It was my first night in Zion National Park, and the campfire next to my tent was crackling nicely and giving off just enough heat to keep me warm as the night air began to chill.
Anyone who has sat next to a campfire knows how tantalizing it can be to watch the flames leap and dance from the logs, listen to the hum, hiss, and crackle of all that chemical and physical transformation, and have the body and soul warmed by such a feat of nature.
I’ve been lucky enough to sit next to campfires on a number of nights in the past month. I’m on a road trip exploring the western half of the U.S., and I’ve split my nights between camping out and crashing with family and friends.
It has been a solo road trip, which has worked out okay for me because I’m a fairly introverted guy and enjoy having the time to be in my own head, especially when in the outdoors. I also like to be able to just take everything in, to direct all of my attention toward my senses and fully experience the natural world around me.
So I’ve spent a number of evenings just gazing into the flames of a campfire, content all by myself, appreciating the moment for what it is – a chance to just enjoy being.
But on this particular night, over three weeks into this solo road trip, my mind went to a whole new place. And a girl is to blame (or thank, really).
Let’s back up a bit.
I checked into this campground at a general store across the street from the campsites and just outside the entrance to Zion National Park. This general store sells a number of touristy items related to the park, has a few essential supplies for campers and travelers, and even a small food section where they serve sandwiches and pizza. It is within this general store that you pay for the campgrounds located just across the street.
After paying for my tent site and dinner for the evening (a few slices of pizza and a V8 Splash), I walked outside to sit on the patio and get a bit of computer work done as I enjoyed the final few hours of daylight, the sun setting over the hills of Zion just to the west.
I did a double take when I saw the name of the wifi: CheckInGirl_Hot.
I laughed out loud, partially because it was true, but also because of the absurdity of naming your wifi something like that.
I had noticed that check-in girl when I first walked into the store and saw her smoking outside the entrance. Mid-twenties, I would guess (good age for me as a single and solo 28-year-old). Brunette. Fit. From a physical appearance alone, someone I was attracted to (the smoking not so much, but that gave her just enough edge to make her even more appealing).
And though I didn’t have the guts to ask about how the wifi got its name (and who did the naming) my mind returned to that check-in girl as I sat by my campfire that night.
I imagined a different situation than the one that actually occurred when I checked in. I imagined a deeper conversation between the two of us (something deeper than “I’ll take these two slices of pizza and a tent site, please”). I imagined myself inviting her to share some beers by my campfire when she got off of work. I imagined her actually showing up to my camp site and sharing those beers as well as good conversation.
And then, right then, an interesting shift happened. I stopped imagining that the two people sitting by the campfire, sipping on 3.2% Utah beer and engrossed in conversation, were me and the check-in girl. Instead, the people that I was imagining were two fictional characters in a story, a story that I realized I was weaving in my own head right at that moment.
All of a sudden dialogue, back story, and future plot points all unraveled in my brain without much effort on my part. My imagination was going full steam in a way that it never had before.
The novelty of that experience is subtle but important – the distinction between imagining things happening to me compared to imaging a distinct, fictional character who was not me but someone that I created.
The novelty is that I was writing a story of fiction, all in my head. And for a guy who has spent the greater part of the last decade thinking about math and science, that shift to fictional storytelling was a pretty big one.
It’s a shift that had a precursor in a book I finished reading a few months ago – Stephen King’s On Writing. That book made me want to try my hand at writing fiction, something I haven’t done since taking a Creative Writing class in college.
But you know what it took for that shift to actually take place within my brain, for my imagination to really take hold? It took sitting next to campfires night after night, doing nothing more than watching the flames dance and letting my mind wander.
I have heard that boredom is a necessary ingredient for the imagination to flourish, but I didn’t fully understand what that meant until my campfire experience.
Now that the spark of imagination has been lit by that boredom, I foresee it catching fire more easily in the future. And in a world where imagination and creativity are the cornerstone of many successful and enjoyable careers, you might want to think about intentionally creating conditions of boredom (or at least down time) to see where you mind goes with it and what it creates.
I won’t tell you how the story between that fictional camper and the check-in girl ends, but you might be able to read the whole thing if I ever get the chance to sit down and write it (and if it ends up being any good).
The question I have for you is this: what story, idea, or creation will come to your mind if you give it the time and space to wander?
Photo Credit: Sam Howzit