Memories of Round Top Fire Lookout - Summer 1969
by Steve Rasmussen
My first employment with the National Park Service came at age 22, while on a summer break from college.
My wife of 3 months, Verona, had worked as Radio Dispatcher at Dinosaur National Monument Headquarters the previous summer and was instrumental in getting us both through the employment application process for jobs as seasonal fire lookouts for the 1969 summer season. We were hired as a team to provide 7 day a week coverage at the Round Top fire lookout in the monument’s Yampa District.
Our summer on Round Top was just the beginning of a long affair with Dinosaur National Monument and an ever-growing love and appreciation of the surrounding areas as well as all that the National Park Service was and is. We truly love the great outdoors and the wonders of nature in all its forms - from the tiniest Fleabane Daisy, even after drying and persisting throughout the summer months amongst the flat rocks of the mountain top, to the amazing grandeur of such places as Half Dome in Yosemite.
Verona continued working as a seasonal park ranger for Dinosaur through the 1977 season with the exception of 1973 when we lived in California for a year. She worked as Radio and Fire Dispatcher, Assistant to the River Ranger, and as Split Mountain Campground Ranger. She remains our family expert on the flowers of the Uintah Basin.
I worked seasonally as Fire Control Aid alternating between the Yampa and Green River Districts through 1972. In the fall of 1973 I transferred from the US Naval Audit Service in San Francisco to accept a full time position as an Administrative Technician at Dinosaur National Monument Headquarters. I continued in the monument’s Administrative Division until 1987, working as Administrative Technician and then Purchasing Agent. I left briefly for a computer programming position at Mesa Verde, but soon returned to the purchasing agent job at Dinosaur where I remained until 1992 when I transferred to the Ashley National Forest in Vernal, Utah in the same job for them.
We’ve enjoyed many wonderful experiences with the Park Service, but our summer on Round Top was something special - one of the best summers of our life - definitely the best in terms of being in a back country setting and in feeling like a real part of the operations of the service - a summer with some pretty good memories.
We reported to work on June 5th. I can‘t recall if Verona and I attended the general orientation training for seasonal employees that year or if we went directly to Round Top that first day. It was either that morning or one of the next couple that we reported to headquarters with our personal belongings and enough groceries for our first week.
We met up with the District Ranger at the HQ maintenance yard and found an out of the way spot to park our 1965 Volkswagen Beetle. We loaded our groceries into coolers and our belongings in packs in the back of the Park Service-green Dodge 4x4 Power Wagon (pickup truck) and climbed into the front seat for the ride to our remote duty station.
The first 16 miles was easy over the paved Harpers Corner Road, but eventful for me. Verona had been up this road a number of times. I got my first ever views of Plug Hat, Escalante Overlook with its great view of Cliff Ridge, and of Round Top Lookout itself, a very little dark square on the highest part of the horizon nearly straight ahead as we drove north along Left Hand Meadow - which, at the moment, was on our right.
Having made the climb up its south slope, we drove westerly along the southern edge of the Blue Mountain Plateau and had and airplane-like view of the desert to the south. US Highway 40 which we had just driven from Vernal, Utah to Dinosaur, Colorado, appeared as a tiny thin strip. Tinier cars and trucks were barely visible as they drove adjacent to a prominent snake-like feature of upturned rock, which I later learned was Snake John Reef and a geographical formation that has become a favorite of mine.
We turned northward again across a set of rolling hills toward a higher ridge which the ranger identified as Stuntz Ridge. It runs into Round Top Mountain which is much larger than just the smaller peak where the lookout is located. We drove through a draw in Stuntz Ridge and just before reaching open country on its north side, our driver slowed, and pulled into a turnoff on the southeast side of the road. There was a closed gate in the right-of-way fence. I jumped out, opened the gate and closed it behind us after the Power Wagon went through.
The two-track road beyond the gate was probably the roughest road I’d ever been over before that day. Actually most parts were fairly smooth running over areas of clear dirt tracks. But where the dirt gave way to rocky sections, the term “rough road” took on a whole new meaning to me. Even Verona, who’d been on a number of deer hunting outings with her family over the years, found parts of the road to Round Top, rougher than any she’d experienced.
I believe that the road today (2010) leaves the Harpers Corner road at a point about one and a half miles further north and works its way through a series of draws leading into Red Rock Canyon and joins the old Round Top Road about 2 road miles east of the gate we passed through in 1969. (Per Google Earth research by me while writing this.)
I don’t know how long before 1969 “our” road was in use. But I know it was used for a number of years after our year on the lookout. I think it was changed in the late 1980’s or early 1990’s. However, my memory should not be depended upon for accuracy on this point.
We would become very familiar with the 1969 version of the Round Top Road.
