“All Along the Watchtower”
by Eric Wagner
High Country News, August 25, 2008
“It’s a primitive area, where you’re going boy,” said Japhy. “From my cabin I could see the lamps of Desolation after dark, Jack Joseph reading his geology books and in the day we flashed by mirror to align our firefinder transits, accurate to the compass.”
“Gee, how’ll I ever learn all that, I’m just a simple poet bum.”
Fifty years ago, Jack Kerouac published The Dharma Bums. In it, he recounts his summer of two years previous, when he spent 63 days perched on Desolation Peak in North Cascades National Park as a firewatcher. He was not the only writer to do so–Gary Snyder (Japhy Rider in Bums) and Philip Whelan (Warren Coughlin) also stashed themselves away in huts in the middle of the Northwest nowhere at one time or another, the three of them soaking in the solitude, banging out their urgent revelations.
Kerouac’s account of himself and his fellow rucksack revolutionaries fed what has become an enduring mythos of fire surveillance in the West. But in the five decades since Kerouac first rolled cigarettes with the papers on which he was supposed to record overflights of Russian bombers, firewatch has changed. Save for a few here and there, most of the huts are decommissioned, and now stand as shrines. Firewatch today is primarily aerial surveys backed up by the alert hoi polloi, all as part of a vast web of technological vigilance.
At the center of this web, at least on the weekends, sits Andrew McNair. McNair has been one of the state’s fire dispatchers for the past three years. Every weekend during the fire season, he drives from his Seattle home down to Olympia. There, he pads about the dark and empty Washington Department of Natural Resources building in his stocking feet. He writes short stores and updates his blog. And he mans the fire phone, ready to take your call should you see pillars of smoke or flame.
McNair has invited me to spend a couple of weekends with him as he sits sentry. Using his condition, I’d like to write an article that takes a wry look at this most modern face of
firewatch. Articles on forest fire tend to be about the more action-packed element, but this one would examine the equally critical though somewhat less attended-to side of it, the one that sends the smoke jumpers out in the first place. Also, I’d like to see if it’s possible to wring one last bit of romance from a profession with so artistically distinguished a lineage. After all, as Milton wrote, “They also serve, who only stand and wait.”