Tripod Lookout Blues

by John Yohe
Tripod Lookout Blues by John Yohe

September blizzard this Labor Day weekend, soaking me in visibility nihil, so what better time to build huge bonfires, burning up all the scrap wood from the lookout tower rebuild and old outhouses plus cubie cardboard and old romance and Elmore Leonard paperbacks as kindling because yes I’ve become a book burner in my pyromania though also too hoping my boss Jason will keep his word and give me the ‘$100 cash bonus’ (meaning from his pocket) if I actually get rid of it all and restore the butte to some semblance of nature. Just weeks ago flowers were in full bloom—lupen and indian paintbrush and butterflies aggregating. This may signal game over though the other John over at Scott Mountain says snow in August is not that unusual and that Larry over on Trinity LO is going to stay up until October 15th when normally he’s the first one down but goddamn did things get cold and I of course couldn’t light the gas heater so instead turned on the oven and opened the door—worked well, really. Two days later the snow is all melted away and supposedly above normal heat by wednesday whatever that means in Idaho in September though probably sunny in Boise even though my last day off was the first time I wore a jacket there but the west wind—zephyrus—gusty and cold and everyone back to working 8s—no overtime unless a fire and no lightning in the forecast.

Fire restrictions still in place meaning Labor Day campers can’t have campfires and if you think that’s bogus over in Oregon three houses burnt down from an escaped campfire in a state park so no one’s fooling around—this morning I called in a rogue campfire over in Long Valley to the east not far from houses with chimneys spewing smoke but at least the ATVers are notably absent though it’s huntin’ season—bow this month and guns next—hunters starting to come up to glass their tag areas, scaring the shit out of me in the morning in camouflage though by now all elk and deer have fled downvalley onto private land they ain’t no fools—just a whole bunch of stupid cows shitting everywhere from here down into the campgrounds by Sagehen Reservoir and this must also be a requiem for the wolves, a whole pack came down from the north this summer howling and yipping at night and naturally going after the slow elk—killed 4 cows down in the bowl to my northeast so ranchers being ranchers killed seven wolves in retaliation—wanting to shoot them from a helicopter but settled for traps and poison though one hunter told me the pack’s still north of Snowbank Road below the weather station. I haven’t heard them but hope it’s true and this is where Idaho is at—hunters versus ranchers but I just miss my favorite elk cow who swam in the pond just below the tower almost every day sometimes with her two sisters eating lilly pads like catnip. Cirrus clouds and cumulus building.

Passing the time well with fires and cooking tacos and minestrone soup, reading poetry out on the catwalk or playing guitar—a routine for my own sanity—yoga and meditation in the morning—monday pushup day. Studying latin—John Porlandiae habitat (I still haven’t learned what the latin name for John is) Domina Johnum pulsat en mis sueños. Getting writing in while the sun’s still on the east side. New essays or poems or making the rounds in the psych ward on la computadora. Afternoons alternating reading Nietzsche and practicing mandolin. If not extended then off at 6 and go for a run or hike or both (always a hike up to the final butte here no matter what). Maybe read or Bach on guitar and meditate or both. In bed early to read stories and asleep by sunset though I do not mind urination runs because of the stars. Village lights in the valleys and Boise glow to south. Blues and joy of being far away from humans. Blues for all the beautiful Boisi feminae. Blues for the uncertainty of what’s to come in a month or so, leaving with not much more money than I came with and nobody can live on unemployment anymore, so frantically applying for jobs on my days off for nothing, no calls no nada no real plan except go, just go—that’s been my life.

Yellow orange aspen, west wind zephyrus still strong if cooler and never ever stopped all summer. A big cumulus cell moved in this evening up from Emmett over Squaw Butte and High Valley and up along West Mountain and the tower. One thunder rumble and some verga. Light patter of rain in the dark then stars clear shiny. The Star River I’m still blessed to be able to see and Big Dipper always out my window seen from bed snuggled up in sleeping bag pointing north to my blind spot. No wolves tonight—cave hominem, lup: forcing my way thru Rayuela once and for all en español though I don’t think the english would help, even with moments of humanness of 40-something man wandering through life and Paris doing seemingly nothing, unable to connect or let anyone connect—that’s been my whole life. Why didn’t I ever do this sooner? Caught up in fire itself on the lines, rappelling out of helicopters getting the OTs, then teaching until contract not renewed, now thousands of teachers looking for the same jobs. I miss my students but I’ve missed the mountains. I’ll miss them when I’m gone back to Portland. Tripod Lookout Blues to be leaving and not sure I’ll be back.

