Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Sky Box, Part One

Before we left Vancouver, Washington, over six years ago, a friend gave us this book as a going away gift. At the time, I drooled over the possibilities, but eventually I packed the book away. It would never happen. I would never get to do something that cool. Choosing to be self-employed, we have to scrape to get by, working and working and working some more all the time. We don't generally take time off except for work related travel or occasional family holiday travel. We rarely even take Saturdays off. Something like that was simply out of reach to me and I didn't want to think about it any more. I ran across the book again a couple of years ago, but by then, I figured it was terribly out of date. I tossed it...and the dream that came with it.

Six weeks ago, however, Andy marched into the house and, seemingly out of the blue, announced that he wanted to take me away to a fire lookout tower. He asked me to research them online and find a good option for us. Then he went back out to the shop.

Just like that.

I sat stunned for a moment, then followed him out. This wasn't fair to get my hopes up for something that probably wouldn't happen. We've played this game before--getting a fun idea, sending me to the computer to do tons of research, then concluding that we just don't have the time or the money to go through with it. Happens all the time. I called him on it this time. But he stood his ground. He pulled out a calendar and we chose three days in August. Could I go ahead and make the reservations, pay the money? Yes.

No way.

I got online. I quickly discovered the website for reserving things like campsites, cabins and yes, lookout towers on federal land. The closest tower to us, only a two and a half hour drive away, plus a one mile hike, was at Gird Point, in the Sapphire Mountains on the east side of the Bitterroot Valley. I checked with Andy again, hesitant to pull the trigger with my Visa number, but he was resolute. We were going. I made the reservation.

The weeks ticked by. I watched the dates approach on the calendar and wondered if this would actually happen or not. I knew it was paid for, but something could still prevent us from going. The two weeks leading up to our scheduled get away were spent running a rocking chair class for our woodworking school. We were busy, busy, busy. The class ended Friday night. Saturday morning, I took my kids to run a booth at the local farmer's marked with veggies from the garden. Then, most of the afternoon, Ellie and I went garage sale hunting. I found a cheap mountain bike and tons of school clothes for the kids. We ran by my grandpa's new house, still under construction, and helped him hang some drywall then took him out for an ice cream when he looked wiped out and in need of a rest. By the time I got home, it was after four o'clock. Andy and I were to leave for our getaway Sunday afternoon, right after church. I had much to do to get us ready to go, since Andy was madly trying to finish up a piece of custom furniture for a client and wouldn't be available to help at all. There was food to put together, laundry to finish, backpacks to pack. It would be a long night.

I took a break at about five o'clock to review the confirmation email I'd received when I made our reservation. I remembered seeing a list of necessary things to bring. I read through the email and my heart fell when I got to the end, which told me I would need to call the local ranger station in advance to get the code for the lock on the cabin door. Oh, no! It was five o'clock! Would the ranger station still be open? I grabbed my phone and dialed the number. A pleasant voice informed me that I had reached their office during non-business hours and I was encouraged to call back Monday through FRIDAY, 8:00-5:00.

Oh. Crap.

There had to be something I could do. I called the customer service number for the National Forest Service. The lady on the other end of the line was polite and sympathetic to my plight, but could provide me with nothing. I pressed. Nothing. I looked for the local ranger district site online and scanned through the phone book, looking for another number I could call. I tried every number I found, even the fire dispatch numbers. Nothing. I was repeatedly encouraged by pleasant voices to call back during business hours. Despair began to creep in. I searched the internet with desperation, looking for something, anything, that might help. I found the name of the local ranger station's director. I began to search for him personally. Unlisted everywhere. He had clearly gone out of his way to make his personal contact information invisible. I found his daughter listed among the graduates from one of the local high schools. She received many scholarships this year and has a promising career ahead of her. I found his wife's name in a news article listing people who'd attended a recent social gathering. Maybe she could be of help. I felt like a sleazy detective, but a dream was at stake here. I had to get that code. I searched the internet for a phone number for her. She was a frequent vendor, selling organic produce at a large farmer's market down the valley. A roster of vendors had been published for some obscure record-keeping site. There it was! Her personal phone number! In a valley as small as ours, I was confident there was only one person with her name in the small town where her husband worked. It had to be her. I felt terrible calling her like that, but I had no choice. I dialed the number.

A pleasant voice informed me that she was unable to take my call at that time.

I left a pathetic, mumbling, stumbling, apologetic message explaining who I was and why I was calling.

