“Having spent eight summers in my little glassed-walled perch, I have an intimate acquaintance with the look and feel of the border highlands each week of each month, from April to August: the brutal winds of spring, when gales off the desert gust above seventy miles an hour and the occasional snow squall turn my peak white; the dawning of summer in late May, when the wind abates and the aphids hatch and ladybugs emerge in great clouds from hibernation; the fires of June, when lightning connects with the hills and mesa, sparking smokes that fill the air with the sweet smell of burning pine; the tremendous storms of July, when the radio antenna sizzles like bacon on a griddle and the lightning makes me flinch as if from the threat of a punch; and the blessed indolence of August, when the meadows bloom with wildflowers and the creeks run again, the rains having turned my world a dozen different shades of green.”
And there you have, in a nutshell, the reasons Philip Connors hikes five and a half miles - “nearly every inch of it uphill” - to the top a mountain in the Black Range of New Mexico to spend April through August manning a fire tower as a lookout for the U.S. Forestry Service.
With the advent of satellite surveillance and other remote sensing advances, you might think there was no longer any need for old fashioned fire towers. It’s true there are fewer fire towers and fewer lookouts than there once were, Connors admits, but the reason isn’t technical advances. It’s because there is less to watch.
Our wild areas are shrinking all the time, more and more land being devoted to suburbs, malls, roads, factories and farms. That’s one of the subjects Connors addresses in this book, which is part essay, part editorial, part memoir. It’s very well written, and at times the prose is lyrical. You’d expect that from a Wall Street Journal editor/writer, which is Connor’s other job when he’s not squinting into the blue distance looking for a wisp of smoke (he sees plenty of them). Connor writes that he has been doing the lookout job atop the same mountain each summer for the past eight years. Some of the book is devoted to the simple mechanics of living alone on the mountain: chopping wood, cleaning the cabin, setting things up.
“It’s a lot of work setting up to be lazy,” he observes.
Connor is not really a New York City tenderfoot who has no knowledge of such things - he grew up on a farm in the Midwest and his hands wrap around a shovel handle as comfortably as they rest atop a typewriter keyboard.
There’s no denying, however, that Connors finds the solitude and free time on the mountain conducive to writing. It’s a Walden Pond in the clouds. He bangs out his thoughts on an old manual at the tower. He provides back story of how he got into the fire lookout job, how he grew up, his former life as a bartender, how he met his wife, how the Forestry Service treats fires (the philosophy of free burning natural fire as a forest management asset has taken hold) and the technology used to fight fires when the decision is made to put them out. He can’t resist forcing in the story of his 9-11 experience in New York City, even though it really has nothing to do with the fire lookout job.
In between personal reminisces and doses of Forestry Service history, Connor enlivens his tale with stories of his fishing trips; hikes with his dog, Alice, his sole companion most days on the mountain; rare visits from his wife (surely one of the most understanding of women); his encounters with bears, moose and other wildlife, none of which menace him. His story of an ill-fated attempt to rescue an “abandoned” fawn is poignant.
It’s a good thing that he includes such anecdotes, because the fire spotter job is really mostly long stretches of tedium interspersed with the occasional fire sighting. And even the fires are mostly anticlimactic. They usually are small, far away and either go out on their own or are extinguished by fire fighters in a few days. Many are left to burn and simply monitored. So Connors has plenty of time to seek insights, which is traditionally done atop a mountain. He muses and finds he really doesn’t want to go back to the city, doesn’t like cows or land bureau practices, wants to preserve wilderness.
That’s his primary purpose in writing the book, not to tell you that he saw colors in the sky that he can’t describe, endured cold and heat, rain and dust, smelled smoke, saw animals. He wants you to know that you can still climb a mountain in New Mexico and look out from 10,000 feet about sea level more than 100 miles in any direction on 20,000 square miles of forest and desert.
Connors wants it to stay that way, so that his grandchildren - and yours - will have the option of taking the same hike and drinking in that view. This book is his eloquent expression of that wish. It’s worth your time to read it.