Bombs, Backpacking, and Bad Metaphors

The stove simply explodes. I have no explanation for it.

Ah, sweet weirdness. Just got back from two weeks of mid-April backpacking on the Appalachian Trail from its southern terminus at Springer Mountain, GA to mile 106 at Rock Gap, NC…and yes, that’s 114-ish miles of walking if you count the approach trail to Springer that leaves from Georgia’s Amicalola Falls State Park.

I repeat: 114 miles of WALKING. By FOOT.

On the seventh day of the trip I find myself and nineteen other hikers rained into a twelve-bunk three-wall shelter near Dick’s Creek Gap, GA. This shelter is one of the final points of bad-weather refuge  on the AT before the GA/NC line. Here we endure enough rain to drown whole tribes of chickens: four inches in twenty-four hours. Nothing to do but crowd in and ride it out.

The shelter’s maybe twelve by twenty-four, and while the social dynamic’s much more relaxed than you might find in, say, the drunk tank in a county jail, we’re still more or less sitting on each other by day and spooning by night. Some pass the time snoring, others play cards, and still others cook.

I’m one of the cooks, specifically over a titanium Evernew stove kit. I load it with HEET/methanol and set water on to boil and I chill out and wait with my friend Dean, who’s cooking next to me.

But the fuel burns out before the water boils. I go to add more, and…

KA-WHAM!

A four-foot fireball sprays to the left at table level, first-degree burning the SHIT out of my hand and melting and/or setting afire every bit of synthetic fabric in its path. Everybody in the shelter yells in alarm and recoils. Some scream. And a small-ish area of the rain parka worn by a woman who happens to be sitting across the table is instantly aflame.

We jump to extinguish the many fires, including the one on the woman’s parka…which has mercifully failed to spread. And then the fires are out and we’re gaping at one another in heart-pounding shock.

I’m as freaked out as I’ve ever been in my life…thanking the gods that be, or be not, that nobody got hurt. Presently a good friend of mine hands me her vape and I take a couple of mighty hits of soothing marijuana and pass it on. Then another good friend pulls me out into the rain and walks me firmly around the corner of the shelter and fills the enormous bowl of his pipe with a purple vegetable substance I can only refer to as Washington Thunder Weed and gives it and his lighter over.

And so I return to the shelter pacified, and the gathered backpackers reassure me with many kind words and a hug or two. I’ve lost my appetite, of course, but Dean takes me by the shoulder and looks me in the eyes and–with his face infinitely sympathetic–says, “ERD, it’s OK.” And this is a moment that’ll stick with me forever. Two days later when I finally calm down I thank him profusely for it.

I said I have no explanation for the blast, but I speculate that I’d placed my plastic fuel bottle a bit too close to the stove, causing pressurization by vapor. Methanol is VOLATILE. Then when I opened the cap to add more fuel, the still-heated stove ignited the fuel-air mix.

If the flame had erupted upwards instead of sideways, I’d probably be writing this in Braille from the skin-graft unit of a burn clinic. But I’m not. I’m home in my hammock instead, with a frazzled conscience and a deep relief that nobody got hurt.

Well…such are the risks when you retire early, I guess, for FIRE is a dangerous–holy hell, that’s a rotten metaphor. I refuse to get into it. Just be aware that there’s a great deal of volatility on this good planet, to which in your journey you’re constantly exposed–but that’s another rotten metaphor I refuse to get into either.

So go your way in peace, my brethren and sistren, and when life hands you methanol and Mountain House lasagne, eat dry ramen instead.

Author: ER Dude

Sick of your job? After a thirteen-year career, Early Retirement Dude fled corporate America for good. You can do it too! Visit http://EarlyRetirementDude.com or email EarlyRetirementDude@gmail.com.

5 thoughts

  1. Great Balls of Fire!

    I made a few little homemade pop can stoves and while testing them found out how dangerous they can be. The flame sometimes can’t been seen ,but it’s still burning and those things get freaking hot. Hope your hand is ok.

    Glad you with a good group of hikers that didn’t exile you out into the downpour. There would of been the risk of drowning with the tribes of chickens.

    1. >Glad you with a good group of hikers that didn’t exile you out into the downpour.

      Believe me, that thought crossed my mind. Fortunately it was a group of beginning through-hikers so everybody was in a generally happy and benevolent mood.
      I love hanging out with through-hikers, incidentally. Such cool people, or at least for the most part.

  2. On a positive note, a tribe of crunchy hikers on the Appalachian Trail is probably second only to a pack of traveling Dead Heads in terms of who you WOULD want to have committed such a faux pas in front of if you had to pick a forum, right?

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