Born in Puerto Rico, John Yohe lives in northwestern Colorado. He has worked as a wildland firefighter, wilderness ranger and fire lookout. John is a Best of the Net nominee. He says 'pop' (originally from Michigan), and his favorite is RC Cola. www.johnyohe.com
THE GHOST OF ED ABBEY
Sun down behind Mt. Ord, orange and pink, turning Four Peaks and everything blue—big anvil head cells to the north dragging scud over the Rim but no rain here—mostly clouds avoid Aztec Lookout—something to do with drainages surrounding the Sierra Anchas—Cherry Creek to east, Tonto Basin and Tonto Creek though sometimes, but not for a while, clouds just build and come no matter what, sending waterdogs ahead up arroyos and canyons—huge fast white vapors and lightning right outside my door—unplug the radio antenna and sit inside—or all of Aztec Butte gets fogged—can't see trees for the clouds—nothing but me and my tower and my reflections in the windows.
Crickets squeaking, cooler rare northwest wind humming through the tower erector-set legs, vibrating my guitar strings—elk squeals down in Workman's Creek—huntin' season though, still bear and turkey—all the slob hunters on ATVs scare everything away—Phoenix lighting, the gap between Four Peaks and Superstitions, but at day not visible through smog. Glob too to the south, where I go on days off for tea and gin, run barefoot and get mail, watch movies starring Scarlett Johansson, after July monsoons, desert green saguaros bursting, ocotillos leafing, roadrunners hopping off roads into brush, grass, and flower in August. All the time I spent in Arizona fighting fires, never knew the desert got lush in summer and crescent moon Milky Way bats clicking.
Things to do around Aztec Lookout:
—up at 6:50
—on the clock at 7
—sit out on catwalk and read poetry all morning
—study hawks hovering eye level
—talk to Visitors and their passive-aggressiveness
—clouds building over Mogollon Rim and White Mountains
—rain lighting smoke
—get socked in—high summer monsoons
—cook beans and rice
—write old-fashioned letters
—learn to ignore radio chatter
—accumulate overtime money
—head down to Glob for days off
—groceries and internet
—skinny-dip down in Seven Sacred Pools
—masturbate to ex-gfs and friends
—evening hikes on Abbey’s Way
—Phoenix lights between the Superstitions and Four Peaks
—stars and stars
—fall asleep to tower rattling and humming in the wind
Mid-July, two weeks monsoon rain, every morning waking to overcast skies, smoke in lower valleys. Only smaller fires now—guiding firefighters through wet trees and brush to cut down single trees with chainsaws before having to run back to vehicles escaping drenchment and/or lightning. Two months now reading Plato and Montaigne, Hemingway and Kerouac, poems and graphic novels, learning new songs on guitar, singing to hawks and crows, writing letters to scattered friends—most crews leaving soon for fires north and west—brewing tea on the gas stove, taking off my clothes going out on the catwalk, watching sunset in Phoenix haze.
Lightning fire on Four Peaks late enough in the summer after monsoons they just let burn—creeps downhill every night, long curve-line of flames across the east aspect—no trees torching, no fireballs, just smoldering away at brush and dead-and-down—fortunately not visible to Phoenicians or they would fight it—it'll go out anyway on its own without even much rain like most fires will—Aztec moon on mountain lion in Redrock Cave next bump over—on the bear down the road who met me, paused, and snuffled, then ran right uphill like nothing—ojalá, you both avoid the guns this week and the lone coyote trotting down around 288—wolves now coming west from the Gila—all that Reservation land to play and hunt—miles of nada that way, which is to say miles of todo.
Ode to the southwest wind from the Pacific across the Sonoran Desert Tucson and Phoenix between the Superstitions and Four Peaks early summer as strong as 30 mph shaking my tower, humming and moaning through the girders—other times soft and cool to stand naked out on the catwalk—July pushing moisture up off Sea of Cortez, thick anvil head clouds building all morning, creating their own wind and lightning, cloud-to-cloud glowing lines or sharp cracking ground strikes passing north over the Mogollon Rim, leaving shattered smoking trees smoldering in the rain carry me up and over and down into Cherry Creek or Pueblo Canyon so I could ignite—feed me and make me burn.
My moccasins have holes in the soles from reading too much poetry, and elk squeals in the basin are actually hunters calling to each other, lonely out in the woods away from womenfolk in cities—they could meet in the bushes and show off their camouflage to each other, but at least they leave me alone, avoiding the tower because I'm a federal employee who wants to take away their guns. Otherwise, mostly what I get are day trippers from Glob and Phoenix, driving two hours just to climb the tower when they've got creeks and waterfalls, trails and boulders and arroyos to explore—some don't even get out of their cars, just circle the parking lot and head on down back to the heat.
