04 October 2017 | Alabama Hills, Lone Pine, CA
We have been keeping this blog for close to four years. While it was mainly intended to document our journeys, one's mind is occasionally sparked by a current or cultural event, an awe-inspiring sight, a profound thought, and sometimes, sheer boredom. Our travels have taken us over many miles of asphalt blacktop, dust-covered trails, grassy meadows, narrow canals, and wide open stretches of rivers, bays, and ocean. While we have often been asked what we liked best, and finding that answer to be a difficult one, we are also at a loss to identify that which we liked least. It has all been wonderful, though a point comes where one must just stop, if just for a little while.
A summer in Lake Tahoe was a fine respite from our travels. Staying in one place for more than four days was an adventure in itself. We volunteered our time to help manage a state park and campground, and it covered our rent and utilities as well. We worked with wonderful people, met new friends, and were surrounded by the beauty of the forest. We learned more about nature, and were able to enjoy our surroundings. But seasons change, and the time came to move on to our next adventure. The long-planned boat trip will continue in the Spring, which is rapidly approaching. But Winter will find us in another campground volunteer position in Southern California.
After a detour to Reno to say farewell to our son, US395 beckoned south. A first night in Sonora Pass yielded a beautiful campsite with breathtaking scenery, and a morning temperature of 19 degrees. We got out just in time as the pass was closed for the winter two days later. June Lake followed with another nice site visited by scores of white-tailed deer. It snowed enough to dust the sagebrush and give everything a clean, wintry look. Today, in Lone Pine, we are camped in a BLM area that has been, and still is used as a movie set for hundreds of tv and movie westerns and adventure movies. The road that winds through the area is named Movie Road. John Wayne, Hopalong Cassidy, the Lone Ranger, Bonanza, and many of the singing cowboy movies were shot here. Today, it is quiet, as dispersed campsites are scattered about across the valley floor. RVs and tents are hidden behind rock outcroppings, only visible when approached from a short distance. There is no sound, except for the occasional gust of wind. It doesn't seem right to play any music here, though some country guitar might be ok. A ground wasp is meandering across the sand, each pebble looming like a boulder in its path. A lizard scurries over a nearby rock, enjoying the warmth before the frigid night sets in. The eastern skies are a brilliant shade of blue, while to the Wesr, the Sierra Range surrounding Mt. Whitney is surrounded by a haze. Someone said it was smog, but cloud vapor sounds better.
The batteries are charging in the sun. We have water, propane, and a half bottle of Gentleman Jack. The sun will set in a few hours, and it will be cold, though nothing like the past few nights. A waxing gibbous moon should illuminate the valley floor quite nicely tonight. Where will the road take us tomorrow? Perhaps the Mojave desert will have another adventure awaiting us.
01 September 2017 | Sierra Nevada
What an amazing and busy month August has been. Dee was in SoCal for a few weeks, tending to a family illness. It gave her a good opportunity to help out and keep things moving, especially with back-to-school, scouts, dance lessons, and general household issues. Keith's cousin and her husband came up to camp for a couple of days. As we sat at the picnic table one evening and discussed the possibility of being visited by bears, we were alerted by other campers that a large bear was right behind us. Excitement followed, as the bear was pretty insistent about a bag of bread that he snatched from another site. He was not going to leave until he ate every last bite. More anxiety was shared as he then took a leisurely stroll through the campground, fully asserting himself as the one "in-charge" of things, until he finally got bored of the game, and took off into the night. Dee got some good photos, and we realized that this bear was a relative newcomer. Apparently, he had heard about the fine dining here.
Angela's in-laws also camped for a couple of nights before going down to Reno for Hot August Nights. We all had the opportunity to join Aaron and his fiancé KT in Reno for BBQ dinner and to celebrate Keith's birthday. It was nice to have most of the family together for a little while, at least. While Dee was down south, Keith had to work the campground checks on his own. Things went smoothly except for one night of dealing with drunken and aggressive campers who were intimidating other campers. After a few tense moments they finally retreated to their site, soon to be visited by two ranger patrol vehicles. They were ejected, but had to sleep it off first.
