Whither the wandering soul, be she moose or man?
“One day I saw an old moose,” Dr. Amy Pearson begins. “Like a really old moose.
“I was looking north and I see this animal coming out and it’s really slow and I’m like ‘what the ... what is that?’ And I look over and it’s this old moose and he’s just like [moose groan].’”
Pearson contorts her face to mimic the moose, twisting into a distant, mildly pained stare as she drifts deeper into the memory.
“And he gets up and I’m like ‘where is he going to go?’ Because it’s just ridgeline rock and it ends, so I just watched him go up and stand there for about 10 minutes.
“And then he just turned around and went right back down the same way that he’d come up.”
She ends that thought in gentle laughter, bemused by her own recollection of that day.
“I don’t know,” she rejoins, snapping back to the conversation at hand.
“So, that happened.”
PEARSON SPENT 100 days in the middle of the middle of nowhere, occupying the most remote fire lookout in one of the most remote swaths of land in the Lower 48 states.
The Jumbo Lookout in the Bob Marshall Wilderness sits teetering atop a rocky ledge at more than 8,000 feet in elevation and 22 miles from the nearest access point. From Jumbo everything is real, even as you look at what feels like forever across the horizon. Nowhere will you see an artificial light. Nowhere can you hear an artificial sound.
Pearson spent the entire summer of 2015 — one of the worst fire seasons in recent history — perched as the lone fire lookout at Jumbo, her first and so far only summer in that job. Wednesday night at Flathead Valley Community College she will share her stories from those isolated months at a free presentation, part of the “Wilderness Speaker Series,” at 7 p.m.
She calls her program “100 Days of Solitude.”
Pearson, 35, is an adjunct professor at FVCC and a published poet. She spent hours of her time writing while at Jumbo and plans to share some of that poetry Wednesday night.
“I’d write out my feelings,” she explained.
“I’m going to do that and then also, toward the end, I want to get more philosophical.”
I ASK Pearson what she thought the moose was doing. What was running through its mind? What would motivate it to grumble its way to a cliff, ponder the vast nothing, then turn and walk away?
I ask Pearson what she thought she was doing. What was running through her mind? What would motivate her to leave behind her life, her family and her possessions to trek up a of a pile of rocks, sit — literally sit — in a chair staring at the wilderness for three full months, then turn and walk away?
She pauses to think.
“I always knew that I would be a lookout,” Pearson starts. “I think it just suits my nature a little bit. I like solitude, I like to spend time on my own and I love the mountains and I love the time by myself to just be there and to write. That’s probably why.
“But it just kind of happened. I met this guy who worked for Spotted Bear (Ranger District) and I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve always thought about a lookout,’ and he was like, ‘Oh, well there’s this great lookout in the middle of nowhere’ and then suddenly I found myself there. Just a series of events.”
I recall the rambling moose.
“So, that happened.”
THE “WILDERNESS Speaker Series” is in its fifth year, a joint production of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation and other conservation-based nonprofits.
This year’s three-speaker series is co-promoted by the Northwest Fire Lookout Association, the Montana Wilderness Association and the Natural Resources Conservation program at FVCC.
The first speaker this winter talked about mountain goats, fulfilling the first prong of the program’s purpose — educating the public in a scientific, tangible way.
“The other is to inspire people,” said Margosia Jadkowski, the Wilderness Foundation’s outreach coordinator. “That’s really important to our mission. Why it’s so special, why it should be protected and why it should be cared for.
“For the foundation, having someone like Amy share their experience, it inspires people. It reminds them how unique this place is.”
Though not intentionally, the speaker series this winter also serves as a water-carrier for public lands, a topic that has become politically charged in recent months, as conservationists fear the government will privatize wild spaces like the Bob.
“We’re not an advocacy group,” said Carol Johnson, the Wilderness Foundation’s executive director. “We don’t take sides, which makes it a little bit of a tightrope walk for me.
“What I have to do is find an indirect way to get that message across and that, I think, is what Wilderness Series does. Give the public an appreciation for what’s out there. The wildlife, the management of it, everything that’s at stake if the structure that keeps it public is gone.”
NOT MUCH has happened to Dr. Pearson by accident, despite her easygoing nature.
When she was in elementary school in Conrad she heard a Japanese song during a music class. Years later, she met a woman at Arizona State University while studying for her PhD. That woman, a mentor, had spent time in Japan.
So, when she finished her Ph.D in organizational theory, she moved to Japan and taught middle school English for two years.
“I always knew I would go there,” she said with breezy nonchalance.
When she was in fourth grade she made a speech to her classmates as part of the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program when, for some reason, Paris came up.
“I’m going to live in Paris for a while,” she said. “I know that. So, that’s going to happen.”
Does she ever doubt her plans will come to fruition? The fire lookout? The years in Japan? The move to Paris?
There is zero hesitation.
LIVING IN a fire lookout is not easy.
Pearson had the occasional backpacker pass through during her time at the lookout, and she had about four days off a month during her July through September stay. There was even a backcountry ranger and his family she visited in Big Prairie when she had time.
But mostly she was alone, spending more than half of every day looking for fires or smoke to report back to firefighters who were battling blazes all over the region. Luckily for her, the closest Pearson came to a fire was one night when a lightning strike ignited a single tree.
“There’s so much space that you’re totally, you’re completely open,” she said. “There’s nothing else. Just you there as part of this landscape. And you’re doing it. It’s a really interesting feeling.”
Sometimes she was alone for weeks at a time, and when she wasn’t writing, looking or reporting the weather, she used her voice to shatter the suffocating silence. She read her poetry aloud every morning, called out to wildlife during hikes.
“And singing,” she said. “I sang a lot. Keeps you company.”
Despite the challenges and some difficult times — “There were definitely points where it was like ‘OK, that’s enough. I got to get out of here.’”
Pearson is overwhelmingly positive when she discusses her stay. She has moved to Kalispell since leaving, but the call of the wild remains.
“You turn on the light and you don’t have to worry about ‘well, it’s going to get dark, I have to do this before that happens,’” she said of her reintegration to civilization. “Small things. Like everything seemed really easy.”
She thinks about moving back to an isolated place for a longer stretch, and her plan is to spend the upcoming summer in Polebridge.
BUT THEN there’s Paris. And talking to strangers, which is the first thing she says when I ask what she missed while at the lookout.
“So you’re confused about the fact that I like the solitude and the nothingness and then Paris,” she says, smiling.
“I mean, I don’t know. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know.
“I just like both of those ends.”
Entertainment editor Andy Viano can be reached at (406) 758-4439 or firstname.lastname@example.org.