Kindlers and iPadders, take note: Philip Connors has written a book you’ll want to read while holding in your hands. A book created on a manual typewriter in a 7-by-7 fire tower atop a 10,000-foot peak with a view of “more than a thousand square miles unlit by manmade light” deserves to be thumbed, dog-eared, underlined and, if possible, read in a hammock slung between two lonely pines far from paved roads.
Connors, who came from school in Montana to The Nation as an intern, then returned for a turn or two at the copy desk and to pen book reviews, these days spends almost half of each year as a fire lookout in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. Fire Season: Field Notes From a Wilderness Lookout (Ecco; $24.99) is his tribute to that life—which he once assumed had “gone the way of itinerant cowboys, small-time gold prospectors, and other icons of an older, wilder West.”
Fire Season and fire season start in April. Connors makes the five-mile uphill trek from the trail head to the tower laden with basics (including whiskey, chocolate and the typewriter) to find the final 800 yards blocked by hip-deep snow, traversable only crab-style, on hands and knees. His dog, Alice, maddeningly, skips on ahead. He arrives at camp (which is “filthy with rat shit and desiccated deer mice”) cold and soaked, his hands red and clublike. He lights the wood stove, eats soup, hits his bedroll and free falls “into untroubled sleep.” Fire season has begun.
For the next five months, the reader will walk in Connors’s boots—scout out and cut firewood; repair the cistern; sweep the outhouse; play Frisbee golf; gaze out over the hundreds of miles of mountain ranges, arroyos, canyons and coulees of his domain; call in “smokes” (fires) and name them (he who spots them names them). Meanwhile, Connors holds forth on the region—how Gila became America’s first designated wilderness, the plants and wildlife (native and introduced) that abound there, how US taxpayers unwittingly subsidize harmful local cattle grazing, how humans have belatedly learned to let some wildfires burn.
Lazing on the cot he’s rigged in the tower, Connors might treat you to musings on his literary fathers—among them Edward Abbey, Norman Maclean and Jack Kerouac, all fire lookouts. Kerouac barely stuck it out for a season on Washington’s Desolation Peak. He didn’t much miss the drink he’d given up for fire season, but he couldn’t curb an unbearable craving for a smoke. He hiked down the peak, spent a day eating steak and boozing with some Forest Service guys, then hiked back up with a pound of tobacco and rolling papers. (Connors must be the only person in New York Public Library’s history who has copied, in pencil—no pens allowed; it took him twenty hours—Kerouac’s unpublished notebook from this time.)
Solitude. As Kerouac found, it can make you happy, sad, crazy, introspective. Connors finds it all that, and good for soul and body. The hermit life slowly leads him to go deep and reveal private moments—the failure of his family’s farm; his younger brother’s suicide; how he met his wife, Martha. They carried on a long-distance courtship from fire tower to Manhattan by letter—written on paper, mailed in envelopes bearing postage stamps. (What would you expect from a man who keeps a commonplace book and knows how to use words like “shambles” and “comprise” properly?) These days, Martha makes the occasional hike up the mountain, bearing fresh groceries and wine. Connors and Alice rejoice.
Sharply observant—he has honed his powers not only as a fire lookout but in jobs (bartending, editing) that have allowed him to hide in plain sight watching the world—Connors includes you; his eyes become yours. He may take you fly-fishing by moonlight or into a heart ruptured by death. He sees it; you see it. He turns the rock to look underneath; you see the grub, or the gold. He has preserved his finds in prose as clear and pleasing as a mountain stream.