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The tiny lookout above Milford, off the 395, is a perfect spot, close enough and far enough away from the world at the same time.

A view of one’s own: four days and nights in the Black Mountain Lookout

The fog rolls in to the valley below the Black Mountain Lookout built in 1937, both ominous and serene. Photos by Maggie Wells

What can a mother of two artist/writer/reporter/teacher/bartender/maid do when given alone time to sit in a lookout for four days to work?

Every artist could use time and space to create their art alone. That kind of goes without saying. But women and mother artists in particular have a whole other layer on top of that. To prepare to go away for a few days for a single man means packing a bag and squaring some things away at work. For a mother with two kids in school means preparing one’s self and preparing a whole bunch of others for her absence. Also? It presents this thing called guilt. Guilt for taking time for one’s self and one’s art blatantly over one’s family. But I’m tired and behind on so many things and four days alone anywhere sounded like a godsend. I was looking forward to four days alone without being a taxi service or a restaurant or a maid. But what I received was so much more.

The week of Sept. 13 through 16, I was Plumas Arts’ and the Forest Service’s artist in residence in the Black Mountain Lookout near Milford. I did what every artist behind on deadlines and projects would do — I brought all of them and hoped to find time between staring at walls and exquisite vistas to work on the ones that called to me.

Wednesday, Day 1

I meant to get here earlier. Like way earlier. Like before rain and wind and lightning on a dirt-looks-like-it-could-wash-out-road earlier.

I arrive in the wind and the rain and it’s blowing sideways and I count myself lucky I memorized the lock box combination because I can’t call it up on my dead phone.

I empty out the car and make the lookout my home in less than one hour. Go Army Brat children of America! I can make a place look like home in minutes. I set up one bed as a bed and the other bed as an editing table. The actual table becomes an altar and a completed tasks and projects table. My to-do list has no end. This should be interesting. I set up food and water and I’m overjoyed that I brought a tea kettle since there isn’t one here — there is a brand new stove however!

Also while I remembered the scotch and soda and a bottle of wine from Shasta Vineyard that’s been sitting in my house for a good occasion for a year, I neglected to bring coffee and there’s a coffeemaker. What kind of idiot? …

I brought things to make dinners, but in truth, I ate Riley’s beef jerky for dinner. I didn’t mean to. It just sort of happened. It goes well with bread from American Valley Bakery. Just sayin.’

Apparently I brought enough water for a month. I decide to keep half of it in the car.

Sunsets from 7,070 feet on a clear day overlooking western Nevada are a daily and beautiful treat.

Watching a storm from a lookout is an amazing experience. I’m eye level with the storm over western Nevada. It takes three hours to travel from south to north. It’s loud and abrasive and beautiful to look at. It keeps me up until 1 a.m. — I’ve never seen anything quite like it. I do remember when the lightning heads my way that I’m wearing jewelry AND my glasses are metal. I decide to sit out the rest of the storm blurry, but alive on the hardwood floor. I write poems and journal entries and decide my chapbook of poems offered up for this trip will be called “What the Wind Brought Me” — I don’t even know at this point that this is a light wind I’m feeling at the moment. I knit with wooden needles that won’t attract lightning. I read all my notes from the book I’ve been writing for two years.

I listen to Fairport Convention’s “Lief and Liege” and Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks” and This Mortal Coil’s “Blood.”

Thursday, Day 2

Day 2. If Inuit have 50 words for snow, I’m pretty sure I now have 100 descriptives for wind. There’s “rattle the windows” wind. There’s “feels like the lookout will slide down the hillside” wind. There’s slight breeze through the Manzanita bushes. There’s “okay, this building was built in 1937 with single paned windows. What are the odds they’d all break now on my watch” wind. There’s billowing. There’s roaring. I’ll save you from anymore description now.

There are signs up here that say “popular destination.” It’s indeed beautiful up here, but that 10-mile drive scared the bejeezus out of me. Who in their right mind would just take a quick drive up an unpaved switchback hillside?

Bikers. Two of them. They came up the Genesee Road/Beckwourth Pass way. Said the road was nice to drive on. I briefly toy with going back that way then remember I kind of need gas. They are nice enough. I let them in the lookout for a minute. They thankfully ask no questions about what I’m working on. As they leave I realize I have an old tank top on that reads “Got Breast Milk?” I totally talked to them seriously the whole 15 minutes they were here. Straight face. T-shirt with a message.

