There is a fire pit at Camp on the Boulder that sits in the middle of the property. It is on the north side of giant pile of stones that is a reminder of earlier days, when men and women wrestled a beautiful camp out of a rocky landscape. There is a weathered log cross on top of that pile, and it stretches out both a greeting and a comfort to those who warm t…heir hands at the fire. Flames burn, and sparks float upward, and in the background on a dark night, are the shadowed mountains, so very near.
I have sat by the fire, many times, and have sang songs and talked into the quiet hours of the night. I have seen deer walk by, and looked up to follow shooting stars from one side of the narrow canyon to the other. I sat one night watching the beginnings of a forest fire that had awakened on the top of the next peak down on my side of the river. The smoke jumpers had that fire out the next morning, but the hole in the ground surrounded by rocks at my camp has been relit time and time again.
I remember our first camp fire of the season in 2012. It was nearing the end of April and we had a small group of Lutheran middle schoolers and a number of Methodist campers in for the weekend. It had been a little tricky getting up and running, fighting off a 13 inch spring snowfall, some broken water pipes, and a bleak bank balance. But the snow had melted and the pipes had been mended, and there seemed to be more food in the pantry than we had stashed there the previous fall. People were friendly and looked forward to sitting around the fire, with guitars playing and marshmallows roasting on long metal sticks to make smores. Everybody loves a camp fire.
We started the fire blazing early, so the little kids could get their time in before bed. The wood was piled high, and we topped it off with what looked like a dry Christmas tree. We sprinkled on the right amount of diesel and lit the match and the flame sprang to life. There is the moment before a campfire is lit, when those gathered wonder if it will really work. Will they really get it started? Then there is a crackle or two, and the sparks start to catch and the fire starts to follow the fuel, and it is alight. There is the magic of a dancing orange friend who is beckoning each one in closer. Standing with palms out, or sitting on log benches every person stares deeply into the flames, watching and waiting and warming.
That fire went late into the night. The campers and staff members enjoyed it, and the chocolate, and the songs that were sung. I had nice conversations with people I knew, and had the chance to talk to some new folks who had made the trip up the bumpy road to spend time in the mountains. Wood was added and more added, and right about the time that it should have been allowed to die, more added again. People drifted off to bed in the glow of extra logs, and soon I was the lone watchman, waiting now for my creation to burn itself out. We did not have hoses out or the fire truck running, so I was alone with my shovel and my thoughts, and my thoughts were racing.
I sat back against a log, thinking thoughts in a number of directions. I looked way back to my many fires through the years. I thought back to just the previous fall, roasting hotdogs in the midst of a power outage, and reassuring a new comer that bears were nothing to worry about; except maybe the big grizzley that would topple our dumpster the next morning. I thought forward with uncertainty to the season ahead, with so many questions about finances and so much to do, and so few people to do it. Nothing ruins a good bon fire like a small anxiety attack.
The fire kept burning, and I thought back to when I was 10 and had come to camp for the first time on my own, riding up the same bumpy road in the back of a church van. I can make out the shapes in my mind of sleeping in a cabin, buying pop in glass bottles and hiking through the woods to a bbq. Pleasant memories, but not exactly fleshed out with faces and dialogue. I do remember one thing from that time and it was the song:
It only takes a spark, to get a fire going. And soon all those around, can warm up it it’s glowing. That’s how it is with God’s love, once you’ve experienced it, it’s fresh like spring, you want to sing, you want to pass it on.
I let the words work through my mind, thinking how much I had liked that song when I first heard it and sang it. It had quickly become my favorite. The song you can’t wait to hear, and want to keep singing. And then as the years went on, and the words had repeated over and over, time and again,and I had lost my desire to sing them. It had seemed almost silly and childish, and I had packed it away with other things that I had outgrown. And here I was with time and more time passed, feeling the same warmth I had from the words I had first sung thirty years before.
