Smokeless Fire Pit

“Keep a little fire burning; however small, however hidden.”
― Cormac McCarthy, The Road

My family likes to… in the winter months… have a little fire going in back of the house. A place to sit and wind down at the end of the day. Over the years we have bought these metal fire pit things – they last a year or two and then rust out.

This summer I thought we might up our fire pit game. There was some time – the backyard is not where you want to be during the killer months here in Texas – but from, say mid-October on through the winter it’s pretty nice. Also, we had an extra large flat-screen TV leaning in a closet, so I bought a swivel mount and set it up outside under our patio roof. That worked a lot better than I anticipated and as the days shortened and the nights cooled everyone began to get antsy for a place to burn some wood, hang out, and watch TV.

I went to YouTube for ideas and quickly stumbled across the idea of a “smokeless fire pit.” There are hundreds of videos on that subject. I watched a few and learned the basic principle.

You start with a perforated metal ring. Most DIY pits use a 36″ metal ring from a big box agricultural supply store and then you drill a row of holes. Next you surround this with some sort of masonry – bricks or cement – leaving a gap between the stone and the metal ring and vent spaces along the bottom row. Then you cap the assembly with a flat row on top.

The idea, what makes it “smokeless” is that the metal ring gets hot and as air comes in the bottom, it rises along the ring and heats up, entering the fire area through the ring of holes – which then burns off any smoke.

Sounded good to me. Easy enough and not too expensive. So off to the local hardware store for supplies.

I did change the usual design in one way. Instead of a solid 36″ ring, I chose an already-perforated 30″ lattice-type one. Three feet seemed a little big and the smaller ring was less expensive. The hardest part was lugging all the masonry to the car and into the back yard. The stones were held together only by weight – no cement or mortar. If I want to move the thing I can (though I don’t want to).

Starting to assemble the fire pit. You can see the lattice-cut center ring and the first rows of the walls. Notice the gaps between the bottom stones – to let air in.
The finished fire pit.
The fire pit at night.

Well, does it work? I was surprised, but it does. There is very little smoke once the thing heats up. I remember the old, cheap fire pits, you had to move around depending on which way the wind blew. I’m not sure it works exactly like it is claimed – I think that actually the fire is simply well-fed with oxygen – but it works.

So we have been collecting wood from around the neighborhood – some recent severe storms have left piles of downed limbs set out on the curb before the city can pick them up – we try and scoop up what we can.

Can’t wait for winter to get here.

What I See When I Go For A Walk

“Don’t you believe in flying saucers, they ask me? Don’t you believe in telepathy? — in ancient astronauts? — in the Bermuda triangle? — in life after death?

No, I reply. No, no, no, no, and again no.

One person recently, goaded into desperation by the litany of unrelieved negation, burst out “Don’t you believe in anything?”

Yes”, I said. “I believe in evidence. I believe in observation, measurement, and reasoning, confirmed by independent observers. I’ll believe anything, no matter how wild and ridiculous, if there is evidence for it. The wilder and more ridiculous something is, however, the firmer and more solid the evidence will have to be.”

― Isaac Asimov

Over break, I’m working on an addition to my exercise regime. In addition to ten miles a day on the bike (which is usually on my spin bike indoors) I added a minimum two mile walk outside. I increase that a little every day. Sometimes I take my dog with me, sometimes I go alone (the dog is very good on a leash, but holding the thing and not being able to swing my arms cramps my rhythm a bit).

I look for odd things on my walks – here is a strange and wonderful sign I saw today along the paved hike/bike trail.

Mark Twain Park, Richardson, Texas

Lake for Sale

“The lake of my mind, unbroken by oars, heaves placidly and soon sinks into an oily somnolence.’ That will be useful.”
― Virginia Woolf, The Waves

A quick sketch I made of the Balmorhea campsite.

When our kids were little, we had a popup camper and would go camping almost every weekend, in addition to longer trips a couple times every year. Texas has some really nice state parks – a varied assortment arranged in a ring around the Dallas Metroplex and we could choose our direction and type of park.

