Just for Grins: The truth about campfires

John Kerr is a former educator and a columnist for the Hill Country Community Journal.

I was flipping through my favorite outdoor catalogue the other evening, and noticed a picture in the camping section that gave me pause. The photo showcased the latest and greatest tent that had been pitched by a family. The tent wasn’t what caught my eye, but rather the models settled comfortably in folding chairs in a semi-circle. I quickly deduced that the whole scene was a staged photo op.

Dressed in clean and fresh camping attire, the fake family was laughing, enjoying themselves, and having a good time. Of course, the biggest clue that the whole act was theatrical was not the family, but the campfire in the middle. No family in the history of camping has ever sat comfortably around a campfire and actually had a good time.

As a former camp director and an outdoorsman with decades of experience in the industry, I have become a student of the true campfire, its nature, and its impact on American culture. The imagined campfire is one of the country’s most iconic scenes. Even Norman Rockwell’s paintings on the Saturday Evening Post helped to cultivate the image. It might be a group of Boy Scouts or a family out on a camping trip, but the theme is the same. In the middle of the scene is the perfect modest fire. There might be a story-teller spinning a gripping tall tale, or possibly someone has a guitar, and the little group of campers are absorbed in an enchanting song while staring mesmerized at the dancing flames. In the background, another character is bringing in an armload of straight-cut firewood, and a pot of stew hangs from a crossbar over a bed of glowing coals. There is no wind in the imagined campfire, and therefore the smoke from the fire is gently rising straight up.

Now, wake up from your dream, people. The problem here is that the imagined campfire is just that. The true campfire never works out that way. If you don’t believe me, just go out this evening and find a campfire. Heck, the Hill Country has got to be a leader in state regions for numbers of campfires, so finding one shouldn’t take too long. The first thing you will notice is that there is much more chaos than the imagined fire. The fire itself won’t be modest, but rather it will be one of two possibilities. Either it is so small that it barely registers as a flame, and about to go out for the seventh time, or it will be a towering inferno that no one can get close to without serious injury. You may hear a conversation, but it will be something like, “Billy, what are you doing?”

“I’m adding another log to the fire. Why?”

“Well because, Billy, the flames are already 10 feet high.”

No one is sitting comfortably mesmerized by the flames as they are in an imagined campfire. Rather, they are involved in mischievous activity adding tension to the parents’ already frayed nerves. If the kids are under the age of 12, they are doing what kids are supposed to do around fires - they find a stick and poke the embers causing sparks and parents to dance around in the sky. If the kids are over 12, they feel the responsibility of keeping the fire alive, and so they feed it enough logs that the flames can be seen by airline pilots 30,000 feet in the air. About three times a minute, the whole group must shift their position because the irritating smoke keeps changing direction and going into everyone’s eyes.

The patriarch of this little scene is not smiling or laughing, and he certainly isn’t having a good time unless he’s into his third adult beverage. The reason for this is that it has taken him roughly an hour and a half, a box full of matches, a lighter, three newspapers, and a WWII flame thrower to get the fire lit in the first place.

Maybe you were in the Boy Scouts, and maybe you even attained the rank of “Eagle Scout,” which is an admirable achievement. Eagle Scouts have spent many hours of effort and challenge in the outdoors to earn this deserved station, and I’m not knocking their accomplishment in the least. However, since being “honest” is a core value for the Scouts, let’s let everyone in on a secret - you never started a fire with your flint and steel set, did you? Well, of course not. Flint and steel fires are a lie started by mountain men which is why they’re all extinct. They all froze to death in the mountains because they couldn’t start a fire.

If you happen to be reading this, and have become depressed by my sarcasm on the truth about campfires, don’t let it bother you. Maybe you are actually on a camping trip with your family, and this article has embroiled you to the point where you are flat going to prove me wrong this very night. I say, go for it. After all, it is the experience that folks remember, and there is the chance that you might be the first family to actually enjoy a campfire. This is America, folks, and anything is possible. Just don’t mind the guy out in the dark laughing.

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