Unlike typical fire lookouts, I chose to bring our car, Volkswagen Beetle, up on our next trip and we decided to take turns driving it into town to buy our groceries rather than have the Park Service do our shopping and run our supplies up via government rig. We both had family living in Vernal and this gave us the chance to take turns visiting with them on our shopping runs.
We also had Verona’s sister Pat living at the Harland Place, seven miles to the west, for the summer with her rancher husband George Chew. They ran the Pool Creek Ranch near Echo Park and used the Harland Place as a center of summer range operations on the mountain. If whether permitted - no sign of lightning storms in the area - we would occasionally visit them after darkness settled on the tower.
On the maps, you will find the Harland Cabin, but our family referred to the area of the cabin, trailer, corrals, and pond as the Harland Place.
I also took my motor cycle to the lookout and used it to travel back out to the main road to go exploring on Verona’s duty days at the tower. Sometimes I would have a rider on back - a sister or brother that had come up to the tower for a week long visit. A rider made the trip over the “road to Round Top” a bit more challenging in those really rocky spots as he or she would shift their weight to look over one of my shoulders and back to the other at just the wrong moments.
Driving the road in the dark, and on the cycle soon had me familiar with every “problem rock” on the 6 mile long road. We did get to know that road very well.
Our “formal” fire tower training consisted of the District Ranger stopping the Power Wagon adjacent to the flag pole, which had been laid down for the winter, helping us fastening it upright again, unloading our belongings, presenting us with a flag, an old (even at that time) Motorola radio pack, a bunch of batteries and pointing to a solar collector next to the radio mast which would help power the radio repeater in the green cabin.
He must have at least nodded toward the lookout “tower”.
It was a room with windows all around and sat atop an old style silver trailer house. A few feet to the south and directly to the side of the trailer was a green cabin totally covered in dark green rolled out roofing fabric.
That’s as close as we got to any training on how to use the fire finder, or how to report a fire if we did see one. He did make sure we had a 1-1 key, but didn’t even walk to the doors of the tower, cabin, or trailer to make sure that it would work on any of the padlocks.
I think he mentioned that maintenance personal had been up in the last couple of days to make sure the propane cook stove in the cabin, the heaters and refrigerator in the trailer worked and that there was fresh water in the 500 gallon water tanks on the far side of the green cabin.
He mentioned that there was an out house over the hill “that way” and that the door might need to be repaired. And finally he told us that we were responsible for painting all the wooden surfaces of the tower, cabin, outhouse, and supports for the tower that extended down around the trailer. We would find paint and supplies in the cabin.
We stood with groceries and belongings around our feet, and watched the District Ranger back up, turn around, and drive down over the edge of the hill and out of sight for the moment.
I don’t remember how long we stood there, exchanging looks of bewilderment - probably not long - but I do remember the distinct feeling that I had no idea how to operate a fire lookout tower! And in that feeling of being totally unprepared, I would not doubt that we might have still been standing in the same spot when the light green pickup truck appeared again on the hill to the top of Buena Vista Peak, turned south and moved perpendicular to our view across that hill and down its south slope and out of view.
I don’t recall our “moving in” to the facilities of Round Top that day. But I do know our pleasure with the exotic nature of its remote location, and the rustic and rather primitive nature of the place, was immediate.
After a thorough cleaning of a winter’s worth of wind-driven dust, mouse droppings and fly spots, we came to really love the 40’s-ish nostalgic feel of the aluminum-clad trailer.
It had aluminum doors with windows at the front and the back. One into the “master bedroom” and the other into the living/dining/kitchen area at the front. There was fully screened door behind each and exterior latches to hold the metal doors open for good ventilation.
The interior of the trailer was paneled with light wood - maple perhaps. The floor plan was small but had an elegant efficiency that made it quite homey.
Between the bedroom and “front multi-room area, was a narrow hallway with a built in set of single bunks on one side, with small window for the lower one. On the other side, was a Formica-covered dressing counter with drawers beneath, window above, cabinets overhead, and a small closet to one end.
Both the bedroom and the front room area had windows on each side and a larger window across the ends of the trailer. All the windows except those in the doors had Venetian blinds that enhanced the 40’s feel of the trailer, and all could be swung outward at the bottom for ventilation.
There was a propane powered refrigerator and cooking range in the trailer. But the cabin had a larger, and better, gas range so we did our cooking there, keeping the trailer cooler.
In 1969 and a number of years after, there were other trailers like this for the seasonal rangers at Island Park and at Deer Lodge. Neither of those were in very good shape when I visited them as fire control aid during the next few summers. But the trailer at Round Top was in fine shape in 1969 and was a very comfortable home.
