A tradition as old as camping itself — and just as therapeutic
By Spencer Durrant | Managing Editor
A campfire chat is just as effective as an hour on a shrink’s couch, but at a fraction of the cost. Your fishing, hunting, or camping buddies might not be licensed therapists, but more often than not, they’re unapologetically supportive, which is a cheaper alternative to antidepressants.
As someone who uses both a therapist and antidepressants, I see some cruel irony in how useful a campfire chat is at healing an ailing soul. For men especially, this is true. We’re largely terrible at discussing our feelings. I’ve regularly seen a therapist for the better part of a decade now, and still have a hell of a time putting words to what’s in my heart.
Put me around a campfire, though, and the emotions seem to flow like flames licking eagerly at a fresh log.
It was early September, unusually warm, and my buddy Mike and I sat around a fire in southern Utah. We’d camped alongside an out-of-the-way lake, accessible only by ATV or a high-clearance four-wheel-drive vehicle. Fishing was slow that day, but I’d netted three medium-sized brook trout and watched Mike haul in back-to-back 20-inch specimens. Even then, Mike shrugged the fish off as, “not as good as what I was catching two weeks ago.”
During the day, I focused only on fishing. Was I using the right fly? Was it deep enough? Was the retrieve too fast or too slow? Am I just a terrible angler?
Then night fell, chill crept into the thin air at 10,000 feet, and we called it for the day. It’s only when I fell into my camp chair next to a roaring fire, nursing a Coke Zero and a bag of buffalo wing-flavored chips, that I started thinking.
Everyone has family troubles, and I was in the midst of some. Those weighed on me while I started the third-to-last semester of my long-overdue bachelor’s degree. Work was hit-or-miss, and I realized summer was nearly finished. Despite the big brook trout I’d seen and caught, I had a bad case of the blues.
So, I talked.
The fire pulled my feelings to the surface, and whether Mike wanted to hear about them or not, he did. And, in largely non-masculine fashion, neither Mike nor I tried to fix my problems. Many of them didn’t have solutions — my family troubles are ongoing, and likely won’t stop for the foreseeable future — but I didn’t ask for any, either.
That’s significant, I think, because on the rare occasion men are willing to talk about emotions, it’s almost always done with some kind of fix in mind. And when we listen to the women in our lives, we often offer solutions instead of a listening ear. I’m generalizing, of course, but listening is the biggest stumbling block in effective communication between the sexes. So, when real listening happens between two men, I reckon it’s worth noting. For whatever reason, a campfire chat creates that opportunity more so than other situations I’ve experienced.
And it’s often the case that we all just need a listening ear.
A few days after that conversation with Mike, I felt I had a tighter grip on the insanity of working full-time, attending college full-time, and keeping up my work as an outdoors writer. Then, an email and a disturbing meeting sent my good mood into a tailspin. As I waded through the detritus of another shitty week, I found myself longing for another campfire chat.
It won’t fix anything, but it’ll help me feel better. And maybe that’s the reason we go fishing in the first place.
Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer, outdoors columnist, novelist, and bamboo rod builder from Utah. His work has appeared in Gray’s Sporting Journal, Field & Stream, Southwest Fly Fishing Magazine, Hatch Magazine, Trout Magazine, and other national publications. Connect with Spencer on Twitter/Instagram, @Spencer_Durrant.