Writing Prompt #1: Starting a fire

Writing Prompt: Write about starting a fire. 

I aspire to a string and a stick, but my fire starting is a bit more pragmatic. When I am backpacking, carrying everything I’ll need for a few days to a week on my back, I let weight give way to ease of use. A few old toilet paper rolls stuffed with dryer lint are light enough, but take up more space in my pack than I’d like. Even if I forego the rolls, with a zippo lighter or a few matches and I can get a campfire going in a few minutes.

20140405114919-campfire-picThe real trick is in the preparation. When you arrive at your camp site for the night, be it a predetermined location or just when you happen upon a likely spot late enough in the day to warrant a halt, you settle into the soothing routine, the muscle memory, of making camp.

First, shelter. Strike the tent. Snapping together the poles and the clank of hollow aluminum tubes fitting together, the gentle rasp of siliconized nylon rubbing against itself and stretching taut and the grunt of effort as you drive tent stakes into the ground, sometimes soft, sometimes hard. A brief pause to admire your assembled tent and then a quick rush to inflate ground pads, roll out sleeping bags and all the things that are a little more complicated in the dark.

Next comes fire. While the spark that starts a flame seems all-important, the real secret of the campfire is in the gathering of the materials that it burns. In the wild, even our nearly civilized versions of it, the bits of wood you find are rarely just the right size. Sometimes they are cumbersomely heavy and you’ll eye the distance to your camp from where your choice log is resting and decide to move on. Inevitably you’ll circle back around to it after more fruitless searching and start hefting it back to camp.

But while those big burning logs seem like where you should focus, the real joy of a campfire preparation is in the gathering of the finer stuff. The act of gathering kindling is a detail job and a delight for my inner OCD. I gather each bit, by hand after careful searching. A conscious decision is made for every piece, a deliberation of the correct size of a twig, or the dryness of moss. When the ground is sparse, I set to whittling wood shavings from a stick until I have fuel for the infant stages of my fire.

But first, that fire baby needs a crib, and so I build it one. I gather rocks and make a ring. I arrange my well considered kindling and surround it with slightly larger twigs and sticks in a teepee shape showing it the way I want the flames to reach. When I have fussed enough, or the sun is sitting low in the sky, I give it the spark of life and coax it to grow. A tiny flame becomes a burning ember that glows hot. Flames grow larger, and the crackles sing out.

Now, with a fire going the cooking begins. Most often we modern wilderness seekers don’t even cook on our campfires anymore. We pull out small backpacking stoves and boil water and mix in powders and noodles, but the need for the fire is a primal thing and so we always have one. Tending it fills the early evening hours when it’s too dark to do much, and too early to sleep. You sit, in a circle, tending your fire, prodding and feeding your flames until the night sounds of the wild come out and so do the stories. For a few precious hours you don’t feel like a hiker or a backpacker decked out in high tech gear that wicks and waterproofs a great many of the discomforts of the backwoods away. Instead, you are a timeless adventurer surrounded by an endless night and limitless wilds, protected by the red yellow glow of a campfire. A flame you lit.