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Fire Season

Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout

by Philip Connors

Hardcover, 246 pages, Harpercollins, List Price: $24.99 |


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Fire Season
Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout
Philip Connors

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Book Summary

The author discusses his time spent ten thousand feet above ground as a fire lookout in a remote part of New Mexico, a job where he witnessed some of the most amazing phenomena nature has to offer.

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Excerpt: Fire Season

Fire Season

Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout


Copyright © 2011 Philip Connors
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-06-185936-6

Chapter One

The Black Range was once a part of Apache country, one of the major reasons it was slow in coming under the domain of the American government. Geronimo was born to the west near the forks of the Gila River; his fellow chief Victorio, of the Warm Springs Apache, made his home just to the north, at Ojo Caliente, though he knew the Black Range intimately, having used it as a hunting ground and refuge from the summer heat. He and his Chihenne followers fought the U.S. cavalry here as late as 1880, and a number of Buffalo Soldiers and their Navajo scouts did not have the luck to leave the Black Range alive. Their graves can still be found if you know where to look.

For me, the first leg of the trip to the crest is simple and comfortable: a climate-controlled pickup truck, Satchmo on the stereo, my dog Alice on the seat beside me. We glide across the bed of an ancient inland sea, which locals call the flats. Beyond the little town of Gaylord the road curves to contour with Trout Creek, a stream with sources high in the mountains, denuded in the lower elevations by decades of overgrazing. At Embree, population three dozen, the road leaves the creek to begin its climb through the foothills. For fifteen miles there’s not a straightaway long enough to allow me to pass a slow vehicle. Locals, if they see me come up behind them, will pull into one of the gravel turnouts and offer a wave as I pass, but if I find myself behind tourists, I will dial down my speed and practice the virtues of charity and patience. It is a magnificent drive, and I can hardly fault them for taking it leisurely.

I can’t help but hurry, despite the sweeping views. Where I’m headed the views are a whole lot better, and besides I’ve been gone too long. Seven months of hustle in the world below provide more than sufficient acquaintance with the charms of my winter career. But that is behind me now—or rather, I should say, beneath me.

Norman Maclean once wrote that “when you work outside of a town for a couple of months you get feeling a lot better than the town and very hostile toward it.” I felt hostile and superior before I even left. Tending bar will do that to a man, although it also allows him to leave on short notice, and in so doing hurt no one’s feelings but those of the regulars who’ve come to depend on his ear.

More than one winter has found me working in a Silver City dive that beckons to the thirsty with a classic neon sign of a cactus in the foreground and a horseman drifting alone into the distance. My most reliable customer was an Oklahoma hillbilly with a Santa Claus beard, whose wit and wisdom is best exemplified by a statement I’ve heard more than once from his beer-foamed lips: “Thing about them Aye-rabbs, they breed faster’n we can shoot ’em. Kinda like them Kennedys.” Weekend entertainment brought the biggest crowds and the best money, courtesy of heavy-metal bands with evocative names such as Dirtnap, Bowels Out, and New Mexican Erection. It all makes for an interesting counterpoint to summers spent alone far from town, but I’m tired of playing the role of enabler-priest in an unholy chapel.

At Wright’s Saddle my drive is over, though the real pleasures of the journey have just begun. In a supply shack cluttered with helicopter sling nets and cases of military-style MREs (Meals, Ready-to-Eat), I leave eight boxes to be packed in later by mule, each box marked with its weight, to help the packers balance their animals. The boxes contain books, dry and canned food, dog food, two cases of double-A batteries, a Frisbee, a mop head, a bow saw, an ax bit. I double-check my own pack for all the immediate necessities: maps, binoculars, handheld VHF radio, freeze-dried food, my typewriter, some magazines, some whisky. Certain I’ve left nothing vital behind, I begin the final stretch of what has to be one of the sweetest commutes enjoyed by any hardworking American anywhere. Alice leaps about, wagging her question-mark tail. She feels the same way I do.

Five and a half miles await me, five and a half miles of toil and sweat, nearly every inch of it uphill, with fifty pounds of supplies on my back. I can feel right off that winter has again made me soft. My gluteal muscles burn. My knees creak. The shoulder straps on my pack appear to want to reshape the curve of my collarbones. The dog shares none of my hardships. She races to and fro off the trail, sniffing the earth like a pig in search of truffles, while from the arches of my beleaguered feet to the bulging disk in my neck—an old dishwashing injury, the repetitive stress of bending forward with highball glasses by the hundred—I hurt. Not many people I know have to work this hard to get to work, yet I can honestly say I love the hike, every step of it. The pain is a toll I willingly pay on my way to the top, for here, amid these mountains, I restore myself and lose myself, knit together my ego and then surrender it, detach myself from the mass of humanity so I may learn to love them again, all while coexisting with creatures whose kind have lived here for millennia.

Despite human efforts to the contrary, it remains pretty wild out here.

