Sunday, February 21, 2010


It was one of my best ever. A roaring campfire under the desert sky. An unexpected gift of the universe.

When I pulled into the deserted campground there it was waiting for me at my favorite campsite – a huge pile of split oak and busted-up hardwood pallets, dry and ready to burn, left by the last campers.

I had camped there many times; Site A-6 overlooks miles of high desert wilderness of Lava Beds National Monument. Coyotes yip in the night; mule deer wander through mornings. The night sky is alive with cosmic wonders.

A year ago on almost the same February date I camped on the same spot. I had pulled in after dark to an empty campground. Bitterly cold and covered with snow. No firewood then. I decided that sleeping in my car would be warmer than on the ground in a tent.

As I finished my soup the neighbors showed up. Reminding me of Clark Griswold’s hillbilly relatives (Eddie & family in Chevy Chase’s “Christmas Vacation”), they spent the next hour hauling tents and clanging pots and pans from a ratty truck to their chosen campsite – just 50 feet from my car despite their having had the entire campground to pick from. They started a big campfire and had a good time.

Sociable I was not. I gave up sleeping in the car and set up my tent as far from the noisy neighbors as possible, wrapping myself in two sleeping bags and pulling in my head like a frigid turtle. Next-door the party went on.

A year later. No other campers. And this gift of a desert bonfire. Penance by the universe?

After exhausting that lofty question I toyed with the idea of trying to melt my empty wine bottle in the ghastly hot fire. That’s what Craig and I tried to do at my last really big campfire a few years ago. It was his idea. He said that mesquite wood burned so hot it would melt glass. So we built one hell of a fire out there in the desert north of Tucson, burning mesquite, creosote and slats from skeletons of dead saguaro cactus. We drank a lot of wine.

Our empty bottles did kind of melt after a fashion, having roasted all night in the mesquite coals. So what? Exactly what we said in the cold sober morning. We drenched the mesquite coals in water, threw the distended wine bottles in the trash and went on to the rest of our lives, Craig’s shorter, mine longer.

It brought me to that campfire in the Northern California desert, burning chunks of oak from who knows where. On my second night I still had enough wood for another campfire that attracted my new neighbors, Judy and Arthur from northern Alberta. They might have been Clark Griswold’s polite Canadian relatives, arriving quietly in a pickup with a modest camper on the back. Soon out of the dark came a greeting. “Would you mind sharing your fire? Or maybe you like being alone?” asked the 40-ish woman. I confessed that I did like being alone, but “come on in.” I offered them some of the syrah I was drinking and Judy poured herself a small serving in a red plastic cup I pulled out of my box marked “kitchen.” Arthur doesn’t drink, she said.
“Sorry I can’t offer you chairs, but I’ve only got the one,” I said. No, they were happy to stand, their faces glowing in the campfire light.

Judy and Arthur were from Hythe, a dot on the map near Grande Prairie, they said, though that didn’t really help me place it. Growing canola is a big thing there. “For the oil?” I asked, because I couldn’t think of anything else to say. Hythe is 700 miles north of northern Montana, which means it must be ungodly cold and nasty in the winter. Which is precisely why Judy and Arthur weren’t there, of course. Since December they had traveled south as far as Yuma, even venturing one day into Mexicali, amazed at the long wait to return to the U.S.

Arthur said that with Americans the first thing they brought up were strong political opinions and try to convince you of them. “But you don’t seem a typical American,” he suggested. I conceded that was probably so but I didn’t tell him that I was born on the Fourth of July. I asked him if most of his encounters were right-wing or left-wing opinions. Of course most were right-wing. Snowbirds in the Southwest – what else? “Americans are assholes,” I said, as if that somehow explained something.

We did agree that Yuma had few qualities to brag about. Except, apparently, grapefruits. Arthur told me about the incredible grapefruits that someone in Yuma had picked from his tree and given them. When they were gone they bought some more in the same area but they didn’t taste nearly as good. From that I learned that Judy and Arthur grow carrots on a quarter section of their land. “That’s a lot of carrots,” I said. Arthur agreed but said the taste of no other carrots could compare. They turn most of their carrots into juice that they use and share with family and friends. “That’s a lot of carrot juice,” I thought but didn’t say.

