For about a century, the Forest Service has paid people to sit at the top of mountains every summer and watch for smoke. Technology is taking their place, but what is being lost in the transition?
Gary Snyder was the first poet to get a job as a fire lookout, manning the now-gone station atop Crater Mountain in 1952 while writing and studying Zen; his old friend and fellow poet Philip Whalen took a nearby post the next year. Then, on the night of a now-famous 1955 poetry reading in San Francisco, Snyder was introduced to the young Jack Kerouac. (Allen Ginsberg, drunk on wine to calm his nerves, did the introducing before going onstage to perform a new poem called “Howl.”) Snyder convinced Kerouac to try a stint as a fire lookout, since he himself—a burgeoning anarchist, albeit a pacifist—had been banned due to McCarthy-era blacklisting.
Although the location is not mentioned by name in Black Sun, it is set at the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park, where Abbey worked at the time as a fire lookout in the fire tower just east of the main entrance at the North Rim.