This story is about trying to meet and not meeting the closest fire tower person to me.
At the beginning of every fire season, I have anxiety dreams about climbing up to the fire tower. It's something I do with every hat I'm wearing. When the academic semester starts, I have anxiety dreams a little short of appearing in front of my class with no clothes on. We all know the deal. Anxiety about an approaching challenge is like getting tattooed twice - feel the pain once through apprehension, then feel the pain again when it actually happens. It's a waste of our energy, but it's real. My anxiety dreams at the beginning of fire season are all about climbing ladders, climbing out into the abyss, only clouds beneath me and a flimsy bit of rusty steel to hold me.
Which is ridiculous, because the fire tower I work on is firmly set on the top of a granite peak. There are only two ladders to climb and they are sturdy, aluminum checkerplate. The rest of the climb is concrete steps and a rather brutally inclining bitumen path, riddled with tiger snakes.
Today, I discovered the source of these anxiety dreams. For the last few years, I've heard the nearest fire tower to me (let's call it Telephone Tower) over the regional transmitters. It's always a man and he does the same as me: calls in the weather and visibility on the hour, and reports smokes. He uses the same reporting system as me - coordinates and smoke descriptions - and often the spotter pilots converse with him, as they do with me, about a new fire in the district. It's a department thing. But he is chimerical, this figure in my life. It's just his voice and the weather stats and yet here we are, both sitting atop fire towers.
We've never communicated because we are in different districts and too far away to see each other's smokes. So today on a rare day off, I decided to track down Telephone Tower and have a cuppa with the tower man. I even bought him a custard pie from a bakery on my way.
It's difficult to find this tower out Nannup way. Goggle Maps gives everyone a bum steer in this country and I've had a bit of experience with tourists getting led into goat tracks and then getting bogged. So I plugged in Telephone Road and followed my nose from there.
It's hot Jarrah country. Not something I'm used to after the karri forests where I live, or the coastal heath, where I used to live. This country feels firey, like a single spark could just pop the whole place into a disaster zone. Banksia grandis, with her dinosaur-spine leaves and marvellous new flowers followed me. I drove further into the bush. I got to a pine plantation. A blue sedan was parked among the soft needles, one door open. I was thinking murder ballads.
There was a turn off to my left, but it was covered in pine needles and I knew the gravel ahead held the tracks of the Telephone Tower man's car, so I kept going. Took the next left by instinct and there it was! Telephone Tower, rising out of the bush like the sentinel it was.
I leapt out of the car and then realised I'd accidentally parked on an ants' nest and had to jump back and reverse the car to a better spot. Looked up at the tower:
No one was there. The gate was locked.
After such a long pilgrimage, I felt immense relief. What kind of nutcase climbs a tower like that anyway? And then sits up there all day looking for smoke? No wonder we're called Freaks on Peaks. Just looking at those ladders made the soles of my feet go crazy. Telephone Tower man does this every day? Jesus!
Tourists often ask me, 'What if there is a fire near you? or a lightning storm?' and I feel quite smug in my answers. 'Well, on lookout, I can see a fire or a storm for miles before it gets here.' Maybe Telephone Tower man is as pragmatic as me. Dunno. I never got to have a cuppa with the guy today. Maybe I'll hear him on the radios tomorrow.
Coming home, after seeing the Telephone Tower, I think Mt Frank is the best fire tower ever. We have tiger snakes, dugites and tourists. We don't have that kind of ladder and lonely.