Where’s there’s smoke … we aren’t

I do hate to go off on rants in the blog, but hey, if you don’t rant once in a while it’s not really a blog is it? I usually confine my moments of exuberance or frustration to relatively benign things like yogurt and recycling, but today’s events gave me the perfect opportunity to talk about something just slightly more controversial: camp fires.

I mentioned in yesterday’s blog that we were being bugged by the smoke from fires in the state park campground. Each of the two evenings we were there—as I was shutting the windows and turning on the air conditioner to escape smoke blowing in—I was thinking that it would be great to get back to the open desert where our nearest neighbor would be hundreds of feet away and we could leave the windows open all night to let in the fresh air of the desert.

Back at Clark Dry Lake, I set up the trailer almost gleefully on a flat spot near Brian and Leigh’s Airstream, and we had a very nice afternoon followed by a great little happy hour with B&L, Kyle and Mary, and some Canadians who were parked off in the distance in a fifth wheel. Bert Gildart dropped in for an hour or so, and it was fantastic to see him again. He and I talked about bicycle trips we would like to do next winter, and also the possibility of someday caravanning up to Alaska.

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Eleanor made dinner, or perhaps more properly re-made it from the numerous leftovers we had, and we ended up with a great smogasbord. We said goodbye to Bert (he left with a plate of food from Eleanor), and then … the folks about 200 feet to the east lit up a fire.

It was just bad luck that the wind was perfect to carry the fumes from their fire directly to our Airstream, where we were sitting with every window open and the fans running. I don’t blame the people who lit the fire; they were perfectly within their rights to do so, and it wasn’t their fault that the wind was aimed at us. But the smoke was unbearable, and here we had no option to close the windows and run the A/C.

After a few minutes of commiseration with Brian and Leigh (who apparently share our dislike of camp fires), we faced the only real choice we had. It was nearly dark. I had to move the trailer or spend the night sucking up the fumes. Already the inside of the Airstream was smelling like a Russian disco.

So we quickly threw everything into semi-towable mode, hitched back up, and gently towed the Airstream across the bumpy desert dirt roads a few hundred feet south to another open patch, safely out of the smoke path. It was almost embarrassing, skulking away in the dusk, even though we had not met the people with the fire. I didn’t want to explain that we were leaving because of them, but I could not escape the irony of our situation, and it made me think.

I have to admit that in the past few years we have stayed at State Parks less than we used to, specifically because of camp fires. Eleanor had a massive migraine triggered by camp fire smoke years ago, and we don’t want to repeat that again. I am not physically affected by it, but I hate smelling it too. It pervades the interior, leaves a scent on everything, and masks the more delicate smells of the desert that gently waft through the air in the night. Sleeping with smoke in the trailer is nearly impossible for me because I keep thinking of fire and feeling that I’m suffocating.

Many times we have come to a state park only to find neighbors who are obsessed with having fire 24 hours a day. They are always the worst at making fires, too. Day and night they dump green or wet wood in a hopeless pile, resulting in a constant stream of black smoke, no heat, and little flame. Sometimes they add to the fun by burning their garbage (thinking they are being ecologically responsible?), which of course releases many interesting toxins from plastics, foils, and metals into the atmosphere.

There is never any hope of negotiating, since for them the constant “fire” is paramount to their enjoyment, almost of religious significance, as if it was essential to life like it was for prehistoric man in that old movie “Quest For Fire.” Take away the fire, and you’ve ruined the experience for them. What’s the point of going “camping” if you can’t roast things on an open flame and come home reeking of wood smoke?

But as I talk to people along the way, I’m finding that our feelings are far from unique. I have never met a full-timer who made camp fires, and many RV’ers never want them. They are a symbol of camping for the weekend set, and I know particularly for tenters that fires provide useful light at night, a little warmth, and a means to cook. The conflict comes between those rugged traditionalists who love them and people like us who don’t need them and avoid them.

No, let me be honest: we hate them. I know it’s Scrooge-like to admit publicly that we dislike something as cheery as the open camp fire, but would a tenter be shy about admitting that they hate big RVs? (I know I certainly wasn’t when we were avid tenters—and then everything changed when we had a child and found that tenting with an infant wasn’t much fun. Opinions change with circumstances, and everyone’s entitled to an opinion.)

Even now, on those occasions about once a year when I break out the tent for a little “real camping” I never make a fire. I never did, having learned low-impact camping in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Camp fires are strongly discouraged, even illegal, out there in the wilderness, because they leave long-lasting scars on the landscape, encourage scrounging of deadwood that serves a useful purpose in the local ecosystem, risk forest fires— and yes, create smoke that is annoying or unhealthy for animals and people alike. Even when tenting, we have always used a portable stove that is much safer, more useful, and simpler than a camp fire. I wish more people would.

The terrible part of this is that our avoidance of camp fires inevitably means we must stay in commercial campgrounds more often, since they typically ban camp fires or don’t provide fire rings at the sites. I regret that. We’d rather be in the open as we are tonight, or in a beautiful and natural state park, if we can. I am not one to call for new rules to fit every circumstance so I stop at wishing for outright bans on camp fires, but it would be nice if there was at least an established etiquette about when and how to have them. In the meantime, we’ve got wheels and we’ll continue to use them.

About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine