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Book Review: Fire Season

Finding isolation — and inspiration — atop a fire lookout tower in New Mexico

From his mountaintop vantage point, Connors can see the lights of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, blazing 80 miles away, and El Paso, Texas, some 70 miles farther still. But “in a quadrant from due west to due north there is no evidence of human presence, not one light to be seen — a million uninhabited acres.”

The man most responsible for that expanse — the first area in the world to be designated and protected as wilderness — was a forester, author and pioneering conservationist active nearly 100 years ago. In 1924, Connors informs us, Aldo Leopold “drew a line on the map encompassing four mountain ranges and the headwaters of the Gila River, a line inside which [he proposed] nothing motorized or mechanized would be allowed to travel.”

Isolated he may be, but Connors is never really alone. His dog, Alice, proves to be a worthy companion during frequent rounds of Frisbee golf and long evening walks that lure the author miles from his post. Connors also finds companionship in the wild creatures that inhabit the forests around him, and he details chance — and often unnervingly close — encounters with, among other critters, foraging black bears. Scraggly hikers following the Continental Divide Trail between Canada and Mexico drop in on him, too. Even Connors’s wife, Martha — turns out the seasonal loner is married — makes the occasional visit, prompting him to appreciate his “good fortune to have found both the job and the woman of my dreams.”

Noting that “ninety percent of American lookout towers have been decommissioned,” Connors is a practitioner of an admittedly dying profession. The advent of “more powerful radios, more sophisticated satellites, even drone airplanes” has relegated most of the nation’s fire-watch towers to history. Yet his keen awareness of the manned lookout station’s slow march toward oblivion spurs him to savor the lifestyle more fully.

(Philip Connors, by the way, is hardly the first scribbler to have found inspiration alone and high amid the trees. Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, Jack Kerouac’s Desolation Angels and The Dharma Bums, and Edward Abbey’s Black Sun all testify to their writers’ lives as lookouts.)

As Fire Season draws to a close, Connors dreads his approaching departure from Apache Peak. Readers who have shared his wilderness sojourn through these pages will register their own regret, fully understanding the author’s desire for “one more fire, one more week, one more tour” at his lofty post.

David Brill is the author of As Far As the Eye Can See: Reflections of an Appalachian Trail Hiker and Desire & Ice: A Search for Perspective atop Denali, which chronicled his bid to summit North America’s highest peak at age 45. He has written for National Geographic Traveler, Men’s Health, and many other national magazines.

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