I must have been about thirteen at the time. I can still remember the dirt path that dipped and dove down the hillside, each step darker than the last, each a mix of excitement and nervous nausea as I paced myself to avoid the twisted roots left exposed by torrential summer rains. My mind racing, filled with thoughts of girls and self conscious reflection, clogged with the fog of a steamy summer night where girls and dirt and roots and fire might all be stirred in the haze. At the bottom of the hill there was a clearing. Not a large clearing, but one large enough to hold a towering pile of sticks and branches and cut pieces of trees that were blown over during the last storm. Those sorts of summer storms sweep over Northern Minnesota often, and they leave behind twisted trees and they sweep dirt down that narrow pathway and they expose those devilish roots.
I was cautious to never be the first to arrive at the clearing, and equally cautious not to be the last. I’d arrive in the middle of the pack, and hope that there might be an open log or stone, large enough to sit on, perhaps close to a girl. Maybe there would be just one rock, perhaps large enough for two, and with luck I’d be paired near a pretty girl as one of the last two standing in this soul crushing game of musical chairs. This never seemed to happen. And even if it did, and someone in charge lit the gas soaked wooden pile into a magnificent explosion of smoke and singed hair, I’d usually just sit there filled with wonder at what might happen if I played my cards just right. The truth was, I had no idea how to play those cards. I wasn’t even sure that I had cards. And if I did, what good would two aces do for me if I didn’t know when to lay them down? But I’d sit there, staring into the fire, scanning the young crowd, watching the warmth from the fire dance off their faces and redden their cheeks. I was fully aware of the potential of such a fire-filled evening.
These were the nights that first exposed me to summer fire. To the power of a fire. There in those dark woods, swatting mosquitoes and wishing I could think of something to say to a girl, this was my first introduction to what I now despise: The Summer Fire. I didn’t know I hated these bonfires at the time, but by the end of the night, when the roaring blaze was reduced to a flicker, and glowing coals no longer kept the darkness at bay, I’d stare blankly at the embers, and try my best to block out the hypnotic sound of an acoustic guitar. The inclusion of an acoustic guitar, and the kid who thought enough of his wooing abilities to actually bring that guitar to a bonfire, laid waste to my ideas of love found and lost beside that fire. No matter what my angle on those sweaty evenings, the kid with the guitar won. No girls would ever talk to a kid from Lake Geneva if there was a kid with a cheap guitar present. And no matter the night, or the year, those horrible evenings spent fireside would always end the same. Kid with guitar holding several girls captive inside his acoustic, lyrical spell, while I tripped my way back up the dirt path, swatting mosquitoes, wondering why I wore a Bears jersey that my aunt had sewed from remnant fabric.
In spite of my disdain for summer fires, winter fires are paramount on my list of worldly pleasures. I take fires seriously, but I don’t revere them. I love them, I coddle them, I feed them when they need feeding, I whisper words of encouragement to them, and I do my best to keep them alive as long as possible. Summer fires make me feel hot and sweaty, but winter fires warm my soul in a way that can’t be explained this morning. My current house has two fireplaces, one of which happens to be completely round. When fully stoked, looking at the cylinder of fire is like staring into a jet engine. It’s a powerful ring of fire, and few things interest me more on cold winter evenings that bringing that round brick circle to life with a pyrotechnic display of epic proportions. Fire is powerful, and any fire can warm the most drafty room, and do more for one’s mood than any amount of decor ever could.
A Lake Geneva winter is the perfect backdrop for a fire, and thankfully even many of our simplistic lake cottages boast at least one fireplace. If you’ve never experienced the joy of pulling into an un-plowed Lake Geneva driveway, tip toeing through the crunchy snow, turning on a few lamps, and then lighting a crackling fire, well, I’d surmise that you really don’t know what you’re missing. Sure suburban fireplaces are nice. They’re nice, but they’re not the same. A festive holiday gathering at the lake, with peace and quiet serving as your only uninvited guests, and a roaring fire kept alive throughout the entire day and well into the night is a holiday gather like none other, and it’s made even more inspiring by the constant snapping and popping of a slowly burning oak fire. It’s a winter weekend at the lake, and a Midwestern winter offers nothing better.
If you’re a lover of the winter fire, let’s get out and find a Lake Geneva vacation home with your very own masonry box. Or if you’re a Lake Geneva vacation home owner and you’re in need of fireplace help, I have a tremendous supplier of firewood, along with a wonderful chimney sweep that I would gladly recommend. See you at the lake, fireside. Please don’t bring your guitar.