Solo Retreat in a Lookout Tower (Part 3 of 3)

The fortune cookie I got the night before I was set to head to the lookout


Thursday May 24th, 2018: Day 4

He was Montana-handsome, meaning he had nice facial scrub. I’d put him in his early 40’s, though it’s worth mentioning that I put most people in this age category as of late and I find that I’m right only about half of the time. Maybe 40%. I suppose my piling of everyone in this age bracket has something to do with the fact that I’m approaching this decade myself.

Given that it was 9:00am on a Thursday and Swan Lake would not be an impossible place to drive through and not realize it’s a town, I was the only customer in his establishment: OConnell’s Qwick Stop, which touts: Beer. Bait. Pizza. Groceries. on its sign. OConnell’s is located 8.1 miles from my home in the tower, an easy jog north on highway 83.

When I pulled into the parking lot, I hesitated to venture inside, as I knew I’d be the only customer and that equated to a certain amount of pressure. Pressure to: buy something, to engage in polite conversation, to field questions about where I was from and what I was doing in the area. All the things I really didn’t want to be doing. Before going in, I prepared to tell one of two accounts of my happenings, if I were asked, depending on whether it was a male or female doing the asking. If a male-person asked, I’d tell him I was just passing through, not wanting to tip my hand about my being a lone woman in the woods nearby. If a female-person asked, I’d tell her the truth, figuring she’d be far less likely to stalk and murder me in my sleep. When I entered, though, I realized there was a third demographic of people-folk I hadn’t considered, and therefor had not crafted a response for: close-in-age-Montana-handsome-dude-with-kid-in-tow. When he asked, as I knew he would, I told him the truth, too. I realize it’s not entirely sound reasoning but I give extra street cred and trust to guys sporting kids. I figure if the kid seems decent enough, then it stands to reason that its accompanying adult must be relatively okay. And its mother left the little one in their charge, so that was something.

There’s a standard and delightful mix of wares in OConnell’s, similar to that I’ve seen in many a one-store town in Montana. Jazzy printed aprons were the first thing to catch my eye. There were hand-knitted animals, organic eggs, ice cream bars, and canisters of bear spray you could wear around your waist. You can rent a SUP board for an hour or up to two days. You can order up a breakfast pizza or a regular pizza and you can fill up your gas tank out front for $2.95/gallon. I didn’t see the bait section, as was promised on the sign, but I’m not sure that’s something you put out on display. You can purchase a camping hammock, rain poncho, and collapsible canteen from the same wall of hanging camping gear. And, of course, junk food and beer were in high supply. I found it especially considerate that they had a small selection (no pun intended) of condoms, tucked in next to the nail clippers and ear plugs.

I left with a locally made Montana-styled t-shirt to give to my stepson and an 8-pack of crayons in which to leave in the tower, to go along with the Smokey the Bear kids activity books.

What I found most interesting about my store excursion, however, was that despite the fact that I was clearly in the store by myself, Montana-handsome guy saw fit to assume I was part of a pair, as in: “How long are you guys staying in the tower for?” and “If you guys come back down to town, you should check out our homemade pizza.”

Guys? I thought to myself. As in, plural? As in, more than just me? Who else would I bring along with me for pizza? Do I need to bring someone else along, and your large sign out front stating: “Any pizza can be a personal pizza if you believe in yourself,” is a rouse?!

I guess he’s just societally geared not to think of women as solo travelers. It’s really not an outlandish conclusion to make, when you think about it. There truly aren’t very many of us out there.


Friday May 25th, 2018: Day 5

It’s 10:16pm on Friday and I’m a little frightened. Fierce winds are whipping around the tower, bending the pines in fevered pitch, as though they weren’t thick-trunked and mighty. Lightning is pulsating in the sky to the south and growing closer. Only a few soft rumbles of thunder are in tow. No rain. Just wind and lightning. I wonder if that’s better or worse for my chances of survival. I joke, of course, but…

My 15X15 glass-sided nest shakes and shimmies. Knowing there are lightning deflectors a-dangle off each corner of the roof overhang provides me with little solace. When I click off my book light, it’s terribly dark.

(A few minutes later) I’ve gotten up out of bed, lit the lantern, and put on some music to sing along with, in an effort to belay my concerns of being situated at treetop level housed amid a glass rocket in the sky as the Armageddon of storms shakes things asunder outside, rather than lie cocooned in my sleeping bag and wait for death. I’d rally a cup of tea if it wouldn’t then force me outside to pee.