The small green cabin was nearly as charming, but in a quite different way. It had a definite back country ranger feel to it. Simple and basic in design and function. It was weather tight and solidly anchored against the frequent strong winds we would experience. Spending time there, preparing and eating our meals provided a satisfaction not unlike that of camping in bad weather but having the right tent and equipment to enjoy it.
It had a solid door with a screen door behind and faced the middle of the trailer just a few feet away.
It only had one room with a well made utilitarian table and two benches to match in the middle of the front end. It had a nice gas cook stove under the east window. We found that its pilot light would heat a four or five gallon pan of water between meals. We never had to heat water to wash dishes. Within a week or so, I’d brought a ten foot length of 1” black tubing from town and fastened one end to the spigot on the front of one of the water tanks outside, ran it through the open window and fastened a hook over the stove so we could hang the end above the water level in the tank outside. Whenever we needed fresh water, we could just lower the end inside the cabin and had “running water.“
Across from the stove were floor to ceiling, simple wooden shelves for our non-perishables. We had to be careful with potatoes which the Rocky Mountain Golden Mantled ground squirrels had a knack of getting into because they could squeeze around the screen door. The squirrels would often join us for meals, standing near our benches and beg for food.
On the south end of the cabin interior was a storage area for fire tools and supplies. The radio repeater also stood in that area. There was a lofted area above the south window. I’m not sure what else was stored up there, but I do remember the stack of paper sleeping bags - something I never had the “privilege” to make use of.
The walls on the inside of the cabin were uncovered, showing the 2 by 4 studs and spaces between them. The outside side of the studs were covered with wood - I would think 1” planking, but have read an account that refers to the green cabin as being made of plywood. That might be the case, but my gut feeling is that it was covered in 1” boards. But I’m not sure. I am pretty sure, however, that the floor was 1” planking.
There was a lean-to storage room on the south end of the east exterior wall, behind the two water storage tanks. The paint and painting supplies were stored there, along with other things that I can’t recall.
Other cabins, nearly identical to ours, were at Echo Park and Jones Hole Campgrounds, as residences for the seasonal rangers there.
Behind our green cabin was a propane tank which was refilled at least once that summer by a good sized supply truck from town. A radio mast was attached to the back corner of the cabin and a tall telephone pole with a lightning rod atop and a cable hooked to lightning rods on the fire tower stood a few feet from the propane tank.
A hundred feet south of the cabin was the weather station for the lookout. It consisted of the standard louvered covered box on legs with maximum and minimum thermometers, and another thermometer for wetting and blowing air across for determining dew point. Nearby was a rain collection gauge, and a pole with weather vane and anemometer on top.
Taking the daily weather observations was a favorite task of mine and we both enjoyed comparing our cool temperatures with the occasional one-hundred plus temps reported over the radio by the Quarry and Headquarters.
It will be easy for older readers to understand that we didn’t have cell phones in 1969. The fact is we didn’t have any phones at all at Round Top. Our only communication with the rest of the world (which to us was Dinosaur National Monument) was by way of the two way radios which worked just barely enough to call in our daily weather and report the occasional fire or lightning strikes in areas of potential danger. And the radios were only to be used for official business.
But if we had an urgent need to communicate with our families, we could relay messages through the radio dispatcher at headquarters, who would then pass the messages on via phone. Generally, we just waited for our weekly trips to town to communicated with our friends and family.
I’ve described both the trailer house and the green wooden framed cabin and intend to get to the lookout “tower” very soon. But there is still one more building that I need to mention first.
Upon dropping us off on our first day, the District Ranger had been quite correct in suggesting that the door of the outhouse over the hill to the east might need repairing. Sure enough, it was hanging by just the bottom hinge and was nearly laying flat on the ground. I was actually surprised that it hadn’t blown completely free during the winter and flown off into Hells Canyon. But I found the screws and tools in the lean-to storage shed (with the paint) and soon had it back on good and solid… or so it seemed.
It worked very well… for a few days until we had an afternoon and evening of good strong winds. The next morning had me sitting in the outhouse with no door, quite enjoying the view toward Marthas Peak. Verona did admit that the view was nice but preferred that I fix the door again.
I must have fixed it two more times before our seasoning as fire lookouts had hardened our sensitivities to the point that we could live without a door on the outhouse. Perhaps the day when she opened the door to get a glimpse of a little snake sliding out under a side wall as the light of day rushed in, had something to do with her change of heart. Without a door to open, she could make a thorough inspection of the facility before getting too close. We actually came to enjoy the view and had little fear of anyone invading our privacy. (However, see DC-3 below.)
