Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Man in the Tower

    After 60 days on the Mogollon, I had reason to celebrate. My previous record for consecutive   camping days was 45. That trip was in the Rockies near Paonia, Colorado in 1992. I was feeling optimistic about my journey.  I'd been cleaning up campsites after folks left and occasionally found loose change that dropped from  their pockets around the fire. I thought it was funny that people would have money in their pockets up here. It's not like you can run down to the Circle K. I was also tremendously amused when I saw fishermen on the lake with cell phones on their hip. There's no signal. At least there wasn't back then and its doubtful there is now, so deep in the valley.
I heard form a few people that there was a camp store at Woods Canyon Lake, about a dozen miles east once you hit the Rim Road. I had amassed a tidy little nest egg of a dollar and seventy cents and like I mentioned, I had a milestone to celebrate. I deserved a soda pop and a candy bar. A newspaper would be nice.

      I set out along the lake, working my way south with the idea of cutting through the forest to bisect the Rim Road and eliminate the three or four extra miles I would have to walk if I took Forest Road 89. I like to deviate from the beaten path at times. There are more interesting sights. You don't often find shed antlers, artifacts, or Bigfoot when walking the beaten path.

       To my surprise, a quarter mile south of the lake was a small primitive camping area. I followed the road that led into it, and ended up at the Rim Road. A quarter of a mile east brought me to a fire tower and small cabin. Outside of the cabin was a fifth wheel camper and a Chevy truck. The base of the tower was surrounded by a high chain link fence and gate.

       Forest service offices are usually pretty cool places with pamphlets, maps, and information on the area they maintain. Hoping that's what the cabin held, I knocked. There was no answer, so I crossed the gravel drive to the tower and read the signs there. The most obvious was posted on the gate and over the words “Keep Out” was a sheet of notebook paper, duct taped, that said “Come on up”. I left Maya inside the gate and began the climb.

       The tower at Promontory Lookout is 110 feet high. That doesn't sound that high, but when you climb up it, you can feel it sway in the wind. At the top of the last flight of stairs is a hatchway. I lifted the hatch and announced my presence as I was unsure if I should be there or not. A voice from above replied “Come on in”. That voice belonged to Mike, the fire watcher.

       Mike was full of information and he was happy to share. The original tower there had been built in 1913 from logs harvested and milled on the spot. It was erected without the aid of machinery other than simple block and tackle. Mike said that ironically, that first tower burnt down. It was replaced in 1924 with the structure that stands today. In 1988 they added the cabin, but Mike said he would have had to pay to stay there. He also said his position was voluntary and he received no pay.

       The cab at the top of the tower is a seven foot square with shelving that runs around the perimeter at the base of the windows. In the center of the cab is a large table with a brass instrument mounted on a swivel that looks like a sextant. Mike pointed out a location a good ways off and asked me to guess the distance, then checked with his device. I was off by two miles. He said not to sweat it, he was frequently wrong when he first started the season and the firemen would yell at him for sending them to the wrong coordinates.

       We chatted for about an hour and when I left he followed me down. I said I was hiking to Woods Canyon and back and he was incredulous. “Do you know how far that is?” he asked. “Yeah, about twelve miles” “It's twelve miles back too!” When I told him I was backpacking, and camped at Bear Canyon, he said if I didn't have a tent I would probably be killed. He worried that a snake would curl up with me and warned me of the Arizona Black Rattler, which has neuro-toxins in the venom and is deadly. He showed me a stick with a loop of leather on the bottom that he used to catch the snakes that he claimed were abundant in the area. The botto of the stick was covered with a shiny varnish that he claimed was venom. Mike was obviously very afraid of rattlesnakes. When I left I cut across the woods, rather than use the driveway and he shouted a warning after me that I would surely be bitten and die if I didn't stick to the roads.
 I visited with him several times that summer, and each time he was more paranoid than previously. The last time I saw him, he claimed people had been shooting at him, and suspected the firemen. I learned later that he didn't finish the season but packed up and disappeared, leaving an extensive list of grievances and attacks against him. I hear that Promontory Lookout is only used in emergencies nowadays. I can still hear him calling his catch phrase after me: “You're gonna to die!” I wondered if Shattsworth had met him.

    I made it to the store, and a dollar seventy didn't go as far as I hoped. I managed to buy a can of Diet Coke and a stick of Banana Taffy. I found a newspaper on a bench and rationed it out to myself over the course of a week. It was hard not to sit and read it all at once. I saved the crossword for last. The simplest things delighted me. I savored the soda, fighting the urge to guzzle it. It was cold and bubbly. It felt like Christmas. That trip to Woods Lake complex was the first real civilization I had seen in months. I'd have liked to hang around a bit, but I had a long walk back to camp

           On my way back, a couple of old timers stopped and offered me a lift. They asked if I had broken down. I told them I had walked to the store for a soda and some candy. The fella driving said he'd have at least bought beer if he hiked all that way. I told him people frequently invited me to their camp for beers. Everybody brings beer to the forest. It's not so easy to find Diet Coke and Banana Laffy Taffy. Sweets are hard to come by.

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