I don’t really know why I signed up to help restore the Ute Mountain Fire Lookout Tower. When I signed up I was still planning on road tripping around the U.S. And since this is a volunteer position with HistoriCorps, I could have room and board for 4.5 days, decreasing the amount of time I’d be mooching off friends and family.

All of this seems pretty obsolete now that I’m moving to Taiwan in less than a month. But I signed up, and I’m the kind of person that hates dropping commitments, so… here I am camping in Ashley National Forest scraping paint off a wooden tower built in 1937 (hint: that means there’s lead in the paint).

But, before I get into the main acts of what would probably be a boring dramedy if it were ever transcribed to screen or stage, let me introduce the players:

We have three crew leaders: two men (John, Peter) and one woman (Stephanie). John majored in Environmental Sciences somewhere out East but has been a transplant to the West ever since he graduated about three years ago and began taking seasonal jobs out here, much like I planned to do.

Peter arrived late after our first day. He’s from Philly – with an accent thicker than the plaque layer of a Philadelphian who eats a Philly cheesesteak every day for five decades – and described himself as “Irish as Fuck.”

Stephanie is 27 and riding that seasonal job train as well.

The two other volunteers are both males and both graduated from Humboldt State in California, albeit 40 years apart.

Phil graduated with a degree in History and is now studying Historic Preservation. Thus, helping restore the Ute Mountain Fire Lookout Tower was right up his alley.

Larry is a retired forest service man and worked for decades as a forest fire fighter. Thus, helping restore the Ute Mountain Fire Lookout Tower was a natural opportunity for him.

So… again, why did I sign up to do this? I have no connection with restoration, forest fires, Utah’s National Forests. This feels so random to me. I am a random walker.

However, when Larry revealed himself to have been a smoke jumper, I had my in. FINALLY, AP English Junior year COMES IN HANDY as I recalled cursory information about the Mann Gulch fire tragedy documented in Norman Maclean’s Young Men and Fire

But that was the extent of my literature knowledge. I came up short when I asked Larry: “who is John Galt?” He had a sticker on his coffee mug that said: “Do you know John Galt?” I thought John Galt was a real person. It turns out John Galt is a fictional character from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Add that to the list of books I should read. Or at least Wikipedia pages I should skim.


Our only task on day one was to scrape paint off the fire tower. We did this for 7 hours. If you’ve never scraped paint before, let me tell you what it’s like. It’s like watching paint dry, but you expel infinity times more energy. It sucks. Within the first 30 minutes I had acquired a blister the size of my thump pad on my thumb pad.

What got me through the unique mixture of boredom and pain was the thought that I was giving back to my nation. Years from now, I’ll take my children to Ashley National Forest and show them the Tower and say: “Look! Mommy helped scrape the paint off that!” And they’ll see and they’ll say “cool!” then turn back to their generation’s version of a Gameboy and play some stupid game involving birds, or pigs, or cookies to count.

ACT TWO – Rising (Or At Least Not Falling) Action

I don’t know what type of work I expected to do when I signed up to restore the Ute Mountain Fire Lookout Tower (if you haven’t already, drink every time I write “Ute Mountain Fire Lookout Tower”). I think I imagined painting. Maybe some nailing. Little things like that. But today felt like I was working on a legit construction crew.

I used an angle grinder to cut mesh for the guard railing on the stairs. This may sound boring, but when the angle grinder met the mesh it was like a Nore Ephron RomCom – sparks flew. I was creating my own personal fireworks show.

The drawback: little protection from sparks. I wanted to be all tough, like “these sparks? It’s nothing.” But, despite being covered head-to-toe in clothing, my body felt a million stinging sensations every time I touched grinder to mesh. Also, my mind sang Pete Seeger’s “Old Dan Tucker” repeatedly (“Oh my lord how the ashes flew!”) even though they were sparks not ashes.

After that it was time to demolish old railings at the top of the tower. Since the tower is 30 feet tall, we wore harnesses. I never felt like I was going to fall – neither off the tower’s deck, nor in love – but my mind kept repeating the line “help me I think I’m falling” from Joni Mitchell’s “Help Me.”

