Upon first gaping at the precarious perch of the historic fire lookout on the summit of Green Mountain, my backpacking companion captured the sentiment exactly:
“Yep, those old timers were crazy.”
The Green Mountain lookout stands on the crest of a volcanic ridgeline more than seven grueling miles and 5,000 feet higher than its nearest trailhead in the Cascades of Washington State. It was built in 1933 by a hardy work crew from the Civilian Conservation Corps who first carted its heavy wood windows, planks, and support beams on the steep climb up the mountain. Today, it remains a marvel of human ingenuity and backcountry engineering.
Since a federal court ordered the lookout removed from the mountaintop last April (background on the situation here), its future has been in limbo. Legislation was recently introduced to save it from demolition, but its passage is far from certain. So I decided to set out to see the site in its original setting, to see if the debate -- whether all traces of human influence should be removed from designated wilderness areas -- held up.
I began in Darrington, an old logging town two hours northeast of Seattle. Scott Morris, a volunteer with the local Darrington Historical Society, graciously offered to accompany me. It was not an easy hike. Road closures have made what was once a popular day trip to the lookout now require at least one night of camping on the journey.
We began on an old, unmaintained path at the confluence of the Suiattle River and Downey Creek and scrambled for three hours with our backpacks over downed logs, frequently losing and re-finding the trail. By early afternoon we reached the maintained trail that leads to the summit of the mountain with another 4+ miles of uphill ahead.
As we climbed higher, the rewards were tremendous. Near the wilderness boundary we spotted a black bear foraging on young huckleberries. A golden eagle sailed the ridge, hunting for unsuspecting marmots sun-bathing on the rocks. Fields of brilliant wildflowers greeted us in the high country, freshly emerged from the melting snow drifts.
At the summit of Green Mountain, we were in a cloud, the surrounding world barely visible. We found the lookout in its winter dormancy; the heavy wooden shutters that protected its paned glass windows were strapped down with an oversized belt. We opened them to the elements -- a seasonal ritual -- propping up the shutters with iron bars and inspecting damage to the catwalk caused by heavy snow loads. After setting up camp inside, we ate a warm meal and tried to forget about how terrifyingly close to the ledge we actually were.
By dawn the clouds had sunk below us and the tops of the high peaks of the Cascades appeared as islands in the sky. By the time we closed the lookout, the clouds had dispersed entirely, revealing expansive forests in every direction. During the entire trip we saw not another soul. I found it no wonder that some of America’s most influential environmental thinkers were inspired by their solitary summers in the lookouts of the Northwest: Ed Abbey, Gary Snyder, and Jack Kerouac, to name a few.
In some cases, a competing public policy may offer a compelling reason against keeping a historic place in wilderness -- when a historic dam threatens a rare species, for example. But the only thing at risk with the Green Mountain Lookout is an ideology, the mistaken notion the land must be clear cut of any tangible remain of human influence, regardless of how small of an impact it has on natural values.
In contrast, the relatively small amount of historic sites in our America’s wilderness are irreplaceable assets with potential to foster even greater environmental awareness -- to appreciate how land was used (and misused) over time. While some may see these places as an expression of ego, others are likely to be humbled by how small mankind really is in comparison to the vastness of the wilderness beyond.
In a mere flash of geologic time, natural forces will erode the Green Mountain Lookout from its perch, as they have already for many of its kind. Until then, it is a great privilege (for those who can bear the hike) to see those forces in action. In my view, keeping the lookout intact and accessible not only honors the hardy individuals who labored for it, but sustains a popular part of the American identity that takes pride in the careful stewardship of the spectacular land we inherit.