I felt like the local expert, telling them about places to go and things to see. I explained how the lava caves had formed (I had read the brochure), the exterior of the flowing lava cooling first like a giant paper towel tube while the tail-end of the lava flushed through. Arthur was anxious to explore the caves; Judy, not so much, being claustrophobic, like me.

I’m a big fan, just not of the park’s caves. That day I had stood by my car and watched bald eagles scattered across a new-mown hay field, finding orphaned mice and such, I suppose. I stopped counting at 25 eagles. The year before that same field in the national wildlife refuge had been flooded and held thousands of white swans singing ancient songs. I recorded them on my cell phone and (until that phone died) that’s the music I heard when my wife called me.

Judy and Arthur were curious about my bird watching passion. I said that it was a bit like collecting – keeping lists of the different species seen, by year, by state, by backyard, by lifetime. “You need good optics to enjoy it – spend $200-300 for binoculars.” I told them about the immense flocks of ducks, geese and swans that spend the winter in nearby refuges and gave them an extra map I happened to have for the local wildlife refuges. They said a pair of swans nest on their northern Canada property and I thought they might be among the tundra swans wintering right here. But no, the swans on their property are trumpeter swans, they said. That is a far rarer and larger bird.

I told them of my encounter last year with noisy neighbors and my theory of the firewood being penance by the universe for my awful experience. It was clear by then that Arthur was a man of religious conviction; I could hear the prairie Mennonite roots in his conversation. “Yes, everything has a purpose,” he said. “For example, the purpose of this fire might have been to warm you. Or to warm us.” I said, “I just made it to create something beautiful.”

Arthur mentioned that while they had stayed in Palm Desert they attended a “bible prophecy conference.” I offered that they certainly seemed open to a variety of experiences and Judy readily agreed, naming examples of “going whatever direction the truck is pointed.” They seemed particularly amused at having navigated ten miles of a rutted road near Parker, Arizona, to reach a notorious bar “just for the experience.” The road was so bad they had to walk the last mile. “I went up to one pickup going by us to ask for a ride and the woman just rolled up her window and kept going,” said Judy. I suggested that in that part of the world she could just have easily been met with the barrel of a gun. It seemed to fit the spirit of their story. But Judy and Arthur didn’t have much else to say about the notorious bar.

I know Parker to be a miserable little collection of trailer parks, existing only because the government built Parker Dam on the Colorado River to create Lake Havasu and pump its water to L.A. I figured my wife, who partied in Parker when young and whose departed lunatic mother once had been married to a Hell’s Angel, would know the bar. And it later turned out that she did, indeed, remember it, or at least a biker bar of similar locale and renown. But that’s another story.

Judy excused herself to go make supper; Arthur was in no hurry.

“So what about the bible prophecy conference,” soon-to-be-sorry I asked. It was as if Arthur had channeled my dead father, an evangelical minister who fancied himself a biblical prophecy expert. Among my literary inheritance: “Revelation Made Plain,” “Palestine and the Jew Today in the Light of Prophecy” (8th edition of 1939, available for 25 cents from Fundamental Truth Publishers, Findlay, Ohio), and my favorite, “The Future of Japan in the Light of Biblical Prophecy.” Written Sept. 8, 1945, its forward prophesizes:

Probably no one can fully anticipate all the cunning maneuvers that the wily Jap leaders may perpetrate in the months ahead. But the important thing to note is that, whatever they do, the ultimate purpose is to advance the long-range program of unifying Asia for another assault upon the white man.
Arthur didn’t mention Asia as he told me about the bible prophecy conference in Palm Desert, although I can’t be positive since I kind of zoned out after a while. Something about Ezekiel 38. I perked up when he mentioned meeting “Ask the Rabbi.” Apparently, you just go up and ask the Ask the Rabbi anything you want. I’m not sure if he’s in a little booth, on a street corner or where. “So what did you ask him?” I said. Arthur recited some esoteric question about the family of an Old Testament character. “Wasn’t he impressed with your question?” I asked, certainly impressed myself. “No, everyone there had good questions,” Arthur said.

