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mt elden

The road to Mt. Elden Fire Lookout. Photo by the author

Music curled through the saloon in Crown King like a breeze of good will, lyrics a swirl of lively truth-telling, a three-chord aching antidote to firefighter woes and worries. Who scored hazard pay, who missed a fire on a day off, who was sleeping with who—the human shapes of fearlessness and foibles—stirred into the graceful guitar, sturdy drumming and sultry vocals until there was no one left sitting on a bar stool.  We danced like our lives depended on it, leaning left and leaning right, thumbs hooked onto tooled leather belts, cowboy hats tipped back and ball caps turned around, jeans with double-patched knees kicking a two-step or swaying a slow dance, snap button shirts in motion with flirtation and glee. I’d leave it all between last call and final dance to head out past the knots of drinkers on the saloon porch, step along the dirt road past the one-room schoolhouse, sway a little between shadow and moonlight humming along with the band sound that faded as I walked up and up toward the fire lookout. If you leave before the party is over, someone told me once, you can make a clean getaway. I didn’t have sticky complications to escape, really.  It was just a fire season when I didn’t want to beat up my Honda station wagon on the Crown King dirt roads so I left it parked in Mayer that summer, hitchhiked to town and found a way with a patrol unit or tourist to get up the five miles to be on duty at Towers Mountain Lookout. After rich days of solo, I’d start to crave music so I’d walk down at sunset to a Saturday dance, party for hours and walk back up at midnight to Wildflower Saddle where I’d cached an ammo can with a sleeping bag in it.  I might have left town beer dizzy, but an hour of walking sweetened my brain and I’d lie in the pine needles happy to fall asleep with the stars and be wakened by sunrise. Then I’d stroll the last mile to the tower cabin, fry an egg and get up the stairs with my coffee in time to be in service by eight.  It didn’t matter if it was a bad hair day or if the smell of cigarette smoke clung to my wrinkled shirt.  My colleagues, the ravens and clouds, did not care.

I’ve worked eight different fire lookouts in Arizona and recently as I crept up yet another dirt road to be paid to spot smokes, I got to feeling nostalgic about all the dusty miles I’ve driven to mountain tops.  That road to Mt. Elden, for example.  Couldn’t it be a chameleon from season to season: a zippy easy drive one year, a tooth-rattling bouldery back of a dragon the next. I loved the way the road climbed up through cool shadowed pines and then broke open into views of the sculptural elegance of standing dead charred trees.  The road to Bill Williams Lookout also offered a winding path through broad views but with more wildlife.  I spotted a bear there ahead of me one time.  And one morning as I eyed the minutes on my watch, calculating how fast to goose through the curves to be on time, a big turkey popped out of the woods in front of my truck.  It looked back at me and kept trotting up the road. I’d draw near and it would run faster.  It just wouldn’t burst back into the woods.  I slowed.  I stopped. It kept leaning its wattles ahead, skinny legs churning behind.  I imagined it with sneakers and a T-shirt, training for a 5K.  Maybe it wanted to run pounds off to prevent looking tasty for Thanksgiving. Should I gobble at it? Tell it I had some place to be?  It stopped and looked back. I crept forward and it took a deep breath and kept on running mid-road until a place where three giant trees guarded a curve.  There it slowed and stepped almost daintily into the shade. Turkey panic is a funny reason to be late to work.

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Dirt Roads

The road to O'Leary Fire Lookout. Photo by the author

I heard but never saw turkeys in the oak groves when I worked at Turkey Butte Lookout way out south on Woody Mountain Road. That summer there was an NAU jazz group with a regular gig downtown, and I loved to drive in after work past water holes where elk gathered at dusk.  I’d get to Woody Mountain Campground and use the phone booth there, then grab some groceries at the Bashas, find the music downtown and listen to a set or two before creeping back along the familiar dirt road in the dark.  The stars seemed to be jazz musicians up there throbbing with improvisations.

Over the decades I commuted to peaks in a ’64 122s Volvo, a Honda Squareback, a Toyota Tercel and two Tacomas. I never had four-wheel drive, but good clearance and an eye for the path that won’t bang the oil pan got me through.  The last 100 yards to Mt. Elden was a challenge that took a running start to navigate and, at first, I worried about the cinders on the O’Leary Peak road.  What would that be like in monsoon rains? It was firmer actually.  But there was that time an inch-an-hour storm pushed a flow of cinders downhill across the road creating an insurmountable barrier between me and a date I was eager to enjoy on a day off.  I backed up to a wide spot out of the way, locked the truck, let dispatch know the road needed grading and walked to Bonito Campground where a friend picked me up.  Date saved.

The hardest part of the drive to Grandview Lookout was finding patience with the pokey Grand Canyon tourists on the East Rim Drive. I solved that by picking up an Egg McMuffin from the McDonald’s in Tusayan and if I found myself behind a creepy crawly rental car, I’d pull over at a viewpoint and chew breakfast and muse on life and geology awhile. With the road clear again, I’d continue east to the dirt road to the Grandview cabin, put away groceries, and tuck the next book and a cup of tea into a basket so I could keep one hand free on the climb up eight flights of stairs.

This year I’m working a fire lookout close enough to Prescott that I drive back and forth each day.  The government Ford Ranger navigates the steep road with four-wheel drive ease.  I pop in a book on tape and proceed at a speed only a little faster than a Disney theme park ride.  Up a mountain road I go again, meeting washboard and dust, enjoying the sight of bushy-tailed squirrels and lacy oak shadows and smiling at the deer that look up from their chewing. Off to work I go, curving up one more long driveway to my heart’s home, one more solo peak.

Arizona-born Jean Rukkila is a retired fire lookout who writes from coffee houses, camp sites and libraries. See more of her writing at www.flagstaffletterfromhome.com.

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