Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
January 2020 - Volume 20, No. 1
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New Years Day Reverie - “What Now?” / Hands of Guidance

New Years Day morning. Fresh coffee in hand.[1] I open the new Sierra Magazine (Jan/Feb) to an article on forest fire lookout towers still scattered about the US.

As if I had completely forgotten - in my college years I had tried to get a Summer job working/living in one of them. But the Summer I chose to apply was the year the Forest Service decided to limit all applications to those who would be seeking further education and employment in forestry.

At one time there were 8,000 of those wilderness lookouts, many built as CCC[2] depression era projects. (Now there are only about 2,000 still standing.) In those days the only reliable way to spot wildfires before they billowed out of control was to staff these remote one-room cabins on high towers and mountaintops. The idea of a Summer of solitude above the forest had long intrigued me - cloistered high in the mountains with little human contact.[3]

My college years began just before the 60’s. Our hero authors like Jack Kerouac and Edward Abbey had spent time themselves, and wrote about, their own fire tower experiences of solitude. I’d also met fellow students who had done this. I still wonder how such a Summer would have influenced me. But a bureaucracy intervened, then eventually I got married.

During my senior year at Iowa, my wife and I applied for the Peace Corps. But again something (not us) got in the way, and it was only three years later, when I was in my second year in graduate school (seminary) that they finally got in touch and inquired if we were still interested. No, we were being led somewhere else. Again I sometimes wonder how it would have been if we’d been allowed to follow our initial plans.

A few years ago, I saw a DVD called “Ice Bridge”, locally produced, about spending a Winter on Mackinac Island. I fell in love with the idea, especially about the solitude, and what I could do with it. For awhile I tried to make it real. But in this case it was simply reality that prevented me from following it.   

So what do these memories mean - heading in a direction, only to have a hand push me back or somewhere else?  

And so on this New Years Day - we enter a new year and a new decade. I’ve been anticipating, hoping for, something new for awhile now. The number “2019” was becoming quite weary; and “2020” felt like a cleaner number. But here I am, half a day in, and I only feel ‘on hold.’ 

For some reason I recall, about 50 years ago, our cat had a litter of kittens in the basement. Then in time she’d bring them each up the stairs into the kitchen (where we’d barricade the door into the rest of the house), where she’d train them in the arts of ‘kittydom.’ One memorable event (for us) was when she’d catch a mouse and teach her kits how to play it, capture it, and then finally kill and eat it. 

This season I’ve reviewed the many times in my own life when I’ve felt the hands of guidance (like the paws of that mother cat) guiding and then of necessity limiting or directing me in directions of other rightness. And I’ll wonder, “What if?” 

Those themes and desire for solitude or connection somewhere else seems ever present.

What now? What this feeling of “on hold”?

All I can advise each of you, my readers, is what I advise myself - to continue to

Pay Attention


I did, once in the Summer of 1986, get to climb up into a fire lookout tower. I was in Maine, just divorced, and renting a cottage alone for a week on the coast. Nearby was Blue Hill Mountain (a 934’ isolated mountain) and having a fire tower atop it. I drove, then hiked to that summit, and climbed the structure to the top. There were other tourists, including an interesting couple whose (sizable) yacht was anchored in a harbor some miles away. I had a car and somehow they didn’t, so I offered to drive them back later that afternoon. The larger crew was the owneer/captain and another couple, having cruised up the East Coast from Florida. A skiff came to pick us up, and I spent a delightful evening with them, dining on shrimp, steak and excellent drinks. Later that evening, I was taken back to shore and drove home to my cottage in Brooklin on the Blue Hill peninsula.

All of which can suggest that when you’re willing to pay attention, you never know what’s going to show up. And so with a new year.

BTW, I read that in 2005 the fire tower was removed by the Maine Forest Service, and subsequently refitted to serve cellphone users. It figures.


[1] My son Michael comes home every Christmas from San Francisco bringing me great coffee beans.

[2] Civilian Conservation Corps.

[3] I consider that my father had been a preacher back in the mountains west of Denver for a couple years of my early life, in the home solitude of WWII.

Comments (1)

  • fire towers

    I’ve been up two towers – one in PA in the autumn as a teen with my father, the other in AZ at night in winter over ice-clad, open steps. Such a risk just to see Tucson lights. I’ve been fascinated with maps since early childhood. I had seen both towers on topographic maps that I poured over, imagining hikes through canyons, mountain trails to to scale mountains. Little blocks on the map signify a structure, a house. The ones I saw were often nothing more than a foundation. My childhood home still quite occupied could be seen on the map. There was always some dream of where I might go someday – those maps, globes, travel brochures, plans of houses, course descriptions, plans for retirement. GPS simplicity doesn’t allow for larger fields to imagine walking through,streams to navigate. For GPS better know where you’re going and get on with getting there – options to get there by fastest or by less traveled routes. His house is in the village though marked accurately on the latest topographic map – that I won’t need. How did Robert Frost get in this? Death? Change? Poor man suffered depression. The Road Less Traveled. Maybe. Maybe from his Birches?

    I’d like to get away from earth awhile
    And then come back to it and begin over.
    May no fate willfully misunderstand me
    And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
    Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
    I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
    I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,
    And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
    Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
    But dipped its top and set me down again.
    That would be good both going and coming back.
    One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

    Late – and I must go, though my horse must think it queer to stop without a farm house near.....

    — Cynthia, 1/1/2020

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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