Along For The Ride: The Man in the Lookout Tower (Part 19)
The Man in the Lookout Tower
For the second time, I traveled west from New Mexico into Arizona.
This time, I wouldn’t be rushing to Flagstaff to attend an event. Instead, I would take the time to explore and to get to know Arizona a little better.
My westward push from New Mexico lasted four hours, as I traveled into Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in search of a place to spend a few nights.
I make every effort to seek out places to camp while there is still daylight. In fact, I consider this an imperative. It is, first and foremost, a safety concern. In daylight, I am able to scout the perimeter, and it’s easy to see if I am within close proximity to structures, suspicious vehicles, or other campers. I also familiarize myself with the terrain, available space, and get to know my exits should I need to depart in an emergency.
Knowing your surroundings yields a much better sleep.
The sun was getting low in the sky, so I was concerned that I wouldn’t find a campsite in time. Fortunately, after traveling along a forest road for roughly ten miles, I found Los Burros Campground, which immediately put my mind at ease.
Los Burros Campground was located in a vast, grassy meadow surrounded by rolling hills dotted with pine trees. It consisted of an unpaved loop containing roughly a dozen flat campsites equipped with a fire ring and a picnic table. There was one building on-site containing vault toilets, and a dilapidated, historic ranger station, but the area was otherwise primitive.
When I arrived, free-range cattle were quietly grazing and wandering around.
Only a couple of the campsites were occupied, one of which was the camp host with whom I needed to register, but did not need to pay, as it was a free campground.
The whole setting was serene, quiet, and very clean. From what I could discern, based on some posted trail maps, it appeared to be a popular destination for mountain bikers and equestrians.
I set up camp within a spacious clearing, flanked by a picnic table with a fire ring and a rustic corral for horses and livestock.
While I love settling in at a campsite for a few days, sitting by a campfire, cooking, or spending time in my hammock, I have trouble sitting still. This is where I usually throw in some hiking to explore my surroundings on a more granular level.
I pulled out my iPad to examine some topographical maps of the surrounding area. There was definitely a recreational trail network, so finding trails wouldn’t be a problem. However, I was looking for geographical features that might be interesting.
Only a couple of miles to the north, there was “Lake Mountain” which appeared to have a bowl-shaped depression near its summit. My imagination went wild at the thought of a secluded mountain lake, so I set off on foot to find it!
The first mile of the hike was along a dirt road. Then, I ventured off onto a single-track that continued up the mountain. The trail was well-marked, and I was passed by only one mountain biker who was out for a ride. As I gained in elevation, the trail became steeper and featured a series of gentle switchbacks.
The total ascent was a little over 700 feet, and I would have to descend another 100 feet to get to the lake within the basin. Near the top of the mountain, the hike was more strenuous than I had expected, but I was thoroughly enjoying myself, so I pressed onward.
It was evident to me that Lake Mountain was part of an ancient volcanic field, as the rocks here were darkly colored, abrasive, and extremely porous.
After a couple of hours of hiking, I finally reached my destination. A wooden sign, redundantly marked, “Lake Mountain Lake”, and beyond that was what appeared to be a dozen acres of grassy marsh.
So much for the picturesque mountaintop oasis that I had imagined back at camp.
Following a different route out of the basin, before heading back down the mountain, I emerged from the woods and discovered a manned lookout tower.
A sign on the gate read “open”, and a silver-haired gentleman stuck his head out of the window and waved.
“Come on up!” he shouted.
I obliged, and ascended the tower, narrowly squeezing through the trapdoor of the cabin with my daypack on.
“I’m Alan Allen,” he said. “My mother had a sense of humor.”
Alan was an older gentleman. The cabin of his lookout tower, which he has occupied for 25 seasons, was strewn with photography, handwritten notes, radio equipment, observational equipment, a couple of chairs, grounded in the event of a lightning strikes, an analog clock, and the walls near the ceiling were adorned with inspirational quotations.
It was an extremely small space at nearly 9000 feet.
He shared how he used to be a hotshot crew member in the 1970s, and that he spent the last quarter century in the lookout tower. He records weather patterns, takes countless pictures, writes poetry, and reports numerous small fires per year, most the result of lightning strikes.
Alan was clearly, intensely passionate, not just about his job, but about life. He openly shared that he had endured countless hardships, but in his tower, he found peace, and he experiences the beauty of the world on a daily basis.
I was moved by him.
My journey has been about chasing the horizon. I think Alan Allen is the first person whom I’ve ever met who has actually caught up with it.