Friday, May 18, 2018

From the Archives - How a Camp Stove Almost Cost Me My Marriage


It goes without saying that every obstacle thrown at us presents a litmus test of our value as a human being. If you can’t meet every challenge with grace and aplomb, they might as well take you out with the trash. With that in mind, I offer this true story from my archives. It takes place two days into an 8-month bicycle tour (and was written a week or two later).

Note: I hope it’s obvious I was kidding just now.

How a Camp Stove Almost Cost Me My Marriage - March 1994

Before setting off for a trans-continental bicycle tour, all the guidebooks warn us, you must begin a daily training regimen. One book told the sad story of a man who planned a long bicycle tour in Europe, but started off too quickly and “ruined his knees.” His ended doing a moped tour instead. Hardly a glorious enterprise, especially when you consider the French word for moped: mobylette. Pathetic. With this cautionary tale in mind, my fiancée and I are starting out slow.

Of course, along the way we’re learning how to not get along. Prior to the last couple of weeks, we’d really never bickered about anything. It was one of those really placid romances totally devoid of passionate fights, of bathing each other’s hands in tears, of rending our clothes, of screaming “I HATE YOU I HATE YOU I HATE YOU!” and then getting to take it all back later in a wonderful reconciliation. We never made our friends feel important by soliciting their advice on matters of the heart. We never balanced daringly on the edge of deciding to “see other people for a while.” Everything has been really easy, and why wouldn’t it be? We’re young, unburdened, and had been leading a luxurious life in the paradise of San Francisco, eating at the best restaurants in the world, taking long walks in the gorgeous upscale neighborhoods, and saving all of our bad moods for our co-workers.

But now, what with the hardships of the elements, the fatigue of pedaling a loaded bicycle all day every day, and above all the tedium of the myriad logistical chores we now face daily—packing up the panniers, cleaning dishes without a sink, trying to dry out a rain-soaked tent & ground cloth, trying to fold the map, et cetera—we’re both pretty grouchy. For example, I’ll be impatient to load everything in the morning, so I’ll gripe when my fiancée has to dig back into one of her panniers to get the toothpaste, having realized she forgot to brush. Then, she’ll get impatient when we’re on the road and I’m digging through a pannier for the compass since I’m uncertain that we’re going in the right direction, and kind of want the security-blanket feel of having a compass handy. (When you’re carrying your world around in panniers, you’re always digging around for something, and out of eight panniers total, it’s almost impossible to find anything. We were lucky to dig the camera out in time to get a photo of a lizard. Preparing for the photo of the banana slug was much less frantic—we could’ve painted its portrait.)

So, since we’re both perpetually crabby now, we’ve got plenty of opportunity to practice those fair-fighting skills that so far we’d had no need for. Our partnership is being tested.

Exhibit A: my first engagement with our new camp stove. Weighing in at under 1.5 pounds, and capable of burning white gas, kerosene, diesel, unleaded, jet fuel, and probably liquid oxygen (what couldn’t burn liquid oxygen?), the MSR XGK II stove seems perfect. It has great features, was recommended highly, and is the most expensive stove on the market. I had to have it. So I bought it, threw it in the pile of “trip stuff” that seemed to grow as fast as the newspapers in the recycle bin, and then didn’t look at it until it was time to actually use it. The price tags were still on it, even.

That’s okay, I thought; a big, goofy, jolly guy I know who wears lots of plaid flannel shirts and loves the great outdoors told me, “Working the XGK II is a cinch. It’s way easier than the instructions say.” This was a relief, since the instructions run eight pages and seem to have been pretty hastily produced, without a lot of proofreading.

There are lots of confusing bits, such as “Use kerosene and only in a ventilated area.” If taken literally, of course, this defies the very selling point that sold me on this stove: that it would burn anything. I imagine that the intended meaning was, “If you use kerosene, you should have adequate ventilation.” But this too is problematic, since any idiot knows you should use adequate ventilation wherever you run a stove on anything, so it won’t burn your tent down or use up all the available oxygen so you keel over and die. More enigmatic was the inexplicable blank space in the instructions that ran for a couple lines after this stipulation, as though further instruction had been wited-out.

[Note: I have just learned, via this random blog post from which I got the above photo, that it was indeed Wite-Out obscuring two lines of text. The obscured text originally said, “… should weather conditions necessitate the use of the stove inside a tent.” My fellow blogger’s instructions had been altered with a Magic Marker instead, perhaps because his were printed on glossier paper.]

Another problem was that the instructions given are for the XGK model, not the XGK II. A little scrap of paper was enclosed explaining the substitution of instructions, but not explaining how to operate the stove that I had actually purchased. The main difference between the two stoves seems to be that my stove doesn’t have a knob that strikes a flint, igniting the fuel. Okay, fine: where it says to spin the knob, I won’t. (I mean, I can’t. There’s no knob.) But how, then, do I light this stove? Obviously, I would need to use a match: but do I need to take any extra precautions, so that I don’t light my hand on fire? The instructions do mention the “Stop, Drop, & Roll” method of extinguishing yourself, but I wouldn’t mind beginning my safety program at an earlier step.

These are minor points, however. I was not worried about my ability to get the stove working. It’s a simple mechanical device, nothing more. We all know the exceedingly limited potential for any such device to cause frustration. (If the last sentence did not strike you as ironic, by the way, then you are abnormal, and should be building model airplanes or something instead of reading fine literature like this.)