When Dee returned, we went to Gold Country-Coloma, CA for a day of whitewater rafting on the American River South Fork. This was right across from Sutter's Mill, where the first gold nugget was discovered in 1849. Rafting was great, and only one person fell out of the raft. That of course, was Keith. The day was invigorating and tiring, but at the end, we still needed to drive 100 miles plus back to Lake Tahoe. On the way, we passed our favorite camping and 4-wheeling area at Indian Springs, where we had gone almost every year for close to twenty years. Out of curiosity to see how things had fared through the tough winter, we turned off the I-80, and spent the next three hours driving rugged trails and poking around an abandoned "glamping" resort. Beat-up, waterlogged, and sun-baked, we finally got "home" and immediately went to bed.
Two days later, we were in the Jeep and on the trail again, as we clawed our way up Blackwood Canyon, over Barker Pass, and into Desolation Wilderness. After a fine picnic lunch in the forest, we continued through stream beds, thick brush, and up a rocky hill that surely put dents in the underside. Having to pile up rocks and be spotted, we did make the climb unassisted, though some teeth fillings must have loosened as we bottomed out several times. We were anticipating meeting up with the Rubicon Trail at some point that would still be manageable with our stock Jeep. We did, though we did not recognize the terrain features that had just been visited in early July. Everything then was wet with snow still present, but six weeks later, it looked completely different, dry and dusty. We got back safely, and had just a little time to get up to Squaw Valley to meet Aaron and his friends for a free concert with members of Pearl Jam, Dave Matthews Band, and some other groups. The music was loud, yet mediocre, but we had a good time anyway.
Dee flew to SoCal again, and Keith stayed in Reno, at the Grand Sierra Resort, where he and Aaron saw Yes in concert. It was a good show, though it is sad that the members of Yes could not get along enough to play together, and are now touring as two separate Yes groups. Keith remarked that it is tough seeing the band aging and the audience wearing worn out concert tees, with white hair, thick glasses, and canes.
It is September 1st, and the campground will be completely full this weekend, as Summer draws to a close. (Keith doesn't like to acknowledge the end of Summer until late November.) Cars, campers, fifth-wheels, and coaches are rolling in. People are riding bicycles everywhere and in every direction. It is Friday, and there are sure to be some who feel they are owed a good weekend, and will kickstart that with a bottle of Jack Daniels or a case of beer. The rangers will busy tonight. Perhaps a bear will come along and scare someone sober.
27 August 2017 | Sugar Pine Point, Tahoma, CA Lake Tahoe
Sunny, cloudy, thunderstorms
"The ancient Greeks thought of the constellation Canis Major as a dog chasing Lepus, the hare. The star Sirius is the dog’s nose; the Greeks called it the “dog star.” To the Greeks and Romans, the “dog days” occurred around the day when Sirius appeared to rise just before the sun, in late July. They referred to these days as the hottest time of the year, a period that could bring fever, or even catastrophe." - National Geographic
Most people thought it meant the weather was too hot for a dog to do anything but sleep. That is plausible, however dogs seem to always sleep no matter what the time of year. It is hot in the valleys below. Reno just had its first below 100 degree day since The beginning of June. Sacramento has been egg-on-sidewalk hot. But here, at Lake Tahoe, the temperature has rarely exceeded 85, and it has averaged 75 over the past month. Things are cooling down. Days are getting shorter, nights are getting longer and colder.
One can tell that Summer is winding down. The campground crowds are easing. Fewer groups are renting, more single-nighters are on a first come, first served basis. The retail firewood supply is turning green, meaning that this year's crop of seasoned firewood is dwindling. That is obvious from the smoky fires that choke the campground at night and in the morning. The squirrels and chipmunks are getting fatter as they bulk up for the winter weather. The birds of prey are getting larger as they feast on fat chipmunks.