Along the path to the peak the trail curves atop the crest of the Black Range first to the west, then back to the east, always heading eventually north. Despite the wild character of the country, there is evidence of the human hand all along the way, not least in the trail itself, an artificial line cut through standing timber. The wilderness boundary too speaks of a human imprint: a metal sign nailed to a tree suggests you leave your motorized toys behind. Halfway to the top the trail passes an exquisite rock wall, handiwork of the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s, when the New Deal put thousands of Americans to work on the public lands of the West. The wall holds the line against a talus slope above it, keeping the loose rock from swamping the trail. Seventy years later the wall is as solid as the day it was built, as is the lookout tower where I’m headed, another CCC project that replaced the original wooden tower built in the 1920s.

For a while thereafter the trail follows an old barbed-wire fence, a relic of a time, not that long ago, when cattle grazed these hills. High on the trunks of old firs and pines hang a few white ceramic insulators, which once carried No. 9 telephone line down from the lookout. Having spent something like a thousand days in this wilderness over the past decade, I’ve noticed all of these features of the hike many times. And yet there are always surprises: a tree shattered by lightning, a glimpse of a black bear, the presence, in a twist of mountain lion scat, of a tiny mammalian jawbone—evidence of the dance of predator and prey.

The surprise this time arrives a half mile below the peak: a stretch of hip-deep snow. It swallows the trail amid an aspen grove on the north slope, and there is no shortcut from here, nothing to do but slog on through. For a few steps I’m fine. The crust holds. Then it collapses beneath me, and I posthole to about midthigh. I try to lift one leg, then the other, but I feel as if I’m stuck in quicksand. I’m not going anywhere unless I lose my pack.

With its weight off my back I can extricate myself, but there remains the problem of how I’m going to get both it and myself through the next 800 yards. Upright on two legs, 220 pounds of flesh and supplies on a vertical axis, I will continue to sink and struggle. The snow is wet and granular, melting fast; in just a few weeks it will be gone. But not yet. There is nothing to do but become a four-legged creature, distribute my weight and the weight of my pack horizontally, and crawl. Alice looks at me as if I’ve lost my marbles—she even barks twice, sensing we’re about to play some kind of game—but now when I punch through the surface crust I don’t plunge as deep, and with the aid of my arms I can drag myself along, bit by bit, crablike up the slope. Alice runs ahead, returns, licks my face, chews a hunk of snow, bolts away again—she’s delighted by my devolution to four-legged creature, though I can’t say I feel likewise. All I can see from this vantage is an endless field of white broken only by tree trunks, and I possess neither her agility nor her lightness of foot.

After a twenty-minute crawl I reach the clearing at the top. Normally I would rejoice in this moment—home, home at last, mind and body reunited on the top of the world—but my hands are raw and red and clublike from the cold, and my pants are soaked from crawling in snow. The sun is dropping fast and with it the temperature. If I don’t change clothes and warm up, I’m in trouble.

The cabin is filthy with rat shit and desiccated deer mice stuck to the floor, dead moths by the hundreds beneath the windowsills, but these are problems for later. I start a fire using kindling gathered late last year with precisely this moment in mind. I strip off my pants and hop into dry ones, never straying far from the potbellied stove.

Once I’m warmed through, I tend to the next necessity: water. Just outside the cabin is an underground tank, 500 gallons of rainwater captured by the cabin’s roof and funneled through a charcoal filter into a surplus guided-missile container. It’s the sweetest water I’ve ever tasted, despite what holds it, and to keep it that way I lock the ground-level lid for the off-season. This winter, I discover, someone tried to get at it and broke off a key in the lock. Why a visitor thought he could open a U.S. Forest Ser vice padlock—it is stamped USFS, unmistakably—is difficult to fathom, but I’ve spent enough time here to know that people do strange things alone above 10,000 feet. Maybe it’s simple lack of oxygen to the brain.

My water supply shall remain, for now, inaccessible. The snow I so recently cursed is my savior. Melted in a pan on the woodstove, strained of bits of bark and pine needle, it tastes nearly as sweet as I remember the cistern water, with just a tincture of mineral earth. My thirst quenched and my hands warm, I heat some snowmelt and freeze-dried minestrone to head off the roiling in my stomach.

The sun drops over the edge of the world. The wind comes up, gusts to near forty. I jam the stove with wood, unroll my sleeping bag on the mattress in the corner, and free-fall into untroubled sleep.

FIVE HOURS LATER I WAKE to find Alice has joined me in the bed. I can’t say I mind the added warmth of her next to me. It is still only 2 a.m., but the stove has burned out. I revive the fire from the ashes of itself, drink some more snow water. Outside the wind screams in the night, gusting now to fifty, buffeting the cabin like some rude beast up from the desert. I pull on an extra pair of wool socks, a down vest, a stocking cap, gloves. Time for a look around.

Some of my fellow lookouts live in their towers, spacious rooms with catwalks around the exterior. My tower is small and spare, seven-by-seven, purely utilitarian—more office than home. It can hold four people standing, assuming they’re not claustrophobic. At fifty-five feet tall, it is one of the highest lookouts still staffed in the Gila. It had to be built high to offer sight lines over the trees—my mountaintop being relatively flat—and in my more poetical moods I think of it as my mountain minaret, where I call myself to secular prayer.