A Talent for Sloth
The work has changed remarkably little over the course of the past century, except in its increasing scarcity. Ninety percent of American lookout towers have been decommissioned, and only around five hundred of us remain, mostly in the West. Nonetheless, when the last lookout tower is retired, our stories will live on. Jack Kerouac worked a summer on Desolation Peak in the North Cascades, in 1956, an experience he mined for parts of two novels, The Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels. He secured the job through a recommendation by his friend the poet Gary Snyder, who worked summers on two different lookouts in the same national forest and wrote several fine poems about that world, “up there above the clouds memorizing various peaks and watersheds.” During the ’60s and ’70s, that old raconteur Edward Abbey worked at various postings, from Glacier National Park to the Grand Canyon. He wrote two essays on the subject and made a fire lookout the main character in his novel Black Sun, the book he claimed he loved most among all his works. And Norman Maclean, in his great book A River Runs Through It, wrote a lightly fictionalized story about his one summer as a lookout on the Selway Forest in northern Idaho, over the Bitterroot Divide from his home in Missoula.
By Philip Connors, Lapham’s Quarterly