Grass green and knee-high up here on Aztec Butte, where there used to be a forest—all gone from the Coon Creek Fire of 2000—10,000 acres caused by hunters: May campfire in the wind, now all locust brush—down in Workman's Creek area, spiny thorny nastiness, dead ponds to dry snags or fallen-over clumps—Abbey's Way Trail goes through it—will make another good fire. Some trees still up here, though a previous LO cut a few to improve his view—fire didn't get the whole butte, though burned to the tower—little brown melt spots on the windows—I could stay up here all year if they paid me and almost if they didn't, except for the Visitors: There is no perfect solitude—I make a once-a-week Glob Run for food and internet. That rock outcropping down there where the canyon narrows, that's where the falls are, Indian ruins up above.
The fears of a fire lookout besides lightning:
—that the one day a single attractive woman who likes introverted mountain men comes up to see the tower will be my day off.
—taking a nap and hearing another lookout on the radio calling in a smoke on my mountain.
—having rumors spread by the firefighters down at the district office that I walk around naked on the catwalk of my tower.
—being seen walking around naked out on the catwalk.
—having the engine crew that picks up my time sheet lose it.
—being hit by a plane in the middle of the night because there are no warning lights on the tower.
—a fire starting right on my mountain, right below me—a big one.
—having a band of drunk good-ole-boy gun-toting neo-Nazis camp down the road.
—UFOs, alien abductions, and anal probes.
—Visitors, the human kind, and their passive-aggressiveness.
—losing what tenuous friendships I have back in the Real World.
—being visited unexpectedly by one of my parents.
—causing a fire in the tower by leaving the gas stove on while I go for a walk.
—becoming as crazy as all those lookouts I've heard about.
Hunters blowing elk-squeal blues to each other like saxophones—all the real elk scared north because no one wants to hunt far from a road and a cooler full of beer, but the bumble flies are here hovering tower-eye-level, never come in like their house cousins, just float watching me but for what? What do they eat? Hummingbirds snap gnats between penetrating red flowers, winking before they go (they like my red t-shirt). Hawks hover in the wind eye-level or gyre and gimbal—one kind single, others hunt in pairs, imitated by crows cawing and laughing, whacking each other’s wings, tucking and barrel rolling—I miss the women of Portland in their black tights and glasses who read good books, though I don't think they'd be happy here—I'd like to sleep with their tights on my pillow. Sipping tea barefoot, playing guitar with the ghost of Ed Abbey. Close the trapdoor, turn off the government radio. Stand on the catwalk leaning against the rail, watching the sun change behind the Mazatzals (in Phoenix haze) yellow to orange to pink to red to purple to blue. Just me and the bears and turkeys and deer and elk and coyotes and mountain lions. Two hawks hovering in the dusk, one last look for prey before drifting down canyon.
Mid-August, over a month of monsoon rains and lightning, fires just little single tree strikes in wet forest on wet mountains, but everyone still chasing after them just in case. I spent all summer reviewing, and playing guitar. I'm different, but I don't know how, after looking miles out past Glob and Reservations. I've been in clouds all day today, windows foggy and speckled with water, 40 mph winds from the south and west—even Phoenix must be cool and wet. Clothes damp, and I need a shower and shave, adding marginalia to Montaigne on vanity and travel, keeping warm with gunpowder tea and layers, packing things for the drive down—Old Cactus Ed, your ghost goes through this notebook and my life. I regret now so much that I didn't follow your lead and Kerouac's, whose ghost also floats around—if you don't mind (and Snyder and even Stafford—all the LO ghosts), and be more irreverent, though I did learn that life is an adventure or should be, and maybe you write about it along the way but also keep reverence for land if not people—I only started reading you in Sedona 20 years ago when you died—brought you firefighting with me all those years, and now here I am in Aztec—now here we are—while south lights come on in civilization.
Last day at Aztec Lookout. Still time in the morning to brew one last gunpowder tea and sit out on the catwalk looking out fifty to hundred miles, desert forest and rock, Salt River and Mazatzals, Superstitions and Mogollon Rim, the Rez, Glob, and Phoenix. Still time to watch hawks hover in the wind. Still time to listen to morning crickets. One last clear warm day and southwest wind. One last look through binoculars as if there could be any fire after two months of rain, everything Septemberlush green. Soon I'll carry my guitar down, clean the counters, sweep and mop the floor, turn off fridge and gas, sign out with Dispatch (even they sound sad), walk down the stairs, bowing to the ghost of Ed Abbey, bowing to the tower itself, which kept me protected from wind and cold and clouds and lightning and rain and aliens and the Mogollon Monster. Bowing too to myself for finally doing it—fire lookout after I thought I might be done with real adventures when they end, only if I want them to. Time to get in the truck and come down the mountain like a fool.