The Sky Is Falling
May 28: Camels Hump Lookout Tower
Lolo National Forest, Montana
GEORGE DANTLEY LOVED THIS old wooden observation tower perched six stories above Lolo National Forest in the Northern Rockies. Six miles northwest of St. Regis as the crow flies. God’s country. Up here on “The Hump,” more than a mile above sea level, he could survey 66 square miles of Montana wilderness. The panoramic view always took his breath away. Up top, he felt like a king in his castle lording over his kingdom.
Of course, George was far from royalty. A college student working a summer job for the Montana State Forest Service, he held the title of Forestry Technician GS-04. In government work that meant entry-level fire spotter making $14 an hour. The low pay scale didn’t bother him; the responsibilities of the job were ridiculously easy. So easy, in fact, he often felt guilty taking a paycheck. Nothing much to do up here but stroll the catwalk ten minutes every hour, looking for smoke or telltale signs of wildfires, and monitoring the meteorological instruments.
This marked his fourth summer out here. He had just completed his junior year at the University of Montana’s W. A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation in Missoula. He’d arrived two days ago, head still swimming with facts and figures from his recently-completed coursework (Forest Environment Economics, Wood Anatomy, Watershed Hydrology, Fire Management, Timber Harvesting). Forest Service helicopter pilot Peter Lacroix had flown him out here before delivering three other fire lookers to their respective outposts. Saying goodbye to his friend, captain Lacroix, was the last human contact George would have for two weeks, when the allocation chopper would bring food, potable water, and necessary supplies. Unless stray hikers showed up, his only contact with civilization would be through the Montana Department of Natural Resources Forest Division VHF radio network.
He stood outside the cabin, leaning against the catwalk railing, sipping instant coffee from a tin mug and taking in the beauty of it all. Such a gorgeous landscape! A green blanket of towering red cedar and lodgepole pine rolled out below him, punctuated by snow-capped peaks in the distance. Hiking trails and meandering streams cut through the mountains like brown and blue ribbons. To the north, Flathead Lake glittered in the low-angled sunlight. Closer, the Bitterroot River played hide-and-seek with the greenery.
The early morning chill nipped at his fingers and cheeks. A breeze rustled the treetops with a sibilant whisper. Birds chirped their melodious songs. He took in a deep, satisfying breath of crisp mountain air and thanked his lucky stars that he had landed this job the summer after he’d graduated high school.
He recalled his final interview with the DNRC folks in Helena when he was a wet-behind-the-ears high school graduate three years ago:
The Human Resources interviewer, a middle-aged salt-and-pepper haired woman named Abbie Cromwell, smiled at him skeptically. “Mr. Dantley, I’m sure you are aware this job requires long periods of solitude.”
“Yes, I do,” he said, wondering if he shouldn’t say more.
She nodded, her expression impassive. “Many young people think they can handle the isolation, but it’s been our experience that very few can. Are you comfortable working alone? It’s a very long summer as I’m sure you know.”
“I’m positive I can handle it,” he said, hoping he sounded convincing.
She studied him for a long moment, her perusal making him uncomfortable, then said, “I know how you young people love your social media and Internet. And many kids just can’t bear to part with their cellphones. It’s like an additional appendage for them. There is no Wi-Fi connectivity out where you would be stationed. Communications are limited to our radio network. Can you deal with that?”
“It won’t be a problem, Ms. Cromwell,” he said, surprised at his confidence. “I’m quite familiar with solitude. I’ve always been a loner. I’m an only child, and frankly, I’m not a fan of social media. I’m not big on cell phones, either. I see way too many people wasting their lives on those things.”
She stared at him with a blank expression and he thought maybe he’d gone too far. But then she surprised him by smiling.
“Well, I must say,” she said, “I wasn’t expecting that. You have a very mature outlook. It’s refreshing to hear that from one so young.”
George smiled. “I’ve been told that I’m an old soul.”
“Yes, I can see that. You seem like a very self-directed and responsible young man.”