If Ask the Rabbi had been there at the campfire I would have asked him why I had been blessed with the free firewood. But he wasn’t. I’m still trying to come up with a good question in case I ever actually do run into Ask the Rabbi. You never know.

We stared at the stars for a while. Arthur pointed out the North Star like he was introducing me to his old friend. We spotted a planet high above. It was an excuse to get out my bird spotting scope. I couldn’t see any rings (not Saturn) or a string of moons (not Jupiter). It was too high in the sky for Venus. It had to be Mars.

I swung the scope to the glowing, gassy nebulae in Orion’s sword. I think Arthur was pleased. Although it’s not like the pictures you see from the Hubble Telescope, you’re seeing it in person. Between the cosmological mysteries in the sky, the geological stories under us, and our own epistemological lives to reflect upon, there was plenty for two strangers at a campfire to talk about.

Arthur is an IT expert, although I never figured out how he made any money at it. He had strong political opinions about Facebook vs. Buzz, “open source software” vs. Bill Gates, Google vs. Wikipedia, and so on. He seemed pretty paranoid about privacy on the Internet. A guy from Hythe, Alberta who grows carrots. Go figure. “Arthur,” I said, “personally, I just don’t care. Anyone wants to pay attention to the art I create of my life is free to do it.” Still, I’ve got to figure that Arthur won’t be too thrilled to read about himself here.

The next morning I met Judy and Arthur as I was pulling out of the campground. I shut off the engine and we chatted about destinations. I was off to hike in the Lava Beds wilderness.

It is a spare desert, especially in winter, but a glorious landscape, nonetheless. There are contrasts in black and white: miles of black lava flows against the icy-white of distant Mt. Shasta; vees accenting the intense blue heaven are black wings on white snow geese. Yet there are lime-green things growing on silver bark of juniper trees, stunted and gnarled atop mile-high mountains; Halloween-orange lichen growing on lava; and a riot of color on the waters of nearby Tule Lake: goldeneyes, buffleheads, canvasback ducks, wigeon (American and a few Eurasian), shovelers, gadwall, ruddy ducks, Canada geese, white-fronted geese, pintails, mallards, ring-necked ducks, mergansers, grebes. And clouds of snow geese.
Judy and Arthur were headed for Hood River (Oregon) and Judy’s sister (a glass artist, I had learned the night before) after exploring the park’s caves and unless something else caught their fancy. They are like their wandering trumpeter swans. Unusual birds. Wintering in the south but thinking about, slowly pulled every Spring back to the Far North.

Arthur and I exchanged email addresses. The last thing I said to him was, “See you online.” You know, I’ve never said that to anyone before. Weird, eh? Our virtual campfire.

1 comment:

  1. Hello:
    I received your letter and was happy to hear from you, I have always remembered the
    students of your era and enjoyed teaching as well as learning.I have bee retired since the middle eighties.I wished to pursue my hobby of old and rare books to the point of setting up a business. We did Book Shows and sold by mail for several years. I still maintain sales with Amazon. Barnes and Noble, ABE and other outlooks.My wife passed away a year ago after 50 years, that has slowed me down in sales,but I am beginning to get back to doing The Lansing Book Show. Mail Order each day keeps me Active.I have always looked for obsure historical items and wish I had the Stamina to continue.I have always appreciated American History and have looked for interesting items.I am slower and not as agressive now in pursuit but still appreciate Historical documents and books of the past. I have been slowly selling items because of the fact that I am trying to downsize. We moved to a Condo with a large walk out basement and I have about 16000 volumes.It keeps me busy but it gives me something to do.I sell but I gain no room.
    Thank you for the letter. It was a joy.I miss teaching but am glad I am not teaching now.
    I tried e mailing and it didn't go,
    my email is