Friday, June 6, 2008


How many kids do you know love fire? If you were a kid like me, with a camping, back-packing, mountain-climbing dad, you grew up around campfires. Eating food cooked in blackened pots, or stuck on the end of sticks, or wrapped in foil and buried deep in the glowing red coals. There are a few things I'll eat on hikes that I won't let touch my lips, let alone my stomach anywhere else in the entire world: trail mix is one of them. We called it gorp growing up. The offensive element of gorp for me is raisins. Now I'm a fan of grapes. A big fan, as a matter of fact. And I like the liquid version of grapes plenty as well (both sugared and fermented, both white and red!). But honestly, once the mighty grape begins to shrivel like a wizened old person who has lived a hundred years, all the flavor disappears and it becomes something only a grandmother could love. Not me. Those red boxes of raisins that made their way into school lunches growing up? Mine settled at the bottom of more than one garbage can. But hiking, I'll gobble them up like they're the nectar of the honeybees. Sweeter than honey, actually (which would be a sorry mess on any kind of hike!). And in my family, there's a particular hiking pastry, called heavy cake made with cinnamon and nutmeg and lard!, which has giant raisins called muscats in it. I loathe those things. Seriously, if I had to eat heavy cake at home, I'd dig those muscats out, and surreptitiously give them to my dogs, rather than try to swallow them. But when I'm sitting around a campfire--bring it on! The more heavy cake, the better!
And then there's oatmeal. You can't pay me to eat it at home. Just the smell gags me. But in the wilderness, I've been known to down even the most obnoxious of oatmeals: instant oatmeal with bananas and strawberries. I feel a little sick even writing about it. And then there are those freeze-dried meals, made with water, instant soups, hamburger helpers, etc. All those things we turn our noses up at here where we make everything from scratch like the true elitists we think we are.

It's all because we're out there, carrying our lives with us, then sitting around the fire that permeates our clothes and cuts through our hair, and seeps into our sleeping bags so that we have to air them out when we get home. It's the fire that draws us when we're camping. Sometimes, during fire season, fires aren't even allowed--and what a pity that!--but I'm talking about a good old fashioned, find the kindling, watch it build, add the logs fire that you sit around at the end of the day when you're worn out from whatever you've done, whatever you've eaten--even those things you think you hate at home.

My dad was always--always--the first one up on our camping trips, and the last one under the tarp or tent. The coffee pot was always full of water, and he always had a cup in his hand, brimming with instant coffee, and our sierra cups were ready with Swiss Miss chocolate. I remember laughing and singing and talking about the day behind, and the day ahead. "I love to go awandering," "Oh, you can't get to heaven," "Eighteen-hundred and seventy-nine..." As I start writing the words of these old songs, I can hear my father's slightly off-key voice leading us, as clear as if he's sitting beside me, singing in my ear.

Oh the hikes I remember: There was one when I was in high school, when the misquitoes were so thick one day that we could barely see the back of the jacket of the person hiking in front of us, so we sat inside our tents and stayed there, except for supper. That was the same hike that we climbed cross country to the top of a peak, and then to the next site, and when we set up camp, our dog was missing. Dad and my brother went out looking for her with no luck, then we sat around all evening mourning her loss. She really was a great dog. The next morning she came walking--slowly--into camp. She'd clearly taken the long way around! That was a glad moment by the fire! And a hike where I honestly threw up about every mile up the trail. Just stepped to the side, threw up and kept going. Dad walked behind me, encouraging me, and when we got there, I laid down on a rock and didn't get up for two days.

My siblings are better hikers than I am now. OK, they liked it better all along. They didn't throw up on the side of the trail as they were hiking up the mountains. They didn't get migraine head-aches from the pounding. And they just plain liked the monotony of the step-over-step, with a 35-50 lb pack on your back for days on end. I only liked the edges of the day. The getting there, the taking off the pack, my hot boots, eating that odious food I was so hungry for. I liked the scenery I'd barely noticed on my way up, while I was so miserable. And I loved the fires. I always loved the community of the fire.

But the funny thing is, that even though I remember very well those fires, I also remember the journeys to get there. The process, the work. That it was work. That the march made the fire better, the food tastier. The smell that lasts and lasts and covers everything.
There's something about the community that happens when comfort is stripped away, when we're reduced to what is on our backs, and the food we must eat in the single cup we carry and rinse out (well, some of us do!) before the next course, that changes how we look at the world. The way is narrow, Jesus tells us. It's a hike up a mountain side, I've often thought. A path with brambles on either side, and perhaps harrowing drop-offs at places. But once at the top, the view spreads out before us, the campfire is warm and we sit around it with each other and with Him. Fellowship with our brother, Father and all the World is ours. It makes me feel pretty small up there, at the top of a mountain with all the world before me, but isn't that what He tells us? "Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth."

Isn't this the way we're supposed to walk? Our lives on our backs, carrying all to Him, bound for the mountains, looking for community? Seeking the campfire? Doing it together.

1 comment:

Kevin said...

Those are great memories. I wish I had a few more opportunities to hike with my grandfather. Thankfully, I do remember most of what you described.

Now, I want to get back out there, into the mountains. It's been so long...