It was dawn at the Calpine fire lookout in the Tahoe National Forest, and early morning light had begun to bathe the horizon in a warm pink glow. Inside the lookout’s observation cab, surrounded by walls of windows, I could be a queen in my own private fort. Perched at 5,970 feet, the tower peers out for miles in every direction across the pine-covered slopes and rocky peaks of the eastern Sierra Nevada in Northern California, still capped with snow in the middle of May.
I had arrived late the previous evening with my husband, Matt, our two friends August and Jenny, and their dog, Arcas, after an easy four-hour drive from San Francisco (we waited for the Friday rush-hour traffic to subside). After parking near the foot of the tower, we scrambled up the uneven path in the dark, the beams from our headlamps crisscrossing in the night.
After touching a match to the old-fashioned propane lanterns and sorting our water and groceries and bedding, we pointed excitedly at the smudge in the sky that was the Milky Way, and at the Little Dipper, for which Arcas was named (in Greek mythology, Zeus puts his son Arcas into the night sky as Ursa Minor, which includes the Little Dipper).
The nearest settlement was Calpine, a one-street town two and a half miles southeast. But it was so dark outside that a halo of light from Reno, Nev., 35 miles away as the crow flies, beyond Cone Peak, was the most visible indicator of civilization.
At 5:30 a.m., everyone else was still asleep, scrunched down deep in sleeping bags to escape the impending dawn (though four can stay, there are only two twin beds). But Arcas swished his tail and nosed up to me expectantly. Eye to eye, we agreed: It was time to go exploring.
When I was a kid, one of my favorite books was ?My Side of the Mountain,? the 1959 classic by Jean Craighead George. In it, young Sam Gribley runs away from New York City in search of his family’s abandoned farm in the Catskill Mountains. He finds it and sets up a new home in the hollow of a massive tree, surviving in the wild by learning how to fish, forage and build a fire.
In my own alternate reality, I had a treehouse, too, but it was a fort up high, where I could see for miles in any direction. Now at last, more than two decades later, was the realization of that fort — and it came with binoculars, a circular map table and a fire pit.
The Calpine fire lookout was built in 1935 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The windmill-style tower was used as a fire scouting station every summer for 40 years, after which it was largely supplanted by planes and helicopters.
Since 2005, it has been available to the public through the Forest Service for year-round recreational use. The lookout can be drafted back into active duty for lightning storms — an old Osborne Fire Finder sighting device is still oriented and fixed to the floor — but for the most part, it’s now a solitary retreat that lets grown-ups have their own piece of the outdoors for a night or two.
In winter and early spring, when the mountains are covered in snow, the propane-heated tower is a ski-in, ski-out paradise; visitors can also snowshoe or ride a snowmobile in, carrying their own provisions. In late spring, summer and early fall, when the weather is warm and dry, it makes an unusual base camp for hiking and biking.
But it’s also a gorgeous place to do pretty much nothing, other than read by day and stargaze by night, or watch the sun’s progress play upon the high-altitude mountain landscape.
When Arcas and I stole quietly out of the cab and onto the wooden deck that runs all around the cab, the moon was still up, though the pink-orange tendrils on the horizon were preparing to chase it from the sky.
We went down the two creaky flights of stairs and breathed in the crisp, mid-50s morning air. Purple flowers sprouted between granite boulders that littered the ground; farther down, under the forest canopy, were fiery red snow plants, their spiky red shoots startlingly vivid against the dun-colored beds of fallen pine needles.
The vistas brought to life the wrinkled black-and-white photo panoramas that were tacked up inside the cab. Over the last 75 years, there has been little discernible change there, save for reminders of the fires that occasionally sweep through. Down the unpaved service road to the highway, swaths of blackened trees displayed the evidence, their trunks a scaled and shiny charcoal.
That day, we went into Sierraville, 10 miles away, for a diner breakfast (how could we resist homemade biscuits and gravy at the Round Up Cafe, where a sign proclaims, “Beef Is Best”?). Then we spent an hour or so hiking the trails around Sand Pond, a few miles west of town. There, we listened to woodpeckers hammering and observed frogs kicking their way upstream.
Lunch was a picnic on Gold Lake, northwest of the lookout, where we ate baguettes and cheese we’d brought and chucked giant pine cones into the icy lake for Arcas to chase.
Without television, cellphones or computers, the weekend hours seemed to hold more time. We suddenly had a surplus that allowed for naps in the lookout, and books, and leisurely walks through the woods.
At sundown, we built a campfire in the ring at the base of the lookout. As the others brought dinner fixings down to the picnic table, I climbed up into the observation cab to snap a few photographs and survey the last of the day. The same warm light of the morning filled the room, but it was retreating now, cooling the sky to a quiet blue, and with it our own private patch of wilderness.
But that notion is an illusion, of course. Our hold on the land is temporary at best. Stewardship was the real point of these lookouts, and of their caretakers — to be the ones up high, surveying and ensuring that the wilderness survived any fiery encroachments, all to welcome the next generation of visitors over the horizon.
IF YOU GO
The Calpine fire lookout is four hours northeast of San Francisco, in the Tahoe National Forest near the small Sierra County town of Calpine. The road to the lookout, off Highway 89, is steep and unpaved, so a four-wheel-drive vehicle is recommended.
The lookout costs $45 a night for up to four people, who need to bring water, food and bedding. Reservations for it and other lookouts can be made at www.recreation.gov up to six months in advance.
The Sierra County Visitor Guide, with maps of area trails, is available at the Sierraville Ranger Station (317 South Lincoln Street, Sierraville; 530-994-3401; www.fs.fed.us/r5/tahoe; closed weekends), which administers the lookout, and at the general store down the street.