A long time ago, in a land far away (by the name of Pensilvania) I was biking through the forest. It was the summer of 2009 and I was on an epic bike adventure from Smithers BC to Berlin. I had with me my tent and camping equipment as I cycled down the CO trail towards Virgina. I was all decked out to setup, cook and camp wherever I choose.
When I pulled into the little clearing on the side of the road that day to make my lunch, I discovered that someone else had beat me to it. I almost didn’t notice him, he was tucked away in the shadowy corner of the clearing, sitting at a picnic table. There were several tables, but I needed some company, so I walked over and we got talking. He invited me to sit down.
As we chatted, I took out my camp stove, veggies, bread and macaroni to make lunch. My stove was one of those high quality, super compact titanium thingies that connect to a gas canister. I had used it camping all around the world and was quite proud of it. I offered to make my new friend Jack, some lunch and he agreed.
I soon noticed that he had far less gear than I. At first I was envious– when you’re traveling by bike for long distances, it’s an art to reduce your gear to the absolute minimum. My grandfather used to say, “You can tell how traveled a man is, by how little he packs”.
But… This isn’t always true (or so I thought at the time)… sometimes you leave hastily and don’t have the opportunity to pack all you need. I soon learned that Jack’s father had just passed away. In anguish Jack had thrown what gear he had in his garage on his bike and set into the wilderness to find solace. I discovered that he was stove-less.
I’d be reading some hard core new age spiritual books at the time, and well, biking for days in the wilderness does activate the higher parts of your soul, so, when we came to part, I did the unthinkable…
I gave Jack my treasured titanium stove!
He was grateful. Then he fumbled into his bag and took out a turkey baster, two tin cans, and a small plastic bottle. He explained that someone else on the road had given him these things so that he could cook his food, but that he hadn’t really used them, and maybe they would work for me. Reluctantly, I obliged and put them in my panier.
As I biked away, I felt like that other Jack– the one who traded his pony for a handful of measley beans. I had no way to cook my own food now! Just some tuna cans and turkey baster! Wtf! I decided to take a break from reading the spiritual books.
A day or two later, I was sitting by my tent with a cold can of chile, wishing real bad that I could heat it up. I imagined Jack was somewhere frying up a steak or some mutton chops with his new stove.
Reluctanly, I was about to scavenge some wood to build a fire when I remembered the turkey baster. What the heck… I decided to try the contraption he had given me, still buried at the bottom of my panier.
The turkey Baster sucked out the ethyl alcohol from the plastic bottle. It then filled the small tin can (then one with lots of small pin holes). The small can sat in the large open tuna can. Skeptical, I struck a match and lit it.
I later did some net research and learned all about tuna stoves. They are makeable from the right tin cans and run on any liquid fuels. Best of all is rubbing or ethyl alcohol, denatured alcohol, or equivalents, you can easily buy anywhere in the world for a fraction of the cost of the non-recycleable gas canisters.
The experience was an epiphany. First, I was able to reduce my gear yet further– no gas canister! The cans and plastic bottle (you can manage without the baster!) were actually lighter and easier to pack than my titanium stove. But more than that, I could ditch the whole thing at any time, then make it again whenever I needed! A skill had replaced a material possession.
Recently, while working with the plastic of a dynamic urban community in Jakarta, I met Denny. A young man who basically lived with his friends on the street and in the community center, he was crafting similar stoves from aluminum cans. Same concept as the tin can stoves– but lighter, sleeker, and more efficient! The precision that Denny assembled his cans was awe inspiring. We made one together, and then I commissioned him to make me one– to his standards!
My partner and I went camping last week and we were delighted to put it to use. It did much more than make our coffee though– it brought back lots of memories.
There’s lots of cans in Jakarta and Denny is happy to make more. Jack… let me know if you’re ready to upgrade.