Stray, half-formed thoughts percolated in my overheated brainpan, building up like the lactic acid burning in my hamstrings and quadriceps, as I, at last and with considerable effort, reached the O’Leary lookout tower, 5 miles and 2,010 feet after beginning the ascent.
Is this hypoxia, or do I always feel this faint after a prolonged uphill run? …
These views, praised all over the Internet, better be freakin’ worth the effort. …
There’s the tower; where’s the ranger? Don’t tell me I made this climb and then won’t get the tower view. …
Did I lose my car key? Nope, still there. …
Not exactly deep thoughts, I know, but stopping at 8,916 feet elevation after a relentless climb that took almost an hour, I was in no shape to muse upon the great philosophical questions one apparently is supposed to mull after reaching a mountaintop. You know, like, what is the nature of temporal reality and the possibility of metaphysical transcendence?
But here I was, camera poised. Time for mandatory vista viewing and dramatic landscape framing, all that Ansel Adams stuff. Craning my neck to the top of the lookout, I saw no movement and heard no stirring. A SUV parked close by was the only indication that a Forest Service employee might be on watch. Only then did I notice the sign affixed to a storage shed to the north of the tower, telling visitors that the operating hours are from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
That explained it. I arrived almost an hour too early. I sort of skulked at this point, so as not to awaken the lookout.
I took photos of the inner basin of the San Francisco Peaks to the east, postcard-clear on this morning. I crouched between some foliage and trained the lens to the north where I was told you could see the north rim of the Grand Canyon. I scurried up some boulders south-east of the tower to zoom in on some overhead shots of the tiny (OK, only by comparison) Sunset Crater.
Instagram-worthy sights dutifully recorded, I was ready to begin the descent to the trailhead when the sound of a metal door rattling came from above. Out walked the lookout, toting a trash bag and clanking down the tower’s 39 steps. Once on terra firma, she smiled and said good morning. If she was at all bent out of shape that some "civilian" may have interrupted her Sunday morning slumber, she did not show it.
“Go on up if you want to,” she said, nodding toward the tower.
Her name was Pam, and she was more than willing to point out sights.
“This horizon, you can see the north rim,” she said. “And see the butte-looking thing over there? Red Butte. There’s a lookout tower there, too. Of course, it’s a little hazy out this morning, so you can’t see the (Painted Desert) too well.”
I climbed the stairs, still out of breath from the run up. That was the only reason why I clasped both sides of the railing on the way up; it had nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with fear of heights and the wind starting to whip around.
Yes, the view was even better from such heights. Especially enthralling was looking down upon the caldera of the Sunset Crater volcano. Alas, views of the Painted Desert, usually so vivid, were reduce to a mere smudge on the horizon. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, but a morning haze permeated the landscape to the north in these first hours after sunrise. If I wanted a panorama of the Painted Desert, well, wasn't that what Google’s for?
On my way down the tower, still with a death grip on the railing, I ran into the lookout worker ascending briskly lugging a 5-gallon water bottle with little strain. She stopped me.
“I didn’t want to bother you.”
She waved that off.
“I don’t get a lot of people up here,” she said. “Maybe on a really busy weekend, maybe 50 total. Not like the guy over on (Mount) Elden (Lookout). He gets hundreds. I may go several days during the week without seeing anybody.”
“Does it get lonely, Mary,” I asked.
“Who’s Mary? My name's Pam.”
“Right,” I stammered. “My brain must be affected by the lack of air.”
“Nah, running up here is supposed to clear your head, they say. I get groups of runners who run up, then don’t even stop and run back down. They do it for training, I guess.”
Pam is from Montana and has been perched on O’Leary since April. She’ll be stationed there until September. She said she likes this assignment because it’s quiet and she enjoys solitude, plus she can drive on the old fire road that serves as the trail when she makes her weekly visit to Flagstaff; she doesn’t have to hoof it out.
As I left, I told her I hope she gets some visitors on this day.
Pam smiled and said, “I don’t care if I don’t.”
I looked forward to my descent, just short of 5 miles, down to the trailhead. It would allow me to take a closer look at the geologic features that I may have missed while huffing and puffing going up. I’m not discounting the steepness of the path, but it is runnable, even for a man staring down the existential dread of middle age.
Actually, at the start, you headed slightly downhill (41 feet for the first mile), and off to the right was a large jagged wall of blackened lava flow. It was close enough to the fire road that you could easily make a quick detour and climb the lava field.
For those trail purists who deride fire roads in favor of singletrack amidst lush vegetation, I say, deal with it. It’s not as if you were traversing a denuded environment along a dusty road. There were plenty of pines, aspens and spruce to satisfy your arboristic fix; they provided ample shade, too.
But, yes, as you climbed -- gaining 449, 429, 597 and 508 feet in miles 2 through 5, respectively -- the trees thinned and the sun beat down. But the views on the six switchbacks to the tower were enough to keep you going.
That, and those gorgeous views.