Q&A: Joe Bill on Lookout Towers and the Lookouts He Found There

Joe Bill checks out the view from a fire lookout tower atop Kendrick Mountain. Humphreys Peak is in the background. | Courtesy of Joe Bill

Joe Bill, the author of Climbing the Ladder Less Traveled, spent four months driving nearly 4,000 miles (and hiking more than 100 miles) to interview 35 fire lookouts. He turned one big journey into a book and acquired an endless number of life lessons. And Jo Baeza, a longtime contributor to Arizona Highways, edited the book. We got the chance to ask Bill a few questions about his book.

What inspired you to take on this project?
My wife and I have hiked a lot in Arizona. Some of those hikes led us to the top of mountains with lookout towers. We would visit with the lookouts, and hearing about their life journeys fascinated me. These people have dared to do something different.

Furthermore, these people spend a lot of time in silence. It’s a lot of time to themselves and a lot of time to think. I always wondered if they would have words of wisdom for those of us who work at lower levels, so to speak. 

How did you go about starting this project?
I had to find out where all the fire towers were located, which ones were staffed and when they were staffed. It was a lot of calls to the Forest Service and ranger stations. I put together a large map of where they were, including the schedules, and started making appointments.

Did you face any challenges?
After my first appointment, with a lookout on Mount Ord, I asked myself, “Is this really going to work?” But while I was interviewing the lookout, a fire broke out. That created a fitting first chapter for my book, because it would give readers a honest description of what a lookout does when fires break out, what they do on the radio and how they coordinate the activities of the firefighters, etc. At that point, I said to myself, “Oh, my gosh, this really is going to work.”

But then it was the challenge of finding the towers. While we were on the Fort Apache Reservation, we were particularly lost. But my son made me stick it out, and fortunately, we caught the lookout just in time before he left for the day. It’s amazing how it all worked out.

What did you learn from this journey?
I often wondered: How can people spend that much time by themselves in a tower without getting bored and having a sluggish day?

So, I spent some time with Gary McElfresh (Chapter 10), and he trained me to be a relief lookout, which is someone who fills in when the lookout is taking time off. I’ve served as a relief lookout a number of times in a couple different locations. What an incredible experience that was for me.

After about two days of work, you start getting into the zone and not thinking much about what’s going on in the world. You appreciate the quiet — the beauty. It’s a totally different life than the one you and I are probably living.

What do the lookouts do in their down time?
Some were authors, and others were musicians. A couple were into quilting, and a couple others were painters. One person’s hobby was cooking in the tower. They were all talented people.

When you asked the lookouts if they had any words of wisdom, what did they say?
At the end of every chapter, you’ll see a quote from each lookout regarding their philosophical perspective. But to give you a few examples, Jo Baeza said, “By most people’s standards, I’m a well-educated person, but I’ve learned far more from silence than I ever learned from books or classrooms.” 

And after interviewing Adam Henry, from the Fort Apache Reservation where we were lost, he said, “Wherever it might be, find your own quiet tower. Make it your special place and spend some time there.”

Was there one person in particular who stuck out to you?
Let me begin by saying that each person I spoke to is special — they’re all great people. But the one that was most touching of all was the woman in the very last chapter, Chris Magill. I interviewed her on her very last day, after 35 years of service, and she was in her 80s. She said to me, “You know, when you think about life, there doesn’t have to be a last chapter. There just does not have to be a last chapter.” And, guess what, she returned to work the next year as a lookout. So she was right: There really doesn’t have to be a last chapter.

— Brianna Cossavella

Climbing the Ladder Less Traveled is available for purchase on Amazon.

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Comments

Thank you for this article. As volunteers on the weekends, being the lookout at Kendrick brought peace, adventure, solitude, and many happy memories. It is a special group that inhabits these metal and glass towers - very dedicated to their work, very interesting to get to know. Thanks again!

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