The bears have become emboldened, strolling through campsites at their leisure, searching for unattended delicacies that have been carelessly left out. They move from site to site, sniffing and probing, thumping the top of a bear box to see if the latch was left ajar. Keith refers to it as "window shopping". We've observed them with bread, marshmallows, and bags of trash. They seem to really be attracted when the s'mores are roasting. They eventually move on after scaring the campers. Many campers have left early out of fear or anxiety. They may be overreacting, as the bears are just doing what they do, given the circumstances.
It is now mid-August, and the quiet and peace of the sparsely populated campground is welcome after a very busy July. It is a joy to drive our little cart around in the morning and watch the place awaken. The smell of bacon and brewed coffee is intoxicating. Stopping the engine to walk around checking vacated sites, one can hear the whistle of a teapot or the chopping of kindling for the morning fire. Children are riding bicycles, still wearing their pajamas. Someone is filling their pot at the faucet; another is washing dishes or brushing teeth as they prepare for a busy day at the Lake, or the Truckee River. Perhaps a day of bike riding is planned, or hiking, or shopping. Some just hang out in their camp, reading, listening to audiobooks, or just swinging in the hammock. It's an idyllic time. Of course, Labor Day arrives in a couple of weeks, as families, church groups, and city dwellers will inundate us for their "last hurrah".
A Little Solitude
03 August 2017 | Bear Valley Campground, Sierraville, CA
We are having a fabulous summer at Lake Tahoe. The skies are blue and the temperatures range between 55 and 85. Surrounded by evergreen trees, squirrels, chipmunks, and black bears are our constant companions. We go kayaking, paddle boarding, bicycling, hiking, motorcycling, Jeep trailing, and night sky gazing. Our rent is free and our utilities are free as well.
So, what's the catch? We are living and working in a hotel. Yes, it is a campground, but guests come and go on a daily basis. They check in, get settled, then go out to play in their vacation paradise. They come back in the evening, eat dinner, sit around the campfire, and then go to sleep. The routine repeats itself for two to seven days, and then they are gone, only to be replaced by the next incoming guests. Some stay for only one night. Others stay for two weeks. We have happy campers and we have unhappy campers. We have church groups who have rented out the entire loop with over 600 campers. And we have overnighters who sleep in the beds of their pickup trucks. As hosts, we tour 175 sites, three times per day. Service with a smile and a wave of a hand, we check occupancy, sell firewood, provide information, remind kids to wear helmets, listen to complaints and accolades, issue notices of non-compliance, and take reports of bear sightings. The hours are okay, about six hours per day, three days on, three off. We meet wonderful people from all places. We hear their stories and they hear ours. We have been invited into campsites to share food and camaraderie. Our co-hosts, park aides, and rangers have been very friendly and compatible.
After two months of smoky campfires, screaming children, rumbling exhausts, droning generators, clanging dumpster lids, foreign tongues, church group singing, car alarms, and Lake Tahoe traffic and population, we were ready for a break. We purchased our first RV over three years ago, more out of necessity than desire, as we knew our plans would require such. Having always been tent campers, that was as traumatic as when we switched from a sailboat to a diesel trawler. But we missed tent camping greatly, and after more than three years of stewing about it, we decided that it would be okay to depart from the "mothership" occasionally. So we went out last week and increased the stock value of Coleman by purchasing a new tent, sleeping bags, cooler, and air bed. Packing the Jeep with our new treasures, plus our older Coleman stove, and our Coleman chairs (our Coleman lantern fell from its hanger last week and broke), we set out to find a little solitude.
And find it we did! Less than an hour's drive away, we found Bear Valley Campground, in Tahoe National Forest. With only ten campsites, it has water, toilets, tables, and best of all, it's free! Six miles from the main road, there is no traffic noise. As we arrived on a Sunday, there were only two other camps here, and they were gone before dark. We have the place to ourselves. No internet, cellular, or power. We left the music at home. We have books to read, birds to listen to, and colored pencils and paper. No smoky fires, no voices, no traffic. It was almost difficult the first night, but I believe we are unwinding now. Guiness is pleased with her 80ft run line, which allows her to chase squirrels over a greater area.
