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I’m drinking the morning’s first coffee, looking out the window. The sun isn’t up yet but the sky is soaking up color from the East, staining the gray-black sky with an edge of oranges and red.
It’s snowing, big flakes drifting slow through the house lights. The scene reminds me of winter camping and the day I realized a simple truth.
* * *
When Mark and I were boys we spent much of our time in the forest surrounding our childhood town. Winter didn’t diminish our need to escape our parents’ world and seek the freedom of our forest sanctuary.
We packed our tent, surplus sleeping bags, gear and all the necessary provisions we could carry. We hauled our gear down the road and forest trails giddy with anticipation for the adventure ahead.
We had a favorite camping spot we used throughout the year. We knew the best places to raise a tent, collect wood and build our fire. Returning was a homecoming.
The key to winter camping was fire. First, we gathered wood – lots of wood. A pile of dead wood was like money in the bank. It bought you warmth, hot meals, dancing light and precious campfire time. When you had twice the wood you figured you needed, you could then, and only then, set up camp.
The campsite was only complete when a fire burned at its heart. The simple, artful pleasure of arranging kindling and limbs into a combustion machine was ever-satisfying. Then, seeing a single match grow into a roaring fire was pure pleasure.
One year was particularly cold. The temperature dropped to -5 Fahrenheit over night. I remember sitting very close to the fire, enduring the sting of smoke for warmth and the sweet smell of burning logs. We filled canteens with boiling water for the sleeping bags before we turned in.
Later that night it started to snow, big flakes, crisp and slow. By first light the tent walls rested on us. A deep layer of snow had buried the camp.
We put on our burning-cold boots and jackets and pushed through the snowdrift at the tent’s zipper door.
The camp was excavated with shuffling feet, pine boughs and gloved hands. Under the light, crisp snow we found the warm embers of our fire. Soon flames worked hard to melt an earthy circle in the snow.
By mid-morning Mark and I were thawing out our boots and warming our feet while sipping steaming cups of tea.
I remember a profound satisfaction as I sipped that tea and watched the fog of my breath drift toward the evergreens. The winter was beautiful, harsh and unforgiving. It made you think and plan and cope. It made you better because you had to be.
It felt good to challenge myself, to do something difficult and see it through to morning. The power of that started to dawn on me in those woods.
We laughed, cooked badly, sipped more tea and dreamed. The day was ours to spend in precious, wide open freedom.
Later I watched the smoke rising slowly against the tide of falling snow, relaxed, mind adrift.
Something important occurred to me like a sudden breeze in the sparkling branches. Freedom was a choice. We could fall to earth like the fated snowflakes or we could rise from the fire of challenges.
Freedom isn’t real unless you chose it and exercised it. Making that choice, choosing freedom, was the start of life.
* * *
I still hold that moment in my mind like a talisman. There’s magic preserved in that memory, clear and bright.
The power to choose freedom is the first power of an awakening soul.