Voices of the Wind — life in a Gila Wilderness lookout tower

Black Mountain
Lookout Tower
Photo by
Dru Claridge
Black Mountain Lookout Tower

This is the most beautiful place on earth," I said to my cat our first evening at Black Mountain tower together. I had just ridden horseback up here; Kipper had travelled with me, safe in her pet taxi. Now she stood on her hind legs to look out the window. She trembled, whether at her distance off the ground or at the wilderness all around us, I couldn’t say.

From the tower we could see much of the Gila’s three million acres. Visible over the treetops were wooded hills, bare mesas, canyons and ridges, and Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. To the west, the Mogollon Mountains glowed in the sunset at 11,000 feet. To the north were the bare and lonesome Plains of San Agustín, cut by curiously shaped hills.

On the peak were the amenities that would make life bearable for the next three months. A small cabin below was kitchen, pantry, and washhouse, with a refrigerator and a hot plate that ran on bottled gas. Next to the cabin a cistern collected water from the tin roof. I would work eight to ten hours a day in the tower, and sleep up there on one of the two bunks. An outhouse nestled below in the trees.

A cold wind talked around the tower corners when we slipped into my sleeping bag together for our first night on Black Mountain. Kipper snuggled behind my knees, and I fell into an exhausted sleep. In the night I awoke, disoriented: My first glimpse through the tower windows made me feel I might be drowning in a sea of stars.

The next morning, Kipper followed me down the three flights of stairs to the cabin and discovered her assignment for the summer: rodent hunter. She spent her days and many of her nights decimating the mouse population that inhabited the cabin foundations. I was glad I had equipped her with a brand-new flea collar. For weeks I swept out the dead mice while she watched from a high shelf. Black and long- haired, she was barely discernible in the gloom of the tiny cabin, but I could make out the look of benign contentment in her golden eyes. She took her responsibilities very seriously, only leaving the cabin if I persuaded her.

This fire season, 1996, had the look of a very bad one. The woods were brown and dry, the wildlife behaving strangely in the drought. Birds flocked in constant motion around the peak, seeking relief from the heat below. Normally shy elk walked right under the tower. The last week in May I was visited four nights in a row by a mountain lion, who cursed the drought with growling, snarling, horrid noises that I couldn’t at first identify.

In the early part of June, we always have dry lightning on the Gila. Superheated air from the desert rises up the mountain slopes, meeting the cool air at higher elevations. Lightning stabs the ground, but there is little if any rainfall: fires ignite easily. True to form, we were very busy in June.

The dry forest, the high winds, the fires, and the snarling mountain lion made me nervous. I sat up nights, watching flames sparkle crimson in the dark. Some were only the flicker of a single tree burning in the night; some marched along the landscape like a giant in Seven-League boots. Some fires were pushed by 25-mile-an-hour winds that rattled the tower. In the day, the sun turned red from smoke, and for a short while the visibility on Black Mountain was reduced to five miles.

Showers eased the situation in the latter part of June, mercifully curtailing the firefighting season. All the wild creatures moved off from the peak, and I never heard the lion again. Now I could settle into a routine.

Kipper, who slept with me in my bag in the chill nights at 9,000 feet, rose with me at dawn. She sat in the sun, washing her ears and putting her black fur to rights, while I combed my hair, washed my face, and dressed. After that, you guessed it, was the tramp down the west side of the peak to the outhouse and the pleasant view of Douglas firs.

Gila River Canyon.
This canyon could be seen by the author from the lookout tower.
Photo by Carla DeMarco
Gila River Canyon

The routine included a trip to town every ten days. I hiked or rode horseback down the mountain, caught a ride with a Forest Service vehicle to Beaverhead Work Station, and from there drove to Silver City. Four days later I repeated the trip in reverse. A secondary lookout took over for me while I was gone. What a relief to get back to my mountain!

Alone, I stared at the Gila for days from the lookout tower, listening to the wind moaning around the corners of the tower, writing my life down in spiral notebooks between hours of fire activity. The experience answered a great hunger in me: a need for solitude, a need for beauty.

Daily I made 360-degree sweeps with binoculars from the tower. Starting with the San Mateo Mountains, low and blue to the northeast, I then swung clockwise, the binoculars revealing the rugged country on the west side of the Black Range. The Black Range is 100 miles long and the surveyors who mapped it ran out of names: many peaks and canyons are not labelled. This is bothersome to a lookout, who must identify the exact spot where a smoke is seen. Much of the Black Range country is in the Aldo Leopold Wilderness.

Eighty miles away, Cooke’s Peak is dim in the distance, overlooking the Mimbres Valley. South of me is Copperas Peak, where State Highway 15 begins its descent to Gila Hot Springs and Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. At night from up here I see headlights on the grade below Copperas; it is a drop of 1500 feet.

Now I come to the heart of the Gila Wilderness. I see only ridgetops from here: Brushy Mountain, Granny Mountain, Granite Peak, White Pinnacle, Shelly Peak. When I reach the upper waters of the Middle and West Forks of the Gila River, I am glassing forests that have never been cut. Small, clear streams start down the mountainsides under moss-draped fir trees; truly the headwaters of the Gila River.

After glassing the Snow Lake area, I turn to Eagle Peak, where another lookout also scans for smoke. Now the Elks: Elk Mountain, Middle Elk, and East Elk are a daily litany for me. From my post on Black Mountain, all this country beckons to be investigated. How could I ever visit all the remote canyons and unnamed peaks of the Black Range, the junctions of streams in the deep canyons of the Mogollons?

I have seen some of it, walking trails and riding horseback in the Gila, and cannot say if one method of locomotion is better than the other. Is it better to sit by a waterfall and become lost in the ferns and dappled sunlight? Or is it better to pass through acres of wildflowers, climbing into Douglas fir and rustling aspen, letting the horse watch the trail while I spot elk, antelope, and deer?

My last trip to Black Mountain tower was just like that. We rode horseback from the fringes of Cooney Prairie, which was thick with flowers and an aromatic crop of fresh wild onions. Elk moved off at our approach and the sunlight saturated us. We rode among tall Ponderosa pines, where mountains spiralled from the blue distance to green proximity, from heaven to ourselves.

The Gila had changed since my watch that summer began. A half inch of rain per week was falling. The brown woods had turned lush and green, and wildflowers sprang up like old friends, thronging the top of the peak. Working on the tower that summer, I had watched the clouds and studied the country day after day. In the interactions of sun, water, seed, and soil; in the cleavage and weathering of rocks - in so many ways! - I could see the All. Deep one night, sleeping in the tower, I heard its voice in the music of an Aeolian choir.

This happened just before I left Black Mountain, when the arc of seasons hangs motionless in August, not yet ready to bend back to autumn. One morning I awoke at 4 a.m. to hear a deep note followed by a high-pitched chorus. The wind, as always, was crooning around the corners of the tower. This time it serenaded me in the voices of the masculine and feminine: I had chanced on an opera from a nearby dimension. Saturn glittered in the eastern sky. Miles of Gila National Forest spiralled out from my bunk into the vast black universe. Kipper slept warmly behind my knees. My time on the tower was nearing completion, consummated now by this intimate communication with the Universe. My world was absolute perfection.