Neither of us had given it much thought before that evening. We were sitting on either side of a campfire that had been burning for several hours. The warmth felt good. Even though it was summer, the midnight air was quite cool in the Teton Mountain Valley near Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where the elevation is about 7,000 feet above sea level.
Brother P was living in Florida at the time. He had a vacation (if that is what it’s called) from the air-force, so we decided to take a motorcycle camping trip across the country. I was living in eastern Pennsylvania, so we decided to meet somewhere in the middle, then head west. Even though we were both not new to motorcycles, it was our first long-distance camping trip on two wheels (we had taken a camping trip together around the circumference of Iceland in a rental car when he was stationed there. Another story for another time).
We ended up in Jackson Hole taking only secondary roads — no highways and no schedule were the rules — as we camped in out-of-the-way places. The Jackson Hole camp was the only one where we stayed in an “official” camp site. Still, it was sufficiently rustic, with each camping space having its own campfire area. And fortunately, there was an abundance of dead wood scattered about and not many other campers.
As we soaked in the fire’s warmth under a crisp, clear, star-filled night, our conversations traversed many topics, mostly philosophical. Then P pulled out a nickel coin and said, “I wonder if this will melt in those hot coals.” I didn’t think so, I said, but as the coals were red hot, brother P was betting on yes, at least to some degree. He pitched it in the coals.
A little while later, our conversation drifted to one where P admitted having a strong itch to get back to Florida. In fact, he was feeling a deep pull. I told P that if the draw was that tenacious and if he wanted to go back, then he should follow his inclination. We were big boys, each one on a different side of 21-years old, but both independent. I would continue the trip as planned, I told him, and there are no strings, so no problem splitting off on your own. There was relief on his face. As we retired to our respective tents, he said he would sleep on the decision, and that if he were gone in the morning, I would know what he had decided.
I heard nothing before waking up to an almost empty campsite. He must have walked his motorcycle some distance away so he wouldn’t wake me, I thought. Hmm, I remember thinking, he reached his melting point, deciding to cut his trip short and beeline back to Florida.
It was a strange feeling having spent more than a week with a brother and traveling companion only to have him unexpectedly vanish overnight. We had at least 10 days before our trip was over. But still, there was peace as well as excitement on that chilly summer morning as I lit my Sterno stove kit, made coffee, while I packed my tent and sleeping bag on the bike.
Before leaving camp, I sifted through the dead fire’s ash and recovered the nickel. It was blackened, but not melted. As we later learned, the melting point of nickel is 2,650 degrees F (1,455° C), higher than steel, but slightly less than iron. Coals from wood burning fires reach only as high as 2,012 degrees F (1,100° C). Not that much of a difference, but far enough.
I road west that morning, across the Tetons and into Idaho, then circled south through Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and into Arkansas where I popped in to visit my dad’s sister MJ who lived outside Little Rock, before meandering northeast through Tennessee and home towards eastern PA. I felt lucky because each night I stumbled upon off-the-beaten, peaceful and beautiful makeshift camping spots. Every so often I pulled out the blackened nickel and pondered melting points in general.
Because it was well before cell phones and text messaging existed, I didn’t learn until much later that P, on his 2,500-mile voyage home, came down with a bug not long after leaving our camp and was laid up in a hotel room for 48 hours recuperating.
A year or so later, I presented P with the burnt nickel that he had thrown in the fire, in a transparent sealed polycarbonate cube, as a remembrance of our trip. His face was less than enthused which surprised me. The nickel, from my perspective, represented exceptional camaraderie during an extraordinary trip between two brothers. His reaction showed me how views differ. Perhaps his under-enthusiasm of receiving the nickel wasn’t that it hadn’t melted, but that it reminded him of something else that had.
Of course, I don’t know if I’m right. Perceptions are unreal, made-up concepts. They are kind of like guessing at the melting point of nickel when you have no clue.
Everything though has a melting point. But not everything can resist the warm, hypnotic embers of a wood campfire far from home.