In fact, by that time, we had even moved the galvanized bath tub our rancher relatives had loaned to us, out of the cabin onto the rocks near the water tanks. This made emptying the tub after a bath much easier. But it was the only time we had to pack water - from the stove in the cabin until we had enough to heat the water that came directly from the tank - which often wasn’t all that cold due to hot days. Just as with the outhouse, the new view was much better outside. But we did make sure the one of us not bathing was manning the tower. Not just for fires but to keep a good watch on the road.
We only had one vehicle arrive close to the lookout before we saw it coming 5 or 10 minutes earlier. It was a surprise but only a pleasant one as at that time, we were in the cabin eating lunch. I think the wind must have been blowing the wrong direction so that even the sound of the vehicle didn’t reach us until the last few minutes. I am now reminded of one more memory regarding unexpected visitors and noises. I’ll get to that in time.
But now… the “tower.”
I use quotes because our tower was not quite the same as the traditional fire tower raised a hundred feet off the ground, with compact living quarters, in a small glassed-in square with a fire finder in the middle, and all furniture no taller than the fire finder, and a walkway around the outside. That is indeed the romantic image, most people would have when you tell them you worked on a fire tower.
Our “tower” was probably no more than twenty feet off the ground - and that would be its roof!
The Round Top lookout tower did in fact have a room with four glassed walls with a fire finder in the middle. But it didn’t have a walkway all around. It did have a wooden deck on the east side which was a really good place to sit and look through the binoculars in three directions for fires or smokes where we noted lightning strikes in the previous days. While half of the windows on each side of the tower room could be opened for ventilation, it could still be quite stuffy and hot if there was little wind on a very sunny day. The room or our tower was much smaller that for a typical tower because our living quarters were not included.
We quickly came to see the shortness of our tower as a blessing as we didn’t have to pack groceries and supplies up a lot of stairs. In fact we only had to pack ourselves, a radio set, binoculars, and a book to read, up a single flight of stairs. Our tower and its deck out front sat right on top of the silver trailer house. The floor was no more than 11 or 12 feet off the ground.
I need to back up to our first day. I’ve described the trailer and cabin and how they were both fine facilities once they were cleaned up from a winter of vacancy. I’m sure I helped Verona clean down there, but my first task was to get the tower ready for use.
The wooden stairs and wooden deck over the front (east) end of the trailer house, only needed to be swept off and wait for a good wind to blow the dust from under the deck. But the tower room itself was all boarded up. The door, on the north side of the east face, was padlocked, but also nailed shut with boards around the entire perimeter. It was evident that wind was an issue here.
I’m trying hard to remember if the windows and door were covered in plywood from the inside or out. It makes some sense to have the plywood on the outside. But I believe it was on the inside. That makes sense also because with the glass windows closed and the plywood right inside the glass, strong winds would not be able to get under the plywood and start prying it off over the long off season.
At any rate, what I do clearly remember is that between the glass and the plywood, was a tremendous quantity of dead flies in thin, but deep piles in every window and its winter covering. I’ve never seen so many dead flies before or since. I can just imagine the flies enjoying the heat of the glass in front of the plywood on warm fall and spring days and then not being able to get out again.
With the plywood sheets removed and stored in the lean-to storage on the side of the green cabin, I still had my work cut out for me. Brushing off the fire-finder and its table. Sweeping and re sweeping the floor. And washing and rewashing the windows which were all but covered with fly spots on the inside and eight months of dust on the outside that had been soaked and dried over and over.
By late afternoon, we had everything cleaned up and were all settled in, feeling quite pleased with ourselves. We enjoyed our first evening meal and were enjoying the the great views from up in the tower as the sun moved closer to the western horizon.
We’d worked hard settling in and were looking forward to a good night’s rest.
That’s when a flash of lightning well off to the southeast caught our eye.
Having worked as the Radio Dispatcher the previous year, Verona was aware of the fire lookouts - Round Top and Zenobia, reporting areas of lightning activity the previous night. So I looked for the log book I’d seen earlier while cleaning up and then started studying the fire finder.
I had heard the word azimuth in a movie about fire lookouts or something. I knew that the fire finder would tell me the azimuth, or direction to the area of the lightning strike. And that proved to be quite easy with the fire finder. I had a bit of a set-back when the wooden framed corner between windows of two sides of the room was right in line with the spot I was trying to get a reading on. Then I realized why the fire finder had three round rails below it and was only sitting on two at a time. I could lift the apparatus where it rested on one side rail and the center to where it was now resting on the center and the other side rail to get the viewing “gizmos” (apertures as I later learned) and the spot of the lightning strike to line up. And then just look down and notice the degrees on the ring around the whole thing.
I was still trying to figure out the distance to the strike from the topographic map on the fire finder or by using the cross hairs on the other side of the circle. But at least I knew to keep an eye on that bearing and hoped I’d not soon see a smoke because I still had no idea how far away it would be.
Verona noted the bearing in the log book.
