My reward for hiking up the hill to Helena, Montana's timber-framed fire tower is a glorious view over the city in the warm light of late afternoon, encompassing the dome of the capitol, Last Chance Gulch, the twin spires of St. Helena Cathedral, and the minaret of the Civic Center.
That last distinctive landmark was constructed in 1921 as the temple of the Algeria Shrine in a style known as Moorish revival - a nod to the magnificent architecture that arose in North Africa and southern Spain under Islamic rule. The Algeria Shriners are still very active, but not in their original home. The city acquired their exotic temple after it was damaged in a 1935 earthquake. Though once housing municipal offices, it's now used principally as an entertainment venue.
The objective of my hike, the fire tower, dates from 1876, and is known as "The Guardian of the Gulch." It was built in response to a series of fires that destroyed large parts of the mining settlement in the 1870s, and the fire spotters situated there have proven its worth numerous times since by alerting citizens to small blazes that could have grown into major fires otherwise.
Sadly, the fire tower was no use in averting the forest fires now burning elsewhere in Montana: in particular, a huge out-of-control conflagration near Seeley Lake in the Swan Valley, 100 miles to the northwest. With little wind to clear the air, a brown haze has settled in the valley around Helena, smudging the outlines of the surrounding mountain ranges in dreamy beige hues. It presents a less than ideal situation for a photographer (unless, of course, the fires' haze is the focus), and the air quality, equally challenging for anyone else around, leaves a sharp tang in the mouth. A local reporter on my TV at the Colonial Hotel tells me I should stay inside if I have pre-existing breathing issues. On the plus side, though, the airborne particles help produce some amazing sunsets, streaking the sky with vivid purples and oranges, and graphite clouds fringed in red.