Peaceful Panopticon

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By Alpine Modern / Published by Alpine Modern
A hike to the Park Butte fire lookout on Mount Baker, Washington, tracks the forgotten history of the sparse observation towers that were once manned year round. Throughout the American Northwest, some are now restored as overnight shelters for solace seekers.
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Walk-up getaway 

It’s a torrid summer day. My husband, Andrew, and I are halfway up a trail in Mount Baker’s backyard in Washington. The heather flowers show signs of mortality, their normally bright, fuchsia-colored blossoms dried up into a brown, crusty shell. The open meadows are less vibrant than normal for this time of year. 

The flowers came and are almost gone, signs pointing toward the end of summer. We are on a mission to spend the night in the historic Park Butte Lookout. 

The hike is a steady uphill climb to the top, where we can see Mount Baker sprawling before us with emaciated pools of shallow water and red dirt staining the meadows in the foreground. The bright reds, oranges, and coppers are signs of mineral-rich soil and the fingerprints of the receded glacier on a slowly transforming landscape. We pass small groups of hikers, many with dogs, and come across a few larger Boy Scout and summer-camp parties. It seems the lookout towers fascinate young and old, serious thrill junkies, but also solace seekers. 

 "It seems the lookout towers fascinate young and old, serious thrill junkies, but also solace seekers."

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Fire lookouts — a tradition of the Northwest 

Two years ago, I had no idea fire lookouts even existed. After moving to Seattle, I became obsessed with them when a friend mentioned there were numerous towers across the Northwest. Built as early detection and suppression stations for forest fires, the lookouts housed fire-lookout workers, who lived in them full-time. Usually set on the highest pinnacle, with a 360-degree view of its surroundings, the lookout tower provided a prime viewing platform with sight lines as far as the eye can see. Being an architect, I was fascinated by their iconic design, beautiful in its functionality and frugality, and a new typology for me. 

"Usually set on the highest pinnacle, with a 360-degree view of its surroundings, the lookout tower provided a prime viewing platform with sight lines as far as the eye can see."

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Most lookouts are made of wood and must withstand very harsh climate conditions, being located so high and exposed to the elements. So I respect the simple, straightforward design engineered for easy duplication and constructability. Thick layers of paint have been applied to the wood, protecting its wear from the weather and, hopefully, extending durability. The wooden windows no longer open, since they’ve been permanently sealed to halt the snow and rain damage, but the shutters still function with some old-fashioned elbow grease. Contrasting today’s cheap construction and design gimmicks, the towers reflect an authentic practicality that I can aspire to communicate with my architecture, and they are a humbling reminder of how we should be building our homes and cities, reclaiming a simpler time, when objects and things did not rule our lives. 

"They are a humbling reminder of how we should be building our homes and cities, reclaiming a simpler time where objects and things did not rule our lives."

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The lookout towers in the United States were first erected after the Great Fire of 1910, which burned three million acres of forest in Washington, Montana, and Idaho. The fire resulted in more regulations and protocols from the U.S. Forest Service, implemented to prevent this tragedy from happening again. The Civil Conservation Corps (CCC) constructed towers all across the nation in the decade following the Depression. During World War II, human lookouts also served as enemy aircraft spotters, especially on the West Coast. After about 1960, more advanced technology made most of the towers obsolete. Fires were no longer fought via human observation, but instead with radios, aircraft, and finally global positioning systems (GPS) with satellite technology. As a result, the lookout towers were no longer of use, and many fell into disrepair. 

Park Butte Lookout 

Our Park Butte Lookout was built in 1932 and was in service until 1961. Its style is known as an L-4, a square fourteen by fourteen-foot (about 4.27 by 4.27-meter) wood cab atop heavy timber posts with a cedar-shingled gable roof and operable shutters protecting a full width of ribbon windows at each side. It was the most popular live-in lookout design and one that was replicated across the Northwest. It perches majestically on the peak of boulders, like Foucault’s perfect panopticon, watching all of nature from its roost. What’s fun about lookout hikes is that the towers come into view not long after you set out on the trail up the mountain, hinting at the reward that awaits, though there is still much elevation to be gained before reaching the summit. I look upward to seek a vantage point, stealing glimpses of the perfectly square object perched and waiting for my arrival, and I know it will be well worth the sweat. 

"It perches majestically on the peak of boulders, like Foucault’s perfect panopticon, watching all of nature from its roost."

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Many of these lookouts are kept in working order by local volunteer groups or organizations dedicated to preserving them. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Park Butte Lookout is maintained by the Skagit Alpine Club, a group of mountaineers who service the exterior, occasionally clean inside, and stock it with the bare necessities for emergencies—or even forgotten matches. I appreciate the remaining lookouts even more for this reason; they have that element of home to them because knowledgeable caretakers conserve their special historical and spiritual ambience. It’s an inspiration to us all to treat other people and things with just as much tender care.

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Once ascended, my usual concerns are a memory: The bustling urban life I live in Seattle is far away, and I slip into nature’s meditative rhythm. There are no deadlines, only observations and reflections. There are no agendas, only submitting to the mountain’s siren song. Layers are peeled back, noise stops, nonessentials dissipate. Time becomes the passing sky, clouds, and breeze, not numbers on a clock or phone. I replenish myself with water and food not because it is noon, but because I listened to the thirst and to hunger rumbling in my stomach. The question of what to do next is replaced with almost no thoughts at all as I easily succumb to nature’s nonexistent curriculum. 

"Once ascended, my usual concerns are a memory: The bustling urban life I live in Seattle is far away, and I slip into nature’s meditative rhythm."

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These lookout towers are remote. However, some have cell phone reception at the top, which makes for interesting observations as we relax on the deck reading, writing, and reflecting. Hikers come up huffing and puffing because the last stretch of the trail is perhaps the hardest. The gravel trail gives way to larger boulders that require a scramble, and the climb is steeper than the average grade on most of the hike. The lookout is perched on these boulders, lifted with stubby wooden posts so it oats slightly above. After taking in the awe-inspiring view, many visitors to the lookout immediately pull out their cell phone and snap photos; a few even have selfie sticks to capture their group with the stunning mountain backdrop. 

Our most pleasant encounter happens in the hottest hour of the afternoon. We had just come back from a mountain lake swim and climbed back up to the porch. It takes us a while to notice someone sitting at the shaded side of the balcony. We manage to sneak around the corner to find a man with binoculars, no cell phone or selfie stick. We begin talking, and before long we exchange contact information and look forward to meeting again. It amazes me what happens when we put our cell phones away and embrace the existence around us. Beautiful and inspiring moments are always presented to us. Will we stop and pay attention or move too fast and miss them? Perched on a fire lookout, you see more than the view. △

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