Life as a fire lookout

  • A fire is visible from Connors’ lookout location in the Gila National Forest.

    Philip Connors
  • The tower’s interior includes his tools of the trade.

    Philip Connors
  • Connors' tower looks out over the Gila National Forest. It is one of just a few hundred such towers in the U.S. that are still staffed. There used to be thousands.

    Philip Connors

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.

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