It was time to pack it up or throw it away. We were moving from El Paso to Blanco and I was delving into the darkest most remote recesses of the garage in an attempt at separating the wheat from the chaff. In so doing, I came across a dusty plastic bag filled with what appeared to be ashes. I was puzzled at first. Why would anyone stow a bag of ashes in a corner of the garage? What possible reason could there be for keeping such a thing? I was about to toss the dirty old bag when, like a bolt from the blue, I remembered why it was there.
When but a boy of eleven or twelve, I was on a campout at a beautiful place called Church Fork up Millcreek Canyon in the Wasatch Mountains east of Salt Lake City. As we were breaking camp, Scoutmaster Verle Breinholt had us gather around the now cold campfire ring. “Do you remember,” he asked, “when we first built the campfire, I took this little bag of ashes out of my pack and dumped them into the flames?” We nodded our heads at the recollection. “The fire is cold now; nothing left but ashes. I’m taking some of the ashes from this fire that have mixed with the ashes of many campfires past, and I’m putting them into the bag. At the same time I am recording the dates of our campout and the place from where these ashes were taken.” He produced a little sheaf of paper and made some notations. He then slipped it into his shirt pocket.
“I have been doing this for years,” he said, with a little nostalgia in his voice. “The ashes in this little bag contain the collective memories from all the campfires that I have sat around, cooked over, sung songs by, shivered near and told and heard stories by their light lo these many years. They represent good friends, fellow scouts, family, treasured good times, starry skies, and the beauty of nature and of all God’s many creations.” He urged each of us to take some of the ashes from the now cold fire ring and begin our own campfire genealogy.
I took his message to heart and, over the years, I would dump the old ashes into the fire and at the end of the camp, collect new ashes to take with me. Somewhere along the way I forgot the ashes in the bag and the tradition came to an end; the bag was stashed away, covered up in that garage and forgotten. But as I gazed upon those dusty old ashes, memories flooded back into my mind. I asked myself, “From whence had they come?” My mind wandered back…
After Church Fork I had camped in the High Uintah Mountains and the Canyonlands of Utah. I had hiked the Mormon Battalion Trail and camped in the Sacramento Mountains of New Mexico. I had slept in the Indian Caves and climbed the rocks of Hueco Tanks east of El Paso. There had been scouting, turkey hunting expeditions, and even an artists’ retreat into Chihuahua’s Sierra Madre. There were camp fires on Monterrey’s rugged Chipinque Mountain and the Cerro de la Silla. More ashes came from camps on the beaches of Puerto Penasco on the Sea of Cortez and from the forests and mountains surrounding Mexico City. There were even some campfires on the plains of Uruguay, South America, and in the highlands of Guatemala.
I recently celebrated a landmark birthday. Now, one thing I have learned in a long and happy life is that one has to accept some bitter along with the sweet. I remember feeling like I was going to die of thirst on a backpacking trip near Monterrey. I nearly froze to death during a winter camp in the Guadalupe Mountains of Texas, and I almost got eaten alive by mosquitos on my first campout near Austin. (It was hot and humid and all I had was a heavy sleeping bag—it was either be eaten or hunker into that sleeping bag and die of heat exhaustion). On one occasion I slid down a mountain glacier and cracked up on the jagged rocks below. But lasting friends and fond memories were forged during good times and bad, and perhaps some youngsters coming behind me have grown to love the great outdoors as much as I do.
Finding the ashes forced me to consider their genealogy which necessarily led me to consider how I have spent some of my time on earth. Pythagoras said, “Let not sleep fall upon thy eyes till thou has thrice reviewed the transactions of the past day. Where have I turned aside from rectitude? What have I been doing? What have I left undone, which I ought to have done?”
I’m afraid I have left a lot undone but I am very grateful for what little I have been able to do. Robert Frost wrote, “The woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.”
Ronald Acheson said, “When I walk amid lofty pines, or gaze silently at the moon reflected by a black midnight sea, or listen to a coyote in mournful prayer across desert’s plains, then I know of thy presence, dear God…”