Well, I hooked everything up, turned the vapor control valve knob, and waited for “about a teaspoon of fuel to collect near the jet.” This process made me apprehensive since the schematic diagram of the stove, while pointing out all the obvious pieces such as “fuel container” and “wind screen,” neglected to point out the jet. No matter how long I looked at the picture, the “jet” label just never materialized.

I figured I would just watch very carefully for the jet, with a water bottle nearby so that if the jet turned out to be a centimeter from my eye, I could flush it out. Well, the fuel never really collected anywhere. So I dribbled gas on the place where I hoped the jet was, lit (with great effort) a (scarcely lightable) waterproof match, held my breath, and lit the stove.

The stove seemed to light, but it was impossible to be sure. It made a terrible gasping, wheezing noise; produced a small, orange flame; created a small amount of heat; in short, behaved in such as way as to create an utter mystery: was it not lit properly and in need of tweaking, or was it performing at 100% of its capabilities as a perfectly shitty stove? I realized at this moment that the guy who’d said, “It’s way easier than the instructions say” was probably lying, so that I’d look back on his words and think him some kind of genius. It’s a simple social trick, available to anybody with a total disregard for the truth.

According to a test I took in a high school Health class, I have a “Type-A Personality.” This means that I am a hothead and control freak; am headed for an ulcer; am a pain in the ass to get along with; and will suffer high blood pressure. The recommended remedy for this personality was a daily regimen of being put in a dimly lit room with pastel walls, where I would lie on a suede couch with a cold compress over my eyes and listen to New Age music. Since I have failed to implement this protocol (though I did get a massage once), conventional wisdom has it that I’m doomed to have every little annoying glitch in my life build up inside me while my face reddens, my blood pressure building up higher and higher, until I ultimately explode, shattering my skull from within and spattering innocent women and children with red pulp.

But I escape this fate through my own method of coping: I share. I make my problem everybody else’s too, so that by comparison, I am one of the less miserable people around. I vent, in other words, which is different from whining, griping, and complaining in that it is an accepted method of dealing with stress, like beating on an inflatable dummy with a Wiffle bat. But I don’t even need the bat; like Caliban, I use foul language to release my ire.

As I fumed over the stove, my need to emote increased significantly when I noticed my betrothed doing me the disservice of simply not caring about the stove. She sat there and read a novel, like nothing was wrong. Every so often she asked an innocent question like “Should I be smelling gas fumes?” to which the obvious answer is “NO, YOU SHOULDN’T BE SMELLING GAS FUMES, YOU SHOULD BE DRINKING HOT COCOA THAT YOUR FIANCÉ HEATED UP FOR YOU!”

Of course, venting shouldn’t get personal, so I spoke only to the stove. Meanwhile, I tried to be more rational about solving the problem I faced. For example, I considered using an alternate fuel, like firewood thrust into the stove at high velocity. But the stove wasn’t the actual root of the problem: the real problem was me, or more specifically my stupidity. I cursed myself for not having tested the stove earlier, back when I could have gotten help or taken it back to REI. Too late now … the receipt is either in Ashland, Oregon with most of my stuff, or in Sacramento with the rest of my stuff. Or I threw it away.

As time dragged on and the stove did seem to stay lit, I had to wonder if—notwithstanding the gasping, choking sound it was making—it might in fact be working properly? The answer was, how should I know? I’d never seen an XGK II in use in my life! So, I decided to compare my stove’s performance to the statistical results given in the product literature. Finally, something objective to hitch my poor brain to.

Well, the specifications say that the XGK II will boil water in 3.4 minutes. I looked at the fine print to find out what conditions they assumed. Sea level, starting water temperature of 70 degrees, and white gas as the fuel … okay, that’s all fine. But how much water? A teaspoon? A gallon? The specs didn’t say. So, after failing to bring a quart of water to a boil in forty minutes, I decided the stove was as crippled as it sounded.

Furious, I vented my findings to my fiancée, who was still kicking back with her novel. “Just blow it off,” she said. “We can eat something else.” Unspoken subtext: “Just give up, since you’re obviously incompetent and worthless. Why continue the struggle when you’re obviously no smarter than a baitfish? I have no faith in you … why do you continue to pretend you’ll eventually succeed?”

The problem with this method of undermining my self esteem was that it was so passive. If she’d outright accused me of being lame, I could have monunted a defense, perhaps challenged her to fix the stove herself, etc. Damn it, when I’m overreacting, I want the company of somebody at least as irrational and heated as I am! The downright sensibility of her statement infuriated me (particularly as it gradually dawned on me that her castigation was probably all in my head).

I decided to start over from scratch. I blew out the flame, completely dismantled the stove, inventoried all the components, figured out which piece had to be the jet (it’s smaller than a pencil eraser, by the way), took apart the fuel pump, cleaned a little ball that is a part of the check valve system, completely shined, polished, and praised every little piece, reassembled the whole thing, figured out how it worked, and now it runs like a top (though it’s still surprisingly loud). My stove now can actually boil water, in my lifetime. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the process (which lasted several hours) involved quite a bit of that therapeutic venting, and by the end my wife-to-be had decided that I must be angry at her, since surely nobody could get that angry at an inanimate object, or at himself, for that long. I exonerated her by explaining how the stove was a symbol of my ascent into manhood, and that childhood camping experiences in which I was denied the opportunity to even operate a stove, much less fix it, had set the stage for an inevitable camp stove crisis with my entire ego hanging in the balance. We established that the future of our relationship was not at stake, especially since I did eventually get the stove to work.

Amazingly, it appeared that, notwithstanding my embarrassing display of anger and frustration, and my admission of the worst kind of maleness, this woman somehow still wanted to marry me.

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