“Well, my parents might disagree with your assessment.”
Abbie Cromwell laughed knowingly. “Yes, moms and dads can be pretty demanding with their kids.” She glanced at her notes. “I see you’ve been accepted at the university in their forestry program.”
“Excellent! What do you plan to do with your degree when you graduate?”
He had no idea what he wanted to do after college. That milestone seemed an eternity away. So he told her what he thought she wanted to hear. “I’d like to stay in Montana and work for the Forest Division, maybe specialize in timber management or fire prevention. You know, work my way up to supervisor grade. I feel like this summer job will help me prepare for my career and allow me to accomplish my goals.”
He hoped he didn’t sound too rehearsed; he really needed this job. Dad had been very direct with him. George was not going to be a lazy couch potato during the summer break. Dad was a stickler for personal responsibility. George would work during summer vacations or else.
She kept her eyes trained on her paperwork, scribbling a few notes as she said, “Anything else you’d like to add, Mr. Dantley?”
He didn’t think he’d convinced her of his worthiness. It was time to go for the close. “Yes,” he said, “As far as the solitude thing? I have a couple of hobbies that I’m passionate about . . . things that will keep me happy and occupied during slow times in the forest.”
“Really? Like what?”
“I love to read. Novels mostly. Thrillers, mysteries, science fiction. I also play guitar. I’m not very good but I enjoy learning new songs.”
Abbie Cromwell tucked a curl of hair behind her ear. “I see. So you enjoy solitary pursuits, then?”
He nodded. “I’m really not much of a people person, to be honest.”
“That’s a good thing as far as this job is concerned.” She glanced at the clock on the wall. “Anything else you want to add before we close?”
George felt emboldened. “Yes. Obviously I don’t know any of your other candidates, but I believe you won’t find a better suited person for this fire looker position than me. When can I start?”
She grinned from ear to ear and stuffed her paperwork into a file folder. Stood from the table and extended her hand to him. “You had the job before we started talking,” she said, shaking his hand. “My interview was just a formality. Welcome to the team.”
And that was that. The U.S. Department of Natural Resources and Conservation became his new employer. He underwent an extensive physical and a grueling three-day training course in Missoula, then was turned loose in the Bitterroot Mountain range here on Camels Hump.
That first summer had been a big adjustment. The coal-dark nights were long and scary with nocturnal animal sounds creeping him out. And being at this high elevation above all the cover, the tower had a tendency to sway in the wind, the old timbers popping and squeaking like the joints of an old man. But he gradually overcame his fears and grew to love this tower and the surrounding area.
He went inside for more coffee, shutting the sturdy storm door behind him. The one-room cabin was spartan, the living space minimal: small kitchen area with a sink, two cabinets stuffed with canned goods and make-ready meals, a woodstove and a gas oven, a thin mattress laid across a low-rider bedframe near floor-to-ceiling windows, a table and two chairs. Meteorology instruments and the radio console dominated one wall. A lightning chair—a stool with insulated feet to prevent shock in heavy storms—sat near the console. Propane tanks under the reinforced floor fueled the generator that provided the tower with electricity. An antenna extending skyward from the peak of the hip roof provided strong radio reception.
George had just poured his second cup of coffee when he heard the radio belch a loud gasp of static. He looked at the scanner. The green light flashed red on channel 12, indicating an advisory warning. He found this troubling; it was early in the season for a fire.
The static cleared and a calm female voice filled the tiny room:
“Attention. This is an official bulletin directed to all fire looker outposts. Repeat, this is an official bulletin concerning all spotters. We have received authorized word that two meteorites have come down in the Northern Idaho panhandle, near Bonners Ferry. They crashed approximately eight miles apart in difficult terrain, spawning two small wildfires. All Montana fire personnel should be on the lookout for possible meteor showers, with particular attention to meteorite strikes. Our neighbors in Idaho tell us this is probably an isolated incident. However, we must be vigilant. As always, please report any unusual activity in your area immediately. Be careful out there, folks. This is Fire Dispatch signing off.”
