Last year, instead of doing the easy (and logical) thing and buying any one of the dozens of camp stoves available at Walmart, I went all nostalgic and decided to master the art of cooking over an open fire.
Yeah. That went well. It once took me a ream of paper, a million fire starters, and two bundles of wood before I got a flame that would hold its own. And then it decided to become some sort of blazing inferno–way more of a fire than I needed to warm up dinner.
I was ready to give up on nostalgia and buy one of those fancy little propane grills when I ran across the book that saved my life: The Complete Book of Fire by Buck Tilton. For cooking, I learned, you want to use small sticks and build up a small but hot bed of coals.
Small sticks? Then why do all the parks and gas stations sell you nothing but big, honkin’ logs? Had the word “kindling” never crossed their minds?
Hence I bought a hatchet.
I didn’t get a chance to do anything with it last year, other than get it sharpened and take a few practice swings in the back yard. The first time I brought it on a real camping trip was over Memorial Day weekend when Molly and I went to Fort Stevenson State Park.
I picked up a bundle of firewood from the campground host and brought it back to my campsite. Dropped it down next to the fire ring. Unsheathed The Hatchet. (Okay, it doesn’t have a sheath. I need to get it one. I’m always afraid Molly or Juliean will have a run-in with the business end.)
Lacking a chopping block, I set the first log on end on the ground and knelt in front of it. I felt more than a little self-conscious. I’d never seen (or heard) any other campers using a hatchet. Their campfires appeared to spring out of nowhere, as if they’d dropped a match on a log, then pulled up a camp chair and started roasting marshmallows.
What the heck. So long as I looked like I knew what I was doing, it didn’t matter. Why, gee, I chop my own kindling all the time!
Only I hadn’t swung that hatchet since last year. And that time, I had a chopping block to snag the ax head in case I missed the log I was aiming for.
Kneeling in the grass in front of my inaugural piece of firewood, I was keenly aware of how small my target was and how much more vulnerable my thighs felt by comparison. Not to mention how hard it would be to jump out of the way of my own stroke from a kneeling position.
I envisioned a park ranger leaning over me and telling me everything was gonna be okay, the ambulance was on its way–and secretly wondering what the dickens this girl thought she was doing with a hatchet.
Molly, at least, was staked out at a safe distance. She’d be out of the way when the EMTs arrived.
I took a few practice swings, like a golfer lining up his shot, then put some muscle and momentum into my stroke and went for the real thing.
The hatchet thudded into the end of the log and got stuck, embedded a puny half-inch.
I was suddenly glad I’d brought something I could eat cold for dinner.
My next stroke missed the log entirely.
Try hitting the log, Molly suggested.
After several more failed attempts, I drew one comforting conclusion: I wasn’t going to amputate my leg. While I missed the log (which was taunting me) as often as I hit it (knocking it over), my arm reflexively swung the hatchet wide to the right long before it could ever connect with my leg.
With that emboldening knowledge, I set the toppled log on end again. Lined up my stroke. Imagined that the hatchet and the log were one and would meet each other as if by their own will. Banished any fear of doing damage to myself. Instead envisioned the hatchet traveling down the full length of the log like a thunderbolt and embedding itself deep in the dirt.
I also briefly considered delivering a war cry.
The log split neatly in two.
See? Molly said. Just hit the log.
Of course, after that I felt pretty much invincible. Well, three particularly hard-wooded logs proved I wasn’t. But once I started hitting smaller and smaller targets–and bracing the littlest pieces between other logs and hitting even smaller targets–I figured I was doing all right.
That night as the sun went down, I kindled my fire–yes, with kindling–and it progressed easily from paper to my smallest chips to the larger splinters to all the little sticks I’d made, and finally those darn hard woods that had resisted my hatchet but now fell prey to my fire. (Mwa-ha-ha-ha.)
I pulled up my camp chair, petting Molly as she fell asleep beside me. As I enjoyed my little blaze, I certainly didn’t care any more whether using a hatchet was somehow “cheating.” We listened to the fire snapping and saw the eerie glow it made on the underside of the tree hanging over our campsite and watched the stars come out. The Big Dipper and Polaris and millions more than you would ever see in town.
The next morning, I woke up to the sound of one of my neighbors hacking firewood with a power saw. Ha! Okay. I definitely wasn’t cheating.
Pawnotes from Molly
My girl is dangerous. First she attacks dead trees with a funny hammer, then she builds a fire and expects me to sit next to it. The flames got a little too big on her once and sparks started drifting all over the place. I thought she was gonna light the tent on fire and decided to hide behind her camp chair.
When she got her campfire back on good behavior, she convinced me to come out of hiding, and I fell asleep beside her.
I guess I’m not picky where I sleep, so long as my girl is nearby.