Finished the new Sad Girl Zine that’s been a year in the making. If you don’t know what a zine is, Google it. I’ve had a zine off and on since the ‘90s. But this new issue of Sad Girl is called “Writers versus Relationships: Nobody Wins.” Ouch. Also finally finished editing a chapbook of poems that has taken forever and a day. That one is called “Recipes for Ascension.” It took much of the day to do these two things and to write poems about sunsets, braids, wind and crickets. I also realized there’s another grouping of poems for another chapbook that follows the pattern of Japanese tanka court poems. I’m calling that grouping “some beginnings” until I can think of a better name.

One of the single beds doubles as a project table (the heater is not on). Even in small spaces an artist can spread out.

I re-read Neil Gaiman’s first two Sandman collections, I read some Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I read through a book on book binding.

In between those three writing projects, I knitted half a scarf, did embroidery, made udon noodles for dinner with a miso soup base. Did some Japanese calligraphy, read some of a Jeanette Winterson novella I’d yet to get to, and periodically checked my phone in vain in case a connection brought news of the outside world. I did a round of archery and was about to re-set-up the target when the wind kicked up again and made me decide otherwise. I strung the bow properly by myself for only the second time. Go me.

I’m down to one emergency chocolate bar and I’ve eaten all the bread. I also realized I overpacked clothes and underpacked a solar shower which would really be handy about now. No matter how many times I wash my face, under arms, etc.? Still gamey.

It’s 11 p.m. and I officially hate crickets. I’ve listened to the complete Kate Bush catalogue from “Kick Inside” to whatever it was that she did last year. I’m trying to tell myself that the cricket song is sweet and beautiful and that it’s lucky to have crickets in the house. But at this moment I kind of want the cricket dead. The sound reminds me of yuppies mating in the Marina District when bars close in San Francisco. I want to yell to the cricket “Just pick up on each other and get a room! I want to sleep!”

Something just flew into my ear then flew out and landed on my screen. Kate is still singing. She’s doing “The Red Shoes” album now. The wind is picking up. If I listen close it sounds like clothes in the dryer.

Also? My scalp itches. The crickets have stopped. What does that mean? Are they closing in for the kill? Wait. Who ate all the bread and the wine? Oh um. Me.

Friday, Day 3

I heard rumors last week that a few friends might “stop by” today. HA. There is no “stopping by” a mountain lookout. I certainly do not look my best. I decide if friends show up with showers they are my best friends forever.

I’m going to wash my hair today if it’s the last thing I do. I’m going to write poems about sage brush and manzanita and rock formations and the recycling people dump in the woods that I can clearly see (and packed out since they didn’t).

Then I’m going to work on my book proposal and transcribe notes and get my stuff for the book in order. It has to be 50 pages. I have 45 and the first five pages are horrible so that’s my task. I can’t imagine getting bored here. I hear that happens. That people get lonely or freak out from being alone.

The vistas are amazing and you feel like a tiny ant and the road that led me here seems so far away.

The wind has died down. It’s cold out, but I’ve brought maxi dresses and one long sweater and have essentially packed (except for the Keene’s) like a girl on a sleepover at the beach. I do, however, have excellent and very warm bedding.

I’ve also brought my bow and a quiver full of arrows and my target and practice a few rounds while the wind is taking a break. Well, at least all the arrows landed roughly the same place — near the target, right?

I pretty much ate chocolate, udon noodles and apples off and on all day. Toward twilight I take photos of the sunset and put on Stan Getz “Au Go Go” classic while preparing fried tofu and basil. I drink club soda and scotch from a wine glass. Getz leads to Eydie Gormé’s “Personalidad.” Now I’m singing as if my grandfather was here.

Surviving without a shower for four days is a challenge for this urbanite, but braiding the hair helps. Hard to believe that home is so close (over that ridge in the background) but so far away at the same time.

I write about the sunset. I read my notes for “Sad Girl,” the play. I add two scenes. I pace like Dumbledore. I nap. I think about how chamber pots are so much more civilized than peeing in the wind or walking to the camp restroom.

