sometimes, the old ways

Please charge the emergency jump charger, Marissa said as she headed out with the children for Boy Scout camp, and don’t put it in the trunk of the car. What? I said. We needed it when were up in Erie, but it was in the trunk, which wouldn’t open because the battery was dead. Oh, I’m going to write about this, I replied.

Last month I looked for a stove. For car camping and home emergencies, it didn’t have to be incredibly portable or ultralight. However, the stove has to be reliable, even when used infrequently, and easy to maintain. For international camping and emergencies, it would also be best if it could burn multiple fuels — not just the canister fuels (so-called because propane, isobutane, n-butane, etc. must be contained under pressure), but also the more energy-dense, widely available liquids that burn at low temperatures (such as unleaded gasoline, white gas, and kerosene).

Multifuel stoves do exist, but it seems camping stoves these days are designed to minimize mass and volume. I would prefer to have something built like a tank. A good piece of kit that is going to last and, if it doesn’t work, it’s relatively obvious why it’s broken and how to fix it. I started to reminisce about the Optimus stove, a bulky metal box that I carried (and that carried me) through three weeks in the Wind River Range on my NOLS trip during the summer of 1986. This was either an Optimus 8 or 111 — the same model I relied upon during canoe trips on the Saco and hikes through the Whites when I led Search & Rescue trips at Andover in the early 1990s. Optimus seems to have discontinued this design years ago, with the Hiker+ the end of the line.

I don’t understand why old reliables like the Optimus 8 or Svea 123 aren’t made anymore, at least by their original manufacturers. Of course, on the Internet there is a community entirely devoted to these and other Classic Camp Stoves that continue to function perfectly fine after many decades of use and disuse.

Earlier in the summer, I was looking at backpacks at the REI Garage Sale, where I snagged a heavily discounted Osprey Ozone Duplex — perfect for international carry-on travel, as long as I can fit the smaller integrated knapsack underseat. While shopping, I realized that every single pack on display was an internal frame. I don’t understand. When did internal frames take over the world? I own an external frame that I bought from an actual garage sale when we lived in Santa Fe. When my daughter was planning to go on a camping trip, she scoffed at its alien exoskeleton. But my wife and I reassured her that even though it weighs more and is less common, an external frame is great for carrying loads, built strong, and easily accommodates straps to attach other objects. I recalled my wilderness medical training on how it can be modified to carry someone over long distances.

I’m not a Luddite: I am on a laptop, own both a tablet and an e-reader, and have continually maintained an email address since 1986. But I do not own a smartphone. They require coddling because they won’t hold a charge for longer than a day, their screens crack easily, and their bodies need to be wrapped in cases.

My flip phone, on the other hand, delights me because it looks like a communicator from Star Trek TOS. It snaps closed with a satisfying sound and feel. It contours comfortably from mouth to ear. It suffices for occasional calls; otherwise I use the landline in my office, and Google Voice at home. 

For email, I have WiFi at work and home. WiFi also allows me to track the bus for my daily commute before I leave. If I need driving directions, I examine the route ahead of time and memorize it, or take notes, or print the map. I don’t text because I can easily be reached by other means.

I am not alone in rejecting phones that want for updating every few years. I had lunch with a computer science professor who took out his Palm Treo, which must be over a decade old. He warned me that my flip phone would brick at the end of this calendar year as Verizon shuts down their legacy networks.

I am grateful that my chemistry classroom this fall contains a chalkboard. Between chalk and dry-erase markers, there is no contest. Chalk is a more tactile medium, responsive to pressure, allowing shades of subtlety. It is not subject to technological failure or dependent upon a particular canvas — I can pick up a thick piece and take a seminar outside to draw proofs on the sidewalk. I can tell at a glance if it is there, whether it will work, and how much remains. The dust comforts my hands as though I were about to ascend a climb.

When I was growing up (“Back in my day,” said the old man), we hand-cranked our car windows. I’m not going to add and we liked it. However, I still believe we should have manual backup to be able to open windows when the electricity fails, including after a car accident, or when the motor is too weak to budge a window in the deep freeze of winter.

When we bought our Forester a few years ago, the salesperson pointed to the electric moon roof as an advantage. I did not see it that way at all. “One more thing to break,” said the old man (and it turns out we hardly ever use it). It is ridiculous that the only manual switch for that car’s hatchback is hidden behind an internal panel, so that Marissa could not access our emergency jump charger without stretching across the back seat inside.

The other day the director of the health professions program, who has an electric BMW that rides like a dream, mentioned how someone had sideswiped the mirror on the driver’s side when the car was parked. The replacement cost over a thousand dollars in parts and labor because there are so many sensors and other paraphernalia stuffed inside. In some of the narrow streets and parking spots around here, mirror damage is not a rare occurrence.

Stoves, backpacks, phones, chalk, automobile equipment. I prefer durable objects over ephemeral ones. Sometimes (not always) but sometimes, sometimes the old ways are best.

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