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for people who care about the West

Life as a fire lookout

 

Once upon a time, I had a pretty sweet gig at the Wall Street Journal, editing stories about sports, wine, theater, pop music, photography, painting and opera. Every month or so, I reviewed a novel or profiled a jazz musician. The daily "Leisure & Arts" page was a quiet, civilized little backwater, largely untouched by the urgency and political polemic that drove the rest of the paper.

Then the dot-com bubble collapsed, followed 18 months later by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. One day, I learned that, due to staff cuts, my job description would soon include copy-editing the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal Europe. I was well-acquainted with the sorts of arguments I'd find there, arguments in favor of tax cuts for the rich, tax hikes on the poor, the gutting of environmental-protection laws and social safety nets -- essentially pieces trumpeting a right-wing ideology with which I, to put it mildly, disagreed. It seemed my workdays were about to become a little less quiet and a lot less civilized.

So I told my boss I couldn't do it. He was taken aback. He wasn't asking me to write neoconservative editorials, he said; he was simply asking me to parse neoconservative editorials for faulty grammar. He said I'd get a small raise to compensate for my additional duties, and I would do whatever he told me to do, because he was my boss.

I now faced a choice. I could either accept the raise and surrender all claims to a conscience, or I could quit my job. Given the size of my student loan debt and the dismal state of the job market, the decision was not easy. I needed some time to think it over. As luck would have it, an old friend had recently invited me to visit the mountain where she worked as a fire lookout, in the Gila National Forest of southwest New Mexico. I promptly took a week's vacation and flew out to see her.

I knew within the first half hour that she had the best job in the world: She got paid to sit and look at trees. Her tower was five miles from the nearest road. She lived in a little cabin 10,000 feet above sea level, with a view of 20,000 square miles of southern New Mexico, southeast Arizona and far west Texas. On a clear day, she could see the Sierra Madre of Mexico. When there weren't any fires, she hiked in the evenings, and she took naps on the clock when things were quiet. She saw her boss just twice a year, once in April to pick up her VHF radio, and once in August when she turned it back in. Her time was her own, in other words, and so were the moods of the mountains.

That first night, after a few swigs of bourbon, she confessed that she felt a little understimulated as a lookout. The real action was out on the firelines, and she wanted a glimpse of it. Her boss was inclined to allow this -- but only if she could find someone to take over fire watch. By the time my visit was up, I'd talked myself into her job. I would give two weeks' notice at the paper in New York and return in 16 days. I didn't know much about the day-to-day life of a fire lookout, but I was encouraged by a line I remembered from Norman Maclean's masterpiece A River Runs Through It: "It doesn't take much in the way of mind and body to be a lookout. It's mostly soul." The time had come for me to see how much soul I had left.

I found the transition from an office in Lower Manhattan to a tower in the New Mexico wilderness remarkably painless. No doubt some would see that as a warning sign of a split-personality disorder. But I'd grown up on a farm in Minnesota, so I was not unacquainted with rural life. You can't take the country out of the boy, even if he has spent years dressed in a suit and tie, riding the New York subways.

Instead of traveling an hour one-way to an office building, I now live where I work, at least for about a hundred days a year -- which means I walk 20 steps from my cabin, 65 more up the steps of the tower, and my commute is complete. My schedule is similar to that of any other jogger on the hamster wheel of the eight-hour workday -- 9:00 to 6:00, an hour off for lunch -- except that my job involves an exquisite intimacy with wilderness, and my office is a steel-and-glass room immaculately designed to attract lightning. It's no wonder that we fire lookouts are often thought of as freaks on the peaks.

To make a career out of this, I've had to forego any hope of financial stability. Every winter I cobble together a collection of jobs to pay the bills and every April I quit them. Then, come August, I start the hustle all over again. Tending bar, it turns out, is as good a companion career as any for a lookout. The money's halfway decent, no one expects you to stick with it for longer than is convenient, and you can accomplish a full year's worth of socializing in about six months. The trick is to avoid getting sick in any major way, since health insurance tends to be elusive.

It also helps to have an indulgent spouse. My wife, Martha, once spent an entire summer with me on the mountain, back in 2004, before we were married, and the experience of living together off in the woods convinced us that we were probably a satisfactory match for the long haul. Each subsequent summer, she's had other obligations -- namely work and school, as she pursued an education in nursing. She breaks away whenever possible to hike in for a two- or three-day visit, and my schedule allows me four days off every other weekend to scoot back into town, so we manage to spend about half the summer together. I know couples who'd love to have 50 days a year apart from each other; for us, it's merely a part of the natural rhythm of our lives. We all profit from a little time alone now and then. For some that may mean a Sunday afternoon hike once a month, or maybe a couple of hours in the garden. Others have more substantial requirements. For me, the hyper-connectedness of modern life -- with its incessant barrage of coercive come-ons and commercial seductions, images and information, tweets and links -- becomes stifling beyond a certain point. I need to be alone to clear my head and rejuvenate my creative energies, since writing -- my major work -- is by necessity a solitary act.

