the writing of a former national park ranger
Schonchin Butte: You Never Really Leave a Place You Love
It had been years since I’d visited Schonchin Butte, and I hadn’t seen the lookout in summer since leaving Lava Beds National Monument a decade earlier. This trip would be different. Special. Instead of seeing the lookout blinded by its shutters in the nippy spring or fall air, I’d see it in all its glory, its square glass eyes gazing into the distance with a warm breeze whooshing past.
I also hadn’t been back to Lava Beds since Gary, my mentor and the chief of interpretation, passed away. Printed on his funeral prayer book was the quote, “You never really leave a place you love. You take a part of it with you and leave a part of yourself behind.” I felt that somehow a part of Gary lingered at Lava Beds, and by visiting the monument, in some small way, I was visiting Gary.
I chained my bike to the trailhead sign and noticed the US flag’s absence above the lookout. Yesterday, thunderstorms skirted the monument, and I hoped that Ranger George, whom I saw at the visitor center, would tell someone I was visiting the lookout if lightning seemed imminent. Reveries ethereally drifted through my mind of park rangers frantically searching for me to staff the lookout while ominous clouds shot toward the stratosphere.
Wishful thinking, I scolded myself. You can’t go backwards and relive your glory days, no matter how much you want to. This is a farewell visit, a time to come to terms with change. It’s a time to reconnect to the Modoc Spirits, to try to feel some of Gary’s presence, to say goodbye to Schonchin, Lava Beds, and the Park Service.
On the steep climb up the equivalent of 50 flights of stairs, I rested and struggled to catch my breath in every speck of shade the mountain mahoganies and junipers provided. Flowers sprung forth from the volcanic soil with amazing abundance; the sulfur flower blazed a yellow true to its namesake, and my favorite flower, belle penstemon, added a light purple tint to the windswept, bunch-grass-covered clearings along the cinder cone’s north slope.
After signing the trail register at Schonchin’s summit, I bounded up the steps to the lookout’s catwalk. A moment later, the door opened, and out stepped a woman. She said hello, and I returned her greeting. Her NPS grey polyester uniform shirt had tight creases and looked new. I glanced at her name tag which read COURTNEY. My eyes crossed to her golden badge, and a wave of melancholy washed over me after realizing that due to budget cuts I’d be spending a second summer out of uniform.
We chatted and I explained that I was up to take some photos. She invited me in for a tour, and as I stepped through the door, I saw a photo above the desk and commented that I was glad my photo was still there.
“You used to work here?” Courtney asked.
“Yeah. Back in the ‘90s.”
“Really? What’s your name?”
“Frank Clark. I wrote my name on the back of the photo,” I said pointing to the framed eight-by- ten.
Courtney pulled down the frame, flipped it over, and found my name with a date. She flipped it again and studied the image. In the photo, at the lookout’s edge I stood, a black silhouette looking through binoculars into the distance, with the red, white, and blue of the American flag waving patriotically overhead, and tall clouds with puffy white tops and flat, dark-blue bottoms loomed menacingly in the background.
“Ken, my fire management officer, took that just before the storm of the decade. I called in dozens of smokes in just a few days. In fact, that was my first day alone in the tower.” How quickly eleven years had passed; it seemed like yesterday that Ken snapped the photo. My eyes lost focus as my thoughts drifted back a decade.
* * * * * * * *
Ken put his camera away, waved goodbye, and disappeared behind a juniper.
I was alone.
I scanned for smokes, pausing occasionally to monitor the quickly building clouds. Ken expected a massive storm; I couldn’t imagine storms disturbing Schonchin’s serene environment. The last three days, while being trained by Jenny, I’d come to consider Schonchin a silent and bright refuge from fire fighting. That image was about to be irrevocably smashed.
Within an hour of Ken’s departure, southeast of the monument, cumulus clouds developed anvil tops and virga. I grew increasingly nervous and paced around the catwalk looking skyward.
Without warning, dozens of camera-like flashes seared my eyes, and only seconds later, thunder violently shook Schonchin; I worried the blast might rattle the windows loose. My eyes grew wide and my knees trembled as I stumbled inside to mark the lightning strikes’ locations on the fire finder map. I rotated the fire finder to shoot the strikes’ azimuth and prepared to radio the information to Modoc National Forest dispatch.
* * * * * * * *
Courtney replaced the photo, her movement jarring me back to the present. My eyes fixed on the Osborne Fire Finder; I approached the stand, looked at the stenciled numbers on the map, and overwhelmingly felt like I had just installed it yesterday. I touched the map and traced the stenciling; my fingers slid gently along the cold metal azimuth indicator. Tactile. I had to touch everything to make sure it was real.