The above describes my unfamiliarity with the process.
Verona, on the other hand, was very familiar with the concepts of using azimuth’s from two towers to determine the precise location of the fire at the point of intersection of the two lines which she would have, the previous summer as HQ radio dispatcher, duplicated with long strings on a wall sized map of the monument and surrounding areas in the dispatch office. If only one tower had sight of the smoke, or fire, then that lookout would have to determine landmarks on the maps that the line from the tower crossed near the fire or smoke.
The previous summer had made her quite familiar with such landmarks and place names on the map. However, it was harder now, for either of us, to relate what we saw on the map to what we saw directly looking over the landscape. Some features were obvious and easy, but others were not so prominent and took a bit more study of the maps and terrain to be sure what was what.
Her experience was now a great help in my own learning about the process. But I had to get a grasp of it in my own mind to be satisfied with my ability report the location of lightning strikes, smokes, and fires.
So far so good right? Well, that was just the first strike in what was a growing series of strikes as a dark group of clouds moved in across the area of Point of Pines, and I’d only gotten the first one recorded. By the time I had another recorded, I heard words that I really didn’t want to hear as Verona said “there’s smoke right there!”
She pointed toward the low area where the road to Echo Park started down from the road to Harpers Corner. Lightning was striking every where to the west of us now. And I saw another smoke a little lower in the area and to the north of the first. By the time I had the fire finder fixed on the first smoke, we had three more all in the general area. We knew we had to call them into headquarters but even though I could tell them the direction from Round Top, neither of us were yet comfortable with deciding where on the map the areas we were looking at were.
We got on the radio and called Zenobia (Verona knew about call numbers) to see if they had the smokes also. They couldn’t see any of them but did report seeing all the lightning in that area. Apparently the smokes were too low in the canyon behind Harpers Corner for Zenobia to see.
I was frantic with a sense of failed responsibility as we spotted two more smokes, for a total of seven and hadn’t yet figured out how to tell Headquarters the precise position of any of them. I wondered how I ever qualified for this job!
We finally decided to call Headquarters and tell them what we knew. And with a few questions from the Chief Ranger, Jim Jones, he was able to get the general idea of where our smokes were and whether any of them looked like they were in groups of trees or brush or were in areas of more widely spaced vegetation, which was the case. And since we couldn’t see any flames on any of them, it was decided that we should just watch them and see if they developed into anything bigger.
As the sun set, the air cooled and the smokes either went away completely or were reduce to just slight whiffs. But we stayed up late that night until after the lightning quit and we failed to see any flames in the locations of our seven smokes!
The next day I learned how to use the fire finder along with the map on its round surface and others (15 minute quads) we had found mounted on poster board, to get better fixes on positions along given azimuths. I was also greatly relieved in not seeing any sign of our smokes from the night before - even as the day heated up the slopes on which we’d seen them and that their positioning in an area blind to Zenobia was somewhat of a fluke for that many smokes.
I don’t think there was another time for the entire summer that we had more than two smokes at any one time. And by the time we had a real fire to report with flames glowing bright at night, Zenobia also had a fix on it and we were able to direct a crew to the area with the only problem being the difficulty of them finding a good route to it. And Verona and I felt like real fire lookouts.
Aside from painting wood surfaces on the buildings and tower and making a few repairs here and there, duty at Round Top was a pretty easy job. And in spite of what some might think, spending hours each day up in the tower, or out on the deck in front was never boring. My love for geography and maps grew that summer with the aid of the great views in all directions and seeing the spectacular geography of the area.
With a pair of binoculars, there was no end to what you could explore from afar. I could write pages about what we could see from the tower. But I will let the reader find pictures of the Yampa Bench, Harpers Corner, the Yampa River Canyon, Wild Mountain and Douglas Mountain, and even the eastern end of the Uinta Mountains. I would much rather have you see the views yourself. You will have no trouble if you are familiar with the internet and search engines for images.
I think the most spectacular view was to our north northeast and just north of the Yampa river, in a labyrinth of rocks and side canyons, from just north of us extending six to eight miles to the east. It is fitting that that view is in my going away picture when I left the park service 23 years later.
You can get a look at that view at the following internet link to the Google Earth Community.
In addition to the wonderful views, we had books (we both read Atlas Shrugged), to occupy our time, and in the evenings we ate popcorn and played hearts, either with just ourselves and a dummy hand, or with visitors when we were lucky enough to have them.
On the afternoon of one hot sunny day, I decided to get more involved with the view from Round Top. I had explored a lot of areas on my motorcycle, but this day would involve a different mode of transportation.
