The Idiosyncrasies of Making a Fire

I’ve been thinking about what John Steinbeck said in “Travels with Charley”, about how every trip has its own unique, idiosyncratic personality. What, then, is the personality of my trip? Travel personification must in some way reflect the personality and emotional state of the traveler, but what of that ephemeral other quality that each trip individual trip possesses?

At first I thought I might compare my time thus far in Australia to a turtle. Metaphorically, turtles make excellent comparisons to backpackers. I’ve always liked the image. And also like a turtle, this trip has been paced, slow. I fell into my first black hole – a common pitfall of extended travel, as many backpackers can attest – early on, and it was a doozey. Granted I am in no rush to the finish line because I am endeavoring to live abroad for a long time, but my turtle has been overly leisurely, sipping a few cocktails and lounging on the beach. The 88 days of farm work required for the second working holiday visa application lit a fire under my indolent turtle’s backside, and here I am, herding sheep with a truck that uses prayer instead of functional brakes, and picking up rocks the size of toddlers from paddocks of organically grown oats. And grateful for the opportunity to do so, much to my surprise. I had never put farming in the list of things I might try, but I am glad for this paperwork necessity. It’s good, I think, to see where your food comes from, and to get your hands dirty.

After nearly a month of getting dirty, I think that my turtle metaphor has lost its relevance. Along with toned muscles, I have gained a new level of focus and determination. When I arrived, I was immediately keen on being the one to light the fire first thing in the morning. My very limited fire lighting experience was always aided by accelerants. I had never before lit a fire with just twigs and paper, but I was determined to figure it out. It took me forever to get the fire lit the first few times. I’d set up two or three balls of paper, and nestle in a pine cone or two, and cautiously hold the lighter to the paper. I’d sit crouched on the floor for ages, fiddling and fussing with the cones and bits of paper, getting frustrated but refusing to let anyone else do it. I’d go through four, five, six crumpled bits of paper and after much coaxing, the cone would finally light and I’d watch the flames gather and flicker and dip, with a deep sense of satisfaction. The Irish backpacker, Sally, who only had seven days left of her eighty eight was watching me one day and she asked me gently, “you haven’t lit many fires, have you?” I shook my head no, “Is it that obvious?” She gave me some pointers and sat back again, watching. From that point on, my fires caught on much faster.

Even with my new strategy and my increasing prowess, the lighting of a fire is very idiosyncratic. Some days, the pine cones and twigs are dry and compliant, almost combusting by themselves, and other days they are stubborn, making you work for it. Sometimes the fire will roar to life only to peter out and die when your back is turned. I am still very keen on the lighting of the Tallawarra fires. In the morning I light the stove fire that heats our water and the house, and in the evening I light the one in the living room fireplace. I get a thrill from watching the paper flare up, and lick the pine cones until they burst into orange and yellow, and the twigs following suit, crackling. The house fills with the scent of wood burning, smoke curls around the windows, and I’m warmer inside and out.

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