One of our favorites was Fairfield Lake State Park located a few hours south of Dallas, right off of I45. It was a heavily wooded lake and was a very, very picturesque and uncrowded spot. The lake had a power plant at one end (which didn’t interfere with the camping – it was only visible if you hiked around the lake a bit from the camping spots) and I understood that the main reason for the lake was cooling for the plant, which ran on locally mined coal. The warm water was supposed to be very good for fishing – and the woods were full of wildlife (you had to be very careful driving at night to avoid hitting deer).

We haven’t been there in a long, long time.

So today I saw an article in the newspaper. Over the decades, the coal has been given up and the power plant closed. And now the entire lake is for sale (apparently the state only leases the land for the state park).

From the article:

Property features include:

  • Recreational lake, estimated to be 50 feet at its deepest point, good for fishing, water skiing, boating activities, and swimming
  • Mature hardwood forest with array of wildlife including whitetail deer, armadillos, river otters, beavers, squirrels, foxes, bobcats, songbirds and bald eagles
  • Pristine lake water with a thriving trophy bass population as well as catfish, bluegill and sunfish
  • 10 acres of wetland ecosystems
  • 8+ miles of highway grade blacktop two lane roads and bridges
  • Three concrete boat ramps with truck and trailer parking
  • Combination of underground and above-ground power throughout the property
  • Massive 4,350-foot earth-fill dam with Low Hazard classification from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality

Blake Hortenstine, Broker/Partner of Hortenstine Ranch Company, says in a statement that “a water asset of this magnitude is virtually impossible to find anywhere in the lower 48 states, and combined with the land development possibilities and amenities, is the only offering of its kind.”

I have this fantasy of buying the property. I would, of course, allow the state to continue leasing the park for a dollar a year in perpetuity. I’m not sure what I would (other than build a nice weekend house) do with the rest. It might be a good place for an eco-friendly development….

It is a fantasy. I only need one hundred and ten million dollars or so…

I checked the archives of my old blog and found a record of a trip we made down there over Thanksgiving in 1996 – a quarter of a century ago.

Wednesday, November 27, 1996

Beer bait liquor and gas

I spent the first half of the day packing – I made a list of stuff to put together – I couldn’t have done anything without the list.


Baseball gloves and ball
one basketball
one soccer ball
one football
one box of toys
one box of kids books
kids tapes to listen to 

Writing Material

Black cloth covered loose-leaf notebook.
Small spiral bound notebook.


CD's (two little carriers full) 

Clothing, and cold weather gear

Long johns
Sweat suits (2)
Knit hat
Sleeping bag 

Shaving kit

Shaving cream
Nose drops 

Dutch ovens(3)

Candy worked until one – we had planned to hit the road quickly and get to the campsite about 4PM.

We left town on time but ran into a huge traffic jam north of Corsicana. This is the same traffic jam were caught in a year ago. Because of construction the interstate narrows to one land each way for 11 miles. On most days it is no problem but this was the day before Thanksgiving. The hundreds of thousands of people going to Aunt Sara’s house for turkey and fixin’s clogged the highway.

On a one lane road – no one can get through faster than the people before them. Slowly the traffic backs up farther and farther until it is stopped for twenty miles. It is so much more frustrating to be stuck in stopped traffic for hours out in the middle of the country than it is in city rush hour. We crept along. I sat there staring at a sign that said:

Bennies Burgers
Beer Bait Liquor Gas
We’ve got it all!

I have this image of hordes of rednecks hauling ass in their pickups around central Texas eating some greasy burgers from Bennies out of paper bags trying to decide if they’re too drunk to fish.

Finally we reached Corsicana, the kids needed to go to the bathroom so we pulled into a McDonalds- with playland. Soon after the traffic broke up and we made good time on into Fairfield. It was well after sunset and I didn’t want to mess with cooking in the dark after we set up camp so we bought some fast food in town. Our first two meals on our camping trip were Chicken McNuggets and Taco Bell Bean Burritos.

As we were driving the last few miles down the pitch black park access road the kids discovered reflectors – attached to signposts, shining back red yellow orange at us as we moved along. One sign had the silhouette of a deer on it. Nick, of course, asked what it meant. As soon as we had explained it to him a large buck with a full set of antlers bounded out into our headlights. We stared as he marched out into the center of the road, then accelerated into a gallop as he disappeared into the dark woods. The deer was beautiful and ghostly – bleached white by the glare of our headlights.

