Saturday, February 9, 2008

Big Sur or How to Start a Campfire Using Only Your Car

At the end of May of 2005, after graduating from Berkeley, I decided to load my camping gear and a few discarded pallets into the back of my 1990 Forest Service green Jeep Cherokee and take the coast highway down from San Francisco to Los Angeles, where I would be working as a teacher.

Image: The Pacific Ocean near Big Sur, CA is a turquoise rivaled only in the tropics

The plan was to stop over for a day or two at Big Sur, CA. It would be a much needed chance to camp, hike, and unwind after a particularly gruelling two weeks of finals, culminating in my senior thesis—a complex essay on Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene.

I found a place to camp about 20 miles south of Big Sur in a Forest Service campground. In order to camp in Big Sur, you must have a reservation, but, in contrast to the packed Big Sur campgrounds, the Forest Service campground was empty. This suited me just fine.

After setting up camp, I hiked some lovely rocky mountains with views of the Pacific. I descended to my campsite just as the sun was setting. When I got back to my campsite, I realized I had a pretty big problem. I had forgotten to bring water, and the campground (like many out-of-the-way sites) had no running water.

Image: The Last Photo of the Day. A stark sunset in the mountains above my campsite. (Near Big Sur, CA)

I was thirsty, and wanted to drink something right away, but I had no choice but to wait till I could boil some water from the creek that ran past the campsite. I unloaded my pallets and was faced with the awful truth: I had forgotten matches. My entire plan depended upon my campfire. I would need to boil water to drink and cook my food over the fire. There were no stores and no other campers.

That’s when, in an act of desperation, I decided to try the electric, popup, cigarette lighter in the dashboard. If it can light a cigarette, surely it can light a campfire. Two hours later, after making countless trips from my car to my campfire holding a wad of toilet paper with a few precious embers, I finally succeeded. From then on, I’ve always carried a lighter in my glove box.

Camping Necessities

  • A lighter, matches, or both
  • At least a gallon of water per person
  • Toilet paper (doubles as kindling)

Image: Success! At the end of a long day, there are few things as satisfying as cooking a meal over an open fire. I typically build a campfire, and, when it has burned down a little, I place my trusty cast-iron skillet directly on the coals. It works quite well.


  1. mchislock@fs.fed.us16 February, 2008

    Google sent me your blog.

    I enjoyed reading your travels. If by any chance you decide to schedule an adventure to the Sequoia National Forest, Giant Sequoia National Monument, and would like to describe your trip, I would be happy to post a photo journal of your visit. I would even give you photo credits. I like your photography, and writing style. Keep up the great work!

    In July, we celebrate our Centennial - 100 years of stewarship conservation. Visit our webpage to schedule your next outdoor adventure!

    Looking forward to hearing about your next journey!

  2. Nice blog Ben, have subscribed to keep up with your trips

  3. Last night I just took a picture of the moon while I was walking home. I still haven't checked how it did. Have to get it from my mobile phone. It was around 8pm, which probably has not arrived there yet at this time of writing. :) It's most likely just about 6pm there now.

    C5 at