Today, we drove the OHV Loop, which we thought would be only 7 miles, but after 6 hours of rocky trails and steep hill climbs and descents, we had covered 12 1/2 miles, and were pretty tired, so we took an exit spur. Unlike the endless switchbacks that had led us up the mountain, it was more like an escape chute, as it took us almost straight downhill, through narrow, rutted gullies. The Jeep took it well, with a few minor scratches and plenty of mud, though one tire now has a nick in the sidewall.
Back in our camp recuperating from the jostling and bouncing, we are watching the sun, glass of wine in hand, as it gently sets into the western ridge line. There is still no one else in the campground, which seems odd for the last day of July. But that is fine with us. We have not seen another vehicle since just before dawn. I guess that is solitude.
It is our second morning. Coffee is made, followed by cereal and milk. Guiness is chasing a rubber ball around as the birds watch and sing their praises of the new day. Standing in a far corner of our site dedicated to teeth brushing, one cannot help but marvel at the vista laid out before us. Stands of new growth from a 1994 fire cover the valley, as it curves up gently in the distance to meet the rugged mountain ridge. The azure sky is punctuated by small cloud formations. A lone bicyclist has stopped in our campground for a short respite. I suppose we'll allow him to stay awhile. After all, this is OUR campground.
Another Jeep trail took us to the North shore of Stampede Lake. There, we had another great picnic lunch, as we sat by the water's edge, listening to the distant ski boats as they towed their wakeboarders around on the calm surface. Guiness had free reign, chasing bugs and butterflies about, and cooling off by lying in the moist soil. How is that we lived in Northern California for twenty years, traveled to Lake Tahoe to ski, drove back and forth to Reno so many times, and yet we did not know about this place? Our theory has been that the universe works on an on-demand policy. The places we've been to in our travels don't exist in real time. Rather, they appear when we arrive. They are ours for the time, but when we go, they go. Books, pictures, movies are but images of places and things that exist only for the moment. It's kind of like the Holodeck on the Starship Enterprise.
Back at our camp, it is now night. The glow on the horizon is rapidly diminishing, and the first star has appeared. The half-moon is bright, causing shadows to be cast On the ground. Candles on the table, the bear box, and the fireplace punctuate the darkness. It is extremely quiet. No camping neighbors for a third night. No voices. No music. No cars. No children. That's solitude...
The Campground Nazi
18 July 2017 | Sugar Pine Point SP Lake Tahoe
Silver Strand State Beach is a beautiful stretch of sand, stretching from Coronado to Imperial Beach. The sound of the pounding surf, the seagulls chattering, and barking sea lions are intermingled with the occasional roar of fighter jets taking off from nearby Naval Air Station. The Hotel del Coronado looms in the distance to the North. To the South lies the Imperial Beach pier, backdropped by the hills of Tijuana, Mexico. Navy and merchant ships approach buoy 1SD as they arrive and depart from San Diego Bay. Fishing charters head out in the early morning, loaded with eager anglers, their ice chests full of bait and beer, returning in the late afternoon with their happy, sunburned, and drunk fishermen, the holds filled with yellowtail, dorado, mako, and other delicacies of the sea.
The campground sits right next to the beach, just adjacent to the Navy's Amphibious training area. A flat, paved parking lot with restrooms and a snack bar, it is filled in the summer with motorhomes, fifth-wheels, VW vans, and all manner of camping vehicles. In the winter off-season, it is usually at 20 percent capacity, with mostly fishermen sitting at the surf line with their carts full of multiple rods, nets, and ice chests loaded with alcoholic libations. A few RVs, with their retiree owners, come to enjoy the sunny cool days, as they sit in their folding camp chairs and enjoy a propane-fueled fire.
