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Book Review: Fire Season

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

In Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout, Philip Connors welcomes us into his unconventional “office”: a seven-by-seven-foot “glass-walled perch” 55 feet above the ground in the mountains of New Mexico’s Gila National Forest. Connors occupies this cramped aerie from April through August, scanning the pine-clad mountains on every side for “a wisp of white like a feather, a single snag puffing a little finger of smoke into the air.” Such “smokes,” as the U.S. Forest Service dubs them, are the first signs that a lightning strike — or a careless camper — has kindled another wildfire.

In 2002 Connors (then just 29) resigned his post as a copy editor at The Wall Street Journal — a job that had left him “atrophied after four years in the city” — and became essentially a migrant worker (he makes his living in the seven-month off-season by tending bar in Silver City, New Mexico). Atop 10,010-foot-high Apache Peak, in stark contrast, he earns his keep by using his two-way radio — his main link to humanity — to call in wildfire sightings. Five to 15 times a year, Connors estimates, he is the first fire lookout to see, and report, a smoke.

The resulting mobilization of fire crews — sometimes by air, often by vehicle, occasionally by both — provides insights into the modern science of fighting wildfires. During the first week in August, Connors routinely awakens each morning to discover “a world bathed in smoke” as more than half a dozen fires smolder in the distance.

Freed from the bustle of civilization, Connors initially regarded life in the tower as one of tedium. But with the surroundings inclining him to take the long view, he quickly cultivated a reverence for a place and a lifestyle that few of us will ever get to experience: “Once you struggle through that swamp of monotony where time bogs down in excruciating ticks from your wristwatch,” he writes, “it becomes possible to break through to a state of equilibrium, to reach a kind of waiting and watching that verges on the holy.”

The result of Connors’s “waiting and watching” — and writing, of course — is an engaging and highly readable mix of wilderness reflection, ode to solitude, and reasoned assault on forestry techniques: specifically, the U.S. Forest Service’s long-standing policy to snuff out every wildfire, no matter how small.

The watchtower manned by Connors is one of only three in the Gila wilderness that cannot be reached by a Forest Service road. His fortnightly commute (10 days on duty, four days off) lasts hours: First, a 15-mile Jeep ride from the hamlet of Embree to Wright’s Saddle, where the road ends. Next, Connors shoulders a hefty backpack containing “immediate necessities” — food, binoculars, a handheld radio, his typewriter, some whiskey — and tramps five miles up mountainside trails to reach his post. A mule train delivers the supplies he can’t carry.

Next: He can see for miles and miles and miles. >>

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.