Beneath the Tower, a Jar of Ashes

IMG_3542[1]There was one Pine Log Mountain hike I had left to do, an old trail that leads from the CCC road down onto the Lake Arrowhead golf course. I’d walked it many times when I lived in Lake Arrowhead, before the fire. My house on Thunder Hawk Loop was at the back of the Lake Arrowhead development, right at the foot of the mountain, and there was only forest behind it, all the way to the summit, until the developers decided in 2007 to raze the forest and put in a new golf course and clear cut lots for hundreds of houses. It was a bitter year, listening to bulldozers decimate the forest. They cut down the woods where I used to walk with my daughter when she was a baby, nestled in her baby bjorn against my chest. The main trail I used to climb up to the summit was now on the other side of the golf course.

After the fire, I left Lake Arrowhead, and I hadn’t climbed that trail for many years. But I wanted to find it again. I knew how to find it from the summit, but I wasn’t sure how to find it from the golf course, so my friend Jennifer and I hiked up a different trail with the plan to descend into the golf course.

On our hike up, I told Jennifer that I’d in my research I’d discovered that the exact summit of Pine Log is underneath the CCC fire tower and is marked with a bronze medallion placed by the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. I found that surveyors had placed the first pin in 1873, and that buried two and a half feet beneath the pin is a jug full of ashes.  This burying of a jug beneath the survey marker was common in the nineteenth century. They wanted something permanent underground, something that would survive even if the surface marker was removed.

These pins are called benchmarks, I learned. They aid surveyors by establishing a known point; the pin’s elevation and longitude and latitude are a reference from which to measure other locations. They are also used for triangulation to pinpoint the location of fires, which was the reason the CCC fire tower is built over the U.S.C.S. survey pin. I remembered Ernie Palmer telling me how his father, Joe Palmer, had built the first alidade table, the triangulation device, for the Pine Log tower.

I’d never seen the survey marker, and Jennifer and I agreed we’d look for it at the summit before we headed back down.   The 528 acres at the summit of the mountain are still under a permanent conservation easement as the Lake Arrowhead Botanical Preserve, but it looks a bit rough up there. The original CCC fire tower still stands, now surrounded by chain link fence. There is also a large cell tower and concrete building, and several smaller industrial-looking units.

There were three vehicles parked near the fire tower, and a man stood outside the fence spooling some wire. It turned out that the man and his companions were ham radio operators, members of a club which assists in the upkeep of the fire tower in exchange for being allowed to place their radio signal equipment on it. The ham radio operators also lend their radio frequency to Cherokee Emergency Services in the event there is a search and rescue or other disaster. I asked them if they knew anything about the survey pin, and they graciously agreed to unlock the gate so we could all go in and have a look.

Sure enough, in the exact center of the ground beneath the tower was the bronze disk. Jennifer and I and the three ham radio guys knelt in the dirt to read the small marker: U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, Pine Log, 1873-1941.  I told them about the jug full of ashes, and they told me how they had taken over maintenance of the tower about ten years ago. It was in horrible shape, no longer used as a fire lookout, largely abandoned. Most of the structure is metal but the steps are wooden and many were rotting. They come up here often to do repairs and check their wires.

These contemporary tower men don’t sit up there watching for fires like Mac DeBord did in the 1940s. But I was glad to know that someone is caring for the tower and that it is still a resource in emergencies.

Jennifer and I decided to visit the White Cliffs as long as we were up there at the summit. The outcropping of huge granite boulders looks out over the valley on the west side of Pine Log. You can see the Toyo Fire Factory in White, even the Bowen Power Plant towers west of Cartersville.

As we sat on the rocks enjoying the view, a figure came sprinting up behind us, startling me. It was a kid, and his name was Dylan. It was his sixteenth birthday, he told us, and he rode his dirt bike to the top of the mountain to celebrate. He and his friends come up here all the time, he said. One fourth of July, they climbed the fire tower and watched the fireworks, 360 degrees of exploding color. He showed us the video on his phone. He also told us about Native American ruins he’d seen on the mountain and showed us a place on the cliffs where it looked like the rock had been carved.

“There used to be a ranger house up here,” he told us. “I found the chimney.”

“How do you know all this stuff?” I asked him.

“I talk to old guys,” he said. “My friends’ father and grandfathers, this was their playground. They tell me their stories.”

Like the ham radio guys, Dylan seemed like a gift the mountain had sent me, to tell me that there were still kids who loved the mountain and that the stories were not dead.

Jennifer and I descended the mountain down the trail I remembered. Lucky for me, she is isn’t scared to get lost, because once we got below the CCC road, the narrow trail was overgrown and hard to follow. There were places where huckleberries or small pines had swallowed it. But my feet remembered, and we came out at the bottom exactly where I knew we would, at a creek that flows into the golf course.

Lost golf balls littered the overgrown path. No one had been here in a long, long time, and the undergrowth had become almost impenetrable.  We decided to bushwhack through the small trees and high grass to where we could see the golf course. There was no good way. I pushed through thorns that tore up my calves and through high grass where snakes waited in the heat.

It was bittersweet to step out onto the golf course’s manicured grass, the sun glaring in a valley without shade. I had come full circle, to the place where I began, to the place where once I found the long, coarse hair of a bear on a branch where I sat with my young daughter, when the golf course was still a wilderness. It was a short walk from here to my old house, and we used to play on the golf course when it was first built, even though it was a graveyard of sorts.

Nothing can be kept, I know that now, except maybe a jar of ashes buried two feet in the ground. But it seems important to remember what happened in a place, whether it is where a house burned or a mother and a daughter ran through a sprinkler barefoot, or the place where the CCC guys once labored to build a road and a tower and a house. It comforts me to think how little keeps the wilderness at bay, how soon the trees could take back this land. It comforts me to know that even after fire, the mountain grows lush again, and the spring never runs dry.


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