by Amy Pearson
During the summer of 2015, I spent ninety-eight days in the Bob Marshall Wilderness working as a fire lookout for the Forest Service on Jumbo Lookout. Jumbo Lookout is well-known as far as lookouts go, probably because it is one of the most remote lookouts in the Lower 48. At sixty miles south of Spotted Bear Ranger Station in the Flathead and twenty-two miles west of Benchmark outside of Augusta, a lot of people know about Jumbo Lookout, but not a lot of people have been there.
This August, I made a pilgrimage back to visit this special place after eight years, this time with my husband instead of solo. I’m not sure what I thought I’d find on this journey back into the literal Wilderness, but it has functioned to open my heart back up to the Wild that is in there but somehow lays dormant for the most part in this “civilized” life I lead.
Jumbo Lookout is not easy to access. I’m not sure if it was the additional years my body carries now, the rainy conditions we were hiking in, or just flat-out forgetfulness, but the lookout seemed even more remote this time, and even more unbelievable perched on the edge of a rocky cliff at the end of an unmarked trail at 8,284 feet in the middle of nowhere.
You can’t see the lookout until you’re almost right up to it. What you can see are vistas of the most pristine and quiet landscape you could ever dream of. It is so still and so beautiful and so vast, it feels like you are walking through an oil painting.
And suddenly, you arrive at this 10 x 10’ wooden structure with red trimmed windows on the top of a mountain, and there is this lovely young man there named Bodhi beckoning you to come inside for afternoon coffee.
That used to be me. You can’t help but start thinking about your life in reverse. The things you did and didn’t do. Who you were then and who you are now. What you’d change if you could go back.
I went up to Jumbo following a tough return to the States after a few years teaching in Japan and traveling around Asia. I wasn’t sure where I was heading in life at that time or what I wanted to do next. But I craved Montana’s grounding power; the Wilderness was calling to me.
It is difficult to convey the immensity of an experience alone in the Wilderness. There is the natural beauty you encounter. There are the moments of fear where you coach yourself to keep going. There is the sheer amount of time you spend just looking at your own thoughts. I became accustomed to the backcountry reality, and after just three months in the woods, readjusting to civilization was challenging.
I wanted to hang onto the simple joy of watching the sun rise over the mountains and the red-tailed hawks swoop in the winds at dusk. I wanted whatever I possessed to always be enough, and to trust in my own capacity to get myself where I needed to go. In short, I wanted the lessons I’d learned at Jumbo to follow me all the days of my life.
When you look out over the vastness of the landscape of the Bob, things start to make sense in mysterious ways. I looked at my husband standing on a rocky outcropping on the ridge where I used to traverse alone eight years ago, and I felt my worries fall away into the hush of the sky and the bend of the earth.
I think the most valuable lesson I learned in the Wilderness is to let go. Wilderness doesn’t worry and it doesn’t have a plan. It exists in its own realm free to be what it is. Experiencing that freedom is the ultimate joy.