It was far from the nostalgic remembrance of a song from the past. It was more the reassurance that what I was doing was not just me alone in the wilderness. I was seeing the faces of those who had been at that very camp fire earlier in the evening. Pam and my kids, joining in the plans for the year ahead, and enjoying their first glimpse of camp, that spring. Mike and Becky, and their family, ready to set aside normal life and plunge into the unknown for a season of walking a tightrope without a net. Linda was there with a smile, ready to dive into work again, devoting herself to something that would not be easy. My mom, Grandma Sandy, was there, watching kids, and enjoying the fire, near where her and dad had been only a few weeks earlier in a foot of snow, towing a stuck van. It was nice to be surrounded by people who care.
And then I could see that it wouldn’t be all on my shoulders. I knew there would be more coming. Caleb, and Jessica had sat at that pre-grizzly fire months before, and they would be returning here… home from different directions. Diana was coming first, and Wayne would come later with reinforcements from the farthest corner of the continent, to prove that Floridians really can survive in Montana. Grandpa Jim would be back to help and guide us in roofing and chinking and making big breakfasts. Rob Green would drive his plumbing truck across the state to come help the water flow. Kim Fischer and Barb Smith would come to help in the kitchen, and Scott Fischer would fix our coffee pot. Gordon would be back to help roof, and Tracy and Lance would come with their crew to work Memorial Day. Alicia and Jim would return again and again to help and help. Audie and Clark returned and made trays of those famous cinnamon roles. My dad, Grandpa Bob, would resuscitate our air compressor and let us use his favorite little trailer all summer to haul garbage. Walter and Anita would come, and I couldn’t wait to see them. Pastor Fred would come and lead our newly minted family camp. Linda Rowly would bring her mother Ethel Magsig to see the kitchen her donations had help pay for. And there would be others that I had not met yet. Emily would arrive from Missouri, and become part of the family. Our sweet nomads would come and come. Wayne and Nancy, Greg and Chris, Richard and Marilyn, Rich and Fran, and no one will ever forget Dan. They were waves of help and blessing. And Bob and Laurel Dunn, from their perch on the hillside, were such great help and encouragement. It is hard not to mention the week in August when the Longs and Thorntons and Carlsons donated almost $10,000 to pay to reroof the dining hall. And who am I forgetting? I’m sure there are more here, as many gave money and time, and I hate to not speak your names.
It was like a spark that lights and then spreads out beyond what I could envision and hope for. I had sat at the campfire earlier in the evening with Mike and we were discussing how we had made it to the starting line. There had been a few conversations about how exactly you open a church camp with no money, but it had come to pass. We had taken to calling it Survival Summer 2012, and amidst a barrage of stuff that needed to be done, there were just two main goals. One was to make it through the season, leaping over all the obstacles that seemed, on those log benches, to be nearly impossible. Just making it to October would be a success. Another goal was to see that little piece of land on the south end of the property sell. That would not solve everything, but it would get us out of debt and above ground. It would help us move out of the hole and into the future. Both of those goals seemed hard to even hope for. I remember Mike saying that we; him, me, and all of the people joining to help with camp, were there for a reason. And I remember me saying something that I say from time to time, and it is, “God is either faithful or he’s not, and I think he is.” Not really profound, but nudging us on in the idea that if we were there for something, then God would be the one making it happen.
I sat there late, watching the logs turn to coals and finally to embers that could be put out with a shovel and a bucket of water. The smoke plumed up as I poured out the water, and then disappeared, and I walked back to my cabin in the dark, thinking about that song and the last verse that goes:
I wish for you my friend this happiness that I’ve found. You can depend on him. It matters not where you’re bound. I’ll shout it from the mountain tops. I want the world to know The Lord of Life has come to me. I want to pass it on.
I didn’t know right then that we would make it though the summer. That the bills would all get paid, and the donations would all come at the exact right times. That the people that would come would be just the exact right people for every job. Or that in November we would get to sign a paper, giving us nice new neighbors to the south, and making Camp on the Boulder debt free. I didn’t know that we would survive. I know it now and I just wanted to pass it on.