Solitary Pursuits

Glynn Thompson watches for smoke and ponders life at the Lemmon Rock Lookout

Back around 423 A.D., in what is now Syria, old St. Simeon the Stylite built a 60-foot-high pillar with a platform on top. He climbed up and installed himself there for the next 37 years.

If he went up to get away, it didn't work--his stunt drew more tourists to his desert solitude than ever, and he was known to inspire conversions just by sitting up there.

Simeon could be the patron saint of the fire lookout, a venerable Western occupation that continues even in this age of satellites, GPS and other high-tech methods of sniffing out potential wildfires on our brittle public lands.

Arizona still has 72 active or semi-active fire lookouts, meaning they are staffed at least intermittently, especially during fire season or times of high-risk and emergency.

Only Oregon, with 106, and Florida, with 130, have more active fire lookouts than Arizona, according to the Forest Fire Lookout Association, a group that advocates for the preservation of lookouts and their traditions. What's more, Arizona has a higher ratio of active to standing lookouts than most states--72 active or semi-active out of 83 still standing. Contrast that with California, where 198 lookouts still stand, but just 50 of those are active.

Only a small handful of lookouts classified as active are stilled manned full-time for the entire fire season, roughly April 1 to Sept. 1--and one of these rare huts happens to be lashed to a rock overhang in the Santa Catalinas above Tucson, overlooking as far as the urban haze will allow.

The Lemmon Rock Lookout, at 8,820 feet, has been occupied for about five months per year for going on 70 years, and the 14-by-14 shack's current resident, now in his second season, is one Glynn Thompson, writer, philosopher and the closest thing the sky-island territory has to a pillar-sitting monk.

The 58-year-old Thompson looks the part of the hermit, with his shaggy white beard and utilitarian clothes. He fumbled with a cold pipe for a few hours on a recent weekday, the air around Lemmon Rock a mere 85 degrees, telling me about himself and what had led him to a part-time life of solitude that most of us couldn't take for too long.

He certainly is taking it better than Jack Kerouac did. The most famous of the Beats (the poets Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen also worked as lookouts), Kerouac spent a few months on the aptly named Desolation Peak in Washington's North Cascades in the mid-1950s. He found out quickly that he wasn't the man he'd thought he was.

"When I get to the top of Desolation Peak and everybody leaves on mules and I'm alone I will come face to face with God or Tathagata and find out once and for all what is the meaning of all this existence and suffering and going to and fro and in vain," Kerouac writes in his 1965 novel Desolation Angels. "... But instead I'd come face to face with myself, no liquor, no drugs, no chance of faking it ... and many's the time I thought I'd die, suspire of boredom or jump off the mountain ..."

In 1968, working as a lookout on Atascosa Peak in the Tumacacori Highlands near Tubac, Edward Abbey faced a similar reality, writing in his journal: "Alone on the mountain and feeling oh so desolate. ... And this is what I think I love? Solitude? Well ... sometimes."

Thompson is definitely following in the tradition of Kerouac and Abbey, though he seems to be handling the solitude a bit better.

During his first season on the rock, Thompson finished the first volume of a planned trilogy of semi-autobiographical novels, published as a print-on-demand and available through, titled The Raving Eunuch Monks.

The book has so far sold 500 copies by word of mouth alone, he said.

Born in Lubbock, Texas, Thompson spent time in the Navy, served in Vietnam and fought forest fires out of Winnemucca, Nev., for many years while working for the Bureau of Land Management, where he also checked up on old mining claims and their crusty, sometimes violent inhabitants.

After retiring from government service (he ended his career with the Department of Labor, busting sweat shops in downtown Los Angeles), he went back to school and got his doctorate in philosophy. Then he went up to Lemmon Rock to put it all in perspective.

"It has allowed me to stop, and, seriously, with no distractions, figure out ... well, for some reason, I'm pretty damn happy," he says, admitting that during his first months on the rock, he spent a lot of time in his head, going over the last half-century of his life, looking for patterns, justifications, etc.

He doesn't do that so much anymore; he worked through it, a tough task he recommends.

"Everybody is a fire lookout at heart," he says. "Everybody would benefit, especially at my age, from this opportunity--you will either walk out smiling, or you'll jump over the edge."

On the face of the lookout shack, the side that stares down on the vast pine and boulder land below, someone long ago stenciled the words "No Diving," as if aware of the risks of so much war with oneself.

Fire lookouts like Lemmon Rock have been around, in one form or another, for a very long time, but they really started to proliferate in the 1930s. Responding to several huge, unprecedented backcountry forest fires during the first third of the 20th century, government foresters enacted the 10 a.m. policy, decreeing that every fire on public lands must be quelled by 10 a.m. the morning after its initial spark. The fire lookout was an integral component of that policy. We are, in many ways, paying for it now, with overgrown, drought-ridden forests just waiting for a slash of dry lightning or a tossed cigarette to molt and be reborn.

Around the same time, the stock market crashed, and so, too, the job market, hence the birth of the New Deal and the Civilian Conservation Corps, which put thousands of out-of-work Americans in the national forests building trails, fire breaks and, in some of the most remote areas in the country, fire lookouts.

Lemmon Rock was built by a CCC crew in the early 1930s, replacing a more primitive lookout on Mount Lemmon that had stood since 1913. It has been upgraded a bit since then, but mostly, it's the same as is was 70 years ago, down to the decidedly low-tech alidade Thompson uses to line up his telescope when spotting for smoke.

Every half inch on the alidade equals a half-mile on the ground, and if he sees smoke anywhere, he calls down to dispatch and tells them about it. The color of the smoke is important, telling a spotter what kind of fuel is feeding the fire--gray for light brush with sage, yellow for pine, black for heavy brush and oak, etc.

He doesn't see smoke very often, but Thompson is kept busy during the rainy season plotting lightning strikes on a map and then going back a week at a time to make sure there aren't any lightning-sparked fires smoldering out there, waiting for the right wind and heat conditions to flare up.

One morning a few weeks ago, two hikers came running up to the lookout and said they'd seen smoke nearby at a trail junction. Thompson went and checked it out and found a left-behind campfire smoking in the dry forest. He was able to put out, but the potential was terrifying.

"If they hadn't reported it, because of its location and the weather conditions, we might not have seen it for quite a while; we would have had a big fire," he says. "They are heroes."

Thompson says he hopes to return to Lemmon Rock every year for as long as he can.

"It results in an overall calm, and I am still getting that feeling, so it is having its initial impact on me, and I take that as a good sign," he says.

Unlike Kerouac and Abbey, Thompson has settled in. He says the romantic image of the poet on the mountaintop actually goes against type for most lookout occupants. Most, he explains, aren't seekers, aren't roiling with questions and equivocations and nerves; rather, they are people who are secure in what they believe, who they are and what they want--and who just happen to prefer to be alone in the woods.

Thompson is secure that there is nothing out there that is absolute--"Anyone looking for absolute truth would do better setting unicorn traps," he says--and yet he admits, with seeming contradiction, that there may be something absolute out there.

"But I do feel a presence of some kind ... especially up here," he says.

It's comforting to know that he's up there, trying to bridge that philosophical gap while searching for smoke and fire.

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