I have been thinking about campfires lately. Maybe it is because summer is calling and we all want to be outside. Or it could be that I have been watching, “A Week Away”, on Netflix too much.
Whatever the reason, the draw of a campfire is undeniable.
From the start, I want to set apart campfires from bonfires. Bonfires are campfires that are misbehaving. Bonfires know no boundaries. The campfire is a responsible student that will get its homework done without being reminded. Bonfires will take the car without permission, stay out past curfew, leave fast food trash in the back seat, and not feel the least pang of guilt about returning the car with the gas tank empty as they walk past their unopened textbooks. Bonfires are Goofus, campfires are Gallant.
A bonfire has many purposes. It can be used for burning trash, making signals, or entertaining. Bonfires can be defined as any fire built in the open.
A campfire on the other hand is an outdoor fire for warmth or cooking. It is also defined as the gathering around the fire. And gatherings are what we could use right about now.
I grew up enjoying the outdoors but was always a coward about attending camps. Church retreats were safer. They involved groups of people that you already knew, with the opportunity to get to know them better. I have performed at many talent shows at my church’s getaways. Folks of all ages seek serenity in summertime.
My guess is that after the end of a long day of trying to survive, our ancestors sat around the campfire. There was no daylight left, so their activities were limited. They had to slow down. Food would be cooked over a shared fire. They would gather together to warm themselves and protect each other from wild animals. There is much talk about going back to sitting around the dinner table as a family. What we forget is the even older-fashioned idea of circling as a community around a campfire.
There is a forced intimacy to campfires. Much like theatre in the round, one is more or less forced to take in the person sitting across from them. The height and brightness of the campfire may limit one’s view of others. Yet all share the feeling of being exposed to those nearby who are, just like them, sitting on the logs or flattened stones.
In the movies it plays out much the same. True Grit and Seabiscuit feature cowboys sitting around talking business, plans, and horses. Pitch Perfect 2 and A Week Away show people sharing what is on their hearts and spontaneously singing heartfelt songs in breathtakingly simple arrangements.
(Bonfires do not end as well. College movies feature bonfires. Horror movies feature bonfires. Are you a cute little coed about to be seduced by a sketchy frat guy? Bonfire. Trying to get warm before an axe murderer comes out of the woods and attacks? Bonfire. “Hey, let’s dance in scanty clothing and hope the police don’t show up.” Bonfires; not for the faint of heart.)
Campfires are the great equalizer. No one can get too close to the fire without getting burned. Everyone’s skin turns some shade of orange. We are all at nature’s mercy.
One cannot talk about campfires without talking about camps. I really should have gone more. I think I signed up for one camp and had my parents turn around and take me home within hours of being dropped off. I was too scared to face a week without family members. I was a wimpy kid.
Now though, it sounds intriguing. Especially when thinking of teenage camps. Ah, the possibilities. At one camp a cabin full of teenage guys attempted to surprise the girls’ cabin. (I qualify it as an “attempt” because it is almost impossible to get a group of boys to keep quiet when plotting an incursion. Also, come now. These are teenage girls. They had to know the boys would make at least one mighty effort.) I was never caught because I went back to my cabin while they stayed out having a grand time. I did not become a camp fan overnight.
Camp is often high school in fast forward. The lovers only have a week to fall for each other. If they come from the same area, shared school, or shared church, they have to spend a day or two getting over their preconceived notions of the other and then try to hide their new affection for the other party from their common friends. If they are strangers, they have to find ways to engage the other person while being constantly distracted by new friends, a barrage of activities; all while plotting one on one time in a canoe with that beguiling person.
Arrive at camp on a Monday. Get settled in. Take in your surroundings. By Tuesday, you cannot take your eyes off that person across the mess hall. Tuesday afternoon you might actually strike up a conversation. Wednesday you do your best to get them alone so you two can talk by the side of the lake as your friends distract the other’s friends. (Which is fine, because they should be quite happy to flirt with the other’s friends too. Understand if your pals prefer to throw water balloons at them or teepee their cabin instead. Be flexible.)
Thursday consists of swooning and trying to kiss whenever possible. You sit next to them at the farewell campfire and dread what Friday will bring. Then you say your goodbyes.
In the heartwarming ending, it turns out that both campers live next to each other and they can delight in the life of intertwined fingers, dramatic gazes in the hallways, and constant ribbing from respective groups of friends and peers that, “can’t believe how much you’ve changed, man!”
For the more Shakespeare-inclined, there is the tragedy ending as well. Where he admits that he has a girlfriend back home and if things were different… Where she wants to see him, but knows her lack of driver’s license will make the fifteen miles between them a devastating dead end.
Let us not forget the dangers as well. The added thrill of possibly drowning from a faulty flotation device. (We have all seen how sketchy those things look after a few summers, right?) Or getting struck by an arrow not of Cupid’s sending. (Assuming one comes across that rare camp kid that can learn how to fire said arrow past the target.) Then there are the camp counselors that have decided there will be no shenanigans on their watch. (Bringing down those stodgy supervisors is half the fun. What is love without an obstacle to overcome?)
Yet, generation after generation, we keep trying. How can you resist when that certain someone is basked in the softening glow of firelight? The swimsuits, the shorts; the opportunity to see how they react to persistent spiderwebs? It is almost worth enduring the sketchy restrooms. (Speaking of spiders…)
Yes, I am a fan of campfires. In my experience, campfires burn away the everyday nonsense. In the morning the thoughts that struck a chord still remain.
We go home to our microwaves, our computers, and our fireplaces that serve purely decorative functions. Hopefully we leave with fantastic memories. Not only of critters that we had never before seen in real life, but also the insights obtained from those around us.
When we sit around the campfire, things makes sense. The busy life we get so caught up in slows down. Fire crackles louder than phones chime. (And God bless any campsite that has no reception.) Logs slowly dissolve and break down like the barriers we have put up around us.
We have small conversations as we ask someone to walk back to the cabins with us because we forgot our flashlight. We do not want to sit downwind of the smoke, so we share a log with a stranger and chat between s’mores. We learn that for all the warmth we feel from people sharing and partaking in old traditions, we still need a jacket over our tank top when the sun goes down.
Camp romances are fun to watch and engage in. Many relish more time on the beach or in the sun. Canoeing, arts and crafts; those are all dandy. Yet for me, it is the campfire moments that smolder for years after.