Amy Pearson’s writing and photography offer a peek into a life of silence and introspection at the Lower 48’s most remote fire lookout
Story by Clare Menzel | Photography by Amy Pearson
The alarm sang every morning at 7 a.m., a redundancy in a room with 26 windows, none of which obstructed the tenacious flood of light at daybreak. It was the first domino in a string of rituals for fire lookout Amy Pearson, who rose early most days during the summer of 2015 to report the temperature, humidity, and wind to dispatch. She used a radio to communicate from the top of Jumbo Mountain, elevation 8,284 feet, the most remote lookout in the contiguous United States.
Every summer, a single soul hikes over 45 miles northwest through the Bob Marshall Wilderness from the Meadow Creek trailhead to the lookout, a white, single-room cabin lined with windows and a wraparound porch. Working with a second lookout stationed closer to the Spotted Bear Ranger Station, they monitor fires in the approximately 1.2 million-acre district, keeping detailed weather records, searching for smoke, and pinpointing the progress of any blazes. The job itself is not much more complicated than mastering “old-school” tools like an Osborne Firefinder, getting to know every roll of terrain within sight, and looking at trees. The demands are different.
As Norman Maclean famously wrote in A River Runs Through It, “It doesn’t take much in the way of mind and body to be a lookout. It’s mostly soul.”
Pearson, a poet and student of Buddhism who holds a Ph.D. from Arizona State University in organizational theory, the study of how humankind orders the world, is driven to understand her soul. The 34-year-old daughter of a farmer from Conrad, she usually does so outside.
While earning her master’s degree from the University of Montana, Pearson spent five summer seasons in Glacier National Park as a trail crewmember and ranger. After completing her formal education, she drifted to Japan, where she taught English and observed the Buddhist way of life. When she returned stateside, she found a job at the Izaak Walton Inn, in Essex, where she made a friend who worked for the Flathead National Forest as a packer. He told her about Jumbo, and she decided “it was the only place I wanted to be.”
“It’s pretty unique – it’s perched on top of a mountain in the depths of the Bob,” said Mark Manning, a Northwest Montana Lookout Association board member. “It works well for someone who’s introspective, able to occupy their own head for long periods of time and not go crazy, and who has a love of the wilderness. It definitely helps to be artistic.”
Pearson, an ebullient, lifelong poet, had already published some poems and academic essays, and she brought along the camera she’d purchased in Japan. As a Buddhist lookout friend recommended, she went to Jumbo Mountain without expectations for her work. But on the other side of her 98-day-long encounter with the biggest fire season in recent history, Pearson, now an adjunct professor at Flathead Valley Community College, realized that she wanted to share the art she captured on the mountaintop. She had tired of the “romanticism regarding my job,” and of the Thoreau-inspired wilderness idyll. She hopes her work will offer an honest take.
This summer, she opened a show called 100 Days of Solitude at Ceres Bakery in downtown Kalispell, which she’s now hoping to turn into a speaking tour. An essay she wrote will appear in the fall issue of As It Happens, a FVCC academic journal, and a poem titled “i got to use this pen” will be included in the second installment of Poems Across the Big Sky: An Anthology of Montana Poets.
“When you get away from society as we know it and you have that time and that space to just be, to look around and observe what’s going on, something really powerful can happen,” she said. “And I think we can remember who we are, and that we’re okay as we are, that we don’t need to scurry around as much as we do. For me, the lookout was the ultimate experience of that — I’m just sitting here on this mountain, and I’m fine. I’m with myself. Being with ourselves is an important lesson, and I hope my work can speak to that.”
When Pearson first decided to become the lower 48’s most secluded fire sentry, friends warned her that the stream of interchangeable days would be dulling and the din of silence deafening.
“I said, ‘Well, I’m independent, I’m brave, I’m strong,’” Pearson says. “But it’s learning to be comfortable with yourself. It’s like a constant, forced meditation.”