We reached Fairfield State Park and I set up the popup in site #99. This wasn’t the one we had intended to get, but it was a large site, and turned out to be fine. I started a campfire and we sat around it for awhile, then it was time to go to sleep.

The night was cold, Candy, Nick, and the giant killer dog slept at one end of the popup under an electric blanket while Lee and I huddled at the other. Lee would roll out from under the covers and get cold and wake up. Then he would curl up in a little ball next to me until he warmed up – turned into a hot little BB next to me under the covers.

Thursday, November 28, 1996

A cold, rainy day

It was cold when I woke up so I dragged myself down to the public restrooms for that most decadent of camping luxuries – a hot shower. We have been to many state parks and other campgrounds but Fairfield State Park is our favorite. Candy says it is the trees and the deer, but for me it is the showers. This park was built before the days of energy conservation and the water comes out scalding and steaming.

The morning was fine – cold, cloudy, but bearable. I set up our large tent next to the popup for the kids to play in. The kids rode their bigwheels, clattering and chattering along the park road, to a playground. The made a huge fuss along the way. Lee and I found cattails by the water, the kids called them corny dogs. Lee likes to play the “hot dog man,” pretending to sell sticks from under the popup’s wings – he’ll tell you what your stick/hotdog has- mustard, ketchup – he tells me mine has hot sauce. With the cattails he now sold corny dogs.

Around noon it started to rain – a cold drizzle which put a damper on everything. I overheard some campers talking, the Cowboys beat the Redskins. I didn’t even try to get the game on the radio. Camping – even in the faux wilderness of a state park – I don’t miss such trivialities as sports on TV.

A kid and his teenage sister came over from a campsite across the road and played with Nick and Lee all evening. Lots of raucous fun. I cooked chicken with tomato sauce in my medium Dutch oven and baked some corn in the small one. That was our Thanksgiving dinner. Not too bad, not at all. The only problem was the cold rain, it especially bothered Candy.

We ran the heater in the popup so it wasn’t cold sleeping. The ceramic heater with its fan is noisy in the quiet of the woods, but with the load sound of rain on the roof all night, the heater wasn’t noticeable.

We turned on the radio to get a weather forecast. It said thunderstorms tomorrow and Saturday. It that’s right and it’s raining again tomorrow we’ll give it up and go home. I can deal with the rain, but for Candy being cooped up with two wild kids and a wet smelly dog in the little popup is no fun at all.

Friday, November 29, 1996

We give up

Woke up in the popup, it was warm, we’d run the heater all night. The rest of the world was a cold, wet sea of mud. It had rained hard all night, was still raining, with no sign of letting up. So we decided to bail, to get the hell out of Dodge, to make like a tree and leave, to make like a hockey player and get the puck out of there. Better luck next year.

Packing up was no fun. The tent was soaked, it rained particularly hard while I was gathering everything up. We managed to wrestle everything into the van, the rooftop carrier, and the popup itself. I even managed to pack the firewood we hadn’t burned. So off we went, back home, two days early, but no worse for wear.

Drove back home through the backwoods. The best sign going north was for Bubba’s Bar-B-Q in Ennis.

You Never “Sausage” a Place
Serious Bar-B-Q
ATE miles

Coffee in the… Well, Sorta Wilderness

“We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.”
Henry David Thoreau, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods

Campsite, Lake Ray Roberts, Texas

Nick and I had a desire to go on a simple camping trip for one night. We packed up and went to a campsite on Lake Ray Roberts, not very far north of the city. It wasn’t much of a wilderness adventure – but sometimes it’s a good thing to get out and sleep on the ground. I rode my bike around the paved trails in the state park – the route was surprisingly hilly. It also was pretty cold at night. I’m getting old.

But the best thing is making coffee in the morning. My trusty Aeropress and a burner makes a nice cup of Joe.

My Aeropress at a campsite, Lake Ray Roberts, Texas

Oh, and I have discovered that there is a new Aeropress available – a travel version that collapses down into its own self-contained coffee cup.

I think I need to get me one of those bad boys.