I'm always on the lookout for stories, so when I took a road trip before finishing The Disenchantments, I collected as many as I could. Many of them ended up in my novel, including a ghost story which was told to me over dinner by Blake Driver, a friend of my close friend Mia Nolting. (Most of you know and love Mia already, but for my new readers, Mia illustrated Hold Still and also did some beautiful lettering for The Disenchantments. She is also one of the most talented artists I know. And she makes me laugh and she plays the piano. And when we were teenagers we knew each other through our respective jobs but were too shy to actually talk to each other. Okay, I'll get back to the point.)
The ghost story itself isn't a big part of the novel, so don't worry about spoilers in this post. Reading this won't ruin anything. In the novel, the story is only mentioned briefly and this is a story that should be told in its entirety, from start to finish. But before I give you Blake's story, I had a couple questions for him and Mia . . .Nina: Hey, Blake! Hey, Mia! How did you guys meet?Blake: That's a great question, Nina. During the summer of 2004, Mia and I were volunteers with the Student Conservation Association working as backcountry patrol rangers in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest in Washington. I had to teach Mia to drive our little stick-shift Chevy in the parking lot at the ranger's station. She pretty much got it down, but on tricky turn-arounds on really steep precipices up in the mountains she always got out of the driver's seat and made me do it. It was a great summer with about six weeks of solid sunshine, and our daily hikes were spent talking to forest visitors about pack-in/pack-out procedures and leave-no-trace ethics, giving them directions or suggestions for other hikes, updating them on trail and weather conditions, and our favorite part by far: picking up trash along the way! We still laugh about some of the most disturbing episodes of trash pick-up, which invariably included the many "TP pits" we had to dispose of. I still work in a National Forest, and it's still absolutely astounding how many people think it's okay to leave toilet paper and feces above ground, exposed to everything. And not just that, but most of these TP pits are intense concentrations of the stuff, indicating that multiple people use the same area as big natural toilets. They're also evidence that where one person makes a path or way trail off into the woods, others will surely follow. Humans are incredibly, almost stupidly, socialized like that. Some of these pits were mere feet away from the nearest box toilet, the maintenance of which was also included in our duties. If there's no box toilet around, people in nature should always pack out their TP and trash in plastic Ziplock bags, and all fecal matter should be buried underground. But that wasn't happening a lot, so Mia and I quickly got down the "punch-in" method, which consists of placing the tip of a shovel on the TP in question, applying pressure on the shovel with your foot, and shoving it down into the duff. When you pull the shovel out again, the TP stays underground, the shovel comes out clean, and because only a thin incision was made in the duff layer, you can't see any evidence of disturbance. It's much more effective than digging a cat hole, which invariably leaves the area disturbed. We always felt good about leaving a scene clean like that, because it's so disgusting to walk through the National Forest and pass big TP dumps like that, and it still baffles me that people in the Cascades want their forests to look like that, and are okay with it. Also, we knew that, with the scene clean, those numb-minded, idiotically socialized followers more than likely wouldn't be tempted to use the same place again. So, Mia and I became fast friends, solidly bonded through trial and adversity. When it seemed like, no matter how many TP pits we disposed of, there would always be more, and we were trapped in some sort of modern Sisyphus myth about a neverending uphill TP battle, we were there to push each other onwards and upwards.Blake: Gotta love the amazing search engines behind Google!Well, after our internship ended, a dispatch came through our ranger's office that the Sand Mountain Society, an awesome volunteer organization, was looking for a replacement staffer to finish out the season on its flagship lookout in the Willamette National Forest down in Oregon. I had no idea what a lookout was, but I didn't quite have enough money at the moment to return to New England, where I'd been living at that time in my post-college years, and so I contacted Don Allen, who runs the organization, and within the week he was taking me up to Sand Mountain and showing me around. When I turned the bend in the trail at the summit and saw the lookout for the first time, I thought, Wow! This is where I'm gonna live? It was like coming home in so many ways, because before coming out to the Northwest to work in the woods, whenever I'd thought about how phenomenal it would be to work in a National Forest, I'd always pictured myself in a little hut on a remote mountaintop, never actually believing I would be lucky enough to find a post like that, and suddenly here I was, moving into the exact place I'd always dreamed about finding. I spent my first night up there barely able to sleep, knowing I was living the adventure of a lifetime and relishing the feeling that I'd taken an enormous and important step on the romantic, unique path I'd set out on when I decided to follow my dreams of working in nature in the first place. Some part of me