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7 July 2005

Valdez, AK

I am camped at Blueberry Lake, above Valdez. It's a silent sort of place just now, in the whispering way that nature is silent. Just enough wind to make a half empty ale bottle moan, and keep the abundant flies back under the bushes. Balm for the mind, this, after the crazed seagulls and frantic fishermen of Sea Otter Park in Valdez, over the Fourth of July.

I'm not sure what sort of bushes these are. Some kind of low Alders, perhaps. They climb the bluff opposite, leaving little bare ground. The leaves are lighter on bottom than top, so when the wind makes them restless there are inconstant wavelets of light and dark up there, as though the spirit of the lake, not content to be contained, has climbed the mountain.

Here I am, in the middle of the glacier-crowned Cnugach Mountains, and all I can think to write about is crackers. What on earth has happened to crackers?

Now ordinarily, and to most people, crackers would have about as much to do with camping as, say, motorhomes. But for me crackers are part of the picture. Poking with a stick at a spitting fire, a plate of crackers and cheese and sausage and pickles and cold sliced boiled eggs at hand, a glass of wine or a bottle of ale beside, the low sun warm on your neck, fish flopping in the water nearby... why, that's camping.

In the South there would also be a cacophony of crickets and tree frogs, but there are other critters here that take up the serenade, in their own shy way. Kew. Kew-kew-kew-kew-kew. Kew.

A hidden bird. But what? I haven't a clue.

I went into the Safeway in Valdez this morning to get the aforementioned culinary ingredients for camping. You can't get rat cheese any more, but cheddar makes an acceptable substitute. I picked up some "Alaska Sausage" nearby, which is a sort of hard salami that claims to "contain Reindeer meat". That may well be. Or perhaps their droppings. There are little black things in there that I hope are bits of peppercorn. It ended up tasting like beef, so I am content. I mention these things simply to indicate that I am not entirely opposed to innovation.

Which brings me to crackers. When I turned up the snack aisle, I was met by a pair of the most amazing blue eyes.

"Is there anything I can help you with?"

"I'm ...looking for crackers."

"Crackers? How about Ritz?"

"No, too rich for my blood. I was looking for something to go with cheese and sausage."

"Triskets? We have these on sale."

"Garlic and Oregano? Sounds a bit much."

"They're very good. Would you like to try one?"

"How would I do that?"

"Well, I've got this box that's been mushed a little. I'll open it up."

I couldn't help but smile. "I'm sorry, but I keep looking for a badge of some sort. Do you work for Nabisco?"

She dimpled. "Yes. And Dreyer's. We've got a special running on ice cream, too."

"Is your name Polly?"

She dimpled again. "No, I'm Miranda." She was opening the box. "What made you think of Polly?"

"Something about you makes me want a craacker."

She dimpled. Gosh, she's good at that. She held out the box. I tried one. Oregano and Garlic. Spicy hot and heavy on the grease. Not qualities that put me off in themselves, mind you. Quite acceptable in a hamburger. But rather nasty in a cold cracker.

"Do you eat these?"

She looked alarmed. "Oh, no. Well. I try to stay away from this stuff. Oh, I guess I shouldn't say that."

"Quite all right. You're a very good salesman. Er, person. But I think I'll stick with saltines. I like things to taste like what they are."

Those blue eyes lit up. "These taste like what they are. All our products do."

"Ah. Well, you go ahead then. You can have my part."

And so, like Odysseus, I slipped by. Didn't even have to tie myself to a mast. I did lean on the cart a little, once I got around the corner.

But I must have still been thinking about crackers, or something, when I went down the charcoal aisle. I grabbed a couple of quarts of lighter fluid without really looking at them. Seemed like the same white squeeze bottles with which I've tempted fate around campfires for decades.

You see, I learned long ago at the knee of Hob Martin, my sainted Scoutmaster, practically all there was to know about the tedious inefficacy of friction fire bows, and of flint and steel. Oh, if what you want is ritual, they're good enough. You can make a day of it. It's a little like cooking an elaborate meal, and laying out the ingredients in advance. All those little piles of stuff: punk, coarse dry tinder, twigs, and then dry sticks in assorted sizes. Makes you appreciate the Trials of Primitive Man. Museum stuff.

But if what you want is an actual fire this very evening, there's nothing to beat charcoal lighter. Doesn't usually flash over, or back, like gasoline. More flammable than motor oil. Hangs around just long enough to get the wood HOT and crackling on it's own. Liquid enough to penetrate the random cracks and recesses of a stack of firewood. No finesse, of course, no fuss, just fire. Functional technology at its finest. In fact, charcoal lighter is perfectly formulated to produce a plentiful supply of dancing flames in precisely the time it takes to skewer a couple of hot dogs and set out the buns and mustard.

And Oh! That pungent smell! Like a woman's perfume, it lets you know immediately that you're entering dangerous territory. You might get burned, if you're not careful. A potent and irresistible challenge that sets the mood perfectly. Eau d' camp. If there's such a thing as foreplay in camping, that smell is the bracing essence of it.

Friends and neighbors, I'm here to tell you that charcoal lighter is a miracle of modern science. So of course they've gone and ruined it.

I got a good look at that label just now. "Duraflame Fresh Light Liquid Gel Charcoal Lighter." Sounds like a civilian variant of napalm, doesn't it? Not so. It's white and creamy. Looks like gritty soap, and smells like oranges. As a matter of fact it's very similar to Fast Orange, a hand cleaner I keep for those rare occasions when I am tempted to fool with car innards. May be the exact same stuff, repackaged for the gullible and distracted.

It doesn't soak in. You can't aim it like the petroleum based dragon pee I'm used to. It just spluts out there and sits on top of the wood. A match WILL light this stuff, but it doesn't get HOT. It won't dry out damp wood. I know. I've used up an entire quart. And if I wanted my hands all sticky and orange-smelling, I'd simply buy an orange.

It's pitiful. Seven bucks. It's like those indoor fireworks I've heard about. Lame beyond belief. Just a pfft and a fizzle, when what your soul craves is a blaze of glory against the sky. I guess it might work if I started with small stuff, and made sure it was dry, and slowly built it up.... waitaminit! Now we're back to the fire bow! Centuries of progress erased in a moment!

I admit it. I'm male. I seldom read directions, and never read ingredients. But I'm reading them now. "Contains Methyl Alcohol". I could drink this stuff, if I didn't mind going blind. Wouldn't be much different, far as the timely reading of labels is concerned.

Grrr. I been had. Might as well have gone for the Triskets. At least they came with a plentitude of dimples.

on Blueberry Lake.

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