inevitably comes from being cooped up for too long in the cabin. Even living on a mountaintop, despite the all-encompassing views, can become inhibiting if it remains one's only perspective...
14. The Bighorn Crags
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One of the few drawbacks of working a lookout is the fundamental fact of being stuck in one place for an entire summer, in the center of so much wild country that begs to be investigated. As I have said, among the human species' basic instincts is the desire to see new country, the urge to explore. As much as we are possessed by the homing instinct, the desire...
15. The Eagle Bar Fire
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Although there is plenty of time on the lookout for leisurely activities like hiking, reading, and doing nothing at all, work is real and important. Fires occur. Sometimes small fires become big fires. Sometimes a few of these big fires become big news, headlined in major newspapers, eventually mentioned by national news anchors on television, finally having...
16. Hunting, the Fundamental Diversion
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The brush along the trails has turned russet after the desiccatingly hot summer and below-freezing temperatures of late. In fact, autumn hues have appeared everywhere over the last few days—the golds of aspen, tawny browns of meadow grasses, reds of mountain ash berries, and darker browns of the shrubs and brush. Now that the fire season is coming to an...
17. The Habit of Walking
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I'm running low on water again (not to mention food) with only a few cubies left, and since my exact termination date is still unknown I figure I'd better make one last water run. I could get caught up here for a few days in a sudden blizzard and have to wait out the storm before the packer arrives. It's happened to other lookouts, though never to me. So one...
18. The Fires of Fall
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For even as I turn my head northeast, in the direction of Little Soldier Mountain, I see then hear the dot of an aircraft approaching at subsonic speed (400 MPH?), and before I know it the jet roars by not more than fifty feet from the cabin. I can almost see the pilot's face in the cockpit of the F-15, a fiery metal projectile that represents for scientists, engineers, and...
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A wet cold front moves in by mid-September. I walk along the lookout trail and sniff the rich sweet scent of decaying vegetation—the leaves of the brush are fading, falling, dying. It reminds me of what a friend who lived in the backcountry of northern Idaho once said about the onset of sadness that she always felt in autumn. The mass disappearance of life...
20. Last Visitors
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The quiet radio suggests that there is no civilization to return to. That can't be, I insist; there's too much I've been longing for, too much I've been anticipating, these last few days, now that I know for sure the season is coming to an end. I want to walk the chaotic, funky, bohemian streets of the Uptown neighborhood of Minneapolis, chug a frosty cold mug of Summit...
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The temperatures have remained surprisingly cold since the last storm blew in—thirties during the day and twenties at night, with strong winds—so the little snow that fell, an inch or two, remains as it lay a couple of days ago, piled up in cornices in the cabin's windward sides, forming balls in the turned-up boughs of the conifers, dusting the ground with powder. I...
22. The State of Nature
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Ron the packer has just arrived on his horse, leading a string of a half-dozen mules. In addition to my books are a bunch of empty cubies and some trash to be hauled off the mountain after we button up the lookout for the season. So our load will be lighter but just as bulky going down as when we came up. I leave the little leftover canned food for the next...
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Although I officially retired as a firewatcher a number of years ago, I have, through the writing of this book, relived lookout life and revisited Ruffneck Peak and its surroundings continuously. So intensely have I lived on the mountain, in both the literal and figurative senses of the term, that I like to think I have become its genius loci, the guardian spirit of the...
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American Land & Life Series
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Page Count: 255
Publication Year: 2001