We were here on a February day, during a break between rainstorms that had been inundating the area. Having found a spot of our liking, we set up our site, unloading our bicycles and unfolding camp chairs. We don't own a propane fireplace, yet. The sites have power and water, so we made our connections and entered "relaxation mode". That was interrupted when the Campground Host paid us a visit to point out that several drops of water had escaped from our hose connection at the faucet, and a wet spot was forming on the pavement.
For several years, California had been in a drought, and water was being conserved. We are not wasters of water in any condition, as RV and boat life dictate conservation, drought or not. Yet, we are dubious when we learn that a local water utility was allowing a pipe to dump water unchecked, because they didn't have the manpower resources to repair a broken valve. We are dubious when we read that an agency or business is being fined for irrigating or dumping water, yet the fine is okay with them because it is cheaper than installing low-use systems or otherwise correcting the problem. The amount of water lost at our connection probably amounted to a cupful over several hours, but we dutifully applied the wrench to the connection and corrected the situation.
Flash forward a month or two to find us at Joshua Tree National Park. There are no hookups there. If we want power, we use a generator. Operating hours are from 8-10, 12-2, and 5-8. That is to allow for meal preparation, but we decided to watch a movie on the DVD after dinner. Unfortunately, the movie ran a little past 8, and at 8:10PM, we received a knock on the door.
Flash forward, or perhaps back to December 31, in Desert Hot Springs, near Palm Springs. Everyone likes their Christmas lights, and RV'ers and boaters are no exceptions. We had our string of lights setup on the windshield. On January 1, we received a knock on the door, and were advised that the lights had to be removed that day. We were also told that our drain hose had to be off the ground, and supported every six inches until it terminated at the ground fitting. As we watched the unctuous little man go riding off in his golf cart and officious uniform, we dubbed him the "Campground Nazi".
We understand the rules. We know they exist for a reason, and that is to allow for the comfort and enjoyment of all park users, and to protect the environment or the property. The front line of support for the Rangers and Park Aides is the Campground Host. We've seen and expect them in most of the places we have visited. They work in the little booth where we check in and pay our fees. They come around in the morning to check that fees have been paid and that we are properly situated in our campsite. They make sure that the campground is operating properly to the extent of their ability. Usually, they are very pleasant and seem happy to be there. Other times, they have seemed grumpy, bored, or just not very nice. Having worked and retired from a theme park, I understand that people are there to have a good time or relax. They are guests and must be treated so. If the guests cannot follow the guidelines or rules that are established for everyone's benefit, then they must be advised or corrected, but respectfully.
We've often joked about the Campground Nazis, but we never dreamed that we would become them. It is truly amazing what some people will do in a campground. We understand the "weekend warrior" mentality. We understand the annual vacation and the need to unwind. People play hard on vacation because there is a lot of playing to do in just a few days. When they return to their campsite at dinnertime, they are hungry and tired. Some just want to turn in after dinner, and cannot wait for "lights out". Others are still wound up from driving 500 miles and cannot wait to break out the Bottle. That is when the conflict starts. The partiers want to make noise after 'Quiet Time". The guests with small children want quiet.
Some guests think they can park their vehicles anywhere they want, though they are required to park on a paved or designated surface. Others want to pick the fallen branches so they can burn them. The fallen wood is needed to decompose and go back into the soil. We've had guests attach chains between trees so they can highwire on them. Tiki torches have been set up right under tree branches. Food is left out for bears to scavenge. Cars speed through the park. Trash is scattered around. A spirited game of Capture the Flag took place the other night, with a air horn blasting frequently. Rolls of toilet paper are shoved down the toilets. Someone defacated in the shower. Groups spread beyond their sites and occupy unpaid-for sites. Sub-woofers blast their bass notes throughout the campground. Squatters sneak in after kiosk hours and try to leave in the morning without paying. Campsite stays expire, yet the occupants have yet to depart by checkout time. A guest is angry that his fifty-foot rig won't fit into his site that was advertised at thirty feet. We face these issues and more during our thrice-daily rounds. We have to tell kids, repeatedly, to wear their bicycle helmets. We have to tell guests, repeatedly, to not occupy sites that are not theirs. We have to tell guests, repeatedly to not burn downed wood, to be quiet after 10PM, to not leave trash out for the bears to get, to park on the pavement. We are the Campground Nazis. Its not a nice term. Its not funny anymore. But we get it. People are people and they will behave the way they do. If we can relieve the Park Rangers and Park Aides of some of their load, if we can help make the Park a nice place to visit and provide good memories, then volunteering is worth it.
