We had never been to a fire lookout before this year, but this winter as we began building our tiny house we learned that there were little glass rooms perched on mountain tops that you could reserve like a hotel room, and we became enamored with them.
In April, we had the good fortune of scoring a last minute reservation for Oak Flat Lookout Tower during a trip to the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
In June we camped out on a ridge and photographed the first come first serve Mount Pilchuck Lookout which as expected, had already had some overnight residents by the time we arrived.
In August we arrived exausted at 12:30 am at the hike to Green Mountain Lookout after a demanding Mount Shuksan Summit.
And last but not least, we closed out our first full season of fire lookout exploration with our first multi-night stay at the Bolan Mountain Lookout this past weekend. (Text below image gallery)
Six months ago I sat at my computer sifting through the 40 or so rentable fire towers scattered around the Pacific North-West and stumbled upon one that was available. It was a long time away, it was a long distance away and who knew if we could get the time off of work, but I was familiar with the competitive realm of fire lookout reservations and pulled the trigger, paying $160.00 up front for 4 nights in September.
We got the time off and before we knew it were half way through the 9 hour drive on a rainy September afternoon. We stop in Bend for a beer and coffee but decided to forego our planned route through Crater Lake National Park due to low hanging clouds and rain. Our circuitous route took us through bone dry eastern grass lands with forest fires raging in the distance followed by ancient cinder cones and lava fields before breaking through to the west side of the cascades where the forests grew taller, denser and wetter. We grabbed our reserved key from the ranger station lock box and turned onto the back roads towards the fire lookout.
We learned just how close we were to the California boarder only after we crossed it; the imaginary boundary made visible by a white spray painted line crossed the paved forest road with the letters OR on one side and CA on the other. The forest road lasted only a mile or so in California before turning back into Oregon and deteriorating to dirt.
The expected potholes were mostly avoidable and washboard sections manageable until we cranked out the last right turn that the directions called for and stopped immediately in front of the large steel gate. The grade was steep enough that I nervously let off of the brake with the car in gear, worrying it may start to slide backwards. After passing the gate, the grade steepened and the terrain became rougher. “Do I need 4 wheel drive to get to the lookout?” I had inquired on the phone with the forest ranger a few days prior. “You don’t need 4 wheel drive but a high clearance vehicle would be preferable” she responded. “Of course” I replied as over her last few words that has something to do with the last mile of the TRAIL. Our trusty Honda Civic crushed a 10,000 mile 1 month road trip around the united states in 2008 and has shined ever since, never failing to make it to a destination, regardless of trip reports suggesting a “high clearance vehicle” and thus I never thought twice about our ability to show up unscathed.
With the wheels occasionally slipping on the steep gravel I began to think harder about what that ranger probably said as I spoke over her as well as her choice to use the word “trail” instead of “road.” The sun began to set, the trail began to get steeper, and the cliffs beside our tires began to fall away for longer than I cared to examine. The lack of 4 wheel drive required the implementation of momentum (a.k.a. speed) and the necessity for clearance was clearly not met, except by the frame of our vehicle, all to the dismay of our aging struts, already on their last leg. The last 180 degree switch back placed us a few hundred feet below the tower, with 1 small but steep and severely uneven stretch of trail to the final parking spot. A few unsuccessful attempts at this hill climb led to the decision to unload the extra 400+ lbs of supplies and get a short running start. With struts clunking, wheels spinning and debris flying the vehicle finally crested to a stop at our destination atop 6242’ high Bolan Mountain. It was clear that our vehicle would remain parked until our final departure and we would have to rely on Brian’s vehicle for any day tripping away from the mountain we had planned.
Brian? THE Brian? THE bearded people collector that we wrote about in our “Why Here, Why Now” post? That’s right, the jack of all trades, creator and curator of ASCENICLIFE.COM and new father was gearing up to meet us at this glass room in the sky in a few hours.
After hauling enough gear to establish a long term base camp up the final 40 or so stone stairs to the fire tower and eating a hearty meal of homemade cheddar broccoli soup, darkness fell and Samantha and I laid down for a nap while we awaited Brian’s midnight arrival that was sure to be followed by a few hours of catching up. It was at this point that we were introduced to Marvin, who is the resident mouse of Bolan Mountain Lookout. Our lack of experience with rodent cohabitation meant that our nap was off the table and we would have to find something else to occupy our time as we waited for Brian. We spent this time learning Marvin’s habits and photographing him as he returned to his favorite corner window sill, where a perfectly aimed camera on a tripod would catch him in action.
The stars were vibrant until around 11:00 pm when the moon sank into the ocean and the universe REALLY turned them on. Brian arrived at 12:20 am and we learned that time barely exists in these small glass spaces between sky and earth: The clock read 4:30 am and we all laid down to the sounds of Marvin’s shenanigans that sounded more like a raccoon rummaging through the garbage than a stealthy mouse.
The time of day and day of week quickly faded and one afternoon found us in the middle of Bolan Lake, 3 deep afloat our tandem kayak while Brian wrestled between multiple fishing poles in a hurry to capitalize on the apparent lake surface feeding frenzy that surrounded us. After a while we learned that the similarities between Brian’s artificial fly and the real ones landing on the water’s surface were not close enough, and his hook stayed empty. Looking to relax with a beer Brian swapped out his fly rod, and tossed in a bobber. No sooner did we all crack some seemingly appropriate “Paddle Trail Ale” that we picked up from Crux Brewery on the way through Bend and toast to time well spent that the bobber disappeared and Brian caught (and released) his first and only fish that day.
For a group of backpackers that are used to carrying all necessities on our backs, living out of tiny tents, eating mediocre-at-best freeze dried meals, we thoroughly took advantage of this drive-in glass cabin. We slumbered on a posh air mattress, drank cold and plentiful beverages, cooked on a double burner stove, ate gourmet meals and conversed around a (propane) fire pit.
Days were well spent wandering ridges, redwoods and day tripping to the Pacific coast but we were sure to always return to savor the sunsets, sunrises and dazzling overnight displays that came free with our occupation of that small little glass room on a mountain top.
And as for our car? It makes some new noises and no longer has a working speedometer, making the 9 hour drive home and adventure in its own right.