18 April 2015

The Fire Tower

I am ten or twelve years old, on a camping trip
to the White Mountains of Arizona.  We are
atop a peak, on a metal ladder, eight thousand
feet and counting, climbing up a fire tower, to visit
someone my dad kind of knows.  It’s the sort of
adventure that’s not exactly planned, but not exactly
random.  But why someone would live here, high on the fire tower,
surrounded by nothing but forest, I wonder, and maybe
worry just a little bit.  Because what would someone
do here, all alone, all summer, except for random visitors like us? 

We pause on the metal stairs, rough vertical
slices that catch even the worn treads of my red Keds. 
Through them, below, is the top of
my mother’s head, a vantage I’ve never had,
and the swaying tips of ponderosa.  Above,
shoe soles as my dad and siblings
wheeze and wait for their breath to return, and beyond
them, the square of hanging house, a grey block in the sky.  There’s
nothing we can say, breathless from the climb and
the mountain air, so we keep going up until we
emerge on the narrow catwalk that surrounds this
tiny roost.  The railing is barely substantial enough to
hold us to the structure, but the wind picks ups up and pushes
us back from the brink, holding us against the improbable
building.  We find the door, are admitted, the tower resident
a skinny man with a beard, who shakes my dad’s hand and
they chat.  My siblings explore, and my mother gushes at
the view:  who could fathom so many trees? 

But it is not the man who lives here, perched in the sky, who
captures my attention, nor what’s beyond the windows which wrap
around us, rattling in the wind.  It’s what’s just below the 360 degree view: 

Books, one long shelf of them, stretching from one corner, where
a slender cot is topped with a sleeping bag, past a hotplate and
cans of beans.  All around me, stopping only at the entry and a
narrow closet that might be a bathroom, books.  Books
with cracked and faded spines, lined up, waiting to be chosen,
patient, eternal.  And then it is clear, an epiphany of a
thousand reasons why this man would choose to live in such an
inconvenient place, and I knew at once that I wanted this,
too.  To spend the summer, with no one to interrupt me,
to read and scan the horizon with my myopic eyes, searching
for a plume, and not finding one, return to the horizontal
lines on the page, traveling far from here,
to any place, really, places I have not even yet imagined. 
This place, this tower, like those in books, that I wasn’t be able to
acknowledge as a somewhere I’d inadvertently waited my whole
life to visit until now, until the very moment I’d arrived.

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