A View with a Room
Lookout-to-lookout mountain biking in Montana
We hadn't intended to start out so late in the day. Yet here we are, up a dirt road deep in the Yaak Valley in far northwestern Montana, with what looks like an entire REI store spread out before us. Instead of carefully packing, we'd simply hurled our gear into the car, and now we have to fit it in our bikepacks before we can pedal our mountain bikes up the steep, dead-end road.
We finally get going, but soon enough I have to stop and wait with Harold, my dad and longtime adventure partner, for his friend Ron, who is lagging. A New Yorker born and bred and a newcomer to cycling, Ron has a complicated relationship with wilderness. Even though he's joined us on mountain trips for decades, he's still not much for roughing it. And then there's his abiding fear of grizzly bears.
"Don't worry," I tell him. "Grizzlies never attack groups of three or more."
"We'd better stay together then," he says, "because the bear might not believe us if we tell it a third guy is coming."
Kinglets whistle from the lengthening shadows of ancient cedar and larch trees. We pound the pedals in a race against the setting sun, watching light climb the Percell Mountains until it ignites the sky's cirrus streaks. Ron points out the "chickens" by the roadside. In Montana, I tell him, we call them grouse.
The dirt road ends in a wall of trees. We push our bikes up a steep trail through the darkening forest until a square silhouette perched atop 30-foot stilts appears ahead of us on the mountain's broad summit—the Garver Mountain Lookout. We lean our bikes against the tower's supports in the last inkling of twilight. "And they say we don't plan," Dad says.
We ascend the lookout's Escher-esque staircase, the receding ground all too visible in our headlamp beams between the slats at our feet. This causes Ron to recall that, in addition to grizzlies, he is afraid of heights. His acrophobia will be tested—as will our cycling skills—in the days to come. Hikers in the Alps can wander from refuge to refuge cross-country skiers in the Sierra can ski hut-to-hut, but we are attempting something new: lookout-to-lookout mountain biking.
We unlock the lookout's door and light the lantern, illuminating 360 degrees of windows and a wood ceiling with real rope caulking around the joists. Ron approves. "Way nicer than a tent," he says.
I take the corner bunk, which is at the same height as the windows. The tower sways subtly in the wind as galaxies spin by outside. I feel like I'm falling asleep in a spaceship.
The Great Fire of 1910 killed 87 people and burned 3 million acres of forest in Idaho, Montana, and Washington. In its aftermath, the U.S. Forest Service resolved to never again be caught by surprise. It began building mountaintop lookouts, running telephone lines along the trails leading to them, and staffing them with hardy sentinels whose job was not only to spot fires but also to then hike cross-country to put them out. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps took up the construction task, and soon there were 8,000 lookouts on summits across the country. The boom didn't last—in the decades following World War II, many were gradually abandoned. By the 1970s, the Forest Service was directing its districts to remove certain unused lookout towers for liability reasons.
In this remote pocket of the northern Rockies, however, the Kootenai National Forest quietly resisted those orders, starting to rent out four of its towers to the public in 1985. The program has grown over the years, and the Kootenai and its neighboring forests now boast more than 15 towers open to the public in an area three times the size of Yosemite National Park. It's the greatest density of rentable lookouts in the world.
Which makes it possible—in theory, at least—to tour them car-free, as we had hoped to do. But our last-minute planning made securing reservations in the proper sequence unworkable, so we had to resort to a vehicle to leapfrog roaded-over zones and get within biking distance of the most remote towers.
The next morning, I glass the surrounding mountains from the tower's wraparound balcony and find five other lookouts—Henry, Stahl Peak, Baldy, Baldy-Buckhorn, and Northwest Peak. We're staying at Garver for two nights, and our new worry is finding water, which can be a problem on mountaintops. Fortunately, after a few minutes of highly skilled exploration (and the discovery of a wooden sign reading "Spring"), we spot a trickle of water on the leafy forest floor of the mountain's east side. We toy with the idea of an ambitious day ride to the nearby ruins of an abandoned tower, but the magnetic pull of our view with a room is too strong to resist.
During the high-grade lounging that follows, we flip through the tower's logbook. Several writers complain about the steep hike up, as if lookout towers should be easy to reach. But mostly it's filled with comments from visitors praising God and/or Nature and finding renewal. One woman resolves to quit smoking—"right now!" These towers may have been built for utilitarian reasons, but they're also spiritual aeries. That's why they have their own literary tradition. Edward Abbey and Jack Kerouac both wrote about their summers in fire lookouts; Gary Snyder described his stay in "Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout":
I cannot remember things I once read
A few friends, but they are in cities.
Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup
Looking down for miles Through high still air.
Or, as Norman MacLean wrote in his short story "USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky," "It doesn't take much in the way of body and mind to be a lookout. It's mostly soul."