Circle of fire

The sound of a Coleman two-burner gas camp stove occupies a cherished spot in my memory. Similarly the sound of a Coleman gas lantern. When I think of the sound, that deep hiss, I see the beautiful blue flame circle under the aluminum coffee percolator in my mind, or I see the nighttime campsite bathed in storied, primeval gaslight that pushes the shadows beyond the trunks of pines and Douglas firs and Western red cedars to sulk in the salal and Oregon grape and huckleberry of the underbrush, a light that dims the stars and quiets the moon but goes completely out when someone passes in front of it, the shadow of their head sweeping the tent wall and the near sides of the trees.

Remember, Dad, only you can prevent forest fires. Ahh, the hiss of the burners and the smell of canvas and pine needles...

I have not done much camping in my adult life, which is surprising given the large role that camping played in my family when I was growing up. We camped around Washington with friends and family just for the sake of camping, and we camped both times we had to cross the country, when my dad took a job in North Carolina and moved us to Winston Salem in 1973, then back to Seattle a year later after the company’s paychecks started to bounce. And once we camped with some friends on Lopez Island where we saw a manta ray swimming right under our noses while we fished off a dock and we didn’t want to go home and cried heaving sobs when the ferry pulled away from the island.

For our trip to Yellowstone National Park when we kids were very young, my dad rigged his work van (he built houses) with a bench seat so we didn’t have to bounce around in the back like sacks of potatoes. We had an old musty tent that I remember as being army green and heavy. Later we towed one of those low single-axle pop-open tent trailers behind the Impala. We took it to San Diego to visit my Uncle Ben and Aunt Muriel. My grandmother, who was in her eighties, insisted on going along on that trip. It seems strange, now that I think back on it, the picture of such an old lady stepping up into and down from this rickety outfit and bedding down in one of those big, square, quilted, flannel-lined (Coleman again) sleeping bags, but Granny, as she wanted to be called, had come close to being born in a Conestoga wagon when she entered this life in 1889, so the tent trailer probably didn’t seem to her like the odd contraption we kids thought it was.

Kamping our way akross the U.S.A., probably on our way back home to Seattle, 1974. Mom and Dad enjoy a meal al fresco.

It was probably for our trip across the country that we got a new tent that accommodated our family of five. KOA sites (Kampgrounds of America) had arisen all along the nation’s highways by then, and we made good use of them. They were spartan a little depressing in hindsight, but we kids loved them. You basically drove into a large flat meadow, like a rural airfield, with an office near the road and rows of gravel driveways jutting off of a loop. Often there were no trees and the neighboring property was a tractor sales lot or a granary. Water and electric hookups were available at some or all sites for campers and trailers. Kids ran wild through the place. None of the KOAs we stayed at strike me in my memory as “destinations” you’d make a point of going to, like a state park, although I suppose many of them were strategically located near high-profile destinations such as Devil’s Tower in Wyoming and the Mt. Rushmore monument and the Crazy Horse memorial and the Corn Palace in South Dakota, all of which we visited. Built to capitalize on the growing numbers of families who needed a cheap, convenient, site where they could pull the wagon over on their way from here to there, KOA was a recognizable brand, a safe bet.

A trip to Canada, circa 1978. That's my little brother, Ben, who is now sixteen axe-handles across. Mom, Dad and Jeni are leaning against the car.

When we kids were in our teens, our folks bought a camping space we came to call “the Lot” in Phase 2 of Lake Conner Park, a private camping “club” that was set among 300 acres of forest east of Lake Stevens, not far outside of Everett, a city just a few clicks north of Seattle. You basically bought a patch of forest like you would a condo. You could improve it in certain ways — a deck or patio for your camper, a shed for tiki torches and chairs and other camp gear — but not in other ways. I was thrilled at first and wanted to go there often, but I soon hit that age when it didn’t seem very cool to be camping in such a tame environment. When I got my driver’s license I took one or two friends there a few times, but eventually we found ourselves not using the Lot, and my folks sold it.

Mom and Dad at Lake Conner Park, circa 1982.

After that, my family didn’t camp at all. Mom had never been frightfully keen, though she gamely suffered all those nights on hard ground over the years so that we kids could have the wonderful experience that camping is, and honestly I never knew that she’d rather have stayed home. I never really thought about it until now, but for Dad, it seems that it was all about being with his kids, so when I became a teenager more interested in camping with friends, and my younger brother Ben joined the Sea Cadets and was gone a lot during summer, and my older sister Jeni got married at age 20, there was no more point to any of it for Dad. He certainly wasn’t going to go camping by himself. Our sleeping bags grew musty in the shed in the back yard.

On Ross Lake, mid-1980s. Jeff and the Old Fisherman.

For five years during high school and college I joined Jeff and his dad Vance for the annual Ross Lake trip of which I’ve written before, but after that I became a day hiker, and I have never owned my own tent or stove.

Last year I made plans for our first family camping trip and started buying gear, but Emilia came into our lives at midsummer and I gladly cancelled the two nights’ reservations I’d made at Moran State Park on Orcas Island.

This year Angela couldn’t see herself camping with a one-year-old, but encouraged Mara and me to go on the annual two-night trip at Dungeness Spit that families of an adoption support group go on every year. We didn’t know any of the families going, but we signed up and went anyway. It turned out to be lots of fun for Mara. For me, it was like being a single parent but without the home appliances.

Mara with a specimen Wyatt caught for her. He's already forgotten this one, looking around for another one to chase.