Can’t sleep, zephyrus whistling through the catwalk or barometric pressure up or down. Cold front moving in on Sunday or just wanting to enjoy the night. The slowness and the energy. Ioannes amat stellas. Jean aime bien les etoiles. Juan ama las estrellas. Wondering what to do back down in the Real World. First a road trip out to the coast, say hola to the olas en el oceéano. The coast always seems like Dr. Seuss to me—strange plants and salt tang air though I love it. More comfortable here in the ponderosa pines and doug firs and white bark pine. Not too many aspen actually but every year when I was a firefighter I loved coming up to Idaho—the cool nights sleeping outside no tent in the pinebreeze, fire glowing trees red in the dark, embers floating up to the stars. The Clear Creek Fire we lost which blew up into biggest fire in Idaho history north of here somewhere (there are three Clear Creeks on the map). Sipping green tea wanting to sleep. Wanting to come down the mountain. A fool.

At night with a small light on all I can see mostly in the windows is my reflection, kind of dirty now at the end of summer though I clean them regularly. But no mirrors no dust right, Huineng? The wind isn’t making noise. The catwalk isn’t making noise. The mind is making noise. Talking to myself and singing, that and the weather report morning check-in the only times I say anything for days, though I say more up here than down in Boise and even though my life is suffering it’s not all suffering—beautiful moments too which is maybe what suffering is—knowing the beautiful moments won’t last but still—stars and rivers and mountains, playing mandolin reading good books, a woman smiling at me in the street and finding the courage to smile back. Stretching running and even sitting here now in the dark knowing the longer I stay up the sluggisher I’ll be mañana. The travels the adventures which may be running away but running away is interesting too though I could stay here I think—just live up here through the winter if I had gas and food. Go raving mad from solitude. Become a yeti.

And how much merit will I receive for writing this line? Or this line? Verily the merit you receive from reading this line is more than the merit of being kind to others. Merit like a diamond bullet in the forehead. And listen Arjuna: if you read the whole Mahabharata you would know that Krishna is a trickster, fucking with you and your brothers. Telling you that you must act? Must fight? That’s a lie. You can do nothing. Lay down your weapons and walk away from the truth so-called because that’s an act too, a choice, symbolically or otherwise. Hare Krishna / Hare Krishna / Hare Hare I forget the rest. Even George Harrison justified doing cocaine as playing in the Void. Next time Krishna advises you to do something, do the opposite, or nothing at all. Wu wei man, symbolically or otherwise. My life could have been otherwise, but I’ve tried to live so that I would not regret having to live it over (again).

What thoughts I have tonight of you Jack, in Mexico City in your roof shack lighting one hundred candles and writing Tristessa in a notebook by hand straight thru, no changes or revision at the height of your superpowers, or scribbling Mexico City Blues during the day while people talk and yap and shoot heroin—you renounced your Buddhism later but you alone might be responsible for its huge growth here in Merica, earning you more merit than whoever wrote The Diamond Sutra, which wasn’t enough to save you from killing yourself by killing your liver. In an alternate world you might have met my mom in Detroit and been my father though you would have run away and abandoned me. My biggest fear up here is burning the tower down. Burning my garbage in the pit, symbolically or otherwise, zephyrus and the dried out lupen taking a spark, an ember and burning it all when I’m down on days off looking at women’s pantylines. Yes and then to be blacklisted forevermore from the one job that really suits me (unless it just feeds my misanthropy). I know you hated being a fire lookout but it got you two books and me here.