knew that finding the lookout was a key moment in my pursuit of my Personal Legend, which is the treasure that Paulo Coelho in The Alchemist says each of us was put on Earth to find. I knew there were secrets to my destiny buried on the summit of that volcano, locked away in that lookout tower, much like Santiago knew there were secrets to his buried in the sacristy of that old church in Spain, and sure enough, over the past seven summer seasons that I've been up there, so many dreams have been revealed to me, so many old treasures unearthed, and as you know, so many spirits from the past come to show me how my destiny and Sand Mountain's are intricately entwined.Mia: I love visiting the lookout! It's the most beautiful place in the world. It's a tiny little house on the rim of a volcano crater. The inside is painted light sea foam green (the inside used to be dark "forest service" green but the lookout men (they were always men) were getting neurological problems because of the contrast between the dark green and light sky. So they switched to a green that's close in value to the color of the sky. So there's less contrast for people who stare out windows at the sky all day. Here's a drawing I did of the lookout, and from the lookout:Also note attached screen shot. What?Did you know I started a blog about google? It's like keeping a diary but I don't have to record anything. Advertising is the new documentation, after all. abouttheselinks.tumblr.com.Also of note: Blake doesn't have internet in the lookout. POETIC.Blake: Even though I've been trying to convince my employers to get me an air card up there! It's a little difficult being a freelance journalist these days without internet. No internet connection does not compute with editors.I do believe in ghosts, but here's my theory, which kinda ties into the story I wrote about the one on the lookout: Old places, especially those made mostly of wood, have the ability to trap sound waves and vibrations from the people inhabiting them over time, as well as from the wind and sun and external environment. In many ways, wood as a substance is like nature's original sound-recording device. My aunt lives in a turn-of-the century plantation house in deep East Texas, and there are nights when, as a thunderstorm is rolling in, and the rising air pressure outside squeezes those old beams and the increasing moisture swells those door jambs, I swear I hear snipits of an old ragtime song playing on a phonograph. Perhaps the former owners of the house used to play an old ragtime record over and over again (the Maple Leaf Rag!) and as the wood structure around them swelled and contracted with changes in the weather, like a giant beast breathing contentedly on a stormy night, the wood fibers were changed on a molecular level by the sound vibrations passing through them, and after repeated vibrations from this particular song, the fibers became grooved, much like grooves in a vinyl record take the shape of sound patterns and reproduce them when the record needle swipes past them. In this way, I believe organic material can "record" sound waves, and possibly even images, if exposed to them for enough time. There is a story about early Indonesian potters, who were some of the first people to discover and master the potter's wheel, whose skill was so precise that their fingers passing over the clay at such a metered speed actually engraved the sounds of the village and jungle around them into the clay. Some of these vessels have survived intact, and when they're spun at the same speed in which they were formed, touching them with a bamboo needle (like the original bamboo needles of phonographs) can actually reproduce those sounds from 10,000 years ago! We can hear, by "playing" an earthen vessel, the sounds of Indonesian villagers and birds in the trees from a hundred centuries ago! (Is my math right about that?). Okay, I haven't taken the time to corroborate this story, but I think it's interesting even if it's not true. Because this is what I think ghosts are: sounds and images recorded by our environment and played back for us when conditions are just right. Much of Sand Mountain Lookout is made from material salvaged from the historic structure that sat atop Whisky Peak in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest for 60 years before it was finally refurbished and given a new home on Sand Mountain in 1989. Some nights in the fall, when I'm socked-in by clouds and the rain is blowing sideways, I hear bootsteps on the catwalk outside, and voices are common on full-moon nights. Like I said, there are secrets buried in that structure, and perhaps voices and images from the past as well, like I'm living in a little music box that sometimes gets wound up and played. Now, if you ask my friends, I'm a horror-movie fan, so sometimes my imagination does run away with me.Nina: I love the idea of ghosts, and, Blake, I love the way you think about them. I also remember that night when you told this story over dinner and how utterly convicing it was. You told it in a matter-of-fact way. It was something amazing, but also accepted, and that's how it comes across in my book, too. So, dear readers, before you encounter it in The Disenchantments, let's hear about it from Blake. This story was first published on NewWest.net.First, a bio:Blake Driver, who staffs a fire lookout in the Willamette National Forest during the summers, is also a freelance journalist whose first story for TIME Magazine hits newsstands on Friday, October 21. He's also currently looking for a publisher for a historical fiction novel he wrote in his spare time on the lookout.