It's not merely the opportunity to be a mountain hermit and get paid for it that's kept me coming back, year after year, for almost a full decade now. The drama of wildfire seen from above is one of the most awesome spectacles in nature. Some people are pyromaniacs; I suppose you could say I've become a pyromantic. I look out over nearly a million acres of roadless wilderness, where an upsurge of moisture from the Gulf of Mexico combines with the summertime heat of the Chihuahuan Desert to create tens of thousands of lightning strikes a year. When I spot a fire -- generally between five and 15 times a year -- it falls to my superiors to choose the response. For most of the 20th century on the West's public lands, that response was preordained: full suppression, as soon as possible. A military mindset prevailed in the early Forest Service, which viewed fire as a pernicious presence on the landscape. Smokey Bear lent a friendly PR face to the fight: "Only you can prevent forest fires!" Little attention was given to the fact that no one can prevent lightning from hitting a tree, showering the ground with embers, and starting a fire that might burn all summer.

When I first came to the Gila country, I was completely ignorant about wildfire. It had never occurred to me that fire could be beneficial to an ecosystem -- nature's way of keeping the life of the forest in balance, a normal process of disturbance and renewal. I watched in amazement as forest officials, in a radical reversal of 20th-century wildfire dogma, allowed certain lightning-caused burns to roam wherever they wanted, sometimes over tens of thousands of acres. The result is a forest far healthier than it would be otherwise: more diverse in the mosaic of its flora, more open in its ponderosa savannah, with less of the brushy ladder fuels that now make the American West an almost annual show of extreme fire behavior. Perhaps ironically, this new regime has made lookouts on the Gila more important than ever. With firefighters on the ground monitoring big blazes, we keep track of crew movements and wind shifts, offer updates on fire behavior and smoke drift. We watch the weather when crews sleep outside and let them know when lightning is near.

Although huge swaths of the forest are touched by fire here every year, I can go weeks without seeing a twist of smoke. During these lulls I simply watch and wait, my eyes becoming ever more intimate with wind-scorched desert, semi-arid grasslands, piñon-juniper foothills, ponderosa parkland, and spruce-fir high country. My goal, if I can be said to have one, is to become completely in tune with cloud and light. The cumulus build, the shadows shift, and in an hour -- or is it two? -- I'm looking at country made new. The poet Gary Snyder, who worked as a lookout in the North Cascades during the 1950s, provided the words I try to live by:

fewer the artifacts, less the words
slowly the life of it
a knack for nonattachment

When the watching gets monotonous, I find other ways to entertain myself. I descend the tower and study birds and insects and flowers. I read novels, bake cookies, chop wood, play Frisbee golf. The weather tends to be extreme in my high mountain world, so things break down, fall apart. I put them back together if I think I'll need them. Now and then a hiker shows up, allowing me to exercise my vocal cords.

It probably goes without saying that fire lookouts are not a growth industry. There were once thousands of towers scattered across America, but only a few hundred are still staffed each summer. Some Forest Service officials have predicted our impending obsolescence, thanks to better radio technology, more precise satellite imagery, perhaps even unmanned drones taking pictures on low-level flyovers. But in a place like the Gila -- where so much of the country is rugged and remote, off-limits to motorized equipment and new roads -- lookouts are still the only communication link to the outside world for certain backcountry crews. At around 13 bucks an hour, we are also far cheaper than aerial surveillance. Safety and fiscal prudence: These will be the saving graces of the lookouts who manage to hang on.

Aldo Leopold, who drafted the proposal to preserve the Gila Wilderness in 1922 -- a plan that made the headwaters of the Gila River the first place on Earth to be deliberately protected from industrial machines -- once wrote: "I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in. Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?"

Survey the Lower 48 on a coast-to-coast flight, and the most interesting country never fails to be that without roads. Down there, amid one of those remaining fragments of our natural heritage, is a forest that burns and a desert that spins dust devils, an ecological transition zone of great harshness and beauty. The view some days overwhelms me with its vastness, so I turn back to the earth beneath my feet. Wild candytuft blooms under the pine and fir, followed later in the season by wallflowers, paintbrush, mountain wood sorrel, Mexican silene. On my evening rambles I find Steller's jay and wild-turkey feathers, snakeskins and mule deer bones. I see bobcats and elk, black bears, Montezuma quail. I tread lightly, aware that I'm something of an understudy in the theater of evolution that has played out in these mountains for millennia. The truth is, I'm no longer fit for any job that involves staff meetings, false niceties, or submission to the hive mind. I'm ruined for anything you'd consider a proper and respectable career. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Philip Connors is the author of Fire Season: Field Notes From a Wilderness Lookout (Ecco/HarperCollins). He lives and works in southwest New Mexico.