I sawzall’d the SHIT out of the railing, breaking it into chunks and chucking those chunks to the ground. The combination of power tools and heights made this demolition task exhilarating.

Over breakfast, Larry talking about how his daughter was thinking about applying to Standord, so I asked if she was looking into any Ivies and he said she said they seemed too snobby.

So, as an alumna of the best old place of all, I had to jump in and dispel this misconception, this SAME misconception I had before attending Princeton Preview. I was the perfect saleswoman, touching on all the reason’s Princeton is the best: 1) international experiences, 2) liberal arts education and the varied interests of all the students, 3) good financial aid packages, 4) DUH – best alumni of any University ever in the Universe. After dinner we had a lengthy discussion about evolution and society and evolutionary psychology and at the end I said: “this is the kind of dinner conversation you’d have at Charter Eating Club,” solidifying the fact that Princeton people are awesome.

I failed to mention the more stupid conversations like “what’s the actual definition of a threesome?” or “Benjamin Button Pickle.” But… she can figure that out if/when she gets there.

Act Three – Climax

Today I primed and painted the higher beams on the tower. Although tedious, because I was painting stuff high off the ground, I got to use the scaffolding and manlift, here on called peoplelift (or Luftmenschen in honor of the German World Cup team) because it lifted me and I am a woman, so…

The peoplelift was cool because it was cool to operate. There was a main joystick that moved the cage up, down, and side-to-side. There were also several other levers that would extend/retract the arm or swing the cage left to right. So it was kind of like a videogame, choosing which combination of directional movements would get you to your destination.

With the people lift, I painted one exterior face of the tower. But to get the interior I climbed about 25 feet of scaffolding. In doing this I realized scaffolding is a lot like a jungle gym. Only if you fall you do more than just scrape a knee.

So I guess what I’ve learned is construction requires transferrable skills from childhood with the awareness and maturity of adulthood.

I’ve also learned a lot about the Forest Service through Larry and our HistoriCorps crew leaders since “The Service” hired HistoriCorps to restore the tower. It seems, according to Larry, the Forest Service is less diverse in the projects they take on “in house.” They used to have many different types of crews, but not they contract out a lot of their work. Larry believes this is a bad thing although he can’t articulate why. And this seems at odds with Larry’s political beliefs – smaller and/or more efficient government. Perhaps I’ll ask him about this before we leave Friday.

Act Four – Almost Falling Action

I was back up on the top deck today, harnessd to a post and demolishing the remaining guardrails. But today I learned I was harnessed wrong. Nothing wrong with the actual clips, but I allowed too much slack on my line that if I fell off the deck, I would have hit the ground and died.

Surprisingly, I wasn’t that freaked out when I heard this. I was more annoyed that I was stupid enough to make this mistake.

So I kept working demo all afternoon until our workday was cut short around 3pm because of thunderstorms.

I think I like demolishing things most of all. Painting is OK, but it’s a little too mindless. Building (especially this type of renovation building where we have to preserve certain pieces) is meticulous – following plans, spending lots of time making things level. But demo. Demo is like the slopestyle of construction. You have a wooden post you need to rip out of the deck and you have these tools at your disposal. GO. It’s fun and challenging and creative, and fulfilling when that chunk of post hits breaks free from the deck and plummets to the ground.

Act Five – Denouement

I learned a lot of things this week. I learned about beer (all the other volunteers talked about beer last night over dinner as I listened trying to absorb their discussion of Colorado taprooms and India Pale Ales). I learned about construction. I learned that I enjoy physical labor – it frees up my mind to think about stupid things like the plot line to the cartoon Benjamin Button Pickle. I learned that I like this sort of thing: this random volunteer work. I was supposed to leave the work site around noon today, but I ended up getting so enthralled by demolition work that I stayed until 2pm.

If you have the chance and you think you may enjoy it, I suggest you try volunteering with HistoriCorps. I think the type of work and the mission of HistoriCorps self-selects for a cool set of people, both volunteers and crew leaders. If nothing else, volunteer with HistoriCorps for the free T-shirt and water bottle. I’ve been in a free stuff vacuum since graduating from Princeton. Thank you HistoriCorps.