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Scott Thybony's Canyon Commentary: The Last Lookout

Scott Thybony

There is a long-standing tradition in Arizona of literary pilgrimages. People journey to Walnut Canyon where Willa Cather gathered inspiration for her 1915 novel ‘Song of the Lark’. Others belly up to the bar at The Weatherford Hotel in Flagstaff where Zane Grey wrote ‘The Call of the Canyon’ in an upstairs room in 1923. And some venture to the North Rim Lookout Tower where Edward Abbey worked as a fire scout in the early 1970’s, filling up journal after journal with observations and musings. Scott Thybony made his own pilgrimage to the tower for his latest Canyon Commentary.

Beyond a locked gate the dirt road climbs toward the highest point in Grand Canyon National Park, more than 9,000 feet in elevation. At the end of it lies the North Rim Lookout Tower where Edward Abbey worked several seasons spotting fires. The writer, despite being widely published, needed a paycheck to support his writing. Having known about his summers as a fire lookout, I decide to make a literary pilgrimage of sorts and see what was left of the writer’s cabin at the foot of the tower.

Credit Scott Thybony
Abbey's lookout cabin on the North Rim

Haze from a distant wildfire filters through the spruce and bone-white aspens as Chuck LaRue and I head up the road. Along the way the field biologist recognizes the calls of a Dark-eyed Juno, a Warbling Vireo, and the elusive Hermit Thrush. Abbey wrote in his journal: “The sweet clear silver song of the hermit thrush, morning and evening, every day.  A flute music from the dark woods … A bittersweet, faintly melancholy tune—so perfectly in key with my own feelings.”

Credit Scott Thybony
The lookout tower from where Abbey called in only one smoke during his final season as a lookout.

Soon the tower comes into view, rising above the tree cover. Tilting my head back I scan the steel frame standing 75-feet tall and keep walking.  Around the next bend stands the derelict cabin. For Abbey the green tarpaper shack served as a base camp, a writer’s retreat, and a lovers’ hideaway. He often filled his journals with thoughts on lost loves and lost landscapes. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the two apart.

Entering the cabin, I find a quote by Aldo Leopold written on the wall where blue paint has peeled away.  “Of what avail are 40 freedoms without a blank spot on the map?” In the next room Chuck inspects a dead porcupine lying on a table by an empty chair. And high in the corner, a Townsend’s Solitaire has built a nest in the room where the author of “Desert Solitaire” once tilted back his chair to smoke a pipe after his early morning climb up the tower.

“The world is very quiet,” Abbey wrote in “Black Sun,” his North Rim novel. “Almost silent. The clear song of the hermit thrush exaggerates the stillness, makes it seem only more stark. If he were listening the man could hear the murmur of the fire in the stove, the crack of the metal roof expanding slightly in the first sunlight, the fall of a spruce cone on the ground outside. But nothing else.”

We leave the cabin and climb the tower’s steep flights of stairs to the locked observation room. “There is nothing out there which is new to him,” Abbey wrote, “nothing which is wholly unknown. And yet, each time he climbs this tower, each time he looks out upon this world, it seems to him more alien and dreamlike than before. And, all of it, utterly empty.”

The writer completed his fourth and final season as a fire lookout in 1971.  The next year I began working at the Grand Canyon and heard about Abbey’s departure. A ranger told me they decided not to hire him back after he called in only one smoke the entire season. It was a dump fire at Desert View. In an essay for Audubon magazine Abbey described a pair of park officials discussing his situation.

One of them asked, “Do we really need a fire lookout on North Rim?”

And the other man said, “I didn’t know we had one.”

The writer became the last regular lookout in the national park. As we pass the cabin on our way back, I notice a simple message written on the door. It reads, “Abbey Lives!”

Scott Thybony has traveled throughout North America on assignments for major magazines, including Smithsonian, Outside, and Men’s Journal. An article for National Geographic magazine was translated into a dozen languages, and his book, Canyon Country, sold hundreds of thousands of copies. He once herded sheep for a Navajo family, having a hogan to call home and all the frybread he could eat. His commentaries are heard regularly on Arizona Public Radio.
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