Trying to pound out yet another 800 words of semi-meaningful prose, I was stumped. This minor impasse highlighted the fact that one of the biggest difficulties of being a long-time writer is the fact that it seems you’ve beaten every reasonable topic to death at least three times. For every momentary inspiration, there is the sudden deflating realization of “Oh dang, I did that one four years ago.”
Sitting, perplexed, in my home office, the windows are open and a dry cool breeze is blowing through the house to bring a feeling of fall indoors. Outside the cloudless blue sky and low humidity promised a cool, crisp evening that would be perfect for sitting around a campfire. My mind slips back to a few days ago when I spent a pleasant evening sitting around a fire with friends and I am reminded of the hundreds of times I’ve been party to similar scenes during outdoor activity.
Then I realize that October is the perfect time for talking about campfires.
There is something undeniably hypnotic about a fire. It is impossible to avoid being enraptured by the glowing blue-orange caverns that form among the coals and the mystery of seeing wood transformed from inanimate object into a sinuous, fluid, glowing elemental substance.
A good fire serves as the centerpiece for the camp, the natural place to gather, discuss, cuss, evaluate, consider, ponder and prevaricate. There is a special ebb and flow to conversation that is facilitated by the quiet crackling of burning wood and curling blue smoke. As one thread of discussion dies there is a pause, often filled with small tasks of poking the fire or adding wood, which slowly refills the reservoir of contemplation like rainfall into a parched creek.
However, I have an obvious paradox. While I enjoy a nice fire I frequently shun them when camping, especially when backpacking, as I consider the rewards not usually worth the effort. My viewpoint on this topic grows considerably harder and unyielding as I grow older.
I like fires but I also hate the trouble of putting one together, the constant fiddly maintenance and the duty of making sure it safely dies after business is concluded. There is also that eye-irritating pall of smoke that hangs over public campgrounds, even in summer when the temperatures are hovering somewhere between uncomfortable and unbelievable.
There are many benefits to running a “cold” camp. First of all, cooking over a wood fire is romantic but tremendously inefficient and troublesome unless it is a particular brand of madness you personally enjoy. This is why liquid-fuel stoves are a standard piece of camping gear unless your goal is to spend hours instead of minutes trying to produce edible food.
Above all, the fire cuts off the happenings of the natural world around you. By sitting quietly in the dark, enjoying your favorite after-dinner camp beverage, you hear and see so much more of what is taking place around your camp. Such things are supposedly one of the main reasons you are camping in the first place and contemplation of the clear, starry roof overhead is alone worth the price of having no fire.
Yet, I still find myself periodically staring into the flames. Moreover, as a person who tremendously enjoys the camaraderie of being with a group outdoors, I also find that one of the most relaxing moments of existence is that time spent alone by the fire.
There is no need to exchange thoughts or reason with anyone except that ceaseless voice inside your own mind. Being the sole guardian of the flames seems to be especially effective in soothing the psyche, calming the internal dialog and getting in touch with the deeper philosophies within your own consciousness. Those few moments allow clarity of thought seldom achieved in the noisy world of man.
As you sit alone next to the whitening coals, there is also the immeasurable but undeniable linkage to generations of native people, mountain men, explorers, pioneers, previous hikers and our own ancestors who used fire as a vital tool instead of a modern amusement.
In the silence next to the fire ring you are connected with a nearly endless line of people stretching back into the hazy mists of human history. Though the time, place, motivation and circumstances are different, there is a dim genetic memory of likewise staring into the flames and thinking about the world around us.
It is a wonderful, deep, restful feeling. A campfire is one of the few things in the 21st century that instantly connects us with our roots, our ancestors and the land.
I admit that is a pretty good bit of magic for something that can be conjured up with merely a handful of dry twigs and a kitchen match- or a writer’s imagination.