Outdoors North: Longing for the scent of campfire smoke


“Her eyes shone bright like the pretty lights that shine in the night out of Yerington town.”

— Tom Campbell

There’s a feeling nudging me on an increasingly regular basis, tugging at the sleeve of my blue-plaid flannel at the elbow. It’s kind of like somebody I can’t see trying to get my attention, as though they have something they want or need to tell me.

When my consciousness occasionally turns in that direction, after the tugging just won’t stop, I understand the message clearly. It’s an uncomfortable notion, one that gains veracity and permanence with each day that slips by.

“You know,” the knowing ghost voice says to me. “You won’t be slowing down anymore. You’ll be in a dead sprint by the time you get to the finish line.”

I sense more and more that this must be true.

I can tell I won’t be headed back to any endless summertime or even the anytime days that seemed to last a lifetime when I was younger. It appears that I have again found myself in an upside-down situation.

This time, I have discovered I have a whole world of things I want to do – maybe more than ever before. But now is also the time when the wicked witch has trapped me in her tower and decided to turn over the giant hourglass, cackling.

The sand is sifting through the narrowed glass mid-section at an alarming rate.

Well, if that’s how it is — okay.

I plan to do everything I can to pack as much as I can into all the days ahead. Something I seem to be learning a bit late to the party — and I’ll cry if I want to.

I have so many places to see and things to do. I have at least a whole world more to learn. I also need to take extra time for the activities and the people I love and care about the most.

That notion leads to a presumption that a shift in my time balance is likely to occur. That will undoubtedly put some people off, others perhaps out. But I need to be consciously aware of where and how I am spending my time.

I need to be certain places at certain times to take more mental pictures and soak up more of everything there is to experience through my senses, to gain the resilient memories and experiences I am seeking.

The occurrence of a fish rising to the surface of still water in some forgotten cranberry bog is something I don’t ever want to forget. It is a small miracle to behold.

The giggling innocence of children — especially grandchildren — when they see something for the first time is really something I hope to infuse into my bloodstream for the long-haul through the afterlife.

There are countless long, blue highways I need to travel. I want to hear the differing accents of people and birds as I move across the countryside. I want to be in farm country in the summertime to hear and smell the corn grow.

Find the southwest in the wintertime to soak up the desert whole.

So many purple mountains to climb, heart and soul, to the top. Hopefully, there will be long snowy nights ahead for stargazing, curling up next to the fireplace and reading down the piles of books I have stacked around me at home.

There is art to contemplate on a minute and grand scale. I also must create — stamp out what I can. My involvement is compulsory.

How many more Indian summers do I need? More than I can imagine for they are the finest of what the seasonal palette has to offer — painted in subtle whiffs and shades of pumpkin spice and cinnamon, with all the hues orange and yellow and gold and red.

Then there are the miraculous healing waters of creeks, rivers and lakes that seem to be at the root of all my memories. They flow still and deep, cold, quick and shallow and pensively slow but steady.

I saw the moonlight last night, bathing the snow in a blue, lustrous light that filtered through the bare maple trees that stood in dark silhouettes — branches tangled and reaching.

Many of these trees — connected through their root systems underground — talk with each other, passing on the secrets of generations. A good number of these moonlit watchmen have seen days far enough back to have been growing here during the birth of our nation and before.

Above us all, a ring of ice crystals circles the moon. Damned cold tonight.

There are pictures to sort through and things to hand-off and sell, so many items collected over one short lifetime. Turns out things I thought I would always need or sometime get to use, haven’t been listened to, ridden, seen or worn in months or years.

It seems wrong to keep these things stashed away in drawers and closets and on shelves when so many others are wanting for so much.

Of course, there are keepsakes that I will hold until forever — some physical and mechanical, others mere vapors of memory that live in the ether but reach out to touch me as real as any warm, human hand.

I hope to wear my bare feet down to smooth, lineless skin walking in the soft grass of the meadows, over the warm sand beaches and across the cool pine needles of a springtime drizzle.

I need to smell a lot more campfire smoke and let it soak into my skin, clothes and nose. I need to spend many more hours watching the flames dance and glow, with the burning wood crackling and hissing.

I need to travel to see in front of me some of the birds, fish, trees, flowers and places I have only experienced through inferior artist renderings or in picture books or movies or on television.

Dolly Varden, cutthroat and bristlecone pine, rocks and minerals, dinosaur bones, Chaco Canyon, the painted desert and the tusk of a woolly mammoth.

There are simple pleasures too that I never have gotten to enjoy enough. Things like working a big jigsaw puzzle, sipping hot chocolate, chicken noodle soup or apple cider on a cold, snowy day.

I need to spend more time rocking in my faithful, wooden rocking chairs, listening to the calming sound the wood makes with each back-and-forth cycle. I want to sit listening to all my old records, as well as the sounds of a quiet room where the workings of a ticking clock are plain and easy to hear.

In addition to new places, there are some spots I need to revisit where I might have been only once or twice so long ago the memories are growing dim.

Some of these destinations are well-known to everyone; others are random like an intersection in Iowa where I stopped to take photos and a field bird perched on a sign and sang to me.

The cool, blue of the alpine, the Douglas firs of the west and the screech owls of Winslow’s orchard, they are all still out there waiting. Hello Green Valley. Hello Madera and Ramsey canyons — good morning, Arivaca.

I also want to see the old homestead, the broken and bent railroad tracks of my childhood that today lead nowhere. Rusty, metal gates, cracked and chipped concrete, broken locks that no longer keep anything inside.

The townscape of my youth is not the same townscape my dad would have recalled from his, nor my grandfather or his grandfather. The scene has been scratched out, painted over, left to ruin, re-imagined and started over.

All of this while some of the same old battered and ruined houses and stores of yesteryear continue their slow shriveling down to piles of obsolete and heaped construction materials — square nails, clear glass doorknobs and heavy, metal door latches; asbestos, carcinogens.

So let father time creep up fast behind me, like the headless horseman swinging his hot and hungry blade, I will keep up my now hurried and deliberate pace as long as I can toward these things that I seek to encounter and draw into myself.

Meanwhile, I can rot like the wooden high-line poles, or crack and fade like old window glass or droop like the gardens of back there, back then.

The spirit, soul and life within me will be coursing like my blood with energy and vibrance, burning like the sun toward another daytime dawning on another shore in another place and time.

I continue onward undaunted — forever forward.

Editor’s note: Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula.


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