Proud Fire Providers

“The fire was a success. He was safe. He remembered the advice of the old-timer at Sulphur Creek, and smiled. The old-timer had been very serious in laying down the law that no man must travel alone in the Klondike after fifty below. Well here he was; he had had the accident; he was alone; and he had saved himself. Those old-timers were rather womanish, some of them, he thought. All a man had to do was keep his head, and he was all right. Any man who was a man could travel alone. But it was surprising, the rapidity with which his cheeks and nose were freezing.”

This is a passage from one of my favorite stories, “To Build A Fire”, by Jack London. It’s the story of a man who is traveling in the middle of winter in the Klondike accompanied by a native husky. He wouldn’t listen to the old-timer, to the dog, or even to his own body about the dangers of traveling alone in these conditions. This story comes to mind every time I see videos on TV of cars sliding and crashing into each other, unable to avoid one another on the icy roads.

In the northeast and here in the mid-Atlantic, we’ve been hit pretty hard by winter’s wrath. While New York and Boston have already exceeded their average snowfall rates, the Baltimore-Washington region got its first significant snowfall of 6-10 inches… during the evening rush hour! It was a hot or more appropriately, a cold mess! I was glad I didn’t have to be out there.

I am always intrigued by people who are shocked at how vulnerable we are to the elements of nature. Just because you have a 4x4 truck, doesn’t mean you can drive as if the roads are clear. Just because the city has snowplows and salt in supply, doesn’t mean the city will get to your house as soon as the storm has ended. We have better radar technology to forecast the weather, and we have heated cars and heated houses. But a storm’s timing and intensity is still somewhat unpredictable and therefore very dangerous. The story “To Build A Fire” is a great reminder to respect that fact. To realize that although we are indeed able to make fire, our mastery of fire is not a guaranteed protection against the hostile elements of nature.

I won’t tell you exactly what happened to the man in Jack London’s story, but I will say these words were his last thoughts, “‘You were right, old hoss, you were right,’ the man mumbled to the old-timer of Sulphur Creek.” Meanwhile, the husky dog that had made several attempts to rush the man along survived. We are proud fire providers and that’s okay. But we are also mortal.