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Review: Fire lookout writes ode to solitary life

Review: Fire lookout writes ode to solitary life

"Fire Season: Field Notes From a Wilderness Lookout" (Ecco), by Philip Connors: Does this sound like fun?
Every April, you leave your wife and drive as far as you can into the Gila National Forest of New Mexico. Then you hike uphill for more than 5 miles (8 kilometers) with 50 pounds (22.6 kilograms) of supplies on your back. You reach the cabin, which is filthy with rat droppings and dried-out mice stuck to the floor. You prepare to drink rainwater or melted snow for the next five months.
Your job is to climb a 55-foot (16.7-meter) tower every day, settle into a 7-by-7-foot (2-by-2-meter) enclosed platform and scrutinize a jaw-dropping panorama of tree-covered mountains, river valleys, arid grassland mesas and scrublands. You can see 100 miles (160 kilometers) in all directions; the landscape so vast it would take two days to drive around its edges.
In that huge wilderness, you're looking for the featherlike, white wisp of smoke that announces a new fire.
Philip Connors thinks it's fun. He's done this for eight summers, and he takes us along in "Fire Season: Field Notes From a Wilderness Lookout."
Yes, he spots a few fires, and he gives us an idea of how they're handled. And he talks about cowering in his tower as it rattles in the powerful wind. When lightning strikes the cabin, the hairs on his arms stand up and "my heart jiggles in my chest like a fox in a burlap sack."
But most of his account is a far less dramatic homage to the solitude he shares with his dog. He hikes, singing Frank Sinatra songs to warn the bears of his presence. He camps and fishes. He watches predators and their prey. He plays Frisbee golf and chats with the occasional hiker or the folks who bring supplies by helicopter or mule. He welcomes a carpet of wildflowers in July.
Connors, a former Wall Street Journal editor, loves this life. Nobody is demanding that he be more productive. He has left "the group hug of digital culture enthralled with social networking." In this setting, "I am perhaps my truest self: lazy, goofy, happiest when taking a nap or staring at the shapes of mountains."
None of which makes for a spine-tingling narrative of nonstop action. Readers can be forgiven if the going seems slow at first. It's like leaving an urban life for the beach: You have to shift your mental gears.
But after a while, reading this book is like taking a vacation in beautiful scenery with an observant and clever guide. So relax and enjoy.