The One Match Fire
04 June 2017 | Lake Tahoe, CA
It was cold that morning. Huddled inside my barely warm bag, I lay there, trying to seal the minuscule air leaks that inevitably allowed the cold outside air to enter, chilling the back of my neck. It had rained through the night, not a hard driving rain that that finds every pinhole from every stitch holding the flimsy, albeit expensive tent together. Rather, it was the light misty rain that when mixed with a slight breeze, would drop the air temperature, like standing under the heater vent when the furnace first kicks on after a not-warm-enough shower. Burrowing deeper into the sleeping bag, I wondered if, had I spent another hundred dollars on the bag, would I be any warmer. Feeling a slight rumble from below, I briefly considered passing gas to warm my bed, then remembering the chili and onions from the night before, abandoned that thought in favor of coming out of there alive. "Damn, its cold".
Peeking out the top of my bag in the pre-dawn grayness, I saw my best friend John, just snoring away in his bag. John was smart. He had covered his head and shoulders with his polyester-filled jacket that he had purchased when we were sailors visiting Korea. I laughed then, asking "What the hell do you need that big bulky jacket for, especially when we get back to Southern California?" I didn't even have a jacket that was warm enough without adding extra layers. Watching him lying there in his comfort, I briefly considered killing him and taking the jacket for myself. Regaining my senses after a few minutes of musing, I decided to get up and start a fire.
We had a grand fire the night before. With lots of downed wood to burn, we had dinner and stayed up late, listening to oldies on the transistor radio and drinking Wild Turkey. The flames danced, the embers glowing brightly, undulating like the Fires of Hades. After a few swigs of whiskey, one could almost see the little demons prancing about in their flaming grotto as they danced to the strains of "Bye Bye, Miss American Pie". The air became cold and heavily laden with moisture. Like skewers on a rotisserie, we kept turning our bodies toward the flames to warm up, first the front, then facing away with our butts pointing to the fire pit, trying to muster up a fart just to see if the flames would really jump. That didn't work so well, so as the temperature dropped and the whiskey ran out, the flames lowered, and we decided to turn in. Falling asleep was easy after hiking twenty miles and a drinking fifth of booze, and I hardly stirred until a few hours later when my bladder said it could wait no longer. Getting out of the bag, dressing, and crawling out of the tent and into the cold, wet gloom, I found my relief, and reversed the process as quickly as I could, glancing over at John and wondering how is that he never seems to have to get up? As it did just a few hours later, murder crossed my mind.
Slumber never returned, and I lay there, tossing and turning for the next few hours. Between the falling rain, the sound of falling pine cones, and the falling temperatures, I just wasn't falling back asleep. Crawling out again in the early light of dawn, I surveyed my surroundings. The fire was out cold. The leftover wood was wet. Our supply of tinder paper was burned the night before without consideration for the next day. The ground was wet, as were the fallen leaves and needles. I was cold and my clothes were damp. "I want my fire, dammit!" Digging through the wood pile, I was able to find some relatively dry pieces. And when I lifted the deep carpet of fallen pine needles, there were dry needles underneath.
