“Do you get used to being alone on top a mountain for months?” I wondered aloud.
“It got easier after the first three years,” she said.
For eight summers she has lived on top of a mountain in the heart of the Blue Mountains. Her bedroom/kitchen/living room is surrounded by air and sky on all four sides. In the time between short summer nights, she scans the horizon for smoke. Even as we talked she pointed out a weird cloud that she was keeping her eye on.
Before I arrived at the sun-baked shack on a high ridge, I didn’t know there were working fire lookouts left in Washington State. Now I was dreaming of becoming one myself. I thought I could handle being alone for so long if it meant waking up on a mountain top. And besides, this wasn’t just any mountain top. From the square wooden room balanced on top of the highest ridge in Washington’s lofty southeast corner you can see halfway across the state.
The immense views are why the Forest Service still hires a lookout at this spot in the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness. It’s one of just a handful of working fire lookouts left in the state, and it’s still there because it’s cost-effective. When it’s clear, you can see Mount Stuart, and even Umtanum and Manastash Ridges near Ellensburg. A short distance east were spectacular ranges I’d never even heard of, like the Seven Devils in Idaho – a wall of volcanic rock rising from the depths of Hell’s Canyon.
I could get used to this, I thought, as I surveyed the stash of tea, coffee, books, and house plants in the lookout shack, and the empty valleys and remote peaks on the horizon.
I wasn’t the only one intrigued by life atop the mountain. A camo-clad teenager and his mustached uncle who had just finished a three-night trek through the range were also on top of the mountain. The uncle and the fire lookout knew the Blues intimately, and they compared their favorite ridges, peaks, springs and loop trips.
The Blues are composed of porous basalt. The melting snow trickles into the rocky ridge tops, and eventually dribbles back to the surface in countless springs scattered throughout the blue mountains. Earlier that day, I passed the highest elevation spring in the Blues, at nearly 6,000 feet. It’s just a few hundred feet below the top of a long arcing ridge that runs from Oregon Butte to Diamond Peak. Despite it’s height, cold clear water still trickled out of the spring in late August of an especially dry summer.
Because of these springs, its possible to make multi-day trips in the Blues without hardly leaving the tops of the 6,000-foot-high ridges. If you spend enough time in the Blues, the fire lookout said, you’ll decide on which spring has the tastiest water. If you spend even more time there, you’ll have arguments about the best spring.
The fire lookout and the guy with the mustache argued about whether Oregon Butte spring or Panjab spring tasted best. Each acknowledged that the others favorite spring was pretty good, but they stuck with their separate choices.
I had spent months driving all over the state, and sampling the more popular trails in each area. Now, I wanted to explore one spot until I knew every drainage, peak, and spring, like these wizards of the Blue Mountains. Maybe I should become a fire lookout, I thought. Maybe I should move to Dayton and learn the long trails and game tracks that ramble for miles along the ridges in the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness.
I asked the lookout everything I could think to ask about life as a fire lookout. And that’s when she said it got easier after the first three summers. My dreams of drinking from every spring in the Blues dried up.
I stuck to the popular trails and shorter hikes in the Blues while researching my guidebook. I might not make the five-hour drive back to the Blue Mountains any time soon, and I’m probably not going to become a fire lookout either. But the locals and their love of the Blues did inspire me to explore more thoroughly the wild places around me.