The channel went silent. George sipped his coffee. Meteorites? he thought. How weird! They didn’t teach us anything about that during training. Or at the university.
The sun had crested the mountain peaks, and a creeping harsh glare began to light up the cabin. He donned his sunglasses and took his coffee out on the catwalk. Scanned the horizon. Wondered what it would be like to see a meteorite come down. Of course he didn’t want to see brave men and women risk their lives to contain and vanquish wildfires. But hell, he sure would like to see one of those space rocks crash. It would give him something interesting to write about in his daily journal.
He finished his coffee and went inside to make breakfast. The woodstove remained hot from his coffee prep, so he rehydrated powdered eggs and got out his one and only frying pan, cooked himself an omelette, whistling a tune he’d just learned on guitar as he worked.
He sat at the small table and ate his eggs. As he took his last bite, he heard something strange. A high-pitched whistle, similar to a teapot blowing its spout. He stopped chewing and listened, anxiety growing in his gut.
The whistle became a scream.
He put down his plate, grabbed the binoculars, and rushed out to the catwalk. He scanned the horizon to the north.
And then he saw it, watched in utter disbelief as a small, glowing sphere crashed into the treetops, several miles away. If he had blinked he would have missed it. A few seconds later a muffled boom reached him, the concussion hitting him in his chest. The tower trembled for a horrifying second.
He grabbed the railing with his free hand.
“Holy shit!” he said aloud, his heart racing. He felt a strange mixture of emotions: one part excitement, two parts trepidation.
He thought maybe he should climb down the long, winding staircase and find cover. But his curiosity got the best of him. He continued to glass the area where the meteorite went down. A dark spiral of smoke rose up through the hole in the forest canopy, but he couldn’t see any flames. Still, he had to report this.
He went inside to the radio, picked up the handset, announced his discovery in a breathy, angst-ridden voice.
“This is Camels Hump to Dispatch. Come in, Dispatch.”
A burst of static, then, “This is Dispatch. Proceed, Camels Hump. Over.”
George did his best to keep calm. “Reporting a small meteorite strike approximately four miles due north in heavily forested terrain. No sign of fire, but there is a buildup of smoke. Request aerial fire support. Over.”
“Request received, Camels Hump. Do you have a read on the size of the object? Over.”
“No. I was only able to catch a quick look before it hit. It was glowing bright red on the way down and had a smoky yellow flame of a tail. Didn’t look that big, but I’m a good distance away. I sure did feel the concussion from the strike. It rattled the tower. Over.”
“You sound frightened, Camels Hump. Are you okay? Over.”
“I’m okay, yes. Just excited. I’m . . .”
He ceased talking as suddenly, an ear-piercing screech racked his eardrums. He dropped the radio mic and brought his hands up to cover his ears, looking around frantically for the source of the noise.
“What is that commotion? Can you read me, Camels Hump? What is that noise? Over.”
The meteorite struck The Hump with a deafening impact, about a hundred yards down the side of the north face. The earth shook and the tower tilted precariously, throwing George against the wall, his shoulder taking the brunt of the hit. The windows shattered and two of the walls collapsed, showering him with shards of glass and wood fragments.
“Dispatch to Camels Hump. Can you read me? Over.”
He crawled across the crazily slanted floor, struggling as he grabbed the radio handset.
“Mayday! Mayday!” he screamed into the mic. “The Hump’s been hit. Send help!
The tower crumpled and George’s world dropped out from under him. The mic ripped from his hand as he felt himself falling, tumbling, rolling. Flying dirt and debris clogged his mouth and nose. The wind was sucked out of him and he struggled to breathe. The woodstove hit him on the way down, hot coals burning his flesh. A chunk of window frame pierced his chest.
The tower broke apart as it skidded down the granite face of The Hump.
George tumbled with it, the pain unbelievable.
Just before he lost consciousness he heard the dispatcher’s voice coming out of the rubble.
“Fire Dispatch to George Dantley. Are you there? Can you read me?”