My Hatchet Is My New Best Friend

CampfireFirst time I said that, I was like, Whoa! What am I? An ax murderer?

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.

Thanks, girl-o.

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 swung.

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.

Camp at Ft. Stevenson


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.


Trail to Big Trees

My brother Robert alerted me to a place he figured Molly and I would like to see: Smith Grove near Cross Ranch State Park. Smith Grove is a wildlife management area, the major attraction being some of the largest and oldest cottonwoods on the Missouri–cottonwoods that witnessed Lewis and Clark on their journey westward.

Yep. Totally needed to see this place.

Molly and I picked a beautiful weekend and traveled several miles of dirt roads to get there. I was humored by the sign just beyond the grassy parking lot:

Sign: Trail to Big Trees

Trail to Big Trees

Need we say more? I’d be honored to shake the hand of whoever penned this.

Molly and I got on the trail with only a vague notion of what we were going to find. I was hoping these would truly be the biggest cottonwoods we’d ever seen and envisioned Molly and me lost in some sort of other-worldly North Dakotan Lothlorien. My expectations demanded nothing less.

The first panorama was promisingly beautiful: A meadow finally turning green after a long winter and a late spring. The relatively small and gnarled trees here were burr oak, on the verge of producing leaves.

Meadow, Smith Grove

The next scene, shortly after we entered the woods, was less promising. The path ended abruptly in a mass of fallen timber and tangled branches. The path vanished beneath the rubble. Not one to be easily dissuaded, I pushed and probed for a route through the obstacle. And then I saw …

Flooded path

The path was flooded. I was stymied. It hadn’t even been raining recently. The surrounding forest floor was dry, but the trail itself was swimming. We had hiked only a few hundred yards, and we had already reached trail’s end. THAT was a let-down.

To one of us. Someone else neglected to see the sorrow in our situation.

Molly wading


Molly wading down a flooded trail

Molly shaking her fur


After the first muddy paw, I figured the rest didn’t matter anymore.

As for the ancient cottonwoods–yes, I did get to see three or four, and yes, they were pretty big. I just didn’t expect to find myself walking on one of them. (Still hopeful I could work my way past the flooded path and find dry land somewhere beyond.)

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from hiking with Molly it’s how to make lemonade out of lemons. Frequently, my forays into the outdoors don’t turn out as planned. But Molly never has a plan. She just makes the best out of whatever happens. Hiking? Wading? Mud bathing? It’s all good!

Muddy dog

Really muddy dog

Bath time

The Day I Drove an Ambulance

Well, my most popular post so far, The Day I Drove a Patrol Car, is almost up to 100 views. And I’m ashamed to say how long it took me to remember another driving opportunity I had with emergency services. Yep. The day I drove an ambulance.

Almost 140 years ago.

It was at Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory, and the year was 1875. Or so a number of people running around in blue wool uniforms and calico dresses seemed to think, and since several of these people were carrying firearms and others were in possession of a cannon, I recommend you agree with whatever they tell ya.

As I’ve mentioned, I do living history at Fort Lincoln State Park, and every summer, several frontier military re-enactment groups get together and bring the place to life with an encampment and demonstrations of all kinds. Cavalry …

7th Cavalry

7th Cavalry

Infantry …

17th Infantry

17th Infantry

Artillery. (I did mention the cannon, right?)

The Cannon

The Cannon

And lots of open-fire cooking and washboard laundry-doing. (And banjo playing. That would be me. Banjoist.)

Then there’s the ambulance. Did you ever stop to wonder what a nineteenth-century ambulance looks like? It looks like a wagon. (Sorry I don’t have a picture. Trust me, it looks just like a wagon. And no, it doesn’t have a light bar or a siren.)

But it does have the best suspension you’ll find anywhere. Which, on rough prairie sod, means you’ll get your backside bruised as bad as if that ambulance had no suspension at all. I’m always baffled when I remember that this was one of the most comfortable forms of transportation in the West.

The ambulance we use at Ft. Lincoln is mighty special. She saw service in the Civil War. That’s right. A real piece of history, bumping and swaying over our Parade Ground and giving rides to tourists. Heck, it’s an honor just to ride in it.

But I drove it.

Never mind I didn’t have a clue how to drive a team of horses. A pair of black and white Belgian/Percheron crosses named Muffin and Darby.

But Private Redding, the driver, had an annoying habit, and maybe he owed me. He always gave free rides to everyone–except me. As soon as I got in the wagon, he’d turn around in the driver’s seat and ask, “You gonna play that banjo?”

“If you want,” I’d say.

“The horses don’t start ’til the music starts,” he’d retort.

In effect, I was the sole individual who had to pay for the privilege of riding the ambulance wagon. Maybe I had a bug under my bonnet (literally).

We were sitting in the wagon, just Private Redding and me and another private, waiting for something to do. Private Redding had gotten off on another one of his long-winded tirades about something he couldn’t change (so he resorted to cussing it out, whatever it was).

I was bored.

And when my mind is bored, it comes up with stupid ideas.

And what the heck. Surely he owed me for all that banjo music.

“Hey,” I said, cutting in as soon as he took a breath. “Could you teach me how to drive the wagon?”

Silence. He stared skyward, chewing his thick black mustache. I envisioned his mouth on the verge of forming the word, “No.”

Finally he patted the wagon bench beside him. “Git up here.”


He showed me how and where to hold the reins and told me to plant my feet good and hard on the iron bar running in front of me. Despite the warning to hang on tight, the horses nearly dragged me right off the bench the moment they started. I thought the pulling action was supposed to go through the trace lines, not me!?

I did all right, so long as I drove in a straight line. For some reason, turning gave me grief. I’d go all wrong, and when I tried to correct it, I’d go even worse. Fortunately, we were in the middle of the wide-open Parade Grounds and not on a road. But I never knew it was possible to almost run over one of your own horses if you took a corner too tight.

Muffin looked over her shoulder, her expression as good as words: “WHO’S DRIVING THIS THING!!!”

Sorry, Muffin.

Private Redding finally took the reins back from me.

Sheepishly, I folded my hands in my lap. “What was I doing wrong?”

The private chewed his mustache again. Finally, he looked at me and replied with Old-West honesty. “I don’t know.”

First Sergeant Johnson caught up with us later. “Hey,” he said, beaming at me,” I saw you driving the wagon! How’d she do?” he asked Private Redding.

“A snake woulda broke its back tryin’ to follow her trail.”

More Old-West honesty.

To my surprise, the next day Private Redding asked if I was going to drive again.

“After how bad I did yesterday?”

He shook his head. “I never said you had to quit.”

I got in the driver’s seat.

This time, Private Redding studied me closely. “You ain’t turnin’ soon enough, that’s what it is. Turn when I say. … Now turn!”

I finally got it right.

That’s not to say I remembered any of his lessons the next summer. Or any summer after that. Don’t get me talking about the fancy black barouche.

The Black Barouche

The Black Barouche

Or the side saddle.

The Side Saddle

The Side Saddle

Different stories for different times. But I can say that I drove a genuine Civil War ambulance wagon.

What experience am I still missing? Hmm. Anybody know where I can find a fire engine?