by Kaeli Wells
I hiked down off the mountain at 3:44 in the morning. It was the day after the summer solstice and there was already a thin line of light blue along the horizon. I moved quickly and carefully down the trail, guided by my headlamp and the downhill movement of gravity. I stopped suddenly, pulled by an invisible force in the darkness. I looked up at the stars, twinkling in their own magic, then realized what caught my attention. Not so far away was a scraggly, uneven peak, waiting patiently for the sun to rise. And on top of that peak stood a small wooden structure. The lookout was slightly less patient than the mountain, only because the mountain was a little older. We existed in that moment, the land, the lookout, and I, hidden between the dark sky and the quiet.
When I write about the Big Hole lookout, it’s like being a child with a hidden secret, mostly because I feel incredibly young. Recently I met Chad Kinzel, a man who started working as a fire lookout before I was born. There’s an old picture of him standing out in front of the lookout. He’s incredibly tan, with a head full of shiny brown hair. He was 23 years old when the photo was taken — that was over 50 years ago. Ironically, I just turned 23 years old and started my first Forest Service job. Maybe if we were born in the same year, we could have been great friends. We tend to forget that we were all the same age once, and not so different. Time acts as a very interesting form of distance.
Chad was stationed at the lookout back in 1966, when it was only 36 years old. Since then, 51 years have passed and the structure appears almost identical, if not better than it did before. Imagine some of the most dedicated planners, craftsmen, and volunteers you’ve ever met and now imagine them all working on the same project. The folks from Passport in Time and the local Back Country Horsemen of Montana group restored the lookout from the ground up.
On the evening of the summer solstice, I made a point to go up to the lookout to say goodbye. I hiked up from our camp, following the path around pine trees and fading sunlight. As I came out on top of the mountain, the lookout appeared. It was a thing of beauty, sitting on top of its own little world with a fresh coat of white paint. Very proud. Very humble. I sat quietly on the ground, faced the sun, and made my peace with the world. The grass moved, caught in the waves of a breeze. We sat there together — the lookout and I.
From there we could see the world stretching out in all directions.
Kaeli Wells worked as a hydrologic technician with the Lolo National Forest in 2017, serving under the Big Sky Watershed Corps. She had the great honor of helping with the Big Hole Lookout restoration project during her term of service.