ABOUT A DECADE AGO, Philip Connors toiled as a copy editor at The Wall Street Journal. The environment did not suit him. "Maybe it was a case of egocentricity, but I discovered I had things to say that could not be said in the pages of a daily newspaper," he writes in Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout (Ecco, $25). "Plus, when the weather cooperates, I prefer to work shirtless." In the summer of 2002, Connors visited a friend employed as a fire lookout in New Mexico's Gila National Forest. One taste of the life was enough: in the tradition of Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac, Connors quit his Journal post and joined the thinning ranks of "freaks on the peaks," spending the next eight summers scanning for "a smoke"—lookout-speak for the first tendrils of fire. Fire Season is full of things that cannot be said in a newspaper, about solitude, pleasure, the mendacity of trail signs, and the usefulness of naps. It's full of wry wisdom and humor, as well as love for the Gila's "20,000 square miles of cruel and magnificent country," and contains perhaps literature's first description of fire as an endangered species.
In short, it's one of the best books to come out of a government gig since Ed Abbey turned a ranger's wage into Desert Solitaire. Writing in beautifully spare language at an essayist's pace, Connors considers topics ranging from U.S. fire policy to Kerouac's stint on Washington's Desolation Peak to the necessity of a hobby (his is Frisbee golf). By the end, he almost had us convinced that we too could love the life of the lookout—and not go batshit crazy. "Time spent being a lookout isn't spent at all," he writes. "Every day in a lookout is a day not subtracted from the sum of one's life."