Fall Mountain Fire Lookout
Leila picked me up from work and we hit the road right away knowing that we had a long drive ahead of us. The van was all tuned up, topped off, and had new tires for the trip. We meandered our way east along the Columbia river and into the gorge. After an hour or so of driving we reached the Dalles and the landscape changed dramatically. We knew it was time to turn south as we had reached the rolling grasslands of Eastern Oregon.
As the van crawled up hill after hill we were shocked by the sky that lit up our rearview mirror. We had to pull over to soak it all in, the sunset, the tiny sliver of moon, and the five mountains we could see in the distance. We didn’t stay long since we had another five hours of driving ahead of us. The darkness set in and we kept entertained with conversations, music, and podcasts. Somehow long drives fly by with the two of us.
Before long we were pulling in to the town of John Day. It was 11 at night and we were down to about 1/8 of a tank of gas. We knew we’d have to fill up before continuing on our way but all of the stations had closed at 7 that evening. We had no chose but to call the number on the door and pay an extra $20 to fill our tank. I don’t necessary agree with Oregon’s law that you cannot pump your own gas, but we had to abide by it. While we waited for the attendant to drive down from his house we did a bit of quick research and apparently it’s been a law since 1953 and the original justification was to protect people since gasoline is so flammable. Seems a little out dated to me since 48 other states trust the general public to pump their own gas. The modern rational says that it helps create jobs. I don’t see why we can’t pump our own gas after hours then since we aren’t taking away anyone’s job. Regardless, we filled up and were on our way.
It wasn’t long before we were turning off the highway and up a dark gravel forest road. The van chugged along, swaying with the lull of the road and hopping at each and every pothole. After 5 miles or so we reached our destination, the Fall Mountain Fire Lookout Tower. We were extremely lucky to be able to stay at the lookout for the weekend. A friend of ours had a reservation he couldn’t use and was kind enough to offer it to us. Just days before I’d been looking online at fire lookout towers, but all had been booked through the entire season.
The Tower was a bit spooky on top of it’s peak in the dead of night with the wind howling all around. I climbed the creaky wooden stairs up to the trap door in the exterior catwalk and unlocked the padlock. We were pleasantly surprised to find a cozy little 14 by 14 foot cabin. It had a small electric wall heater, a futon, a stove, and a mini fridge. We couldn’t have asked for more and it was just what we were looking for. We instantly fired up the heater and made the bed before crawling in to get warm and cozy. We both slept a little uneasy that night with the strong winds blowing through the cracks in the window panes and the tower swaying with each big gust. In a way it reminded me of being back on our boat in a storm. But I thought back to Kerouac’s Dharma Bums, when he gets some life changing advice from his friend Japhy Ryder, “It’s impossible to fall off mountains you fool!” We were comforted by the thought the tower had stood there since 1933 and has weathered much worse storms and wind.
The next morning our alarm went off at 6:30 so that we could watch the sunrise. After which we dozed off for another few hours. Maybe it’s the cool crisp air or the simple luxury of a change in the routine task, but coffee always seems to taste better when you’re out in the wilderness. I immensely enjoy the simple task of making coffee when I have no schedule and my only agenda is to enjoy a warm cup of brew. We sipped in front of the small electric heater which struggled to fight the cold seeping in through the windows.
Leila surprised me with some amazing home cooked meals she had planned for the trip. The first of which was a breakfast of fresh sourdough topped with cheese, an over easy egg, and smoked salmon. Needless to say, it was amazing. After stuffing ourselves, we bundled up and went exploring on our private peak. There was a small dirt road that we followed about a half a mile to some radio towers and a weather station. Along the way we discovered mushroom, lichen, and dessert flowers. before long we were ready to warm back up in our cozy cabin. I had almost forgotten about rosy checks and cold noses.
Throughout the day different weather patterns moved through and our view changed from an in exhaustible expanse to barley being able to see 10 feet out the window as clouds surrounded the tower. The wind howled and the weather station down the road was showing gust to 35 mph, but it felt like they were a bit stronger. We were happy to be inside playing games and enjoying each other’s company.
We went to sleep that night with the wind screaming and the tower swaying. We slept a little easier knowing that the lookout had stood through the previous evening. The next morning it was strange waking to absolute silence. It was the first time the wind had let up since we had arrived. We slowly made coffee and breakfast and let ourselves ease into the day before cleaning up the cabin and packing the car. It was a little sad leaving, but exciting to know that it was there for someone else to enjoy.
The drive back was absolutely gorgeous and we were glad we got to see everything we’d missed on the way there. Eastern Oregon could not be any more different then the West. The rolling hills go on for miles and miles only to be suddenly opened in canyons with streams running along the bottom. The rocks come in every color imaginable and every view is awe inspiring. We stopped at a picnic spot over looking the John Day fossil beds and talked about how we needed to come back to explore more.
Soon we were back in Portland and the real world. The weekend get away felt too short as they always do. Fall Mountain Fire Lookout is a truly unique and special place.
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