Back in April, I came down with a nasty cold on a rare sunny weekend. I wanted to be outside, running through forests and clambering over rocks, but since I was confined to the couch, I did the next best thing – running through forests and clambering over rocks in the virtual world.
I was soon immersed in the video game Firewatch, playing as a man trying to leave his troubles behind by working at a fire lookout in the orange-washed Wyoming wilderness (with amazing visual design by Olly Moss). The story is a similar experience to summer camp – relationships that form hot and quick and campfire mysteries that gnaw at the mind in the dark, only to burn down and sputter out at summer’s end.
After all the tense speculation, I felt a little let down by the game (and still couldn’t understand how a guy who could climb cliffs couldn’t manage a chain link fence).
My own experiences with fire lookouts haven’t had the most satisfying endings either.
Two years ago, a summer’s day unexpectedly turned to pouring rain just as we started on a hike up to the Granite Mountain lookout. I was ill-prepared and spent the whole climb shivering and complaining in a chant of “I hate rain. I HATE rain.” I’m sure my friends loved it.
At the top, the ranger staying there showed us a picture of the usual view and map of the surrounding peaks. We just had to trust they were somewhere beyond the impenetrable gray shroud before stomping grumpily back down.
On a summer weekend at the lookout atop Mount Pilchuck, the crowds were so dense enough to bring this solitary hiker anxiety and another quick about face down the mountain.
But since almost 100 fire lookouts still stand in Washington state, all at sites with expansive views, it was inevitable I’d cross trails with one again.
This time it’s the Hidden Lake lookout in the North Cascades national park. The hike starts in your typical Washingtonian dense forest, switchbacks up through meadows, traverses some ice patches, and emerges over a saddle unto a view of the aptly named hidden lake.
We are treated to a clear September day and middling temperatures, warm in the sun and cold in the shade. After a long reading break, we foolhardily decide to head down to the lake for a picnic lunch. We scramble down over the rocks, but the lake never seems to get any closer. Eventually, all traces of cairns disappear and we come to an unappealing dropoff, the lake still seeming just out of reach.
We eat our sandwiches in that place of limbo then climb back out of the lake basin, hopping from boulder to boulder.
The vague trail toward the lookout is up and to the left, the structure itself only coming into view at the end of the scramble. It looks worn and drab until you reach the top of the pile and you see the lookout in its proper context, framed against a 360 view revealing peak after peak after peak bumping away into the distance. Even Nash, who is not a fan of scenery, is impressed.
The lookout was only in commission from 1932 to 1953. From 1960-1980 it was used as the Skagit Alpine Club before being adopted by a volunteer group for historical preservation. They were in the process of installing a new roof, helicoptered in earlier that week, so the structure will survive another winter. However, a sign inside warns that if the building ever burns down it will not be replaced.
The lookout now serves as a first-come, first-serve overnight shelter for hikers. Sure enough, people have already left their gear on the bed inside to stake their claim. I feel a pang of envy – what must the sunrise look like?
I sit at the table and pretend I’m here alone, a radio my only connection to society for months at a time. In a moment, I imagine whittling away the minutes, hours, and days by scanning the horizon for tendrils of smoke, singing, cooking simple meals, and scratching out journal entries, just as Jack Kerouac did on Desolation Peak in 1956. But I can’t pack the expanse of boredom and isolation into that one moment.
My daydream is broken by a man looking for a tool to retrieve his daughter’s cell phone after its fall down a crevice. I go back to taking in the view as a passing tourist.
There are probably more scenic fire lookouts in the state (maybe even nearby Three Finger, Sourdough, or Winchester?), but at this moment I can’t imagine what that might look like. For once, my fire lookout story has a proper climax.
- List of Washington Fire Lookouts
For those interested in answering the question at top.
- Hidden Lake Lookout Trail Guide
A moderate 8-mile out-and-back hike with 3300 foot elevation gain.
- Firewatch Game
A strange and beautiful experience requiring no cardio, available on PC, PS4, and Xbox One.
- Alone on a Mountaintop by Jack Kerouac
Autobiographical essay of being a fire lookout on nearby Desolation Peak. He also relates his experience at the end of Dharma Bums and beginning of Desolation Angels.