Photograph by Rory McNamara

Keep an Eye Out: Lucas MacMath, a fire lookout for 40 years, tends to the lookout at Marin County’s Mt. Barnabee.

Lighthouses of the Land

Why sex, poetry, and Zen are no longer on the Lookout

By Gretchen Giles

Somewhere outside of Cazadero on a glum summer day, Ed Poe pulls his old Dodge pickup to a stop. Locked with a wrap of chain, a simple forestry gate blocks the road. Behind it, a family of wild turkeys scatters hurriedly back into the brush, the tom braving outstretched wings as he tries to scare away our group of doubtless predators.

A heron slips gracefully from the sky toward a small nearby pond. Berry bushes heavy with blossoms and fog-wet leaves line the drive. Amid this bucolic roadside display, Ed Poe turns merrily to me.

“Now that I’ve shown you the way, young lady,” he laughs, “you do realize that I’m going to have to assassinate you!”

I chuckle. That’s funny. But he means it.

Humorous death threats abound because Mr. Poe–a courtly 77-year-old gentleman whose WW II duty and 40 years of Forest Service history make him a firm Mister–is taking a photographer and this reporter up to the secretive reaches of Pole Mountain.

The last active fire lookout tower in Sonoma County, Pole Mountain is now a nonprofit corporation, privately funded and selectively staffed. Mr. Poe was once its president and keeps reminding himself that he should sometime resign from the board all together. The Pole Mountain lookout’s entire mission is to serve the select public living in the narrow canyons near Cazadero, though it perhaps cannot be overly emphasized that the general public is not welcome here.

Mr. Poe unlocks and opens the gate, and we climb back into the Dodge. Over the next 45 minutes, the truck will buck and rut and strain its way up just a few miles of raw road, passing through three private land tracts as we unlock many more gates. One of them is adorned with a skull-and-crossbones image; another bears the lonely protest, “Trespassers prohibited. Police take note.” Were the sky clear, it’s entirely possible that we, teetering at 2,800 feet above sea level, could note the police, but it is highly unlikely that they could note us.

The road that we’re negotiating was built partly by subdividers obliged to put tractors through to reach homes on the other ridge; partly by firefighters like Mr. Poe himself, who cut stretches of it in order to battle the Magic Mountain fire that burned near Duncans Mills all the way to the coast in 1964; and partly by detainees of the now-abandoned Black Mountain Prison Camp.

“Yep,” Mr. Poe replies laconically as he works to keep the steering wheel straight, estimating that the camp disbanded only five years ago. “They did good work, too.”

This surprising information is almost forgotten as we round a corner dense with tan oak, suddenly bursting through the wet air into the high, clean sunshine. Past a pond, up and down more of the rocky red earth, and there it sits, the unlikely grandeur of the Pole Mountain lookout.

Painted the familiar mocha brown that the Forest Service favors, the lookout stands about 20 feet off the ground. A short staircase leads up to the shelter, with its 360 degrees’ worth of windows that on a clear day offer views from the Farallon Islands to Lake County to San Francisco to Mt. Diablo.

Most important to the residents who help fund Pole Mountain, the lookout looks directly down on the curvy and mostly impassable hillsides stretching from north to Ft. Ross and beyond. Springy new vineyards are visible to the uninformed eye; the dope farms that the Pole Mountain lookout regularly observes and ignore are not.

The lookout’s tiny interior is mainly spray-painted black to cut down on glare. An Alidade fire finder, the 80-year-old stationary compass used by lookouts in conjunction with geological maps to accurately pinpoint smoke, dominates the tiny room.

Exactly three feet of space on each of the Alidade’s four sides comprise the rest of the interior. Poorly laid AstroTurf-type carpeting buckles underfoot, and a naked light bulb hangs from the ceiling’s middle, directly above the map. A solar-powered electrical cord hangs lonely, awaiting this year’s lookout’s necessary radio.

There is no inside water, there are no books, and no single other distraction exists outside the view.

This is a breathtakingly sexy place.

Minds of the Mountains

Typically built on the highest available peaks, fire lookout towers live large in the poetic imagination. In fact, it’s possible to assert that Beat poets Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Jack Kerouac wouldn’t have attained such Buddhist states of enlightenment had they not each served their time upon lookouts in their youth.

