Roasting Marshmallows the Old Fashioned Way

Courtney McDowell Issue: Section:

Who could say "no" to writing, or in my case typing, for a place called The Urban Campfire?  Not me, I still miss my dusty Skylake Ranch Camp in Yosemite National Park where I spent formative summers from the age of 6 to 11.  Cut-offs, flip-flops and feeding baby animals are the mainstays of my fading memory, but what got into my cells were all those nightly campfires--sitting in a circle, under stars, and singing songs next to the boy with whom I was in mini-love, and eating scorched marshmallows. 

Speaking of scorched marshmallows, this summer our family roasted what they call in Latin America  las comidas des angelitos over a 1300 degree fire bubbling up from the earth's surface. Yes,  it takes a long stick. Here's how it happened...

For years, my best friend Andy and I have been dreaming about temporarily leaving NYC and traveling with our kids. We hoped for some time where we could learn a new language and introduce our children to forests and streams .  We also figured we could be checking out other countries for our future retirement, some place where the dollar might afford a lusher life, b/c we never got that 401K together. 

We've imagined the lives and good works we could orchestrate in the Andes, the Himalayas, war-torn regions in Rwanda, forgotten villages in Eastern Europe, which I've even forgotten the name of now.  We'd get all geeked up for weeks about our new adopted country until we banged into that tiresome question, "What would we do for money?"  So, this year we down-sized the plan to two months and spent the summer abroad.  We decided upon learning Spanish, so we honed in on Latin America.  Andy likes long-distance swimming, so we found a lake, formerly a volcanic crater, in the highlands of Guatemala. The lake is surrounded by wild green (and extinct) volcanoes, as well as some very active ones in the distance.

We rented a house and the lake (the 2nd deepest in the world) was our front yard.  We hired a local husband and wife team to for daily Spanish lecciones and went about  our new lives as Gringos. It was terribly beautiful and comfortable despite discovering scorpions under pillows and on kitchen counters.  We got so comfy in fact, we canned our plans for further travel along winding roads with mucho caro-sick ninos, and hunkered down lake-side to swing in hammocks, eat the many products of maize and discover the fascinating past of the Maya.  However, those volcanoes smoking in the distance started calling to us.  We did a little research ( "little" being the operative word) and decided to climb and spend the night on the active volcano Pacaya.

A tour company listed in our guide book made it sound easy--"bring your own snacks and water and we'll do the rest."   However, when we finally arrived at the departure point after a 4 hour-drive along switch-back cliffs and drenched with childly vomit, we were presented with 40lb packs and an ascent that was like trying to walk up the front of a building. Fortunately, horses were available to carry the kids, but just to above the tree-line. I was silently willing the guide suggest a horse for my pack, but no such luck.

Soon after we started, my mind was turning over my options.  What would be worse? Spending the night in the grotty bathroom at the foot of the volcano or laboring under this pack?  What would be more shameful?  Ditching the shared meal and water bottles behind a tree or roping my pack to the gentleman guiding my daughter's horse?  I was able to entertain myself with increasingly desperate measures when I hit my stride, caught a hiker's high, and finally started enjoying our long and winding road.

We pitched our tents at a 'base camp' and dined on partially stewed-stew and Oreo's dipped in peanut butter.  Phase two, the ascent to see the lava against the night sky, arrived at 4 am. Yes,  at 4 in the morning.  After a little to no-sleep in our tents, we strapped on head lamps and crawled through the darkness toward the lava floes with our 7 and 4 year old and our 20-something guide. The kids handled Pacaya's perils more than admirably, but I felt small against nature's girth, like a family of tiny hobbits struggling without end towards the fires Mordor.

Watching one's family scale loose and serrated volcanic rock in pitch-black darkness is a surreal event.  And I couldn't stop my mind from re-playing scenes from The Lord of the Rings Trilogy until I was thoroughly freaked and found myself repeating Golem's line over and over in that crazed voice, "Stoopid hobbitses!"

Slowly the sun starts to rise and we can see, still hard hiking but we can see!  By 6 am we are at the top!  The heat escaping upward from fissures is beyond intense. It's face-melting and unbelievably beautiful.  Suddenly,  I remember the gentle hiss of all the vegetables I've tortured over BBQs during previous summers and before I know it, I'm back to entertaining terrible tragedies.  Noticing gaping holes in the rock path, I try to imagine what I would do should the rock give way under a child's step.  Before I indulge in more misery, our trusty guide pulls out a pack of marshmallows and offers to roast them over the lava.  Before long it feels like home and I've got that good ole' campfire feeling again. 

So, yes, the need for an Urban Campfire because everyone feels better ringside to a campfire no matter how big or how small.

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