Lookout: A Season Above
It was the summer of 1961, and Ron Dean was the sole human occupant of a postage-stamp-size mountaintop in the middle of the Idaho wilderness.
His jaw bearded, his clothes soiled, Dean learned to keep the previous night’s popcorn in his morning pockets as he went about the duties of maintaining a U.S. Forest Service fire lookout. Three times a week he’d walk down the mountain’s flank to a spring and fill a five-gallon bucket full of water, and on the way golden cress squirrels would keep him company. Squirrels, he learned, like popcorn.
“I always kept my pockets full of popcorn,” Dean remembered of his college-age summer job. “I ended up … by the end of the season I had seven or eight squirrels. I could go off and say: ‘OK, I have some popcorn,’ and they’d come up from all angles.”
He eventually named the little rodents. Jim. Daisy. Tom. John. To the untrained eye a squirrel is a squirrel. For a man living atop 9,988-foot Lookout Mountain at the northern edge of the White Cloud Mountains from June 28 to September 13, their subtle differences in appearance and personality became plain.