The Poets of the Mountain Lookouts

The Poets of the Mountain Lookouts

“When you reach the lookout, at 5,450 feet elevation, take care as you climb the ladder. Sign the lookout register, or even pen an entry in the poetry register.” - Washington Trail Association  

Kerouac thought that a summer as a fire lookout away from people, drugs, and alcohol might help his writing. He managed a seasonal appointment in the year of ‘65 as a fire lookout at the Mount Baker National Forest in Whatcom County for $230 a month.

Sprinkled throughout the mountain ranges of Washington state, 93 fire lookouts act as a stopping point for hikers who visit the region. In an effort to offer protection from forest fires, a total of 400 fire lookouts were built throughout 1930s. Many who stop there find themselves in awe of the incredible mountain views, often using these lookouts to capture the fleeting feeling of solitude in today’s busy world. Unbeknown to most is the romantic history of these lookouts and the way that they have impacted Pacific Northwest culture as we know it. 

The Impacts of the Poets of the Mountains

The people who manned these lookouts were nothing short of extraordinary who sacrificed three months of their lives to living in solitude among the mountains. Though it has been said that this work was dull and lonely, others seized the opportunity to gain artistic inspiration and personal fulfillment. One of these volunteers was the great author and poet Jack Kerouac. Kerouac’s journals from his 63 days in a fire lookout throughout the summer of 1965 illustrate his feverish attempt to use the mountains as an escape from his tortured life. Kerouac’s experiences as a fire watchman produced some of his most successful writings such as The Dharma Bums (1958) and Desolation Angels (1960), as well as a unique sense of serenity that went unparalleled throughout his life. These reflective writings that both Kerouac, and similar poet, Jack Synder, compiled during this time have been said to have influenced many eras of American historyThis group of poets became to be known as the Beat Generation because of their time spent secluded in the wilderness. These central pioneers would eventually become the hippie movement. Throughout this time, positive images around backpacking, rock climbing, meditating, environmental activism, and hiking were created within American culture.  

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Aspects of mountain culture are characteristics of life in the Pacific Northwest. It rings true in the heart of locals that life here would not be the same without appreciation for the mountains in our borders and the vessels of beauty and activity that they have become. It seems unimaginable when it was unusual to spend free time seeking higher elevation and picturesque views, but it is worth it to consider how our reality might be different without the writings of those who encouraged our ancestors to take their first steps up the mountain. At the beginning of this still are the lookouts that housed people like Jack Kerouac; though many of them wore away in harsh weather or were closed due to unsuccessful vantage points, each one holds a story that contributes to the rich history of the Pacific Northwest.  

Fire lookouts in the North Cascades inspired a wave of beat generation poets whose withdrawal from societal expectations and literary musings inspired the birth of North American mountain culture.” 

Park Butte (pictured above) was built in 1932 and endures a steep 7.5-mile hike round trip to experience her lookout. All you need is a Northwest Forest Pass to park, the lookout is first come first serve to eager over-nighters. We hope you are inspired as we are to get up and enjoy the beautiful northwest around us, of course only following a great cup of coffee.  

Click here to visit the WTA page for more hike details or here to discover other fire lookout hikes in Washington State.  

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