Blood Moon tonight with full lunar eclipse. Playing guitar watching the dark eat the light. No wind no zephyrus for first time this summer. Big cumulus off to south, like all season skipping Boise and blowing through the Sawtooths. Second to last night, penumbra light around la luna. Hospitals will be getting the crazies tonight but they can’t get me in the moonlight sliver. Sun down behind the smoke-lit mountains of Oregon into the ocean I’ll be walking in in a week as the stars take their time appearing. Mountains and rivers quiet blue still. No night like this for another 18 years by which time I’ll be 64. Will you still need me? Will you still feed me? What are the chances I’ll even be alive? What do I care? Moon almost gone. Some kind of omen maybe though a good one. Just a glowing ring smiling in the pit, one last sacrifice to the gods before I go. One last getting-rid-of-my-garbage though already I’ve accumulated more that I’ll have to take with me. Garbage and shit, garbage and shit, all I seem to have left behind here, plus a few rock sculptures, exercises in balance, and some poems and songs.

Wolves howling over to the northwest on the ridgeline and down in the arroyo started as soon as the luna eclipse completed and there may be a function or two to it—to signal to each other their location. To signal that there’s a good slow elk over here. To slow uneasiness with the crazy moon to scare and herd their prey. To mourn the seven of their pack killed by ranchers. But hard not to hear it as a howling for joy, all of them and despite that, despite the suffering, they can still sing, be in the moment, right now, this night, this moon, this forest these stars, these mountains and rivers, this running through the trees, all beautiful even with the pain, despite the pain, because of the pain, and this is why wolves are muy zen, or more like crazy Taoist monks, and now they’re silent.

Watching crows play, coasting in circles like hawks, tucking wings and diving and tumbling, knocking wings loop chasing. Last full day and I call in a fire. Illegal burn pile at the north end of Round Valley, takes hours to help guide in the engine, hearing them get frustrated. Then they find it. ‘Right where you said it was!’ Think I see another down south off Cougar Mountain, send them scrambling again to Smith’s Ferry—turns out to be a logging operation—dust and diesel—so uno por dos today. Still unusually warm and a ten-acre fire yesterday up on the Payette. Seems crazy to pull us down from our towers but it’s just me—gotta come down while helicopter’s still on contract. The other John might get to stay up. He can drive down any time. But ok I’m ready to go (not really). Ready to come down the mountain like someone out of a Tarot card and go west not-so young man, spreading my words of wisdom or just spreading my words. Spreading my legs. Or yours.

Blood Moon on the last night but in the evening dozens of threads drift in the air, long and thin and vertical catching on tips of trees, wavering in the dusk and folding around the tower. Invasion of the Body Snatchers or The Dragon Riders of Pern. Spiders I assume and hope though don’t see any. Why now? Why at the end of summer? But imagine if we could do that—let out long thread from our butts until the wind catches and carries us away over mountains and rivers until we catch somewhere off the top of a white-bark pine or a lookout tower, where we could crawl down and start a new life and if that life wasn’t perfect we could drift again, unless maybe the perfect life is drifting. At least it’s interesting, at least you can leave suffering for a while. Maybe a while is all you need. Maybe a while is all you get. And there are dozens—hundreds—of drifters drifting together better than suffering together and if I lose you in the drift I’m sorry. I don’t know how these threads don’t tangle. I don’t know how to entangle with anyone. Zephyrus calls. Maybe we’ll meet somewhere in the future in the wind.

Time to close up shop, say goodbye to my own private Idaho. Screw down the shutters. Sweep and wipe away my clutter. Make plans for this winter. Repair and needful things. If not for me then the next mountain hermit. Pack all books—poetry anthologies and philosophers east and west, Mencius contra Nietzsche. The latin books the french books los libros en español (like Rayuela even though Oliveira is an asshole). The cheese and crackers and mixed nuts. All the shit I thought I didn’t have anything but no it’s two tubs’ worth! Shirts and underwear and boots. Wrap the wire and shutters and lock it tight. Poor bedraggled mountain home, in need of a new catwalk and a paint job and a new outhouse hole because I’m full of shit, as any of my ex-girlfriends will tell you. Helitack flies my stuff away. Put on mi mochila, heading down the secret squirrel trail to Snowbank. One last look back and a long slow bow to my one-person temple.

Born in Puerto Rico, John Yohe has worked as a wildland firefighter, wilderness ranger and fire lookout. Best of the Net nominee x2. Notable Essay List for Best American Essays 2021 and 2022. @thejohnyohe