Warner Mountain Lookout
Usually when I set off from the car up a steep dirt road with my eyes set on a fire lookout I can not yet see, the moon is still up, my bike is bare bones and it is a fast, non-stop, solo suffer fest. For the first time, I was preparing to climb to one of these places with a few buddies. When we finally parked on the dirt road twenty miles South of Oakridge Oregon, we took our time getting ready. The pile of empties next to the van was growing taller than the mountain of shit being talked. We lingered on the forest road turn out for a long time, soaking in the sun none of us had seen through the Pacific Northwest’s impenetrable cloud cover for almost a week. The time to roll out eventually came and last minute adjustments were made trading gear out of our bags to make room for more beer. All the time joking about how a gallon weighs eight pounds and equating that to the volume of the nine beers I just stuffed into my backpack and the six pack of tall boys strapped to Kyle’s front rack. This wasn’t about to be anything close to my typical dirt road climb.
We were loaded down and starting up a 12 mile climb to the Warner Mountain Lookout for a sub twenty-four hour bike packing trip. That is if sleeping in the cupola of a two story lookout with a stove to reheat pre-purchased burritos can be considered bike packing. Our first stop was just after the first mile marker to shed some layers. Our second stop was at about two and a half, I heard some clattering over the rocks on the hill above me. Some squinting revealed six or so huge elk watching us as intently as we watched them. The first beers were shared at mile marker four where we all took a shot at hitting a buckshot rittled sign with a wrist rocket. Mile seven or eight, at about 4,500 feet up, yielded our first views of the surrounding mountains and river valleys. Refreshments were passed around while discussing if a nearby peak and its adorning structures were actually close to us or not. There was a discrepancy of about 15 miles between the four of us. We were not breaking any speed records for this climb, but I am pretty sure no one has had more fun doing it than we did.
As close to two weeks prior we had been convinced we were going to be trying to ski or snowshoe this entire distance. What would have been a grueling death march had been transformed into an amazing ride because of the downright tropical winter we have had. At about 5’000 feet and ten miles in the road sweeps around a shoulder of Warner Mountain and the lookout is suddenly within sight from across the valley. It is all the motivation we needed to cross the alpine meadow atop Warner Mountain and slog up the last steep access road to the lookout and finish the ride.
Overnighting in a lookout seemed to be a cumulative goal of all four of us, yet none of us had any grand plans or visions for what it would be. Each of us though seemed to pack one little thing that made the next handful of hours count as much as they could. Flying a kite from the balcony of a lookout should be on everyone’s must do list. A sling shots range is exponentially multiplied by the number of stairs climbed to the top. There was the deck of Vargas pinup playing cards only appropriate for a night with the dudes. All the while Matt had stowed an entire 750ml bottle of whiskey into three Stanley flasks. Sunset came and went with tall tales being told late into the night. I unrolled my bag and set my alarm for sunrise in the cupola as we were swayed to sleep by the howling mountain winds and nightlight of moon and stars.
I sat up to look out the window after turning off my alarm and through a face sized hole in his sleeping bag Kyle asks, “Is it good?” The sun, barely throwing light over Diamond Peak, had set the sky ablaze.
“Dawn was breaking across the Cascade foothills. Pale blues and velvety grays were rolling back the hard blacks and purples that had marched under the bonfire stars of [Oregon] since the scarlet sunset. The mountain crests were ringed about with saffron flame that thrust shining spears into the royal robe of shadows still striving to cling to their mighty shoulders. The [lookout] swayed under a crown of beauty.*”
Full nuke as they like to say. Coffee was made as leisurely as the sun rose. We lounged while the surrounding mountains were covered in first light and the colors of the sky sifted like dunes of blowing sand.
Breakfast was had, shits were taken and bags were packed, we had no way of anticipating the next twelve miles. When you spend close to six hours crawling up a mountain, there are few thoughts of what the return will yield. As if the previous 18 hours hadn’t been amazing, every inch of the 4,200 foot descent was ripping fast, grin inducing fun. The only thing that managed to stop us was the ten year old desire to lay down super long skids at every opportunity. At one particularly scenic overlook, we sessioned a bend in the road for a solid twenty minutes, destroying expensive tires and upping each others game constantly. The rate at which the good times digressed from super long one footed sideways skids, to doing it while drinking a beer, to naked and loose was astounding. Luckily all clothing was re-applied just before the forest service worker rolled by in his truck, but not before photographic documentation was made.
The gravel in the road parted like a wake behind our speeding tires over the final miles of decent. One final stop was made at a gravel pit near the bottom of the road. Bottles were broken by the accurate aim of the slingshot and group efforts trundled massive rocks. The last beers were opened and the last stories were shared. We had left the van less than 24 hours prior, but it felt like we had made a weeks’ worth of memories.
*Sunrise quote taken from Arizona Ranger by A. Scott Leslie which is definitely not one of the best or my favorite westerns. It is however one of the shining pieces of prose in the book and one of my favorite descriptions of a sunrise to date. Much of my writing is inspired by $0.25 pocket westerns from the 50’s where a narrative description is always key.