Her writing became a regular act of self-reflection. She settled into an easy rhythm of crafting poems and essays in the morning, “when the dewiness of the hours set aside for sleep are still upon me,” as she has written. “I don’t feel pressured to make sense, which is nice because most of the things I care about, don’t. Why would you shut yourself up in a glass house on the top of a mountain alone? I don’t know. And I think that’s why I’m here.”
In a poem titled, “know yourself,” Pearson wrote, “know yourself she said/ i do i said/ 22-year-old rookie/ precocious brunette/ my mind/ sees things/ with no borders/ no place to go/ said hallelujah to the void/ (i once was lost, but)/ then i got to Pearl Basin/ then i got to Jumbo Mountain/ then i got to use this pen.”
She also did yoga, kept company with goats and grouse, boiled coffee, and danced to music. She relayed messages from firefighters and carried bear spray to the pit toilet. She listened to the silence, which arrived on southwesterly winds, and stared at the sky and clouds, often looking “all around in every direction [to see] there were no human beings” and feeling “deep joy at being the only one.”
After mornings full of writing and her lookout duties, afternoons felt long. Days stretched until 10 p.m., and she often walked the cliffs as dusk fell. She got to know the work of Gary Snyder, a Zen scholar and poet of the Beat Generation who twice worked as a lookout in northwestern Washington after college graduation. A collection of Snyder’s poetry has a permanent home at Jumbo, and, “naturally,” Pearson said, “I read the whole thing and felt really inspired by his notion that after traveling the world and having all of these experiences, he decided it was a good idea to settle into a place and devote yourself to knowing it.”
She has never modeled her path after his, but there are many parallels — “my experience has also been a lot about the woods … Japan, poetry, teaching, and Zen,” she said.
The intrinsic meditation of a remote lookout’s repetitive daily schedule, starting with the 7 a.m. alarm, reminded Pearson of her time in Japan. Life became ritualistic, something she could get lost in as the deliberate performance of rote tasks occupied her scurrying mind. She also rationed food, water, and cigarettes, which she says demanded a special mindfulness.
“Existential questions/ come to mind/ i boil water,” a poem titled “i boil water” reads in its simple entirety.
There was the mundane, but there was also the “epic fire season,” as Pearson described it, during which 97,800 acres burned in the Spotted Bear district. Both provided inspiration. The lack of stimulation and quiet wilderness in early summer had made her sensitive to voracious, violent fire. By August, oppressive, apocalyptic smoke settled in, flames tickled the base of Jumbo Mountain, and trees exploded in the heat.
She wrote that, aside from the way she rigidly quantified fires during work, she often saw them not as a tangible phenomena, but felt “the outlines of them; an incapacity to fully breathe, a driving sense of urgency, an overriding nod to forthrightness in the midst of calamity, and colors like you have never seen.”
One August day, she went to inspect a tree that had ignited 50 feet downhill.
“It smelled like death/ like the process of death/ everything was dead/ or was dying,” she later wrote in a poem called “empty like me.” One of Pearson’s most evocative descriptions of her environment follows: “skeletal arms and skeletal legs/ wrapped fervently in bright orange silk/ the heat of the day/ the heat of the wind.”
She didn’t return to Jumbo this summer. Her job at FVCC is too captivating, and she feels fortunate to be teaching. She’s looking into professorships across the country, but she says she can’t bear to leave the mountains. They still have much to teach her, as do her students here. “You try to ask questions that will get people to think, while asking yourself the same questions and avoiding existential crisis,” she said, reflecting on teaching.
She’ll keep writing, keep asking herself and her students questions, always returning to the simple self she found “staring at the void/ that gigantic void,” from her perch in the glass house.
your life is
By Amy Pearson
boiled coffee in the morning
a swift glance towards the unending horizon
a lookout for that griz and cubs
grouse chirping on the rock ledge
sunlight streaming through the windows
weather reports to give, to receive
an eye on the smokes calmed down since last night
a rationing of cigarettes
a dream of family and friends
a dream of foreign lands once seen
a rationing of water
tired legs and creaky knees
a trip down to the pit toilet, bearspray in hand
an open day set out before you,