According to John Suiter’s recent book, Poets on the Peaks, Snyder was the first among his set of heady young intellectuals drunk enough on William Blake, Henry David Thoreau, and the lure of solitude to hitchhike west, hotly intent on summers spent all alone on a mountaintop. By age 23, Snyder–who now teaches at UC Davis when not living in a mountain hermitage near the Sierras–had worked an enormous number of outdoor jobs and was ready for a stint with the relatively well-paying, low-profile rigors of the Forest Service. Catching random rides, he arrived in Oregon and was assigned to the Sourdough Mountain lookout, now a mecca for fans hoping to beg a splinter from the fabled tower.

Snyder thrived in the loneliness of a job that sent a young man off with six weeks’ worth of food around July 4th and kept him away from all human contact not available by radio until the first snows randomly called an end to fire season. It was there that he began in earnest the Buddhist practice that has sustained him for life, reading and writing voraciously when not scanning the landscape every 20 minutes of each day-lit hour for smoke, and hunkering down into the life of the mind.

Described by Kerouac as “one hundred and eighty pounds of poet meat,” Whalen too found immense treasure in Zen contemplation when he followed Snyder up the mountain in 1953 to become the lookout at Oregon’s Skagit Peak. While the job required his poetic meat to hike a mile or two, he found the solace of his stints as a lookout to be the perfect recipe for what became a full-fledged immersion into Buddhism, the poet eventually becoming a monk until his death just last summer.

Kerouac, not surprisingly, found it an itchy job. Halfway through his first (and only) lookout summer, he tragically ran out of tobacco. He also ran out of people, ideas, and fresh things to do. He, in fact, went halfway to stir crazy, choosing to hike miles away from his outpost to retrieve a can of Prince Albert tobacco and to hear the local gossip. Kerouac, however, died a young drunk; Whalen a wise old monk; and Snyder seemingly has no intention of going anywhere.

Could the power of the lookout experience prove more than that?

Mountain Mistresses

Henry Isenberg, the cofounder of the Forest Fire Lookout Association, gets almost tender when sketching the personality of the lookout of yore. By phone from Massachusetts, where he is a full-time lookout, he says, “It had to be the kind of person who could hike 20 miles to a fire after spotting it and not think anything of it. He had to be able to sleep right there afterwards, and then hike back to his post. The kind of person who could find food and cook it for himself, and collect rainwater to drink.”

The first documented fire lookout wasn’t a mountain man, but rather a woman, the cook for a lumber outfit who went twice a day up a “dead tree with a couple of boards nailed to it,” according to Isenberg, to check that the company’s stock was thriving. Local women have traditionally been the fire watchers in rural areas, allowing the men to work outside while they dashed up and down their posts between meals and childcare and laundry.

During the first and second world wars, women became even more active as watchers, not only checking for smoke but also for enemy aircraft. Today, a woman tends the tower on Mt. Tamalpais; Pole Mountain alternates male and female lookouts.

Regardless of gender, it takes a certain type of person to be good at this isolating job. “It’s a disease,” Mr. Poe jokes seriously. “It’s something that gets to you. And it’s hard work. As a kid, I had to do some relief lookouts, and I didn’t like it at all.”

Isenberg concurs. “It takes the kind of person who doesn’t mind being alone,” he says. “You don’t get a lot of visitors. People don’t take to the woods like they used to.”

Lucas MacMath, 58, who tends Marin County’s Mt. Barnabee tower reflects, “It is very tense. The first thing getting up in the morning, you’re tuned in to the weather, the temperature and the humidity and wind, because those are the factors that really promote fire. The regimen of discipline required . . . ,” he shakes his head.

“I’ve had five primary jobs in my life,” MacMath continues, “and this is the most responsible of all of them. It’s also one of the most tedious and difficult to do, because there’s nobody there. The only way that anybody knows if you’re doing a good job or a bad job would be maybe if, after five fires, you never got the first call. They can only know by how you sound on the radio, if you’re with it, and that kind of thing. It really requires a lot of attention.”

Calling It In

California’s fire lookout towers have gone the way of the lighthouse into the dim recesses of state-sponsored obsolescence. Technology has mostly usurped them, and the politics of economics have completely exhausted them. Built mainly in the 1920s and during the Civilian Conservation Corp’s stout efforts against the Depression, the country’s active fire lookouts once numbered some 8,200 nationwide. Today, less than 2,500 lookout towers are left intact throughout the country, numbering far fewer when one excludes those used for nightly rentals or souveniring trips.