Letters From The Lookout: “Phantastic Season”
By Blake Driver, 10-12-07
This is a ghost story. Of sorts.
It’s proof that sometimes the most exciting things that can happen to a lookout alone on a
mountaintop for a summer have absolutely nothing to do with fire. And oftentimes, the
excitement only gets started when the clouds roll in from the ocean with their cold-season
blusters of rain, snow and a whole host of other phantoms, long after the threat of fires
has died down. Perhaps it’s true what they’ve always said, that ghosts are accompanied
by a drop in the temperature. In the case of this friendly Casper that showed up in my
window one evening, his materialization was certainly made possible by the freshly cool
air of Fall outside, but I also realized with some heaviness in my heart that his startling
visage could be viewed as a sort of haphazard record — a log book of chaos manifested
— of all of my activities in that old building this summer and that, as surely as his
features are complete, so my third season up here has come fully to a head.
It happened on one of the first truly cold evenings after the fall equinox. I had made an
early dinner of noodles, and the steam from the pot had condensed on the inside of my
windows since the temperature outside had fallen considerably after sunset. After dinner,
I sat down to play the guitar in the last remaining hours of dusk, and that’s when I looked
over and noticed him, in the window pane closest to the brass handle of the door; a face,
incredibly detailed, conspicuously peering into the middle of the cabin, right in the
direction of the Osborne firefinder in the center of the room.
My heart skipped a little. You could say I’d been fearing something like this for three
years now, reading all that Stephen King alone in the dark. But I wasn’t scared. I was
rather delighted. I had never seen the steam from my spaghetti settle on a window pane in
such a fascinating way. I immediately recognized it as one of those moments in life that
I’ll never have again, when a combination of physics, timing and perception come
together at just the right moment for something like this to happen, the true definition of a
phantasm, a moment when you don’t have to believe or disbelieve in anything to see
what’s right in front of you. Make of it what I would (and I have a wild imagination), it
was still going to be there until I wiped it away (though I was a little afraid to touch it).
I remembered the last time I had washed the windows; I could see the Glass Plus streaks
defining the majority of his face. And then I thought about all the objects I had carried in
and out of that door in the course of the season: backpacks, binoculars, radios, cell
phones, firewood, groceries, water canisters, doormats, books, coffee cups and the list
never ends. How many times (I’m ashamed to ask) did I bump or nudge the window pane
in an effort to open the door with full hands, leaving a tiny spot of grease or smudge of
dust? Whatever the number, all of my comings-and-goings left an impression there, and it
all fell into place in such a way as to create this stunning portrait. On the night when he
appeared, I had made dinner earlier than usual, the light was just enough to backlight
him, and the temperature outside was just so. To my estimation, this is what is known as
a divine moment in time. It could have been an impression of an elephant and I still
would have thought it was special. When the prevention guard from the district came to
give me some paperwork one afternoon, I showed him the photographs. He made me
swear I’d done the portrait intentionally. I only had one thing to say to him: I’m not that
good. He seemed to have no trouble believing this, so then he said, “I wouldn’t stay here
anymore if I were you.”
Now all the nights and most days are cold enough up on the mountain to keep steam
condensed on the windows just from the simple act of my breathing, so I look for the man
in the window each chance I get. Mysteriously, he’s gone. I pay careful attention not to
bump the glass or wash that pane, just to keep him there as long as possible, but to no
avail. In so many ways he was the creation of a summer, a summer as ephemeral and
magical as an apparition, and now all of it a memory.
As I close the door to the lookout one last time this year, it squeaks and groans just as
loudly as it always did. It always annoyed me, but now I only hope to get to come back
and hear it squeak again for another year.Mia, as usual, your drawings and paintings are beautiful! And Blake, thank you so much for sharing your story with us! Everyone, go check out Blake's story in TIME! It's in stores right now.