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Dinner By the Campfire: A Personal Essay

Chris enjoys photographing the places he visits. He shares these photos as travel articles and also mixes them with creative writing.

View From Lolo Creek to Lolo Peak


It's Sunday morning, 10:48 a.m., much too early for me to be back from my weekend campout. In fact, Darby, my dog, and I were back much earlier than this. Most of my weekend outings go smoothly. Occasionally something happens that makes them more challenging, but I’ve always gotten through the night. This time, we didn’t get through the night.

Saturday morning, we turned off highway 12 onto Graves Creek Road, a gravel logging road near Missoula, Montana where I work a contract job at a local hospital. After a few minutes, we passed an establishment called, The Jack Saloon. It’s hard to believe this small resort can survive out here in the middle of government land, but Siri informed me it got four and a half stars. We turned onto Petty Creek Road and kept driving until we entered National Forest land where we found a burn area from the previous year’s wildfires. Morel mushrooms favor this environment, although experts still don’t know why.

The Jack Saloon


We hunted mushrooms for a couple of hours and took our haul of two pounds back to the Jeep. I drove until I found a favorable site for camping. It was in the center of a long, broad space, flat and sparsely covered with trees. A flat place for camping isn’t always easy to find in mountainous areas. Over the next couple of hours, we set up camp, collected firewood and washed the mushrooms in a nearby stream. All was well.

Dusk came and went, and I started the fire. Darby sat by my chair while I scratched his head and reviewed the novel I’m working on. This is how I entertain Darby when we camp out. While I talked, I got the dog bowl and dog food from the Jeep. I don’t like to have food in the campsite, so I took Darby’s dinner a hundred yards away and set it on the ground. My own dinner was a dehydrated meal of chili, macaroni, and beef. After the water boiled, I carried it and the bag of dried food away from the campsite. After about fifteen minutes, it was ready to eat.

Campsite on Petty Creek Road


I don’t like having food in the campsite because the lingering smell of cooking and eating can attract bears. Montana is bear country, both black and grizzly. There is a famous story about two bear attacks in Glacier National Park back in the 1970s. Glacier is just two and a half hours from Missoula. One of the two attacks happened simply because a young man went to sleep in his tent with M&Ms in his pocket. The bear smelled them, and the rest is history. So are the young man and his girlfriend.

If you’ve never had one of the newer dehydrated camping meals, you might be surprised at how good they are. My favorite is the chili, mac, and beef. But I also like the lasagna with meat sauce, chicken alfredo and many others made by Mountain House Meals. It’s very important to this story for you to understand that these meals are bursting with flavor and aroma.

At a Distance Is Fine, but Not in My Tent


Rather than wandering off into the dark with my aromatic meal, I climbed into the Jeep and began to eat. It had been a long day mushroom hunting, collecting firewood and setting up camp. I was tired. I fell asleep. The pouch of chili, mac, and beef slowly slid from my fingers and spilled all over my pants.

I cleaned up as best I could. Off came the pants. I was running around my campsite in my underwear. My hands were smathered with meat sauce. It was 11:45 p.m. I thought of going to bed, but my legs and hands smelled like they’d been basting in meat sauce in the kitchen of an Italian restaurant.

I keep Cooking Simple when camping

Just to let you know where my mind was, let me relate another brief story. It was five years earlier, and I was camping in a wilderness area of eastern Idaho. I took all the precautions about food preparation and eating that I have mentioned. I awoke in the morning with my head against the side of the tent and something sniffing my ear. The bear moved away from the tent and expelled a loud cry which I can’t mimic. Then it was gone. Imagine what would have happened in that situation if I had smelled like chili, mac, and beef.

What will I do if something like this happens again? I’ll have a change of clothes for sure. The ones covered with food can either go in the Jeep or, if I am backpacking, into the food bag I hang from a tree branch. This time I didn’t have any wet wipes or soap. That won’t happen again. If I am backpacking with no quick way out, I have to be able to get the food smell off my body.

But this most recent adventure was over. I packed up the camping gear, loaded Darby into his spot in the back, and drove to Missoula. From now on, when camping out, I’ll eat my meals standing up.

© 2018 Chris Mills

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