Naturalist and poet Henry David Thoreau understood it better than most.
The appeal of a fire crackling in the setting sun, or roaring to life at first light — a pot set on a grate above the fire sends the smell of coffee brewing to mingle in the air with the scent of dew on the grass — remains a pure human delight through the ages.
“The fire is the main comfort of camp, whether in summer or winter, and is about as ample at one season as at another. It is as well for cheerfulness as for warmth and dryness.”
A century and a half have gone by since Thoreau’s passing from this world, but the allure of the campfire remains. The campfire is a place where family members can bond as they share their stories of the day; the place where friends can sit up and tell ghost stories under the moonlight; and even a place to rest one’s soul in solitude.
Here in Clear Lake, with ample city parks, backyard fire rings and two beautiful state parks, the opportunity to share memories around a campfire is abundant.
For Noel Katter, an afternoon around a campfire at Clear Lake State Park brought the unexpected opportunity to reunite with friends.
“I had no idea they were here,” Katter says of old friends Larry and Jean Bell. “I just happened to stop in at a mutual friend’s place and found out they were already here camping.
All retired now, they were enjoying a peaceful weekday afternoon when the park was not so busy as the typical summer weekend. As the fire gently burned, the three friends talked about their lives and the changes since they had last been together. The slowly-burning fire seemed to give permission to take their time about it.
“It’s probably been 26 years since we’ve seen each other,” Katter recalls.
Perhaps surprisingly, they each visit the Clear Lake State Park Campground a few times a year. With children living in and around the community, it’s a convenient place to camp and enjoy the natural setting, they agreed.
The pace of life in the campground is another important draw.
“People are fun to visit with in campgrounds,” Katter says. “They’re entertaining, and everyone’s got a good story in what they’ve done in their life — and it’s interesting, especially for people our age.”
For the Bells, camping is a family tradition, and the state park campground is one of their top choices.
“It’s a nice, clean campground, and it’s near the lake,” says Jean.
With their children now grown, the couple recalls that camping was an affordable family vacation that progressed over the years.
“We started in a tent many years ago, then we graduated to a pop-up camper, and now we have a motor home,” she recalls.
While their camper offers the luxury of sleeping on a mattress in air conditioning, in hindsight the modern comforts they did without were perhaps what really made those outings memorable.
“When we first started the kids were little, and we had no telephone, no TV,” Jean says — and nobody seemed to mind.
What they did have — and what they continue to bring along on their camping adventures — more than made up for the lack of technology.
“We bring our bikes, and we go for bike rides. We bring yard games, and we play those. We even do a lot of our cooking right outside over the fire,” Jean notes.
These days, the couple sometimes brings their grandchildren along for a camp-out. Just as with their own children back in the day, they count on the lure of nature to make memories to savor long into the future.
“Kids will remember this stuff for the rest of their lives,” Larry says simply.
Even when things go wrong — when a marshmallow falls off the stick into the fire, when the tent falls down for the 15th time, or even when the sun refuses to shine —there are wonderful memories to be made around the campfire.
“It always rains on tents. Rainstorms will travel thousands of miles, against prevailing winds, for the opportunity to rain on a tent.”
— Dave Barry
Clair and Ruth Stonecypher have made more than their share of memories around the campfire and in campgrounds across the nation. The couple did what many people only dream of doing.
“We sold our home and all our stuff and just took off for eight years,” explains Ruth.
The couple started small, taking off for several months first to see if they’d like it, and then took the plunge and hit the road full-time. That was enough to help them make their decision.
“We decided ‘This is the life,’ ” Ruth recalls. “We talked to people who were full-timers and decided we were going to do that.”
They managed to see 16 states in that first outing. When they returned from the road eight years later, they had seen most of the United States.
“I always said I’d like to travel and see the United States. I don’t want to go overseas or see anything of that. I was just very happy to see our own country,” Clair adds.
There was never a plan, agenda or itinerary for their travels. The longest they ever stayed in one location was about a month at Kissimmee, Fla., near Disney World. Other than that, they simply let their senses lead them.
“We never had a plan until right before we left. We’d get out the maps and start looking. I did the navigating, and he did the driving, and it worked out fine. I drove a little, but not much,” Ruth says.
While they did use the interstate, they preferred to use the back roads whenever possible. The slow roads allowed them to see more of the country and meet more of its people.
“If you go through Missouri and Arkansas, you get on a four-lane road, and it looks just like anywhere else,” Clair explains. “But if you get off the interstate and go through the little towns, that’s fun. You see how people live that way.”
The only area of the country they missed on their eight-year excursion was the New England states.
“We always heard that the roads were very narrow and the campgrounds very expensive,” the couple recalled together.
But they did explore south of the border, visiting Mexico, and traveled all the way north through Canada to spend one summer in Alaska.
Looking back, it was the drive through British Columbia that they enjoyed as much as anything during that long summer in the north country.
These days, while the couple has come in off the road, they still enjoy weekend outings whenever they can. They traded off their 35-foot Winnebago for a smaller rig but say it’s the atmosphere of the campground, rather than the size of the camper, that makes for a great outing.
“Everybody’s friendly; all the campers that you meet are so friendly,” Ruth says.
A night around the campfire, meeting new friends from far and near, is a sure way to restore one’s faith in humanity.
“Even in a time of elephantine vanity and greed, one never has to look far to see the campfires of gentle people.”
— Garrision Keillor
While campgrounds in and around Clear Lake are often filled with local residents, friends, families and folks who live in the community much of the year, it’s also a place to meet folks just passing through, as was the case recently with John and Mary Hornbeck.
The California natives moved to Tennessee about a year ago but have spent much of that time on the road. They were in Clear Lake on the way to visit their daughter in Minnesota. They knew little of the community, nor its famous rock and roll history, but determined to make a visit to the Surf Ballroom during their brief visit to learn more about the community’s storied past.
Mary grew up amid the lush farmland of the San Joaquin Valley and misses her orchard and the site of fields filled with fresh vegetables and plentiful orange trees. Fields of corn and soybeans amazed her, and her time in the campground gave her a chance to share with others the stories of her life, while learning a little more about this beautiful land she was visiting.
“Some people will come up and tell you their life story in a campground,” she says. “People are always nice and always willing to help you.”
Just a little reminder that if life seems too busy, one need only gather a little firewood, strike a match and wait for the magic to happen as people come in and slow down around the smell of slow-burning wood.
This time of year — when the days are still warm but the nights are turning cool — is seemingly made for sticky fingers, melted chocolate, and a graham cracker crunch. Good times shared by the campfire.