On the fire finder’s pedestal hung a clipboard with fire reports. I bent down, looked closer, and my mind wondered back as I remembered how jittery my hands were the first time I filled out a report.
* * * * * * * *
I mustered all my courage, steadied my voice, and reported the lightning strikes to Modoc via radio. Moments later, multiple platinum slivers crisscrossed the sky, and bolts assailed the desert soil. After detecting a grey plume dancing toward the sky, I rushed to the spotting scope. Flames burst from a lone juniper and quickly spread to dry sage. I hurried to the fire finder, aligned its crosshair through the base of the fire, and looked at the azimuth indicator. My shaking hands fumbled for the fire reports hanging from the pedestal, and I hurriedly scribbled information: azimuth, size, distance, legal location, fuel type. Seconds later, I radioed Modoc and successfully reported my first smoke.
* * * * * * * *
A high-pitched tone on the radio woke me from my daydreams of the past. As Courtney recorded the forecast, I watched the clouds toward Mt. Shasta build and darken. Returning to the catwalk, I packed my backpack as if leaving, but Courtney asked me weather questions and for advice on the rapidly developing clouds.
I spent a half hour eating lunch and going over weather and scanning techniques with Courtney, and as I put my Nalgene bottle away, a single slender bolt of lightning split the sky in the distance.
“Did you see that?” Courtney shook her head. “You’ve gotta get an azimuth on it!”
We rushed inside, I helped Courtney shoot the strike, and a microburst blasted the lookout’s south side with rain and small hail. Another strike flashed only yards from the lookout, and I tried to get a visual on the strike area but had to shut the window as nickel-sized raindrops pelted the ledge.
“I didn’t get much training and am so glad you’re here to help!” Courtney said, her voice trembling. “I couldn’t imagine being up here all alone right now.” My lips smiled at Courtney’s words as I thought about the end of my first day alone on Schonchin.
* * * * * * * *
It was midnight, and after hours alone, Ken instructed me to shut down the lookout and head down the hill. I survived lightening strikes near the tower, reported a dozen smokes, guided the engine crew to the largest fire, and done so calmly and effectively. Fire fighting was tough, and maybe not for me, but I’d found a place where my skills shown. I felt like I’d found my home atop Schonchin Butte. Over the next few days, the fire crew, who had generally regarded my frail frame and fire fighting ability with incredulity, greeted me warmly and appreciatively. Ken told me I had found them something to do and earned their respect. I had weathered the storm.
* * * * * * * *
“You can weather any storm, Courtney. You’ll do just fine this summer.”
At her request, I helped Courtney with procedures for the next hour as we hunkered down during the storm.
After an hour, the sun abruptly split clouds, and the rain alleviated its staccato pounding of the metal roof. Only a fine and translucently illuminated mist fell around our mountain, bathing it in sparkles. I stepped outside and smelled the pure and cathartic scent of rain, a clean and rejuvenating smell that set my soul at ease. A billion fine water droplets glistened on their descent to the thirsty desert soil, and the tops of the black-bottomed clouds glowed luminously as sun beams flowed around their every bulge and curve. A full rainbow materialized only a few miles distant; it reached north from the Schonchin Butte parking lot to Symbol Bridge in the south. My eyes welled up, and I felt a presence in the hush and quiet of the air.
“Courtney, you have to see this,” I whispered in awe.
Joining me, she gasped.
“I’ve experienced many beautiful days on Schonchin, but I’ve never seen anything like this,” I said mesmerized. I leaned against the rail as a tear slid surreptitiously down my cheek. “It’s so close and a full one. And it ends at Symbol Bridge, a sacred site for the Modocs where they painted pictographs.”
“That must be a metaphor. It must mean something.”
“Gary.” I whispered. “The Spirits.”
“Yes. It must mean something.” But I wouldn’t fully understand until later that night.
* * * * * * * *
On a final circle, I paused alone on the steps to whisper a goodbye to Schonchin and then walked Courtney down the trail. Finding my bike tire flat, I got a ride back to the campground.
After that first day back, after the storm, after the rainbow, after hugging Courtney goodbye, after everything, in the late evening I sat amongst the junipers and sage in the utter silence, basking in the moonlight and crying so hard, and not understanding exactly why, but feeling that everything was okay finally, and all the negative feelings I’d developed about life had lifted–purged by tears–and the Spirits and Gary had returned to show me such amazing beauty and love. I cried for Gary. I cried for all the wonderful people I met over the last decade but would never see again. I cried for all the tremendous beauty in the world. I cried because finally, after a decade of wandering, I had returned home.