One Bic lighter? Check. One dry tissue? Check. One soul to squeeze? Check.
My time living in central Pennsylvania was short, but well spent. 16 years of living in New Jersey had left me an arrogant and materialistic person. It was in the middle of Pennsylvania that I really grew up and it was there that I grew to develop the same set of principles that have matured and developed into the code I live my life by. I came to terms with who I am and what really matters to me in the pitch black nights of rural America.
The move from Jersey didn't phase me initially. In fact, I was looking forward to it. Sure, I would be leaving the only true friends I knew at the time, but I fancied myself quite a sociable person. It was never really hard for me to talk to strangers on subways or walking around on the streets. I figured PA couldn't be that different from Jersey, after all it was only twenty minutes away. Needless to say, the Pennsylvania I was moving to was far different from the dreary suburbs I had called "Philly" my entire life. It was a different world.
In this world, cops didn't exist. Neither did people of color. Cities were hundreds of miles apart, and the tiny villages that lay somewhere between them were quaint and rural. The distant skyline that was visible outside of my window was replaced by a looming mountain in the backdrop of an apple orchard. A few weeks after the move, a doctor in the hospital my mom worked at told me a little joke that summed up my culture shock quite nicely. It was something like "Pennsylvania is Pittsburgh in the west, Philadelphia in the east and Alabama in the middle". There is more truth to this than you would believe.
Environmental changes aside, other things changed in our lifestyle. The trusty Subaru and Sentra were gone. My sister drove a Benz of her own, though it wasn't as nice as my mom's. HD TV's started to arrive in sizes I'd never even heard of before. Yet all of a sudden, none of that interested me. I simply wanted my independence. I found it in a secluded corner of our 3 acre backyard.
I started fires. In the beginning it was difficult. I tried to burn live wood, and when that didn't work I would simply drown our makeshift "fire pit" in lighter fluid. Over time though, I grew to become an expert. 10 or 15 minutes of preparation would yield massive flames all perpetuated naturally. I would brag to my friends and family that all I needed to start a fire was a lighter, a dry tissue and 10 minutes. Spotting firewood became an instinct. I knew which wood would burn the fastest, the hottest, and the longest. I would craft the flames by setting up the firewood in a certain way. I could make large vertical flames that would tower above your head by using lots of kindling and medium sized logs piled as high as I could, or create smaller rings of fire that would last all night by using large logs and setting them up in circles so the combined heat would keep them all going. Yet more than just a means of impressing family and visiting friends, starting fires became a cathartic process for me.
When I rolled my first car at the age of 16 and almost killed myself and my brother in-law, I spiraled into depression. Things became real too quickly. It was outside by a fire that I came to terms with what I had done. When drugs threatened to take over my life, the flames brought me back to the real world. It was outside by a fire that I dealt with death, life, loss and change. Something about bright orange flames licking and devouring massive pieces of wood comforted me. It made me realize that I too would someday die, and thus put everything in perspective for me. It's easier to come to terms with almost any kind of change when you think about the bigger picture.
I haven't started a fire in months; county laws forbid such unsafe practices in urbanized South Florida. Yet it doesn't bother me, I have moved on. I'm finally on my own, and I'm living my life to the fullest. It's difficult for me to describe how happy I am. There are still days when I miss being the only person around for miles, sitting at the edge of a towering flame, enjoying the night with no one but your thoughts for company. Don't get me wrong, I have no desire to return to central PA. Yet I know I will return, one day, perhaps when the house next to the apple orchard belongs to me, and I'll think back to those first couple of times when I sat beside a warm fire with good friends and close family, and I'll wish I was 17 again.