Only one thought raced through my mind and that was "I'd better not screw this up!" After clearing the wet coals from the fire pit, I lay two large log pieces parallel to each other, and about a foot apart. Placing a similar piece of wood at the end, a U was formed, separated by a half-inch gap. Piling dry pine needles in the center of the U, I lofted them to allow air to pass through easily. Smaller sticks were laid perpendicular to the big logs, forming a bridge, always leaving a gap to allow the air to circulate. More, successively larger sticks were crisscrossed until a pyre was created. I had fuel. I had oxygen. Now, I needed a heat source to complete the triangle. Where were those matches? We got pretty drunk the night before, and didn't necessarily think of preparing everything for the weather. Reaching for my uncovered and now wet backpack, I discovered that water had found its way into the pocket containing the box of wooden matches. The carton was sodden, and upon opening, it was apparent that the matches were wet as well. Pulling a match from the box, and dragging the blue tip across the patch of flint on the side of the box, I hoped to hear the snap of ignited phosphorus followed by the whooshing sound and smell of burning sulfur. Instead, I was rewarded with the thunk and dull sound of the match head crumbling as it clogged the pores of the flint striker. These matches were not lighting any fires today.
Frantically, I dug through the pockets of my jeans, then my coat, then the entire backpack, searching fruitlessly for dry matches, or any flame source for that matter. There were none. Having quit smoking a year earlier, there was no Bic lighter. The last Bic I had was used up and lost as I held it high, screaming for an encore at the Pink Floyd concert a few months prior. I remembered that I held it too long, the metal ring burning my fingers, and dropped it, watching as it bounced in slow motion from the raised bleacher floorboards to the arena floor below. The vision passed with a slight smile as I recalled the sights, sounds, and smells of the concert, and then, the present situation rushed back to me. I am not a stick rubber, nor do I carry flint and steel, nor would I know how to use either. I looked around the camp contemplating my next move.
We were in the Navy then, and our ship was undergoing a year-long overhaul in Long Beach. As the ship was uninhabitable at the time, they quartered us in the enlisted barracks on the base. It wasn't a bad gig, with four men assigned to a room, each of us having our own corner. We made it our home with a large rug, a stereo, and a pre-2600 Atari video game console, which was the hit of the barracks. Pong had come out only a few years earlier, and the video game craze had not yet hit the mainstream. Our room had a constant line of guys waiting to play Breakout. We had a nice place, but when weekends came, some of us were ready to get out of town and go backpacking. In the ensuing months, our camping trips took us to the San Gabriel Mountains, and San Bernardino National Forest, as well as Mt. San Jacinto and Joshua Tree National Monument.
Our collection of camping gadgets grew as we figured out what worked, what didn't, what would fit in our barracks room, and what would fit in the back of my Volkswagen. Tiny flashlights, folding candle lanterns, freeze-dried foods, anything that was lightweight, multifunctional, and cheap was considered. I bought a flaming orange nylon backpack at the Navy Exchange, along with a cheap sleeping bag and a Norwegian Army white gas cook-stove. That was the prettiest stove, all gleaming brass and polished aluminum. Closed, it measured 6x6x3 inches. The lid turned into a nice pot for heating water. It came with a little grip handle, which I still have to this day. There was a little plastic priming bottle and a big black key. To use this thing, you had to fill the beautiful brass tank with Coleman fuel. Under the burner was a shallow cup into which you squirted some fuel from the priming bottle. Light it with a match and allow the fuel to burn as it heated the shiny brass tube that led from the valve to the burner. You had until the pre-heating flame was just starting to sputter out, and then you turned the key to open the valve. If you did it right, a hot blue flame would erupt from the burner. Do it wrong by allowing the pre-heating flame to extinguish, and all you'd get was the whooshing of hot vaporized gas. You would then need to re-light it with another match before it cooled down and halted the vaporizing process. As the burner got hotter, the pressure and flame intensity would increase as well, and the key would be used to adjust it. It was complex simplicity! Water would boil in just a few minutes, and I would have my cup of pre-mixed Taster's Choice, sugar, and Coffee Mate.
