The fallen remnants of an old firetower clung like a crown of thorns across the top of Christ Peak. Three years and a mountain away from where it toppled, a new one was planted in ’53 to make its stand against the test of time. The main tower was 70 feet high, built of timber and steel. Topping the structure was an L-4 cab, or lookout house, also known as an ‘Aladdin.’ A big one, it measured 14 x 14 x 10 foot at the rooftop. Windowed on all sides, cover panels provided shade in the summer. In the non-op months of winter, they were lowered and sealed shut.
The design itself was standard Washington State DNR issue, save for the peaked gabled roof that mirrored an earlier style. The variance from the newer hipped-roof was anyone’s guess. Word was, the chief of the construction had his preferences and retro-designed it on the spot. Whatever the case, the silhouette of lookout tower NHLR US #333 WA #33 was unique in all the Western United States and Canada, and that suited the lookout just fine.
What began as a summer lark nineteen years before was answered the following season as a personal call to duty. From the first day she climbed back up the dizzying heights, to this morning’s measured ascent, Rachel Templeton commandeered the little box as if it truly was perched on top of God’s head. To assure that Trinity Valley, her valley, would never again be scarred by fire, she championed a day’s guilt into a life long vigilance. Far below, the valley stretched and flowed across the eastern flanks of the Cascades, lapping up large chunks of Washington real estate and filling it to the brim with nature’s finest needle and bark. If it grew anywhere in the Northwest it was represented here — deep groves of rich sweet wood, root-tipping in the bottom creeks and lunging up the steep rock faces to tree line. She never got tired of the view, and never forgave her responsibility. She was their protector, and they, her charge.
She pulled in the view, sipped on her coffee, and longed for that last cigarette left lonesome in a pack tossed some thirteen years back. The next eight hours were the usual regiment: keep an eye out for boneheads who forgot a breakfast fire was that and nothing more; monitor lightning strikes that could smolder for days before firing up; and check the forecast for afternoon thunderstorms.
It had been a busy season with the real fire season still to come. With plenty of drying time still waiting, each progressive morning had the potential to slip from tranquil to travesty in one puff of smoke. Thankfully, she was nowhere near her high count of confirmed calls, nor anxious to repeat it again. That year taught her to leave the work up top when she climbed down each night. It was exhausting, spending sleepless nights twitching at imagined fires. Unable to medicate, for fear that it would follow her back up the tower, she forced herself to see a local shrink. At one point she even dipped into self-hypnosis and yoga. The sessions with the psychiatrist cost her dearly (drawing from her meager savings to keep it off record) but she left enough baggage on his couch to wear out a porter. To her delight, the hypnosis helped, with an added bonus of ending a pack-a-day habit.
It took an hour and some change to complete three circuits of the catwalk that girdled the cab, all the while punctuating the cadence with an occasional peek through binoculars. In her mind field glasses were a crutch; more to corroborate than observe. You could miss a lot of the world looking through the end of a tube no matter how large it looked. “If God had the sense to give me these steely blues, I should probably use them,” she spouted often after too many drinks. “As if that happens much anymore,” she mumbled, making her way through the entry door and setting her mug on the windowsill. She eyed the radio for a second, thought what the hell, and tried to raise Douglas, a nice kid manning the Hampton Valley tower.
“Doug, do you read?” she barked into the intercom. Silence.
“Big D,” this is Trinity Tower, again, do you read?”
“Copy, Momma Bear. I read you loud and clear, over” a voice popped from the speaker.
Momma Bear my buttski, you little piss-ant, Rachel laughed to herself as she thumbed the microphone. “Don’t think having a mountain between us is going to offer you any protection with that Momma Bear crack.”
“It will do for now, over.”
“And to think I gave you the best summer of my life.”
“You’re going to have to amp it up if you want to keep the young stuff interested, over.”
“What if I leave the young stuff hanging from his proverbial you-know-what, the next time he asks a question?”
“I’d say that would grab the young stuff’s attention, over.”
“Copy that Hampton Tower,” she replied laughing. “Now that we’ve got the universe back in its proper order, how are things shaking in your neck of the woods?”
“It’s pretty quiet over here, we didn’t get that storm you had the other afternoon. I heard you had a few strikes? Over.”
“I had three confirmed but we jumped on them right away. I don’t think they added up to an acre total.”
“That’s good news. I sure hope our luck holds out, over.”
“You’ll do fine. Been studying those topo maps like I said?”
“Every night … well almost every night. I was actually going over them when you gave out a shout, over.”
“And labeling your landmarks under the windowsill?”
“I’ve got so much paper flapping around here I can hardly hear.”
“Good, before you know it, you’ll have every hill and hummock down to the foot.”
“I’m not worried about the damn dirt. It’s what growing on top that makes me nervous.”
“I have every confidence in you, and I’m not saying that just to say.”
“Thanks Trinity Tower, that mean’s a lot to me, especially coming from you.”
She rocked back in the chair and planted two well-worn boots high up on the sill, straddling the coffee mug. “So are we still on for that beer in a month and a half?” she quizzed.
“The first ten are on me, over.”
“Ten? Dear God, I’m feeling older by the minute.” she replied, not lying.
“That’s the purpose, over.”
“Goodbye you little stinkpot, over and out.”
“Take care Trinity. Till tomorrow, out.”
Rachel set the mike down on a burnished spot near the radio and gazed absently out the north bank of windows. It was nice to have a friend again, even if it was only a smattering of radio talk. Good to be looked up to and accepted. People — friends that is — came and went. Went, she could always count on; came was the wildcard. At this point in her life she didn’t expect anyone to sign up for long. She knew all too well, she was a borderline reclusive with a train wreck for a past. When a moment like this dropped in, you stow it away for later.
Good kid, that Douglas. If he knew anything about her he never let on, and she appreciated that. With some people you weren’t with them five minutes before they were pumping you for the story. Their voices would go all soft, like it was some secret between you and them. And always with that look, as if sharing could somehow make you feel better. At least it was becoming less frequent as the years pilled up.
She dropped the chair down on all fours. Time to pull in the sights again. Out of nowhere she caught herself thinking — God, please don’t let him turn into one of those. She thought it a joke at first, and then realized it probably carried too much weight not to be legit. She’d spent entirely too much couch time not to see the signs. Chewing on the subject, she gathered up the binoculars and pegged the speaker volume for incoming calls. Better for her peace of mind to shelve the whole thing for now. She’d see it for herself soon enough.