PERCHED IN A STEEL LOOKOUT tower on Mogollon Baldy, Sara Irving has kept eyes on the Gila Wilderness for 42 summers. A hike along the Continental Divide Trail in 1980 prompted her to apply for a seasonal position with the Forest Service. “I just kept coming back,” she says. Getting to her post requires a 12-mile hike to the 10,774-foot peak, where she tracks lightning, scans for smoke, relays radio messages, and spends her days off backpacking. Although the 70-year-old retired from teaching photography at New Mexico State University Alamogordo, Irving plans to continue as a lookout until she reaches at least 50 seasons. “It’s hard to imagine not being there in the summer.” —As told to Jennifer C. Olson

EVERYTHING IS MORE DIFFICULT on Baldy. Mine is the only tower in the Gila that is fully in the wilderness. The shortest access is along the crest of the Mogollon Mountains. You hike in, or since they pack our gear in with a mule train, I could ride on that.

The main job is to call in smoke reports, new fires.  A lot of the job is just watching. You’re watching specific to the job, but you’re also just watching light, clouds, storms, sunrises, sunsets, starlight, moonrises—all the beautiful sky things in the wilderness.

I see the diversity of the landscape in the Gila—from the desert to the high alpine. I have an unobstructed view to the south, the Gila/Cliff area, that desert valley where the Gila River runs through. If I look any other direction, it’s wilderness: deeply incised canyons or rolling foothills or mountain ridges. I’ve seen a lot less people. The year before last, when 2,300 logs from the Mogollon Baldy Fire were down across the trail, nobody visited the mountain.

Being on one mountain, summer after summer, is special. I see all the changes and watch the passage of time. I know that surrounding wilderness so well. It’s basically my home.

Read more: Home to hundreds of species, the Gila Wilderness is a bird-watcher’s paradise.