I've always liked matches for camping. They felt right, much more than a lighter. I don't think the long fireplace lighters were around then, and if so, they were more of an expensive novelty. No, for me it was Diamond Matches. Ohio Bluetips, made in the USA since 1881. Strike anywhere or on the box. Wooden stems, 2 1/2 inches long, you could light a campfire, pre-heat a good cigar, or find your way in a dark basement while looking for the fuse box. Diamond Matches have always occupied a spot in our camping box. A carton of 900 lasts forever. Our box was so battered and torn that it was covered in duct tape until, after 20 years of camping, we finally replaced it with a new box. Wooden matches were my tool of choice.
On that cold, wet morning, I stood with vapor steaming from my breath as I searched for a solution. My gaze fell upon a little canvas utility belt box that I always carried on my backpack, but it had been generally useless. It contained a snakebite kit which had, thankfully, never been opened, some Band-Aids, a spare battery for my Maglite, and a combination whistle with a built-in compass and signal mirror. Picking up the compwhistle, I heard a slight rattle inside. The contraption unscrewed to expose an inner compartment, and in this hidden compartment was one single stick match. Why just one match inside? I don't recall ever using the compwhistle, nor do I recall ever putting matches in it, but perhaps one of my camping buddies did.
This one match stood between thoughts of a pleasant day of warm sun, blue skies, singing birds, and babbling brooks, and the perceived reality of freezing my nads off. And it came from inside a compass/whistle/signal mirror/match holder, bought for $2.99 at K-Mart. This opportunity was given to me by chance, and I had but one chance to get this right. Licking my finger and holding it aloft, I checked the wind speed and direction. Looking up, I made sure there was no water dripping from the tree branches into the fireplace. Making sure I was on sound footing so as to not slip and fall with the last burning match in my hand, I squatted down on my haunches in front of the pit. That is certainly a position that can no longer be performed. Re-adjusting some of the rocks to assure a decent airflow without risking too much wind or turbulence, I then took one last observation of the conditions, and unscrewed the compwhistle. The inside cap had a small piece of match striker flint. Sure, it was a Strike Anywhere Ohio Bluetip, but with the wet rocks, I wasn't taking any chances. Leaning ever closer to the fire pit, with the match in my right hand and the striker in the other, I checked my balance, inhaled, and held my breath. Striking the match, an audible snap was followed by a beautiful blue orange flame. Touching the flame to the pine needles at the bottom of the fire pit, they lit immediately with a crackle and wisp of smoke. The match burned almost to my fingers, and I dropped it onto a different part of the unburned needles, doubling the chance of a successful fire start. As the damp needles slowly caught, I carefully held more needles above the flame until they dried and then flared up. The key to successfully starting the fire is to not waste the rising heat of the flame. Heat goes up, not down. Put the twigs and needles where the rising flame will ignite them. Adding small twigs, the flames grew in intensity until the crisscross of sticks constructed earlier finally began to dry and smolder and then burst into flame. In no time at all, the fire was roaring, my body was warmed and dry and all was well with the world.
The moral of this story has to do with proper construction of the fire. If you can't light it with one match, then you probably built it wrong and won't be able to light it with two, or three, or four matches. And if you do manage to get it lit, it probably will not burn well and will require constant attention. I have personally witnessed newbie campers holding a lighter to the end of a log, trying to start a fire without tinder or proper wood placement. A very recent experience had a camper dousing the wood with charcoal lighter. That works, but it's so...city.
This not meant to be a tutorial on starting a proper campfire. I'll leave that to the scouts. But there are few things more frustrating when camping, than watching someone struggle with a smoky, poorly constructed fire. They will fight it for hours, constantly turning logs, smothering the flame, and smoking everyone out in the process. Fire needs three things: Air, fuel, and heat. Heat rises, so have the fuel above the heat source. Fire needs to breathe, so leave a small gap between the logs for air to get in. Make a one-match fire your challenge on your next camping trip. It requires some thought, some planning, but no luck. If you build it right, it will burn right.
I spoke with John recently. More than forty years after that camping trip, he still has that polyester-filled jacket from Korea hanging in his closet.