Long, long ago when my friends and I would shoot the bull about Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder, Alan Watts and Thomas Merton, someone would invariably bring up the romantic notion of working a season as a lookout in a fire tower. It was an appealing fantasy: go and experience months of solitude, endure dramatic thunderstorms, memorize the names of every peak on the mountains unrolling in all directions, and use the space and the time to write great literature. We knew that many like-minded people had lived the dream. It was less clear how many of them actually descended from their towers with sheaves of poems or manuscripts of the great American novel. I had occasion to revisit that old dream by attending a book talk at City Lights in Sylva the other night. Peter J. Barr was there to promote his new book, Hiking North Carolina’s Lookout Towers. Right off the bat it seems like a clever concept, but thanks to Barr’s relentless research, the book tells a much richer and more dramatic story than your usual hiking guide.
An excellent speaker, the author reminds you a bit of a very young Jim Carrey, MINUS Carrey's annoying level of manic energy. His voluminous knowledge of the towers is readily apparent, giving the impression that you could ask him how many steps lead to the top of any particular lookout, and he could give you the precise answer off the top of his head.
For anyone who loves the history and the natural beauty of these mountains, Hiking North Carolina’s Lookout Towers tells a story you need to know. Barr’s presentation was inspiring on several counts. For one thing, I‘m ready to set out hiking to some of these towers. And once I get there, I might be inspired to confront my acrophobia. But I was inspired, also, by learning that the author is director of the NC Chapter of the Forest Fire Lookout Association (FFLA), a group working for the preservation of these towers.
Although there have been dozens of towers dotting North Carolina’s peaks, they are a dying breed. Barr reports that “About a third of the lookouts that once stood in the state are gone. Others are so badly deteriorated that they face removal. Most people assume that the towers on public lands are still maintained; sadly, this is far from true.” Barr calls the Yellow Mountain tower north of Highlands, on the Jackson/Macon county line, “one of WNC’s biggest lookout restoration success stories.” The Yellow Mountain tower, which was featured on the cover of Barr’s book, was listed on the National Historic Lookout Register in 1992.
The FFLA has catalogued rapidly deteriorating towers, including the Shuckstack Lookout in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. And you can support the association’s efforts to restore Shuckstack and similar endangered towers. (Visit http://www.nclookouts.com/ for more information on how to get involved.)
One of the best lookout towers to visit isn’t even on a mountaintop anymore. You can pick up Barr’s book to read the amazing story of how the Little Snowball Lookout was saved and relocated. Unlike the other towers in the book, it is furnished with the supplies and equipment that would have been found in a working fire lookout tower, including a 1934 Osbourne fire finder. You can visit Little Snowball at the Big Ivy Historical Campus off Dillingham Road near Barnardsville in northeastern Buncombe County. I intend to go there ASAP.
My youthful flights of fancy never made it off the ground. I never harvested grapes in France. I never hopped a freighter. I never joined the Peace Corps. And I never spent a season writing poetry while perched atop a lookout tower. But at least I can pick up Hiking North Carolina’s Lookout Towers, hit the trail, climb a tower and imagine how it might have been.