From the tower, we could often see river runners on the Yampa in the area of Castle Park - way below us, and about 2 miles to the northeast. We had a view of more than a mile of the river that pointed in our direction, flowing toward the Mantle Ranch. And then a few minutes later, rafters could be seen in a small section flowing north beyond the bend at the ranch.
On this particular afternoon, I noticed a couple of rafts appearing at the far end of the long section of river above Mantles. I told Verona I was going to run down the mountain and see if I could get to the cliffs overlooking the river, before the boaters passed by.
I really wasn’t sure just how much time I’d have to get there - a point across the Yampa Bench Road and just north of Mantle’s Cave. But off I went down the north face of Round Top moving as fast as I could. I was careful with my footing on the steep terrain but was able to move quite quickly. And then as the lower slopes became more gradual I was able to run the last part of the way. I made it to my desired point in about twenty five minutes. But I was too late to watch the boats pass just below me. I was only able to see them down river for a few short moments before they went around a bend and out of site about a mile away.
While in the area I decided to scramble down and have a look at Mantle’s Cave. I also wanted to go further down into the canyon right to the water’s edge. A swim would have been very nice indeed after my trip in the heat of the day. But as I looked back up to the fire lookout, now very small on top of the mountain south of me, I realized it was getting on toward evening and I knew I wouldn’t be able to get back up as easily as I’d come down, and I did want to get back before dark.
I headed back up following my foot steps of the trip down.
I’d climbed several mountains that spring near Ogden, Utah and had no doubt in my ability to scale the face of Round Top. But it was a rough climb and took much longer than I’d expected. By the time I got to the bottom of the steepest part - about 800 feet below the top, it was totally dark. My only light was from the stars. But that was enough to pick my way up the hill. That, and Verona’s voice every fifteen minutes or so, yelling down to me to check my slow progress.
It was nearly 11 pm when I finally got back to the tower. I admit that the last third of the accent, in the dark was quite grueling. But like on the next morning looking down the face of the mountain, and on many occasions when I get a glimpse of Round Top’s north slope from the highway above Vernal, or on the Harpers Corner Road or even the rare trip across the Yampa Bench Road, I feel a good deal of pride in remembering that I have climbed that slope. The elevation difference between the tower and the cave is about 3,300 feet and the distance between the two is just 2 miles (straight line).
I’ve mentioned visitors to Round Top during our summer there and want to expand on that a bit.
Rocky Mountain Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrels as visitors to our cabin for meals have already been mentioned. They were really quite sociable and curious. But I think we were really the visitors to their world.
One set of visitors were numbered in the tens of thousands. We didn’t know it until their arrival, but apparently flying ants pay a 4 or 5 day visit to the top of Round Top Mountain at least once a summer. Aside from being everywhere, and managing to get into the cabin, trailer and tower, they really weren’t as bad as they might sound. They didn’t bite. The best part of their visit is that it was impossible to paint during their stay. To try doing so would have only made for a messy and somewhat peculiar looking painted surface.
Sometimes visitors would sneak up on us.
I mentioned earlier that only one vehicle made it to within just a few feet of the tower without our noticing their approach at least five minutes earlier. My memory of who they were and where they were from is blank. They were a couple of tourists, husband and wife, and were just curious to visit a fire tower. We were very pleased to have them and enjoyed a nice visit of thirty or so minutes before they felt they needed to leave to be sure to get back to pavement before dark. Of human visitors, they were the only ones that we didn’t know personally - or at least the only ones that came right up to our buildings. I’ll tell of a few others in a bit.
Another group of visitors snuck up on us in the night, or at least early morning hours while we were still asleep. Verona heard them first and woke me up. We both resisted the immediate urge to look out the window to see who they were. Instead, we concentrated on figuring it out without actually looking. They were a bit noisy. Not loud. Just certain distinct, but yet to be recognized, sounds.
The ground all around round top was covered with flat rocks. One sound these visitors made was of their feet clicking, or thumping against those rocks as they moved around. The other sound we heard was a bit more puzzling but soon we decided it sounded like an animal, or group of them, were chewing.
These sounds were not just a ways off. Some were right outside on the three sides of our bedroom at the back of the trailer and we had the distinct impression that some were just inches from us beyond the thin walls.
I mentioned that the mountain top was covered in rock, but there were an occasional and very sparse tuft of dry grass here and their among the rocks. Our visitors sounded as though they were enjoying a breakfast of that little bit of grass.
My first guess was that a herd of deer were outside. But it sounded like a really big herd. Then I remembered that sheepherders had been moving a herd of sheep around the mountain all summer. But never close to us where there seemed so little to eat.
It had to be sheep!
As we finally looked out, it was in fact a hundred or so of them all around - a few even on the narrow area between the trailer and the cliff to the north.
It was odd, however, that they didn’t make an vocal noises associated with their kind. Just the clunking of hoofs, and munching of grass.
