Thursday, December 12, 2013
The Smokey Mountains
Meditating in nature requires no ink or paper. I tried, with others, to draw write or read. I did not want to read and could think of nothing to set down yet, so I collected what little firewood I could find.
All the wood was damp.
One of the most bone chilling lines I could remember from the novel Blood Meridian is "They made no fire."
We did not need a fire.
I wanted a fire.
I wanted to make a fire.
I could not sleep out there in the mountains, the forest, on the trail, in the campsite, the tent. I could not sleep when there was still light. I crawled out of the tent with Bailey, Aaron, Carrie, and Claire sleeping or attempting to sleep. Bundled in clothes I calculatingly or haphazardly chose to pack in my backpack, I walked out and around the campsite, not knowing what I was doing yet. I walked around alone and it cleared my head. I had been thinking on my feet the whole day without much to say, taking in where I was: Smokey Mountain National Park: backpacking and camping with friends in one of America's major national parks: not a day trip to Shades State Park outside of Crawfordsville, Indiana: not lounging on the beach of the Indiana dunes on the southern most edge of Lake Michigan. This seemed more serious to take in. Exposure. Hypothermia. Injury or death due misstep and falling. Carnivorous or reactive animal encounters. Forest fires, though very unlikely in this cool and balmy early winter season in December. All the wood was damp. No matter how uneventful this trip could be, I was going to see it as an adventure.
I put on my gloves and grabbed the hatchet, happy to be moving with a purpose.
These stalks that I found caught in the thin branches of young trees or barely rooted with decomposition in the cold wet ground are straw. Hearty straw with strong and rough exterior, but still straw with soft dense cotton-like interior. They remain dry when all the wood is wet, so long as they do not completely touch the ground. They are light enough to be stilted from the wet ground on occasion, but they are not rare. Many stalks of straw fall between the gaps and decompose, start over, usefully return to the earth. A trait that should be praised, but not exploited.
Collect this straw when it is the only thing that is dry. It burns fast, but it might help catch a larger fire. Look at the small trees. Not the stretchy and sappy trees whose insides are green and taste like Wormwood liquor. Look for the branches that are hard and brittle, without sap. Break off these dry limbs and collect them for kindling. Prune the hedges, cut them off with your hatchet. Snap the twigs and collect them to burn when you ought to because you have damp wood to dry and then burn.
Dad collected wood when we were sleeping.
The campsite fire in Smokey Mountain National Park was the second most difficult fire I have ever tried to keep burning. First place goes to the fire the following night at a Kampgrounds of America because it seemed as if it would have been an obvious success: Bought (and dry) firewood, manufactured composite starter log, newspaper (where before we had only sketchbook pages) and other flammable detritus. A campground with damn fine amenities. And still the fire would not stay lit.
Chopping wood in categories: Starters. Igniters. Kindling. Twigs. Sticks. Chopped and split links of wood in various widths, ideally ten to eighteen inches in length. And finally, when there is a safe bed of embers and coals glowing beneath the flames, a log. A log smoldering, emitting light and heat, to stoke and feed with the smaller wood that is quicker to ignite and burn.
Starting a fire is in my blood and upbringing. The house I was raised in was heated, as often as possible, with a wooden fireplace. We had central heating and central air conditioning, but I possess parents and extended family who believe wood fires and open windows an ideal and not arcane choice. Chopping wood was the most cathartic and satisfying chore of my childhood; to me its better than fishing. My parents still rely heavily upon the heat of their wood stove and will never be without a fire pit on their property. Starting a fire is like riding a bike to me; even if I momentarily forget how to do it, I will relearn how through trial and error.
Two of the most difficult fires I've ever tried to start. It was frustrating, I admit, and failing to start a long lasting fire left me feeling defeated for a moment. With that defeat I realized where I was and who I was with again. Friends.
Bailey Mileham, Aaron Bumgarner, Carrie Wing, and Claire Burley. Friends experiencing this camping trip in similar and varying ways. Hiking, ascending, descending, exploring, studying, seeing this foreign, but strangely familiar environment. In the woods, in the mountains. among the powerful rush of rock bedded rivers and the oozing and trickling streams without name or prediction. Land marks where white rolling water falls over rock and moss and bare rooted trees teetering on the precipice of collapse into the valley below. Evidence of animal life in these mountains, both human or otherwise. The ruins of settlements, not ancient, but old, at this time, damp, mossy, blanketed in flora. It felt like a temperate rain forest. Everything was green, brown, blue, gray, a little yellow, a little red, and sometimes almost black, and sometimes almost white. It was an unexpectedly affecting palette. So much green in December with occasionally glorious beams of sunshine. Shafts of natural light breaking though the canopy, warming the ground and our faces.
How good food tastes after you've truly worked for your meal. How delicious water tastes when your body just begins to truly need it, pumped and filtered directly from a cold mountain stream. How satisfying to rest and stretch without a backpack on for just a moment, splashing water on your face and neck, taking a piss. Simple and natural needs met in a way that can only be understood and appreciated in a place such as this.
When things slow down for a moment, we relearn to love the little things. The things we realize are truly very big things. I'm very glad to have relearned this with the beautiful people I was with. If you find yourself in the same situation coming down off of the mountain, let me suggest grabbing a meal at Riverstone Family Restaurant in Townsend, Tennessee. Their food is delicious, and the people friendly and generous.
Aaron C. Molden