I love a campfire. The glow, the scent, the toasty knees. If my whole bag smells like smoke when I get home, I count the trip a success.
Campfires are only bested by the food cooked over a campfire. There's just something about camping food that makes it taste better - perhaps it's tasting the fruits of your own efforts.
Of course, a fire can only cook your food if it's...well...a fire. On the first camping trip I ever took with friends - meaning without my family - I discovered a few things: (1) you're not born knowing how to build a fire, (2) everything's harder when it rains, and (3) in all my joyful camping memories, my dad did all the fire building.
I had carted my friends off to a campground, regaling them with all my happiest camping stories and promising a delightful weekend of roasted hot dogs and marshmallows. I soon discovered, with embarrassment, that I didn't really know how to build a fire. I am 100% sure that at some point in my youth, my dad attempted to teach me. But then, I'm not a baseball star and he tried to teach me that too. Sometimes, you have to be ready to learn (or have even a smidge of eye-hand coordination).
Things have gotten better on the fire front, but I'm still a novice. In larger crowds, I happily hand over the sticks, afraid of disappointing a big group of cold, hungry campers. But when it's just Navah and me, we've got to get down on the ground and make that sucker go.
We alternate - sort of. Even though I'm not a campfire expert, I have a hard time not butting in when Navah's on fire duty. There are tense moments - tee-pee versus log cabin, help from lighter fluid or not, what size log should go on next? It's an anxious process in the beginning. Those first five to ten minutes are the crucial ones for building your heat and coals. After that you can mostly relax (when you're not getting up and moving your chair around to avoid the smoke).
The first night of our Smoky Mountains trip, we got a super fire going. Perfect size, perfect warmth. Navah built an amazing log cabin style frame with little twigs. We made it progressively bigger, fanning and blowing on the coals to encourage the flames. It cooked our delicious hobo packs filled with veggies and ground lamb, and it warmed us through the evening.
But then it rained. A lot. Multiple times. All over our firewood. And the ground, where the little twigs live.
The rain taught us a lesson - never, ever, ever camp without a tarp. Creating a dry space in your campground makes such a big difference for your ability to relax and enjoy the experience.
For the next two evenings, we spent the bulk of the night trying to build the little fire that could. And mostly, they couldn't. The twigs were too wet. The dry firewood we bought was too big and new to do much good. On the first of the wet nights, we managed enough of a fire to roast our hot dogs if we took turns over the one tiny spot with coals and flames, moving the dog around carefully to make sure all portions of it got the heat without touching the sooty logs.
On the second wet night, things started out better. We had new firewood and some smaller pieces for kindling. But the rain started again. I looked out the window of the car while the rain pounded down on our tiny flames. When it let up to just a drizzle, we threw open the doors and ran to the firepit. I squated and blew with all my might to wake up those embers. A little flame might shoot out here or there, but that was all.
Hobo packs were on the menu again, this time with tofu, which turned out to be their saving grace. We made up the packs quickly, determined to get them into what was left of the coals before the whole thing went out. We devised the brilliant plan of lifting the top two logs, putting the hobo packs directly onto the coals, and then lowering the logs back down on top of the packs. Hopefully, the direct heat would be enough to cook them even without a real fire.
Dashed hopes are such a sad thing.
We let them sit there for 10 minutes, but there wasn't even a hint of a sizzle. When we lifted off the logs, they were only slightly warm. I'm not proud of Plan B, but it got us at least to dinner. We pulled down the grate over the fire pit, plopped the hobo packs on top, and Navah nursed the tiny little embers that were left - with lighter fluid. Over and over and over again so that the coals would burst into fire, and we would hear the tell-tale sizzle. And then 20 seconds later, she'd do it again. That went on for 15 minutes.
We figured if they weren't edible now, we just weren't eating. And they were - edible. Mostly, except for the potatoes. We were thankful there was no meat.
The rain had stopped. We ate by lantern light, sitting on garbage bags on the picnic bench seats.
As I finished my last few bites, it occurred to me that we could have just cooked the whole lot of it over our little camp stove, as we had been cooking our grits in the morning.
Perhaps the rain made my brain sloshy. Or perhaps deep down I didn't want to give up on that one last campfire dinner. Tofu never tasted so good.