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Dead and Down

by Joe Hall

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Sometimes the road trip can be as fun as the actual trip by Matt Johnston

Used to be when I thought of camping I thought of campfires. Now when I think of camping, I think of smoke blackened rocks encircling wads of aluminum that someone thought would disappear if thrown into a fire. The pristine glens that I and my fellow hatchet-wielding campers choose for camping spots have been denuded like the country of Haiti. The concept of only using only trees that are dead and down doesn�t seem to be universally known.
I had a solution to the denuding part. When we went backpacking at Panthertown, the Yosemite of North Carolina, I brought two nights worth of firewood, organically grown and harvested only in areas bulldozed by developers. The problem was toting it six miles to our camp spot.
We had a couple of inches of snow down in the Piedmont, so I figured the old logging road we planned to hike would be slick enough to pull a travois over. I got two bamboo poles and lashed sticks of firewood across them just like a picture in The History of the Plains Indian.
When I unloaded this contraption at the trailhead my hiking partners had a good laugh. �You laugh now but when it�s six degrees tonight we�ll see who�s laughing then.�
It was my friends who were laughing then too. Through some vagary of weather, there was only a spit of snow in the mountains. As I drug my load of lumber behind me, the rocky road rattled it to pieces. A stick of firewood fell off every few steps.
When we finally got to camp all I had left was one bamboo pole and a bit of rope. But by golly if we needed to find our way back out all we�d have to do is follow the trail of wood I�d dropped.
At the company I work for you have to use all of your vacation by January of the next year or lose it. Who ever said �A bad day in the woods is better than a good day at work� had never been in the woods with me. It was twenty degrees on the January day I played hooky. The ground was covered with snow. I set up my tent in an old cabin that was now an AT shelter near Roan Mountain. It had a fireplace at one time but that probably hadn�t been safe to use since Daniel Boone roamed there.
Just outside there was plenty of dead and downed wood but it was soaked through. I tried starting a fire using toilet paper, pinecones, one of those sticks you whittle but leave the shavings on. I even tried a trick birthday candle. I got plenty of smoke but no flames. Finally in desperation I poured fuel from my stove on my kindling. Just as the lovely flames got established the wind began to blow. Trying to get some warmth before it blew away, I stood with a boot on each side of the fire ring, squatting over a flame that was bent to the ground; the wind taking its heat before it reached me.
In retrospect, I should have retired to the drafty cabin, boiled some noodles on my camp stove and retired to my tent with a cup of hot tea. I don�t know how cold it got that night. My thermometer had been lost when it was sunny. I ended up packing out in the darkness.
I tried to sneak into my house at two in the morning but the smell of smoke emanating from me woke my wife who thought the house was on fire. We�ve changed that old saying to �Where there�s smoke, there�s an idiot with wet wood.�
I didn�t give up on my idea to bring my own firewood. Car camping at a state park is one way to do this. I lived in a neo-traditional neighborhood where neighbors are neighbors whether you wanted them to be or not. The houses all had front porches and were only a few feet apart. Whoever laid out the camping spaces at state parks had the same concept in mind. Or perhaps they had experience in Refugee Camp Design.
I hit on a solution. Most state parks have a group or wilderness camping area. These are close enough to the parking area to tote your own firewood but you can�t actually see the nose hair of your neighboring campers. The rules for reserving a �wilderness� camping spot are: 1) you have to give them fifteen dollars; and 2) be an organized group with a name.
I go camping with the same group of guys every spring but we are hardly organized. We have individual names for each other, what you might call nicknames, but they are not for public dissemination. My wife, of course, had the solution. �Make a letterhead on the computer that says OGWAN.�
�OGWAN?� I asked.
�Yes, Organized Group With A Name.�
So I did and the park service accepted my money. Now was my moment of triumph. I arrived at the designated parking lot, which was just far enough from the campsite to not be seen. I proudly approached the �wilderness� campsite with a couple of sticks of firewood I had dutifully brought from home. I saw my friend Matt who had arrived earlier. He was sitting on a log. Let me rephrase that. He was sitting on one of about a hundred campfire-sized logs next to a pile of split firewood. As I stared in amazement a forest service truck pulled up and unloaded another pile of split firewood.
Matt said, �Thanks, Bob� to the park employee, then turned to me. �Seems they have a bit of a pine beetle problem here. I offered to help burn any wood they split and delivered to us.�
That night as we sat around Matt�s campfire, I made sure no one threw any foil-lined packets in the fire. But as hot as that blaze was, it probably would have vaporized cobalt.

About the Author

Joe Hall builds houses in Horse Shoe, North Carolina. He has five kids, three dogs, two cats and an indulgent wife.


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