In the summer of 1956, beat writer Jack Kerouac spent 63 days living and writing inside the Desolation Peak Lookout, a rugged, 14×14 fire lookout perched above 6,000 feet in Washington’s North Cascades. That structure is still there today, one of 96 remaining fire lookouts in Washington state.
“When I started working with these lookouts 25 years ago we had 106,” said Forest Clark, the Western Washington director of the Forest Fire Lookout Association. “So we’re losing them at a rate of about one every four of five years. At one time I think we had 660 in the state, at their heyday [in] 1964.”
Clark estimates he’s spent about 4,000 hours helping to preserve and maintain these relics that are typically only reachable via hiking trail.
“What a fire lookout is: it is a high point usually on a ridge or a summit of a mountain. That peak is used for triangulating with other peaks where other lookouts are set up and they’ll triangulate on a point to get the exact spot of where a fire is.”
The lookouts are no longer being used for their original purpose, but some of them appear to be frozen in time.
“It’s like walking back in an old movie from the 30’s. The old lookout watch person’s chair is still in there. A lot of times the log book might still be sitting on the table. You’ll walk in, take a look at the log book and the last fire they spotted will be listed in their log book. A lot of time the pots and pans are still there.”
Sometimes there’s even a bed or two, which means hikers who get up early enough to claim a lookout can spend the night if the door’s unlocked. It usually is at Park Butte Lookout in the North Cascades, for example.
The views, as you can imagine, are panoramic and gorgeous, which is why Clark says they’re working to expand their rental program. Right now the only reservable lookout is Evergreen Mountain Lookout, which you’ll book online and then grab the keys from the Skykomish Ranger Station. But there are dozens for rent in Montana, Oregon, California, and Idaho.
Clark’s current priority is getting Haybrook Lookout ready for rentals.
“When Heybrook goes online, I think they’re looking at going $65 on that one because it’s pretty deluxe. When I say ‘deluxe,’ I mean you’ve got a real nice bed. It’s all hand-built furniture in there that we all built, on top of rebuilding the lookout. The interior of the lookout is all raw wood. It’s probably the closest thing to a Hilton in the sky you’re gonna get.”
Clark and all of the other lookout fanatics who help with maintenance are all volunteers. They track down the materials, gets them hauled in by helicopter or horse and wield hammers and paint brushes, trying to shield the structures from the harsh elements.
“People give their own gas money. That’s what’s so amazing about this. You’ve got a lot of people who come out on their two days off and they’re out there on their weekends giving their free time to come work on these lookouts pro bono.”
Clark got hooked early. He visited his first Washington fire lookout while on a field trip in eighth grade.
“I was just a kid at the time and we’re on a 67-foot tower and I’m just enamored with this thing and I’m going, ‘Man, I can’t believe they’re going to tear these all down.'”
So he works hard to keep that from happening.
“There are worse things to be doing. A lot worse. What’s better than going out to contribute to part of our local Americana that really, truly needs to be saved.”
Just like Kerouac, Clark has also slept at the Desolation Peak Lookout.
“I guess Jack Kerouac when he was up there, he described the sky as looking like diamonds on black velvet. That’s perfectly described when I was up there. We took our sleeping mats out stared at the stars and the satellites and stuff shooting back and forth across the sky. It was a pretty spiritual experience.”