Confessions of a Backcountry Pyro

Forgive me, Smokey, for I have sinned.

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Where do I begin? I’d like to say that all my conjurations of flame in the backcountry have been noble, leave-no-trace efforts—small, controlled teepees within designated fire rings, used solely to warm the bluish toes of sodden, hypothermic orphans.

But I am a pyromaniac. I confess it, for my sins are beyond count. My troubles began in youth, when I used a microwave to interrogate a tight-lipped G.I. Joe. Like artistic talent or psychosis, my fire lust flowered in adolescence: I tipped arrows with acetone and bottle rockets. Errant blazes inspired neighbors to update shopworn idioms: “Where there’s smoke, there’s Ted driving down property values.” 

Camping and backpacking saved me from a remedial stint in the volunteer fire department. I learned to cloak my addiction in the responsibility and language of backcountry survival. “It’s important to keep your core warm, especially at night,” I told a shivering hiker in the Wind Rivers as I exhaled into a crackling, 5-foot-tall ziggurat of burning pine. “Now stand back.”

I’ve made punky torches to “keep mosquitoes away.” My fire-starting potions—flint, Fritos, Vaseline, olive oil, alcohol, feathersticks, Wet Ones, magnifying lens, batteries—practically require a pack of their own. 

But addiction isn’t all glowing eyes and smoky highs. Wilderness fire withdrawal can be embarrassing (my neighbors once caught me roasting a Nalgene over barbecue coals in an attempt to boil water), and there’s nothing more pathetic than a pyro struggling in vain for a fix. I hit rock bottom in the Canadian Rockies a few summers back, striking dim sparks into a nest of soaked newspaper hours after everyone went to bed. The pouring rain hid my tears.

I have found no cure. But I take solace in knowing that I’m not alone. My kind abounds, hiding our lights inside backpacks and tinderboxes. Say, won’t you join me by the fire?