We didn’t go through our normal morning routine until they’d pretty well eaten all the grass and decided to move on over the hill to the south and out of our sight. We just remained quietly in the trailer watching them from our windows and trying to be quiet so as not to spook them.
I have more hobbies and interests than I will ever have enough time to pursue to my satisfaction. As mentioned above, one is geography, and geology as it relates to geography. Another of my favorites is anything to do with airplanes and flight. (I’ve spent a life time as a wish-I-could-been pilot.)
Most aircraft enthusiasts have a special place in their heart for vintage planes. So imagine how excited I was, and Verona just about as much, when we heard a low rumble of engines approaching. Not from the west and southwest along the road, but directly from the south!
We hurried out of the trailer one evening to see an airplane approaching from that direction. And it was not just a single engine 4-seater. It had one good sized, deep rumbling engine, on each wing as it pointed nearly at us at a low altitude - in fact the altitude of their approach was even lower (only slightly) than where we stood!
Within seconds, I could see its course would pass between us and Martha’s Peak to the east… through the low cut of Hells Canyon. And as it got closer I recognized it as a DC-3 and was so surprised to see one at all, let alone in the air!
It flew past us… not over the deepest part of Hells Canyon, but close enough that we could see the faces of the pilot, co-pilot and the dozen or so passengers on this odd flight , just below the level of our feet. We waved at them and most of them waved back. We could see directly though the cabin and out the windows on the other side. It was one of my all time favorite airplane experiences. And it wasn’t over.
They held to a course of nearly due north passing through the western part of Hells Canyon, out over the much lower Yampa Bench and then across the Yampa River pointed toward Zenobia Fire Tower. We stood fascinated as we watched this beautiful bird and listened to the old music of its engines, glide smoothly across the eleven and a half miles between Dinosaur’s two fire lookouts.
Then as it passed the Zenobia tower, and banked left to circle around them to the north and then west, I envied the view that our fellow fire lookouts must be enjoying.
But it came right back toward us… or at least to the same part of Hells Canyon to the east and made another straight-lined pass again at our foot level. We waved again at the pilots, and probably another set of passengers on the cabin’s right side as the DC-3 rumbled past and headed on a straight line to the south.
I know we stood there until we could no longer make it out among the dark hills of the Book Cliffs to the south.
I wish I’d done some checking and found out what that little flight was all about. I wonder if there are still flight plan records today that would explain it. I think it must have been out of Grand Junction. But its goal was clearly to pay a close visit to the fire towers and perhaps the Yampa River Canyon of Dinosaur National Monument.
With so much other scenery available to the east and west, it still seems so odd that they flew such a direct line to Zenobia and back the same way they’d come.
But what a treat!
There was one other treat associated with flight that summer. On July 20th, we got permission to leave the lookout together for the afternoon and evening. Fire danger was low, and the weather unthreatening. Verona and I drove over to Pat and George Chew’s cabin at the Harland Place so we could listen to man’s first landing on the moon on their radio - thanks to their gasoline generator. Then that evening we drove into town to watch televised recordings of the historic event. That was truly an amazing event and spoke volumes of man’s meteoric progress in flight in just under 56 years after the Wright Brothers led the way.
I remember those moments listening to and watching that event, very clearly and with a great deal of pride in man‘s accomplishments. But as I write this today… I have more fondness of my memory of our watching that DC-3 passing close by our post on Round Top. But looking back now, I believe that the moon landing is a deed that is its own monument to the great. More about that thought later.
Back to our visitors that summer.
I can’t recall if we had a visitor’s register to sign. I know there were such books in various parts of Dinosaur National Monument. If there was one for Round Top and someone reading this knows of it and can help Verona and I find access to it, it would be greatly appreciated.
Lacking that, I can only rely on my memory as to the visitors described to this point and to the others that came to Round Top in the summer of 1969.
Since we both had relatives close by, and families in nearby Vernal, Utah, we were visited by a handful of them.
My parents, Garth and Rae Rasmussen and Verona’s parents, Ernie and Virginia Winkler both came on different day visits.
George and Pat Chew made at least one visit to the tower. As did Verona’s brother Don Winkler, who helped them as a ranch hand.
Tim Mantle, gave me a ride back late one night after finding me along the road with a broken down motorcycle.
My brother Mark Rasmussen and friend Michelle Stewart made a day visit in my parents Ford Maverick sedan.
For one week we had my sister Susan and her good friend Mary Ruth Goodrich.
And another week my brother Greg and Verona’s brother Duane Winkler.
Verona’s youngest sister Ruth Ann Winkler also spent a number of days with us.
Before closing this (much longer than intended) trip down memory road, there is one more topic that needs addressing.
