9/15/2013: Will Beaton

I’d like to take a moment to talk about how awesome fire towers are.

Well, maybe the act of climbing fire towers, specifically. If you’re like me, you went to a pretty average elementary school in the northern Midwest. And if you went to a pretty average elementary school in the northern Midwest, odds are you’ve taken a class field trip to climb a fire tower, those rickety, 100-some foot tall watch towers used in the 1970s to scout the canopies for signs of forest fires.

As of a few weeks ago, I hadn’t remembered much about that day in 3rd grade when our teachers dragged us up those shaking steps. But last weekend, I found myself at the foot of another fire tower (this one near Pequot Lakes, Minn.), and memories of my first climb came flooding back.

This tower was big. And very old. Surrounded by a half-collapsed fence draped in splintered barbed wire, the tower stood at the top of a hill at the end of a 20-minute hike. A small (and very abandoned) outlying brick building beneath the tower was splashed with faded graffiti messages from the 1990s warning passersby that, among other things, “That s***’s old!”

Despite the objecting paint, I began the climb. The first couple levels were no big deal. But as soon as I ascended over the tree line and the wind lifted the hat off my head, I found myself clutching the quivering rail with more vigor.

I wasn’t afraid of falling, or of the tower collapsing. I mean, this thing had stood through decades of Minnesota winters; it wasn’t going to tumble over because I was crawling it. But I was very aware of my heart racing, and of my head feeling lighter. But why, if I knew I wasn’t going to fall? It was this intense, primordial response, and it was going to have its way – at least to some extent.

At the top, I found that I was far from the only one to overcome the same feeling. The walls of this once-important construction were filled with messages from Minnesota teenagers from years and years past – some even dating back to the 1950s. (After reading a few, it became clear that a lot more than fire-watching had taken place in the tower.)

I looked out over the ancient forests of Minnesota’s lake region surrounded by decade-old messages from kids now turned old or dead as my primordial brain made my heart pump in this excessive evolutionary show.

It was awesome.