The Joys Of Life In A Lookout Tower In 'Fire Season' Philip Connors worked in Manhattan for years before he got the itch to get out. So he went way out — to a lookout tower in the Gila National Desert in New Mexico. He talks to Scott Simon about the gorgeous, jewel-toned views and why the solitary lifestyle speaks to him.
NPR logo

The Joys Of Life In A Lookout Tower In 'Fire Season'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
The Joys Of Life In A Lookout Tower In 'Fire Season'

The Joys Of Life In A Lookout Tower In 'Fire Season'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Philip Connors left the towers of lower Manhattan for the towers above New Mexico's Gila Wilderness. Mr. Connors was an editor at the Wall Street Journal and happy. But he was also captivated by the idea of not just getting away from it all, but living above it all with a sense of purpose: becoming a solitary lookout for the U.S. Fire Service above the forests of New Mexico for half a year each year, from the snows of April until what he calls the blessed indolence of August.

Mr. Connors, who's also written for the Paris Review and Harper's, has written a journal of one summer between the moon in the sky and New Mexico - "Fire Season: Field Notes From A Wilderness Lookout." He joins us from New York.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. PHILIP CONNORS (Author, "Fire Season: Field Notes From a Wilderness Lookout"): Delighted to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: You know, I approach nature writing with suspicion, as a city kid. But I want you to read a section from the book that is so heart piercing it almost -almost, not quite - makes me want to climb up there with you.

Mr. CONNORS: Yes, happily.

(Reading) The sun bores through the glass windows of the tower - solar heating at its essence. The world becomes the evolution of light. The almost imperceptible shift of color in the sky before dawn. The turn from midnight blue to sapphire. The way the mountains move through shades of green and blue and on through purple and black in the evening, a crimson lip at the edge of the world where the sun has gone like a smear of blood reappearing at dawn in the east.

SIMON: Sounds like quite a show up there.

Mr. CONNORS: It is. Living alone at 10,000 feet, miles from the nearest road, on the edge of a 200,000 acre wilderness area provides endless spectacles out my tower windows.

SIMON: What sent you up there?

Mr. CONNORS: I was tired. I'd been living in New York City for years, working in lower Manhattan, commuting from Queens. And I had quite literally just grown tired. And I needed some way to re-center myself.

SIMON: Forgive me. I believe there's a line from the last season of "Sex and the City" where Carrie Bradshaw says, well, that's when you take a nap.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CONNORS: True. That's one...

SIMON: You know, not go up into the top of a fire tower in the middle of the wilderness.

Mr. CONNORS: Well, that's one option. But it's also true that I have a job that allows me to take a nap on occasion. So, yes, there are different ways of dealing with that feeling that we all get, I think, living in a crowded city. I just happened to stumble into probably the most extreme form of escape you could conjure up in the 21st century, which was to leave it all behind for a very, very different view.

SIMON: Now, you actually have to do something up there. I mean, you're not just a hermit.

Mr. CONNORS: Yes, we are seasonal employees of the United States Forest Service. And we are there for a couple of reasons. We're there to let the world know when a wildfire is happening, so that decisions can be made about it. And we're also there to act as a communications relay with crews on the ground throughout the forest who might not be able to talk directly to a dispatcher.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. CONNORS: And for those people our presence there, you know, can be a matter of life and death.

SIMON: Help us understand how you live up there.

Mr. CONNORS: Well, I live off the grid, without a cell phone or an Internet connection, running water. I commute daily about 25 steps from my cabin to the base of my tower, which is a 50-foot tall structure up above the tree line. And I spend most of every day between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. in that tower. And mostly I just try to keep it simple. So, I try to find a way to a deeper self-knowledge in a way, maybe a more profound self-reliance and a place of calm unattainable when I'm plugged in the rest of the year.

SIMON: There must be times when it's hard on your marriage.

Mr. CONNORS: Yes. Martha and I have certainly, we certainly had difficult conversations about this proclivity I have for solitude. She doesn't share it to the extent I do and so we've worked ways to find a balance. But we've also worked out a scheme where we spend close to half of fire season together. It's not quite what she would hope for. Probably not enough for her.

But she does each year say to me, you know, if this is what you love and this is important to you, then we'll find a way to make it work. And bless her heart for doing so because it can't always be easy.

SIMON: Are lookouts going to be obsolescent some time soon?

Mr. CONNORS: We're trending that way and we have been for decades. There used to be many thousands of lookouts across the United States from east to west. And now each summer maybe a few hundred are staffed - all in the West and Alaska.

SIMON: We should explain, this is because satellites can see so much, a drone aircraft for that matter can survey an area.

Mr. CONNORS: Yeah, the trends of technology definitely moved toward a time when we probably won't be necessary to spot fires.

SIMON: Mr. Connors, thanks so much.

Mr. CONNORS: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: Philip Connors. His new book, "Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout" - though he's speaking with us today from New York.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.