Early in the summer I’d noticed various “sheepherder monuments” on hills at various locations across the Blue Mountain Plateau of which Round Top Mountain is a part of. Until now, I’ve never truly understood much of their reason or history.
Doing a little research on the internet today, I find that the tradition started centuries ago in Spain and that they are also sometimes call Stone Johnnies or Rock Boys (although I’ve never heard those terms myself).
Their purpose could have been as markers of distance and navigation for herding sheep to water holes and various pasturing areas. But what I had assumed to be their purpose was a way of spending hours of boredom. There is evidence to support that on the internet as well.
The June 10, 2010 edition of the Vernal Express (Vernal, Utah) features Round Top Fire Lookout and its recent addition to the National Historic Lookout Register.
I was very surprised when my wife came outside with the paper in hand, opened it and let me see a nearly half page photograph of the “sheepherders monument” on a flat spot east and below Round Top. I was even more surprised when she pointed out my name in the article as the builder of this particular monument.
Its truly not a sheepherder’s monument, because I’ve not really been a sheepherder… just once which can’t really be counted as I was a pretty novice horseback rider, especially for pushing sheep down off the mountain into Pearl Park and therefore was probably more of a liability than an asset. But I do sheepishly admit to being the builder of this monument. I state it that way, because I’ve since come to learn its really not very proper to be doing such things in a national park.
My surprise as being named as the builder in the newspaper is because my last conversations (around 1995) with park service personal about Round Top and “that stone monument” had it having been there for many many years… many being more than back to 1969. With my enlightened understanding of park service etiquette I said nothing to correct that perception.
But now that its out of the bag, I do admit that my feelings of guilt about doing “such a thing” in a national park, is mitigated with a bit of pride. In fact I’ve felt that guilt-mixed pride on a number of occasions while looking up from the Yampa Bench Road near Castle Park and seeing that stone monument, tiny but distinct at that distance, below and to the left of the fire lookout. It is admittedly a fine pile of stone and I think is so partly because of the helpful maintenance of fire lookouts that came behind us.
The newspaper story had several errors. In fact it is because of those errors that I got started on this rather long account or our time on Round Top.
To set the record straight, the monument was built in 1969 - not in the 1980’s. And while I was in fact the builder and I did in fact have help gathering the stones, those gathering efforts were not those of our children. Our first son was on Round Top at the time - but only in the womb - he was born in December of that year.
The true gatherers of rock were my brother Greg Rasmussen, age 11, and Verona’s brother Duane Winkler, age 10. And the purpose of its being built was in keeping with my theory about all the sheepherders monuments - tedium, just as suggested in the Vernal Express. The tedium was not mine. I was never bored at Round Top. But two ten year old boys, staying with us for a whole week is a whole other story.
Upon its completion, I had the idea to add the plaque. I must have seen the phrase “Deeds, not stones, are monuments of the great.” in a book or something. I don’t think I’m clever enough to come up with that on my own. I thank the Vernal Express article for attributing the correct phrase “Deeds, not stones, are the true monuments of the great.” to historian John L. Motley.
My use of the phrase at the time, was a bit of satire about the monument itself. But perhaps I had inklings of nobler meanings. Whether I did or not at the time, I can think of several great meanings now.
The service of fire lookouts and fire fighters who have worked hard, and sometimes with tragic consequences, protecting our parks and forests. The impressive deed of men landing on the moon the summer of our stay on Round Top. Both are very worthy meanings and I’d suggest anyone thinking of the monument and the plaque will do well in thinking along those lines.
But in light of my time with, and my ever growing appreciation of, the agency, for which my first assignment was on the Round Top Fire Lookout, my mind thinks of the words in a recent series of televised documentaries about the National Parks by Florentine Films which describes those parks (and monuments) as “America’s Best Idea.”
Truly the deeds of those that brought about the National Parks and Monuments, and National Park Service, are as great in my heart and mind as any I can think of.
I hope that the “sheepherders monument” that stands on the hill below Round Top continues to do so for many years to come. I hope that those having the opportunity to stand next to it and reflect upon the words on the plaque will reflect on the great deeds I’ve mentioned above. And that they will also look out over the Yampa Canyon and to points in all directions and appreciate the beauty at the heart of one of my most favorite Park Service units, Dinosaur National Monument…
… and that it is only a small portion of “America’s Best Idea.”
Being our first summer of marriage, the job at Round Top provided us with an excellent second honeymoon. What could be better than working together at such a remote station and being able to enjoy the peace, solitude, fantastic views and backcountry, mountain-top experience for an entire summer?
- Steve Rasmussen
August 10, 2010
(Steven Lee and Mary Verona Winkler Rasmussen - Vernal, Utah)
Note: other photographs for our summer on Round Top can be found at