My affiliation with the Boy Scouts of America was short-lived. For a number of reasons, Troop 81 of Novato, CA had a hard time holding my interest. I bailed about a year into the program, well before I had achieved any level of proficiency in some basic elements of campcraft. Years later (around the time I was at OSU), I developed a deep appreciation for hiking, backpacking and alpine climbing. In the years that followed, I found a partner in Jody and pursued backcounty adventure at every opportunity. Together we learned map and compass navigation, backcounty cookery, winter travel, and any number of skills that we’ve deployed from Wyoming to Patagonia, New Zealand to the Dry Tortugas. And right here, in the mountains and along the coastline of our Golden State, we’ve had more adventures than we can remember.
Back in 2003, we created SierraSoul to document our wanderings and help educate others about backcountry travel. We’ve written articles on trip planning, snow camping, and first aid. We have a spreadsheet that helps you calculate the optimal caloric density for backpacking food and a half-written article about thermodynamics and heat transfer as it applies to backcountry travel. Despite this hard-won knowledge, I had always held on to one deep, dark secret: I couldn’t start a campfire to save my life. It is shameful, embarrassing and difficult to explain. I simply never learned how to do it. I think I hit rock bottom in New Zealand, on our second night along the Routeburn Track. We were staying in a hut with a pot-belly stove. The caretaker had stocked the hut with ample firewood, kindling, newspaper and (no kidding) a bucket of coal. And still I failed to start a fire. It was Thanksgiving.
Fast forward five years. Our backpacking calendar has slowed down considerably. Our nights outside are focused on the family, and we’re usually just a stone’s throw from the car. Autumn and Carson are becoming capable campers, having braved the wilds of Death Valley, the Sierra Nevada, the Marin Headlands and Grandpa’s backyard. Carson will climb anything in sight and is usually covered in dirt within minutes of our arrival. Autumn divides her time between woodland dance routines and reminding Mom & Dad that we get to roast marshmallows after dinner. Which brings us full circle…back to the campfire.
In early July, we took a week for a low-key vacation. Our plan was a few nights at Grandpa’s house and wandering trip through the Sierra, camping along the way. After a quick drive to Twain Harte and a night to decompress, we headed east along 108 and found a great little campsite off Eagle Meadow Road. We are still in dispersed camping mode, and likely will be until we civilize these savage beasts. What it lacks in convenience, it more than makes up for in solitude and guilt-free nights. We had pine trees, we had granite, and we had a big damn fire ring waiting to be used. After setting up camp, I put Autumn to task picking up the small, dry twigs we would use to prime that evening’s fire. With a hot meal in our bellies, we set the stage – more twiggy fuel, some dry pine needles, matches, kindling, firewood. I thought through the instructional pep talk that an Eagle Scout friend gave me a few years back. I buried my past failures, lit a single match and started our campfire. A s’more never tasted so sweet.
We eased our way back to Twain Harte to knock the dust off the children, celebrate the Fourth of July and catch some restful sleep in a comfy bed. But we wanted one more night under the stars before returning home to foggy nights in SF. This time we headed further up 108, near the top of Sonora Pass. We found a great campsite at about 9,200′ with beautiful High Sierra views. Autumn and Carson had a blast just playing in the dirt, climbing (and falling off) everything in sight. I found success by the fire ring for a second time. I won’t call it a comeback, but the progress feels good.
A chilly night led to a slow morning. But at least it was a slow morning filled with bacon and eggs. While the kids collected some last minute dirt under their nails, we broke camp and then headed down the hill. We didn’t quite get the four nights of camping we planned for, but two nights is nice. I’ll take two nights in the Sierra with this crew any time.