Rain Fire in Virginia

“Are you the one with the campfire last night?” asked a hiker in his late 50s as I was approaching a soggy clearing of a large campground. “That’s me.” I quickly tucked a smile into the high collar of my rain jacket.

“We collected firewood for hours, but it’s too wet to light,” he looked at the muddy ground in defeat. That was true. The waterlogged branches were too wet to light a campfire.

Memorial Day weekend drizzled cold rain in the southern stretch of Virginia on the Appalachian Trail. Three days dragged by and the gray skies blanketed the trail with dampness for what seemed like an eternity. Water droplets hung in rows from every passing branch. Even the trees slumped in the melancholy weather.

“How did ya get a fire going in this?” the older hiker asked with genuine curiosity. “YouTube University,” I smirked with self-gratification and expertly explained that the dead branches he collected from the ground couldn’t be used because the wood absorbed too much water from the wet soil and the dead leaves beneath. “Look up instead of down. Look for fallen branches stuck in bushes and in the trees,” I said and proceeded to show him by reaching for a small broken branch in a nearby bush. I snapped the twig in half to demonstrate that despite its outwardly wet appearance, the wood was dry as a bone at its core. There was no bend, it just snapped happily in my hands. Despite three days of rain, the branch hadn’t absorbed water like its counterparts that lay on the ground.

We quickly gathered new woodpiles and arranged them by the diameter size of each branch: pencil-sized twigs neatly piled in the center of the fire ring, followed by carrot-sized branches, then by larger variations. Heaps of new firewood stacked quickly around our campsite as our gazes shifted upwards in search of drier materials. I pulled out my secret linchpin—a slow-burning fire starter made of wax and wood chips. It was my luxury item that I insisted on packing with me. The weatherman predicted a 30-60% chance of rain for our entire 40-mile section hike and I didn’t want to take any chances.

With one flick of a lighter, I lit the fire starter and placed it under the pile of wet twigs. They hissed at me in defiance, but the thin branches caught a flame nonetheless. Smells of a campfire instantly filled our nostrils. We had a fire! But, the work just started. I continued to strip the larger branches from the wet bark to expedite the drying process, but once the flames licked the naked wood they quickly caught on fire too. My heart filled with a satisfying sense of achievement. Just two days prior, I learned a new skill on YouTube and now I successfully put it into practice (twice!) and even taught the other hikers. 

The flames pushed away all the dull grayness of the day. Twilight transitioned to darkness and more weary hikers arrived. Fire drew them in like moths. The orange flames with the white stacks of smoke and the gentle crackle of the fire—all emanating warmth—were just too much to resist on this cold and rainy night. They dropped their packs, pulled up wet logs, and joined the campfire chatter. 

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