Just kidding. I don’t know Philip Connors, but I feel like we’d be friends. Last Wednesday, Connors read from his just-released book Fire Season: Field Notes From A Wilderness Lookout, at the inestimable Magers & Quinn bookstore in the Uptown neighborhood of Minneapolis. Fire Season recounts the experience of Connors’ beloved job, that of a fire lookout in the Gila National Forest of New Mexico, one of North America’s landscapes most prone to fire, to flame, to spark, kindle and inferno. After several years as an editor at the Wall Street Journal, Connors abandoned the miasma of New York life for the (relative) solitude of the southwest. I haven’t read the book–yet–but I enjoyed Connors’ contribution to State by State, writing of our mutual home state of Minnesota, and had read a few excerpts of his work in other publications. Why do I think we’d be friends?
Dude plays cribbage.
In a calm and pleasant voice that belied his penchant for humor, Connors read from a few sections of his book while filling in the anecdotes about the creation of the text, and how and why it came to be. Connors described how Smoky the Bear replaced Bambi after a one-year license from Disney was up. He described the ways in which fire watchers compete with one another to report the first glimpse of smoke, and why nobody likes getting scooped on a fire in the same way that clamoring journalists don’t want to be scooped on a story they missed. In less serious but tender tones, he described the Victorian romance conducted with his then-girlfriend (now wife) Martha, how the writing of letters to and fro was filled with restraint and humor.
Of course, one of the most obvious questions and opportunities for stories came with the questions about how one passes the day as a fire watcher, alone in a tower and separated from the nearest community for 10-day stretches at a time. So in a plucky and shameless manner that would make my friend Will proud, I had to ask about cribbage, what if offered–alone–at 10,000 feet above sea level.
Connors smiled. One afternoon while returning from a four-day stretch in town to begin his 10-day vigil anew, “my relief lookout had taken a 2×4 about this long”–here he stretched his arms wide–“and a cordless, battery-operated drill, and had created a cribbage board.” She had often played with her husband, and found carpentry one way to pass those long hours. Connors continued: “You need more than one strategy for keeping yourself entertained when you’re alone 100 days a year, and one of these, I found, was card games. Having grown up in Minnesota–that classic, cold-weather game–I found that it’s played by people in cold weather, people on ships, kind of a northern-tier [game] in the US and into Canada.”
Connors and his wife enjoy what they call the “a World Series of cribbage, which isn’t actually a World Series at all, just a never-ending game where we notch our victories on the side of the board with a knife.” Connors quieted for a moment, and finished the answer to my question.
“You need to do things like that to break up the monotony; I don’t often get bored, but the days get long and when someone comes, someone visits, someone wanders up to the mountaintop, cribbage is a handy way to totally change the dynamic of what I do there. I’m not really in competition with anybody on an hourly or daily basis doing what I do, so a little pinch of competition–a little trash talk–it’s a nice counterpoint to how I spend most of my days.”
Good stuff. I hope to speak with Philip again, but in the meantime Fire Season is waiting near my bed, ready to spark.