Defeated, I told Andy what was going on. He encouraged me to go ahead and plan as if we were going. The worst that could happen is that we would have to wait until Monday morning during business hours to get the code and go a day late. That didn't sound good to me at all, but I agreed that it would be better than nothing, so I headed for the grocery store.

I was chatting with the cashier in line when my phone rang. It was her number.

"Hello?" I asked, probably a little too eagerly.

It was her, and she was so sweet, really, the nicest lady, apologizing TO ME for not getting my call immediately, concerned about the stress I must have been going through over this. She would speak to her husband and call me right back. She did. Her husband, the ranger, would drive to his office to get the code and call me from there. On Saturday night. Bless that man--that entire family.

We were back on.

I went home and finished the laundry, then packed everything up as compactly and lightly as I could for the trek from the place where we would park our car up the mile long trail to our lookout tower. Andy worked late, trying to finish his table. He would need to apply one more coat of finish to dry overnight and then buff it out in the morning. He would have to deliver the table to the customer before we could leave. That was fine. At least we were going. I figured we could still leave by two o'clock or so.

The day dragged on. The customer lived further away than I realized and it was a difficult piece to load and unload (a nine and a half foot long trestle-style dining room table), so we didn't get to leave our house until after four o'clock. It would be at least a two and a half hour drive to the trailhead, and then a mile up on foot, with all of our belongings on our backs and our cooler full of food and water, topped with our bedding, carried between us.

At about five o'clock, we were off the main highway, scanning for Forest Service Road #417. We found an unmarked road in approximately the right location, but drove on past it. Eventually we came back to it. It had to be the right one, right? We decided to take the gamble, knowing that it would be an hour and a half up a narrow, winding gravel road before we might know if we were even on the right road. Either we would come to the tower or we wouldn't. It was headed up into the mountains, basically in the right direction, at least. Andy was relaxed, lighthearted and chatty. He was finally leaving work behind--something he rarely EVER gets to do. I was not relaxed at all, more than a little stressed about us potentially being on the wrong road. I tried to hide it in vain. We came to a fork in the road, again unmarked, and arbitrarily chose an option. This didn't help me at all. I was still afraid, deep down, that this trip was too good to be true and it wouldn't actually happen.

I prayed silently that another motorist would appear and know which road we were on. But the higher we climbed, the more obvious it became that this road didn't see many other cars--especially on a Sunday night when all the weekend hikers had already gone home. We came upon some free range cattle blocking our path, but no other humans.

Oh! Another car! Flag them down and ask if they know what road this is! Andy, wave at them to stop!! Andy!!!

I think he found me amusing at this point, but he did stop and ask the other driver if this was the road up to the tower. It was.

It was! Thank-you, Lord!

I relaxed then, and began to enjoy the gorgeous scenery, something I hadn't noticed until then. Three more groups of cows, chewing their cud and feeding their babies in the middle of the road, staring at us with uncaring faces, were downright hilarious, once I knew we were on Forest Service Road #417.

We nudged our way through each group and finally made it to our destination--a small parking area with a tiny picture of a lookout tower posted next to a narrow trail. We stepped out of the car and looked up. There it was--a tiny little white box perched on stilts, it seemed, at the top of an impossibly steep hill. I thought of our heavy packs and the cooler and bedding we would have to carry between us. I thought of how little strenuous exercise I (we) have had lately.

"This might just kill us," I stated calmly.

"I think you might be right." he replied somberly.

It nearly did. The last few hundred yards were gravity defying, it seemed, made all the more exciting by the frequent deposits of the free range cattle who apparently came this far up the mountain frequently. Andy slipped on a rather fresh one, buried by a light layer of dust. Green and brown goo coated his shoe and splattered on his blue jeans.

The closer we got, the steeper the climb became and the more we had to stop to catch our breath. By the time we finally arrived at the foot of the tower, we were completely winded from the combination of exertion and elevation, beet red (and brown and green) and drenched with sweat. We removed our packs and wheezed for a few minutes before Andy could even climb the stairs, open the trap door to the catwalk and fumble with the lock.

It wouldn't open. What if the combination was wrong?

I didn't have long to let the panic rise up, as the lock popped open on the third try. Whew.

We entered the cabin at last. It was ours for the next two nights. Ours. We had done it. It was for real.

It was surreal.

Andy found that some previous occupants had left a bottle of children's bubbles. He took it onto the catwalk and began to blow bubbles, watching them float and float and float in the emptiness of the thin air. We were on top of the world.

(Continue with Part Two)

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