California once had upwards of 600 lookouts, 200 of which remain, only 30 of them still active. The state funded a full 22 of them until just this May. Governor Davis’ recent savaging of the state budget eliminated that remaining quorum, and today only those supporters canny enough to get nonprofit status for their tower or to cut a sweet deal with the fire coffers of their resident county are able to keep their lookouts open.

Pole Mountain is one of the canny; Mt. Barnabee, one of the sweet.

Conventional wisdom now says that ordinary citizens armed with cell phones are generally just as effective as a trained firefighter, a camp cook, or a Zen poet. Fire agencies, particularly in California, are making the uneasy economic decision to save some $700,000 annually by trusting the public to call for help when they see flames, rather than paying $10,000 to $15,000 a season to have professionals scan the horizon.

“You’re delving into an area that’s so gray that no one wants to admit that they’re either right or wrong,” Isenberg says. “Some states tried replacing lookouts with aircraft and found that it was both too expensive and overly efficient. In a stationary tower, all a guy has to do is turn around. If you fly 50 miles and the fire starts after you’ve just passed it, you have to turn around and make your 50-mile loop before you see it, whereas the fire lookout could see it from its inception.

“Everyone’s hitting the money wall,” he sighs. “They’re maintaining them, but the staffing isn’t what it used to be.”

And as for Joe and Jane Public rushing to the rescue, Isenberg snorts, “I had a fire, less than a mile away, right along the interstate, and no one called it in. People are indifferent; they don’t want to be involved. They figure that somebody else will call it in, don’t worry. Even when you see a car accident, how many people call those in?”

Yet Mr. Poe agrees that a motorist with a cell phone stumbling stupidly across a smolder can sometimes be effective, though Pole Mountain remains too outlying to trust to fate. “The board and I have predicted that there will come a time when the lookout isn’t necessary, but in a rural area like this at this time, it is still needed,” he says stoically.

Forest for the Trees

According to MacMath, the Native Americans were the first to use the idea of natural height for fire safety. While they didn’t build simple, utilitarian structures like the government, they did send a scout out each summer to camp out, watching for burns. Unlike modern man, the natives didn’t try to stem the fire, but sensibly fled, the lookout running down from his peak to alert his neighbors that it was time to pack the village up out of nature’s way.

Years of hanging stalwart, a King Canut to the natural ravages of flame, have put the fire lands of the United States in a particular bind. Where we once stemmed each lick of flame, we’re now inclined to let nature do her job of clearing “fuel”–new growth and underbrush–from the forest floor, fuel that we have been allowing to grow lush during decades of no-burn exactitude.

But during this time of steadfast fire fighting–Mr. Poe roughly estimates that he himself participated in combating “a couple three thousand fires”–we have also grown in population and built our homes smack in the middle of natural burn zones.

MacMath, who has been a fire lookout on and off for 40 years, points to Marin County as being uniquely situated to understanding what that means, citing the urban Oakland hills and national seashore Mt. Vision fires as being the twin mirrors of the absolute worst.

“Marin County is sitting right amid these two types of fires,” MacMath says, assuring that in reality, our area experiences “very few fires. I once did work at a lookout where there were so many that the adrenaline rush became a real workaday kind of thing, but here it’s quite unusual.”

Admitting that he’s mistaken dust raised by commuting sheep herds and tractors for fire, MacMath says, “Maybe once a month I’ll have a fire–smoke that’s legit, that needs some action.”

Pole Mountain sighted about five legitimate smokes last summer, and Mr. Poe avers that if the lookout there catches even just one fire, “it’s worth it.” Driving back down from the tower, he indicates a pretty forest stand on the left. The hollow is shady and quiet, the trees appear healthy, and the undergrowth is thin.

“They took half a million board feet [of lumber] out of here,” he says, “and it looks pretty good. Forests can be managed and they can be logged, if you do it right. People say that they want fires, but they don’t. But there’s nothing wrong with burning if it’s done at the right time.”

Having an allegiance to the Forest Service that began with his father and extends to his son, a 28-year fire veteran, Mr. Poe won’t comment on the record about forest-management issues. But he does hate to see the end of the lookout era. “After we have a couple of fires,” he predicts, “they’ll find a way to pay for them.”

From the July 10-16, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.