From the snows of April to what he calls the blessed indolence of August, author Philip Connors works in a lookout tower 50 feet above the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. Connors was an editor at the Wall Street Journal, but became captivated by the idea of not just getting away from it all, but living above it all with a sense of purpose. He's employed for half of each year by the U.S. Fire Service, and wrote about his experience in his new book, Fire Season: Field Notes From a Wilderness Lookout.
Connors tells Scott Simon on Weekend Edition that he had been living in New York City for years, working in lower Manhattan and commuting from Queens.
"And I had quite literally just grown tired," Connors says. "And I needed some way to re-center myself."
Taking a break from living in a crowded city is one thing, but Connors admits that his solution is "probably the most extreme form of escape you could conjure up in the 21st century."
In a passage from Fire Season, Connors gives a glimpse of the kind of view he wanted to find in his solitary new life, away from the skyscrapers:
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 moved 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.
"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," he says.
But life in the lookout tower is more than a gorgeous parade of sunset colors. Connors explains that he acts as a communication relay with crews on the ground throughout the forest who might not be able to talk directly to a dispatcher in case of a fire — and he keeps his eye out for those fires, of course.
For the six months of the year when he's working, Connors lives mostly on his own, but manages to see his wife, Martha, for about half of that time. It's not enough for her, he says; she doesn't need the level of solitude that he does. But she tells him every year that if going into the wilderness is something he really needs to do, they'll find a way to make it work. The quiet, self-reliant lifestyle speaks strongly to Connors, and he knows he needs to return each year.
"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. ... 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."