Wednesday, April 30, 2008

In the heart of a campfire

If I was honest enough to remember the whole truth
I’d probably recall some very uncomfortable or even miserable experiences while dirt camping, but why would I want to do that? Anybody who intentionally spends hundreds of dollars plus weeks in excited preparation for the opportunity to sleep on the ground, live in a perpetual cloud of dust and occasionally poop into an open pit has no grounds for complaint on any level, least of all personal convenience.

These days Carolann and I visit the great outdoors in luxurious, indoor comfort. We have an air-conditioned 32-foot motorhome with a queen size bed, full size shower, complete kitchen and two TVs. It’s wonderful, it really is.

But camping, it ain’t.

My dad had a big, unbelievably heavy canvas tent. It was bigger than some honky tonks I've been in and smelled almost as bad. He had to prop the thing up with a couple of poles I think he bought from a circus fire sale. If it was seventy degrees outside it was ninety-five in the tent. If it was sixty outside it was forty-five in the tent.

By the time I started taking my son Jeremy camping the equipment had improved dramatically. Our tent was lightweight nylon. It was the first of those now ubiquitous domed things supported by three long, flexible poles. It didn’t have to be tied to stakes in the ground by twelve ropes poised to grab a foot every time you walked to the outhouse. The downside of my new nylon igloo was its height, maybe four feet tops, which was fine for a kid but forced me to mimic a horizontal pole-dancer just to get out of my sleeping bag, dress and exit through the little flap at the front with four or twelve maddening zippers.

I taught Jeremy to build a campfire the old-fashioned way: with paper under kindling, under twigs, under sticks, under three logs wigwammed in the center. It was a thing of beauty. We would stand back in appreciation of our half-hour handiwork before we lit the match.

After he mastered that I introduced him to “fire-starters,” those wonderful, waxy chunks of compressed sawdust that make it possible for any idiot with a Bic to start a campfire. Boy Scouts need not apply.

My dad taught me to fish, of course, just as his had taught him, in the fast and frigid trout streams of Wyoming. I wasn't very good at it but that's what fathers and sons do. It's tradition.

My kid broke the curse. Oh, I taught him and he caught his first fish when he was five or six. But the next time I asked him if he wanted to go fishing he said, "Dad, you know you can buy fish at the store, right?" That finished the sport for me and I still owe him for it.

But I miss it all: the laughter from nearby families, the smell and WOOSH of a white gas-powered lantern sputtering to life; the crackle and smoke of a jolly campfire properly-built of wood chunks gathered and chopped by hand. I even miss the dirt.

In evenings such as those by the campfire, with no TVs, no iPods or WiFi, we had no choice but to talk with each other about fanciful, imagined wonders and deep philosophy; of past events shared and joyously remembered which made us a family, and of hopes and dreams which we would then take with us into our sleeping bags.

And, staring through a nylon mesh at God’s stars we inhaled deeply the fresh yet smoky pine air, smiled to ourselves and closed our eyes to sleep the unburdened sleep of woodsmen.

It felt good and wholesome.

© 2008 by David L. Williams, all rights reserved

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