My newspaper column this week:
I imagine the woods were a lonely place for prehistoric humankind who had yet to discover what happens when you touch a butane lighter to dry kindling and have a couple sticks of seasoned hickory on standby.
One of summer’s most enjoyable activities is camping. And one of the things that makes camping enjoyable is a popping fire.
It doesn’t matter that you don’t need a fire here on the Cumberland Plateau, where midsummer temperatures rarely drop below the 60s at night and where humidity often makes it feel much warmer than it actually is. No camper in modern times — which I’m defining, loosely, as the days since Fleetwood began building tin boxes for us to sleep in — has built a campfire because he needs to. He builds it because he wants to.
And why wouldn’t he want to?
Our grandfather’s grandfather’s grandfathers needed fire for a variety of reasons — protection, light, heat, and as a means for cooking their food.
Nowadays we cook over a bed of charcoal briquets or on a blue flame courtesy of Mr. Coleman — who also makes lanterns for our light — and those Fleetwood tin boxes are climate-controlled.
And, yet, a night on the river bank with only the katydids for company would simply be a night on the riverbank without a campfire. It wouldn’t be camping. Not really.
You can have the hiss of a lantern hanging from a tree limb, the putrid odor of the jar flies that drunkenly fly into the flame and are frying their butts to a toasty, stinking crisp, you can have a hunk of some sort of dead or dying bait on a hook in the murky depths of the creek, patiently awaiting a flathead’s tell-tale pull on the line — in short, you can have all the things that a spectacular camping trip make. But if you don’t have a campfire, you don’t have a camp.
Without a campfire, you don’t have a conversation aid. Some of the best stories are told while staring into the depths of a dancing flame atop a glowing bed of coals, as if those embers are a window into yesterworld. Without a campfire, you don’t have s’mores. Without a campfire, you don’t have fire-roasted hot dogs.
The stories are nice. The s’mores are nice. The hot dogs impaled onto a stick and cooked to a comfortable blackened state over an open flame are a necessity. But it still isn’t camping.
Because the campfire is more than any of that. The campfire is a camper’s soul food.
The woods can be alive with grizzly bears, panthers, sasquatches, warlocks — whatever the imagination can conjure up once the sun has disappeared over the horizon and hidden the forest depths from view — stalking camp, just out of sight and waiting for an opportunity to pounce, and the humble flames of a campfire are enough to keep them at bay.
Even the katydids sing a little louder when they can look down from their perch in the forest canopy to the sight of a crackling fire . . . or so it seems.
Country music recording artist Tracy Lawrence once sang about how the world would be a lot simpler if everyone had a front porch. “We’d all have our problems,” he sang, “but we’d still be friends.”
There’s no denying the front porch’s place in American culture. But just imagine what would happen if Barack Obama could get Vladimir Putin to sit down in a pair of $5 Big Lots collapsible chairs with a couple of Oscar Meyers held over a fire burning hot enough to singe the hair from their knuckles. We could end this silly game of political oneupsmanship and usher in a new era of world peace.
Because it doesn’t matter if you hail from the shores of the Potomac or eastern Europe — when the fire is crackling and the ‘dogs are slathered in French’s mustard, the katydids speak a universal language.
■ Ben Garrett is Independent Herald editor. Contact him at email@example.com.