I wasn’t sure how Mara would sleep in a tent, away from all her comforts, which are legion (books, lovies, dolls, small hard objects that end up underneath her in the night), nor how she would get along with a group of children she did not know. And indeed it seemed like it might be a lonely weekend for her despite the mob of kids running around the big meadow that made up the group campsite at Dungeness State Park. When we got there the coordinator of the camp trip ran over to introduce herself and one of the dads had my tent up almost before I knew what happened. But because none of the dozen or so other families were new all the kids already played in familiar groups or pairs. Mara hung out on the periphery.

While I was cleaning up dinner dishes Mara told me she wanted to go be in the tent. “There’s nothing to do here,” she said.

My heart sank.

Young entomologists on the trail of a butterfly.

But the next morning — (and she slept like a rock) — she became aware of and attracted to a little boy named Wyatt who was a year or two older than she and called himself an entomologist. He carried a net for catching butterflies and other bugs and a mesh trap for keeping them in. Wyatt cared only for the pursuit of bugs. His eyes scanned the trees and bushes around the perimeter of the meadow and when he saw something lepidopterous his focus became intense. He would run back and forth across the field, with Mara and a smaller boy named Will following behind.

Midmorning we all walked down the bluff trail from the campground to the longest natural spit in the world and spent the midday hours at the beach. Several older children and a few adults hiked out the six miles to the end of the spit and back. Some of the young children played in the sand and surf. Wyatt and Mara and Will explored an area of dune grasses and shallow ponds where crickets leapt and small crabs skittered.

Exploring in the muck. This reminds me of that famous photo of the planting of the flag at Iwo Jima.

The expedition continues. The lighthouse at the end of the spit is visible beneath the cone of Mt. Baker.

From that moment until we left the next morning, she capered and chased behind Wyatt whenever she could (they were separated for a spell when Mara joined some kids taking turns sitting with somebody’s guinea pigs in their laps, and also while the kids roasted and ate marshmallows, an activity to which she gave the same undistracted devotion that Wyatt did to his entomological studies).

And — the sign of Mara’s successful introduction to family camping and a kind of closing of the circle behind me — when the tent and other gear had been packed back into the car and it was time to head home, she didn’t want to leave.

Mara and Cienna take a turn in the pen.

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10 Responses to “Circle of fire”


  1. 1 Kip August 12, 2011 at 16:42

    What a wonderful trip down Memory Lane, and a right on Current Times Road. I’ve stayed at a few KOA’s in my day. I don’t recall thinking too much about it at the time, but looking back, most did seem a little like the perfect place to stop the RV or wagon with tent for the night…or two….then off to the next event. I love seeing the pictures of your dad, brings back some fantastic memories of dinner at your house. And it was grand to see the Aspen Wagon again! I’m glad Mara loved the trip, even if it took a day!!

    • 2 Matt August 12, 2011 at 20:06

      Yeah, we had a few good times around the table at both our houses, didn’t we? Mom will make pea soup for you any time, I’m sure, just tell her you’re coming.

      Oh, and we had the Volare, not the Aspen.

  2. 3 Louis August 13, 2011 at 03:58

    I very much enjoyed this post. I love your photography, Matt. The images of the kids running and exploring just sends me right back to that place, where the only things that mattered were playing with other kids,looking for bugs and feeling sand and water on the feet. That one pic with Mt. Baker in the background really resonates. I’m thinking I’ve might have been in that area with my dad and my brother many years ago.

    • 4 Matt August 13, 2011 at 10:07

      Thanks Louis, and well said about “the only things that mattered”…

      • 5 Matt August 13, 2011 at 10:12

        Sometimes I look at Mara experiencing things like this and feel jealous because I remember that absolute freedom and the longness of days, the strangeness of new places, the swiftness of childhood friendship-making. The next moment I just feel grateful I get to watch her have those things. (I’m not yet jealous of Millie because she still drools and can’t have orange cream soda, but that day will come.)

  3. 6 Kip August 13, 2011 at 08:51

    Hmmm, why do I remember it as the Aspen I wonder? I will scratch my noggin on this one. Oh, I believe you and all, it’s just my brain has to readjust, and that might take a while. It’s a little like finding out John sang your favorite Beatles song, not Paul. Well, it’s really nothing like that…

    • 7 Matt August 13, 2011 at 10:11

      Actually, I think it’s a lot like that. I wish I hadn’t said anything about it. Our minds and memories are so fragile. I think we live in worlds created by our shifting and erroneous memories, and we live for the most part happily that way. For me, after a while, the facts are not as important as the impressions that endure (YMMV). Let’s call it the Aspen, then.

  4. 8 Kip August 13, 2011 at 14:27

    Mighty kind of you to rewrite history! And I am glad for the correction. We do live in a world where there are many recollections of the past, everyone has a different view of the same event (ask any cop getting witness statements at a crime scene), and I enjoy getting all versions to get a better picture of what happened.

  5. 9 treeclimber4 September 4, 2011 at 20:34

    Again – I love your word pictures. Your description of the Coleman stove and lantern takes me back. I would add that my camping memories include that heavy army green tent and sleeping inside while hearing the ploppy drops of PNW rain along with dried but sap-sticky fir needles landing on the top.
    My mom eventually got fed up with tent camping so my Dad got a trailer (I think it was my grandpas that we got to store and use). My sister and I would always each get a new comic book for the camping trip (The Archies were my favorite).
    As adults, we tent camped with our young family for a while but bought a trailer several years ago which we really enjoy. We just got back from a roadtrip with it to the Tetons and Yellowstone which was awesome!

    I love the awesome camp experience you and Mara got to share!

    • 10 Matt September 4, 2011 at 20:50

      Thank you for adding your “word pictures” tc4, I love the details of the fir needles and the Archie comic books. Trailers the way to go, huh…might have to look into it, but not until we’ve suffered a little 🙂


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