I am taking comfort in reminding myself that the tower has been standing since 1959. Surely, in that span of time, it has seen some business.


Saturday May 26th, 2018: Day 6

5:50am. I survived the night, but just barely. Just kidding – not about the surviving part but about the “just barely” part. An Ani Difranco song lyric helped lull me to sleep last night, around 11:00pm. If I’m gonna go down, I’m gonna do it with style. I mean, really. If there’s a more epic way to die than by toppling over in a 50-plus-year-old decommissioned fire tower in a wind storm, I’m hard-pressed at present to think of it.

If it had happened that I perished in the night, I would hope and hope some more that whoever first stumbled upon the scene to discover the wreckage – a tangle of wood and glass twisted in the pines – would find me laid out next to the yellow smiley-faced sponge and 32oz bottle of bubbles some delightful visitor before me left in the tower, as it would seem a comical placement. Anyone who knows me well, knows that I’d appreciate making someone smile one last time.


Saturday May 26th, 2018: Day 6

9:45am. Roundabout now, Mike and Jaden will be looking to leave from Missoula, to find their way here to catch a visit before I take off later this afternoon. That’s the plan anyway. It’s a 2-hour drive. Knowing they’re left to their own devices without me spearheading galvanization efforts, however, means it’s anyone’s guess as to when they’ll actually arrive. This isn’t my first rodeo. I know full well not to expect them at noon. It’s quite liberating to know how someone operates and then apply such understandings of things by way of practice usage, rather than hold fast to how I think things and people should be but aren’t. It cuts out on a lot of un-necessary angst.

Despite my having swept the tower multiple times this week, my morning’s last sweep in preparation to leave yielded enough of my long strands of hair to knit a small dog a sweater. It’d be an odd accouterment for a dog, and people would stare at the poor thing quizzically, but most of them would be polite enough not to say anything out loud, satisfied that the hair-shirt was serving its purpose, given how small the dog was and how unlikely it was that it could generate enough body heat to keep itself warm enough to be comfortable.

I am 100% sure that along with the few items I’ve intentionally left behind as my mark on the tower: an 8-pack of crayons, partial bag of honey & lemon throat drops, freshly organized cupboards, hand-written instructional sign about needing to turn on the propane down below, and the pizza menu I was given at O’Connell’s Qwick Stop, people will be finding remnants of me by way of my hair long for days, weeks, or maybe even months to come. The sneaky bastards are like glitter, ending up in the strangest of places. They’re deceptively burly little pains in the ass, too. They may look all weak and fragile when flitting around on the floor, but try sweeping up the ones stuck part-way under the leg of one of the oak chairs emblazoned with USFS at the map table and see what happens. They don’t just slide on out willingly, like you might think. They’re like fitful drunks in a bar who have to be escorted out against their will. You have to manually pick up the dang-blasted chair and physically maneuver them out from underneath it. They’re rugged and strong like a Montanan. Small but mighty, just like me.

(Post script: Mike and Jaden arrived at the tower at 12:12pm!)

To wrap up:

There are two main ways to travel for pleasure: one where you try to cover as much ground/miles/sites of interest as possible and the other where you stay put and really get to know a place. Both have their own allure. Back in September, I took a solo road trip to Banff National Park up in Canada and thoroughly enjoyed being on the move every day, stacking up places to see. And for this most recent solo venture, I thoroughly enjoyed staying put long enough to traverse the 53 plus 2 steep steps of the tower with the grace and skill of a mountain goat, and roll over the dirt surface of both forest service road 9803 and Porcupine Creek like a local. It was nice to really get the feeling of being settled in a place; to have it grow and swell in the heart of my experience; to absorb it fully into the fissures of my memory.

Turns out, I was meant to dwell in a lookout tower. The lifestyle suits me. The simplicity, quietude, and close communion with nature all fuse together in the most spectacular way. It helps that my top interests are writing, playing music, meditating, and drinking tea, too – none of which require electricity or a panel-van to schlep around.

In my paper day-planner, I’ve already scribed a note down in early November to book the tower again for next May. Maybe next time I’m there, I’ll try the pizza at O’Connell’s.



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