Saturday, Day 4

Each day I do the impossible — I get up before sunrise. I make tea. I eat an apple. Today I go crazy and make instant oatmeal, too. My phone goes off in a million dings and I realize for a brief second I have cell service — but I don’t want to get sucked out of where I am. It lasts pretty much 30 seconds, but suddenly I realize I have at least 500 emails to sort through when I get back.

I take a hike to the other station with the microwave discs and hum, which is at slightly higher elevation on the next hill top. I’ve tried to do at least 4 miles a day in every direction possible. But the wind and rain at the beginning made that a little tedious the first day. It’s no fun when you have to keep looking at the ground to keep from stumbling in the rain.

Each time I leave the lookout, even to just walk outside on the landing, I am struck by the silence and in awe of it. The only sound is the violation of my own footsteps.

I see two red tail hawks from above and not below them. That might be the true beauty and wonder of the lookout — this very particular view that puts one above birds and eye level with storms.

I get back to the lookout and strip naked to change clothes and brush my teeth and wash my face and try to look more civilized and less feral when a guy pulls up in a truck. Of course he does. I throw something on and go tell him that my 7-foot-tall, non-existent and armed boyfriend will be back soon. He leaves. Normally I’m not that rude or fearful, but word to men everywhere, don’t start conversations with women you don’t know with “So are you alone? …” Because many of us won’t take that well.

I read Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia” for the third time and cry at the ending yet again and sketch out other ideas for how to end my own play I’m working on. I journal more.

I put on David Bowie’s “Hunky Dory” and think about recent changes in my life. I have a good cry and then begin the process of dismantling my encampment and sweeping the lookout floor.

I stand outside and watch my last sunset up here. I think about next time. Next time I’m here. I’d never been in a lookout before. I’ve been alone plenty of times. I’m already missing it and I want to come back.

I’m leaving the lookout with a new issue of my zine, an edited chapbook, a second one collected in need of editing, the rough draft of one for Forest Service/Plumas Arts about my experiences here. I have my to-do list for the week done, two articles nearly done. Rough draft of act one of the play. Notes transcribed. A scarf knitted. Two dresses mended.

I’m grateful and thankful to both the Forest Service and Plumas Arts for providing this opportunity for artists. Sometimes we are so in our own little space that we neglect to see the beauty around us — even when living in a beautiful place such as we do here.

Virginia Woolf aptly argued that women artists needed a room of one’s own in which to create. Former Feather River Publishing writer and editor Delaine Fragnoli, on seeing my photograph of the rolling fog from the lookout landing said, “A view of one’s own. I certainly agree with both.

It was an honor to stay in a place that once served an extremely important service — a place of history in the clouds.

The Lookout Program

Why put an artist in a look out? How did it happen?

In June 2013, Plumas Arts and the Forest Service did some unofficial brainstorming together. The result was the idea to create an opportunity for artists to explore and relate to the Plumas National Forest.

The Artist in Residence at the Lookout program invites an artist to spend four nights at the Black Mountain Lookout to draw upon the breathtaking landscapes of the Plumas National Forest for inspiration.

The program goals include capturing the beauty and spirit through the creation of high-quality art, providing learning opportunities through the arts and visitors to the forest, fostering understanding of the relationship of the forest to the citizen and celebrating the power of arts to interpret and explore the forest environment.

The unique partnership between Plumas Arts and the Plumas National Forest makes the Artist in Residence at the Lookout Program possible.

In return for the stay at the lookout, visual artists donate an original piece of framed artwork to hang in the Mohawk Rangers Station for one year and the use of four images for a series of cards. The artwork is then given to Plumas Arts for sale with proceeds going to support the residency program.

Literary artists offer up work that is published in a chapbook for sale through Plumas Arts. All artists must agree to a public presentation of the work.

Artists are selected on an evaluation system that includes how the artwork will support the forest’s interpretive themes, vitae of professional art works, application packet and an electronic filing of the artist’s work or website link.

Applications are due at the end of May each year. Information is available on plumasarts.org.

One thought on “A view of one’s own: four days and nights in the Black Mountain Lookout

  • Four days in heaven, then return. Being pretty much an introvert, that’s where I’d like to live the rest of my days, dreaming of those who have gone before me.

    I’d never get 10% as much done there as you seem to have but then, maybe, for me, that’s the idea. Thank you for one of the most interesting articles in a long time.

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